A who’s who, what’s what list

There is a key that Pol Limbourg has devised to lock and unlock the composition and its features in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures calendar section, also referred to as “labours of the month”.

Here’s a visual clue. It shows the facing page to the feasting illustration, a list of holy days, or saints’ days, for the month of January, some of which were considered more important than others. At least five of the feast days are referred to in the banquet illustration. There may be others:

Jan 1 New Years Day and the Circumcision of the Lord
Jan 6 The Epiphany of the Lord
Jan 18 St Peter’s Chair, Rome
Jan 21 St Agnes, virgin and martyr
Jan 25 Conversion of St Paul

The calendar is not the only list Pol has used to construct his illustration. There are two others, plus references to ‘list’ as a word in itself. The more important of these lists helps identify some of the figures and their placement in the painting. It is a legal document held at the National Archives and provides a list of magnates and their roles in the proceedings at Richard II’s coronation on June 23, 1377. A second list, or inventory, compiled for John duke of Berry, was also utilised by Pol Limbourg. There are three extant inventories covering 1400 to 1416 which list the duke’s possessions during that period. Richard II also produced a ‘treasure roll’ describing the jewels and plate in his possession. It is made up of 40 sheets of parchment and when laid out measures around 28 metres. From this we can see the significance of the tablecloth laden with plate in the Limbourg miniature.

Pol Limbourg fuses the lists of Richard and John to create another meaning to ‘lists’ – that of the boundary or partition associated with the sport of jousting, the Middle English word ‘liste’ meaning stripe or strip (of land) on which the knights would compete. He takes the meaning of stripe of strip and applies it another way, almost like a book or page marker. The spine edge of the illustration is a vertical strip or list placed beside the calendar list.

At the top of the strip is a set of lances and two distinct flags which I am unable to identify, but they probably represent the coming together of two families, possibly in marriage. There is also a steep hill in the background and, combined with the lances, may represent an emerald coloured stone to mount thorns taken from Christ’s crown of thorns, bought by the French king Louis lX in 1238, similar to the thorn mounted on a blue sapphire given to John duke of Berry, mentioned in a previous post.

Next item down is the man wearing a black chaperon, seemingly warming his hands at the fireplace. This is Michael de la Pole, 1st earl of Suffolk. He served as a trusted adviser to Richard II and was once tasked to arrange a marriage for the king. His waving hands are a pointer to his own marriage and wife Katherine Wingfield. A feature of the Wingfield coat of arms are three winged birds, inverted or ‘conjoined in lure’, meaning the tip of the wings point downwards. In this instance the hands or finger tips point upwards, and for two specific reasons.

The wings are symbolic of the Holy Spirit and the Light of God descending or hovering over Pol Limbourg. It represents a moment of conversion, from darkness to light. Whether Limbourg is implying a conversion experience in his own life, I can’t be sure, but what he is referring to is the Conversion of St Paul on his way to Damascus. St Paul’s feast day is celebrated on January 29 and is listed on the calendar.

Notice also the relaxed pose of Pol Limbourg as he leans forward on the back of the seat in front of him. Observe also that the fabric on the back of the seat is striped. Pol is a spectator or observer in the unfurling events happening before him. He is listless – not a participant. The striped fabric that extends past the end of the table represents the barrier or list between the jousting guests, not for any favours from the absent ladies but from the boy king Richard II and John duke of Berry. Richard’s coronation list provides evidence of competitiveness between high-ranking individuals seeking to be honoured and affirmed.

The distinct red scarf around Pol’s neck is a reference to the Welsh dragon and relates to another theme in the minature which I will explain in a future post. But it also connects to the next item on the list, the gold, boat-shaped ‘nef’ used as a container for tableware. The boat could be said to be listing, weighed down by its cargo of riches. However, it is kept buoyant and afloat by the saltcellar underneath. The bear and the swan are devices of John duke of Berry. Here the resting Pol Limbourg is referring to the passage from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus invites all who labour and are overburdened to come to him and find rest for the soul as his yoke is easy and his burden light (11:28-30). The ploughing analogy is echoed in the March folio of the Très Riche Heures.

Detail from the March folio, Très Riche Heures, Musé Condee MS 65 F3v

The three plates are a reference to the tablecloth (a treasure roll) that is another theme Pol has woven into the painting and which I will explain at another time. Likewise the two small cats that represent a play on two words, catalyst and catastrophe.

So now we arrive at the last item on the list, the young man who has moved from the place of honour to a servant’s role of feeding the white greyhound. As explained in the previous post the placement represents the deposition of Richard ll who was ten years old when crowned king of England, hence the small figure compared to others in the illustration. The white greyhound belongs to the ‘usurper” Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, who coerced Richard into giving up his throne in 1399. The dog at this stage is portrayed in a submissive, begging role, eagerly waiting to be fed by the hand of Richard. The roles later became reversed. Richard’s emblem was a white hart wearing a crown collar. Now it is Bolingbroke’s dog – a hunter – who wears the jewelled collar. It is said that Richard ll starved himself to death after he was captured and later imprisoned in Pontefract Castle. But notice also the black scarf around Richard’s neck. Is this Limbourg suggesting that the king may have been strangled and not starved, or is he referring to the earlier death of one of his enemies, Thomas of Woodstock, who is said to have been murdered while held prisoner at Calais on Richard’s orders? A manuscript of the time depicts Thomas being stangled by his own scarf.

Murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Froissart, Chroniques, BnF MS Fr 2646, fol. 289

Richard can also be linked to the calendar list. He was born on January 6, Feast of the Epiphany. A failed rebellion against Henry lV to to reinstate Richard ll as king was planned to take place on this feast day in 1400 and resulted in Richard’s capture and eventual death in February that year. It’s at this stage that the black chevron seen on the yellow flag at the top of the list, coupled with the inverted wings above Limbourg’s, head can be recognised as symbolic of hierarchical change. Limbourg has switched the visual references to the order of feasts. Pol, or St Paul, has been raised after falling frorm his horse, while Richard has fallen from grace and occupies the last place. St Paul’s ‘epiphany’ has taken presidence over Richard’s association with the Ephiphany. Richard was a firm believer in the divine right of kings to rule, but here Limbourg demonstrates that divine will is not always “done on earth as it is in heaven”. This links to another aspect of the ‘inverted’ symbols which I shall post on at another time.

Playing hide and seek

Detail from January folio in the Calendar section of the Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry

Here’s more on Pol Limbourg’s January illustration from the Très Riche Heures produced for John duke of Berry. .

Apart from the battle scene depiction in the background, said to be a reference to the Trojan Wars, the main action of the painting centres on and around the banquet table.

The ‘pole’ position at the table is taken up by the host, John duke of Berry, wearing a blue gown. He is turned to isten to what the “man of the cloth” at the end of the table has to say. But notice the gap on the seat between the two men, seemingly guarded by the chamberlain stood behind the space. It’s a place reseved for a very special guest to sit at the right hand of the host. But who is he? Could he be one the group of men in a line approaching the chamberlain? No, they are there for other reasons. and not just to warm their hands at the fire.

Artist Pol Limbourg has purposely displaced the duke of Berry’s honoured guest and positioned him elsewhere in the frame, almost out of the picture! In fact, he is not even seen in the cropped image above. To discover him and the reason for Pol Limbourg’s inventive design the folio needs to be viewed in its entirety.

The ‘servant’ feeding the greyhound in the bottom right corner of the frame is the man who has given up his seat at the table, not that he has been asked to by the host. He is placed as a corner stone on which the main theme of the January folio is built upon.

His name is Richard II, King of England

More on this in a future post.

A very rich duke and his bear

The above image is detail from the January folio of the Calendar section that forms part of the Très Riche Heures manuscript. It shows John duke of Berry hosting a New Year banquet where gifts are exchanged between the host and his guests.

This particular panel of the folio was probably painted by Pol Limbourg, one of three brothers the duke commissioned in 1410 to produce the manuscript. The artist has cleverly embedded features that serve several narratives and themes. The duke of Berry figure is an example.

He is portrayed seated at a banquet table, wrapped in a fur-lined blue gown, wearing a large fur hat and a chain around his neck. Fifteenth century castles and mansions could be cold places in winter time, even when sat in front of a blazing fire.

The colour of the duke’s gown is said to emphasise his connection to the French court. In his time John was a son of a French king, a brother to another, and an uncle to a third. But close inspection of his gown shows that the gold pattern is not the fleur-de-lys, but represents something more personal in his life – a bear. The motif is a pawprint.

The duke of Berry kept several bears in his menagerie but was attracted to one in particular; a small bear became his companion in his later years and is even depicted chained and resting at the feet of the duke on his tomb effigy.

Along with the swan, the bear was also adopted by John as one of his heraldic devices or emblems.

Pol Limbourg has also portrayed the duke of Berry with claws as hands, resting on the banquet table, and to his left there’s a bear placed on the bridge of the gold, boat-shaped, serving dish. There’s an interesting contrast on the duke’s tomb sculpted by Jean de Cambrai where one of the bear’s paws is depicted as a human hand (see image below).

Notice the bear’s human-like front paw… a nod by the sculptor to Pol Limbourg’s miniature.

Back to the minature and between the duke’s hands (claws) is a glove. It also has a bear connection but not to the one associated with the duke, which I will explain in a future post.

Another bear reference is the pole behind the duke’s back which, in this instance, can be considered as a “scratch-pole”. It also has other connotations, notably as a reference to Pol Limbourg, the figure portrayed behind the duke of Berry. The scratch-pole, or “back-scratcher”, is symbolic of mutual benefit, but conditional, even extending to the custom of exchanging gifts at the New Year banquet. It also points to the biblical passage in Luke’s gospel and the advice given when inviting guests to dinner (14 : 12-14).

The pole may also be a pointer to the banquet’s venue – the Hôtel de Pol in Paris, one of many residences belonging to the duke, and one where he died in 1416.

Earlier, I mentioned the exchange of gifts. In the past the Duke of Berry had been given a special gift by his brother, the French king Charles V. It was a thorn from the crown of thorns associated with the passion of Jesus and which Charles had obtained and kept in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. A reliquary was made to house and display the Holy Thorn mounted upright on a sapphire stone. The reliquary and thorn is now in the British Museum. The duke’s blue gown represents the sapphire, and his hat is portrayed not as fur, but as a crown of thorns.

The Holy Thorn Requilary and a close-up of the thorn and sapphire. © British Museum

Finally, the artist Pol Limbourg may also have had in mind one of Aesop’s Fables when he linked references to the thorn and the bear – The Hermit and the Bear.

The Hermit had extracted a thorn from the bear’s foot. The animal was more than grateful and offered to serve the Hermit from thereon. The Hermit accept the Bear’s offer and they passed the time in friendship. Then one day as the Hermit slept the Bear noticed a fly had settled on the man’s nose. In his effort to swat the fly the bear came down heavy with his paw and crushed the Hermit’s nose in the process. The Hermit concluded he would rather have a dozen flies settle on his nose that to suffer the pain and discomfort of the Bear attempting to protect him in this way.

How this applies to John duke of Berry may refer to his role as Regent, first when Charles VI was a minor, and again at the time when the king began to suffer attacks of insanity. Could it be said the duke may have been over-protective at times during his role as Regent?

A more visual connection is that John did not share the sharp or long nose featues of his father John, or three brothers, Charles, Louis and Philip. His nose was rather fleshy and stubby in comparison, as shown on his tomb effigy. No flies on Pol Limbourg!

The head of Jean duke of Berry from his tomb at Bourges Cathedral

The Pearl Poet… another sighting

Jan van Eyck was not the first artist to point out the name of the Pearl Poet when he painted the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432. An earlier work exists where the poet is referenced and identified. Sir Hugh Stafford, earl of Stafford, is illuminated front of stage in a manuscript attributed to the Limbourg brothers.

Detail from the month of January, Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry, Condé Museum, Oise.

The folio forms part of the Calendar section in the Très Riche Heures, a ‘book of hours’ commissioned by John, duke of Berry, and produced in part by the Limbourg brothers between 1412 and 1416. The three brothers and the duke, possible victims of the plague, all died in in the same year of 1416. The Très Riche Heures was added to and completed by other artists at later stages during the 15th century.

The above illustration shows detail from the folio depicting the month of January, where a gathering of nobles are said to be celebrating New Year and exchanging gifts. The duke of Berry is the man seated at the table wearing a fur hat. However the scene is not as simple as its seems. In fact, it’s detail was the basis for Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel. There is no doubt that Jan was inspired by this minature and adopted many of its references, particularly to the Pearl Poet, and perhaps as a tribute to the Limbourg brothers.

Sir Hugh Stafford, aka the Pearl Poet, is the figure standing in the forefront alongside the man in green who is carving the meat.

I shall publish more details on this at another time.

Tell Jan what you hear and see

There’s a likeness between these two portraits, the left being Henry Beaufort painted by Jan van Eyck, and the right being “A Goldsmith in his Shop”, aka a self-portrait of painter Petrus Christus.

A Goldsmith in His Shop painting is based on some of the panels from the Ghent Altarpiece completed by Van Eyck in 1432 and, just as his mentor, Petrus has applied multiple identities to his figures. Not only is the man in the berry hat a reference to John, Duke of Berry, but also a pointer to Henry Beaufort, the man with the golden touch; so rich he was considered the Midas of his time. The portrait also represents St Eligius and, as already mentioned, the artist himself, Petrus Christus.

But for this presentation the focus is on Henry Beaufort and one aspect in particular – his ear. In Jan’s portrait which precedes the completion date of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Lord Chancellor of England, whose fortune bankrolled kings and princes of Europe, is portrayed with a sharp razored hair style trimmed above his temple. The trim line runs down to his rather large ear.

Christus makes the same point in his portrayal except it is the sharp rim of the cap which extends down along the temple and over the top of the ear which is also rather large.

 There is an explanation for this. Van Eyck was, as usual, playing word games and providing clues to anyone who wanted to play along. He was combining two words “temple” and “ear”, But first a trim is necessary – the last letter of the first word, and the first letter of the second word, the letter ‘e’ in both (and shaped as an ear!) – before the new word is formed: TEMPL-AR. (a new look, as the hairstyle!)

So did Van Eyck have knowledge of a connection between Beaufort and the Knights Templar? The organisation was disolved in 1312 and its assets transferred to another Christian military order, the Knights Hospitaller. Could Beaufort have stumbled on some of the Templar fortune possibly hidden at some time?

One of the many legends associated with the Templars is the Holy Grail chalice and connection to Jesus. The Templars were also said to have been keepers of Christ’s burial cloth, now referred to as the Turin Shroud.

Seemingly Van Eyck makes no reference to the Grail Cup, unlike Petrus who places it directly behind the ear in his portrait, but Jan does create a subtle reference to Christ’s tomb and eventual resurrection in Beaufort’s ear, often closed to the appeals of many and possibly even Van Eyck himself. Within the tomb is the shroud-covered corpse awaiting resurrection.

Supporting this point, Van Eyck makes a further reference to the Shroud and the tomb – Beaufort’s red garment, considered by many to be a cardinal’s robe. It isn’t, it represents a woolsack, symbolic of the tomb-shaped seat that the Lord Chancellor sat on in the House of Lords. The seat, without arm rests, was filled with sheep wool, hence the white wool trim. The white wool and its blood-colour cover symbolizes the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) and was considered a Templar symbol.

The ear reference appears several times in the Ghent Altarpiece which is centred on the Lamb of God. For instance, Henry Beaufort appears as the front rider in the group featured in the Just Judges panel and it is not without significance that his ear has been well and truly covered.

Again, there are other narratives relating to this symbolism, Here is one example: The deep-red crown of Beaufort’s fur hat in the image above points to the red cloak worn by another rider in the background. One of the identities of this particular rider is Humphrey Villersexel, Count de la Roche, and a guardian of the Shroud from 1418 until his death in 1438. Close inspection of the red cloak shows that Van Eyck has shaped the form of a shrouded face within the folds.

It’s not without reason that Van Eyck has connected the Shroud to the two outward riders in the group. They represent the two elements of the Pisces constellation that I pointed out in a previous post, Riders in the Sky. As always with Van Eyck he applies more than one level of meaning and understanding, but in this instance has specifically connected the two riders in this way to link to the Shroud.

It has been suggested that the Shroud may have been in England for safekeeping at some time in its history. Could it be that Beaufort, as bishop of Winchester and Lord Chamberlain of England, may have had some role in protecting or housing the Shroud? 

More on this at another time, along with further references to the Shroud found in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Images: metmuseum, closertovaneyck, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wikimedia Commons,

Riders in the sky

Pisces-riders_580

In my previous post I proposed that the key to understanding the role and identities of the ten riders was to relate to them as “figures of speech”. I also mentioned Jan van Eyck’s fondness for word games.

Take the word ‘rider’. Jan implies four different meanings. The number four has a significant role in the painting and also the altarpiece as a whole – the quatrain on the outside panels is an example, as are the references to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Each rider in the Just Judges is given four identies. In The Canterbury Tales each pilgrim is requested to present four narratives.

Gold-rider-300Firstly, ‘rider’ is viewed and applied in a literal sense – someone on horseback. This links to its second meaning, the colloquial term Rider or Rijder given to the Cavalier d’or, a Flemish gold monetary unification coin issued by Philip the Good around the time the painting was produced. This extends to ‘rider’ applied in a legislative sense, as in law-making; and the fourth use sees a slight change of spelling to create the word ‘rudder’, as a steering component.

The legislative sense also references the Ten Commandments brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses. Ten commandments to steer the people on their pilgrimage through life to the Promised Land. Ten legislative riders or ten “figures of speech’. Moses is also represented in the paintng by the French king Charles VI, the man wearing the white collar and red hat in the centre of the group. Mount Sinai is also a ‘sign’ to reference other uses of the word ‘mount’ in the painting.

The rudder or steering reference also applies to the end riders on the two wings. Not only do they flank the column but they also represent two elements of the constellation Pisces (see montage above). They are the tail (rudder) part of the two symbolic fish that form the Pisces symbol, repeating the knot symbol mentioned in the previous post. The knot is represented by the rider wearing the green hat at the point of the cavalcade. He is John, Duke of Berry, seen as a peacemaker setting out to steer and unite two cadet branches of the French royal family engaged in the conflict known as the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War.

Pisces-graphic_980

From this we can begin to see a unification theme developing, finally manifesting in the central panel of the altarpiece; friend and foe making a “triumphant entry” towards a new Jerusalem.

This is but a brief analysis of just one narrative from Jan’s montage of many woven into the painting. There are 40 identities in total and nearly all of them inter-relate or are cross referenced.

Petrus Christus has picked up on the four meanings for the word ‘rider’ in his painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop. The tower of coins pictured below is one example. It shows a Rider or Cavalier d’or propped against the stack.

Coins-PC

Images: Closer to Van Eyck, The Met New York, London Coins, Urania’s Mirror, All the Sky

Judging the Canterbury Tales

Jan van Eyck’s paintings are formed by applying layers of colour with resulting levels of transparency and vividness. He employs a similar technique for unfurling his creative narrative. His method of placing objects is precise and deliberate, and the ‘hidden’ meaning sometimes obvious, other times not so apparent or even visible. And it doesn’t stop there. Jan utilises wordplay in a novel way to surprise and wonder what else might be beneath the surface.

This is most noticeable on the quatrain that appears on the outer frames of the Ghent Altarpiece. The fourth line of the Latin inscription conceals the date when the painting was presented.

The quatrain and its wordplay is a foretaste of what is inside when the frame is opened, particularly with the Just Judges panel. Much has been written about the quatrain by art historians, especially its acknowledgement of Hubert van Eyck being the better painter than his brother Jan. This is the first instance in the work where Jan pays homage to Hubert. It continues inside – and in the form of wordplay and quatrains.

Jan van Eyck’s disposition to ‘paint’ or pun with the written word shows up again in a later work, the Arnolfini Portrait. On it shutters was the name Hernoul-le-fin. A later inventory recorded the name Arnoult fin. Historians didn’t pick up on the word play and settled on the name as Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruge at the time. My understanding of the name is that Van Eyck was referring to the end of a dynastic line known ast the Arnulfings, and paying homage to Charles Martel who started a new line that became known as the Carolingian dynasty. More about this here.

Three-riders_980

The group of ten riders in the Just Judges panel are strategically placed alongside each other and represent multiple identities, but they also read as chapters in a book, one following on from the other. Each figure is linked in some way to the person next to them, whether it is in front or behind, or even alongside.

To make more sense of this it, let’s look at the figure in front of Joan, the bearded man dressed in red. In the first instance, this is WIlliam de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and a favourite councillor of the English King, Henry IV. Joan of Arc confronted him when he led the English forces at the seige to Orleans. He retreated as far as Jergeaux pursued by the Maid and eventually surrendered.

There is a conversation alluded to between these two figures which I shall explain at another time, but at this stage it is better to move on to make the next connection and reveal a second identity Van Eyck has designated to the rider in red.

The Earl of Suffolk remained a prisoner of the French king Charles VII for three years and was eventually ransomed in 1431, but before his release he married a woman named Alice Chaucer in November 1430. Alice was the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer poet, philospher and astronomer, and author of The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is the second identity. His role as a philospher and astronomer connects to the third identity of the man in red – Claudius Ptolomey, a second century astronomer, mathematician, geographer and poet. A further connection between the second and third identities is that Ptolomey is mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (The Wife of Bath’s Tale).

Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales is the connection to the quatrain attached to four of the outer panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, a quatrain being a type of stanza or poem consisting of four lines.

Moving forward to the next figure ahead of Chaucer. Again it has more than one identity, but for the time being I’ll name one: John, Duke of Berry, and second son of the French king, John II. Here’s how Van Eyck puns the word Canterbury to connect the two figures.

Berry was a region (canton) in France administered by John. Canton and Berry = Canterbury. There is also a second pointer to the word Canton. In heraldy a canton is a charge usually placed in the upper dexter (right) corner of a shield, and so corresponding with the top right corner of the group where Van Eyck has positioned the Duke of Berry.

The fact that Van Eyck has applied more than one identity to each figure creates even more connections that are not always obvious at surface level. It’s a journey of discovery, similar in a way to the pilgrimage theme and shared experience of the travellers outlined in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is always more to come…