Plowmen, poems and puns

In a previous post I revealed how Hugo van der Goes embedded a reference in the Panel of the Relic to a medieval poem titled William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman. This was to mimic the references Jan van Eyck made to Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales in the Ghent Altarpiece. Another ‘tale’ that was provided a place in the Just Judges panel of the altarpiece was the Plowman’s Tale, said to have been sourced from Pierce the Plowman’s Crede. Van der Goes also included references to these two poems in the Panel of the Relic.

Barthélemy van Eyck picked up on Jan’s references and depicted the conversation between the Pelican and the Griffin in the January folio of Les Très Riche Heures. Hugo went further back in time for his source to a similar debate found in the poem, The Owl and the Nightingale.

It’s not difficult to recognise Hugo’s owl in the Panel of the Relic. It’s the figure portrayed as Jean Jouffroy, except that in this scenario the figure is given a fourth identity, William of Paris, a Dominican priest and theologian, and confessor to the French king Philip IV. He was made Inquisitor of France in 1303 and began a campaign against the Templars in 1307.

The other three identities Hugo has applied to the figure in black is Jean Jouffroy, René of Anjou and Pierre Cauchon.

Detail from Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments

The link to William of Paris comes via the group of three Van Eyck brother alongside Jouffroy. The four men are also grouped in one of the scenes from the triptych painted by Rogier van der Weyden, known as the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1445-1450), now displayed in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. 

William of Paris completed writing the Dialogus de Septem Sacramentis (Dialogue of the Seven Sacraments) in 1314, the same year the Templar knight Geoffroi de Charney was executed, burnt at the stake on a small strip of land in the River Seine.

The nightingale can be discovered in the central panel of the surplice worn by man in the red collar, already identified as symbolic of the Templar flag, the Beauceant. The panel also represents the island in the Seine, known as both Jews Island and Templars Island.

As stated in an earlier post Hugo van der Goes was an accomplished heraldic artist. ‘Engrailed’ around the top of the centre panel in the surplice is a series of of border arcs forming outward points. ‘Knight’ coupled with ‘engrail(ed)’ puns as ‘nightingale’! 

Not without coincidence is the engrailed feature and the eyes of the man in black placed on the same level, although the debate makes clear the owl and the nightingale did not see ‘eye to eye’.

More signs and pointers

It’s about three weeks since I last posted information about the St Vincent Panels and in particular the Panel of the Relic. All previous posts with links are listed in the masthead menu under the title St Vincent Panels.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic (St Vincent Panels).

In a post made in April I identified the figure in black from the Panel of the Relic as being two French prelates, Jean Jouffroy doubling up as Pierre Cauchon, and connected them to the French heroine Joan of Arc and the surplice worn by Hubert van Eyck, suggesting the shaped arch in the centre represented the stake Joan was tied to when burnt alive, and its pattern symbolised the flames.

There is also a secondary French connection to the shaped arch or stake which relates and plays on the name Jouffroy.

The link is what was a small island in the middle of the River Seine in Paris known as île aux JuifsJews Island. It was named for the number of executions of Jews that took place on it during the Middle Ages. The Island is also known as Île des TempliersTemplars Island – after several members of the Order of Templars were executed by being burnt at the stake on March 18, 1314.

The Burning of the Templars at Paris (British Library). Notice the Isle in the River Seine.

One notable Templar was Geoffroi de Charney, Preceptor of Normandy for the Knights Templar  – the name Geoffroi connecting to the name Jouffroi.

Also known as Guy d’Auvergne, Geoffroi de Charney and the Knights Templar reference is disguised as a third identity for the figure already revealed as representing Hubert van Eyck and St Hubert. The white surplice, the red colour and the black background to the figure are a combination of colours that make up the Templar beauceant; the cross-bow shape of the collar is substituted for the conventional red cross.

The Templar flag, the Beauceant, matched to the colour arrangement seen in the figure of Hubert.

Another Geoffroi de Charny (not Charney) came to prominence as a French knight and author after the death of Guy d’Auvergne. He wrote books on chivalry and along with the French king John II was a founding member of the Company of the Star. De Charney was also the carrier of the Oriflamme (Golden Flame), the standard of the crown of France, and died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 defending the French king. 

The Battle of Poitiers shows the fallen figure of Geoffroi de Charny, bearer of the Oriflamme.
Illustration by Graham Turner, from the book: Poitiers1356, The Capture of a King, by David Nicolle.

Observe that the ‘flamed’ centre section of the surplice is crowned, and the transparency of the fabric allows for “see through” to the red cassock underneath, a subtle pointer to the garment representing the Oriflamme. This provides a link to the ‘pilgrim’ figure of Jan van Eyck in the guise of John the Baptist, depicted wearing a white garment under his camel-skin coat. 

The Company of the Star was an order of chivalry and its insignia was a white star on red enamel inscribed with the motto: The star show the way to kings, a reference to the star that led the three kings or magi to Bethlehem. So here we have a link to the star featured on the breast of Jouffroy representing the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem. The star also unites with the two saints in the back row, Hubert and Lambert. Both served as bishops of Maastricht, and the city’s coat or arms features a white star on a red shield. As a group, the three red-shield references, link to the coat of arms of the de Charny family: three white shields or escutcheons emblazoned on a red shield.

Left to right: The Order of the Star, the Star of Maastricht, the star depicteed on Jean Jouffroy and associated with the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem, and the coat of arms of Geoffroi de Charny.

Geoffroi de Charny and his wife Jeanne de Vergy were once owners of what was known as the Holy Shroud – the Shroud of Turin – said to have been the cloth that covered the body of Jesus when he was entombed after his crucifixion. Jan van Eyck referred to the Shroud in at least two of his famous paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait and his self portrait of a Man in a Red Turban. The Shroud is also featured in the illuminated manuscript The Turin-Milan Hours on one of the leaves attributed to Jan van Eyck, The Birth of John the Baptist.

The manuscript once belonged to John, Duke of Berry, third son of King John II of France, founder of the Company, or Order, of the Star. The Duke, a collector of books (as Jouffroy was) also owned another famous manuscript: Les Très Riches Heures (The Very Rich Hours), magnificently illustrated by the three Limbourg brothers, Paul, Herman and Johan but incomplete when all three brothers and the Duke of Berry died in 1416, probably of the plague. It is suggested that the calendar miniatures were worked on as late as the 1440s, possibly by Barthélemy van Eyck, thought to be related to the three Van Eyck brothers. Barthélemy was in the service of Duke René of Anjou who became the owner of Les Très Riche Heures following the death of John of Berry who is the third identity that Hugo van der Goes has given to the figure in red.

Detail from the March folio of the Calendar series featured in Les Très Riches Heures.

Barthélemy van Eyck is also identified with being the “Master of René of Anjou” and the alias “Master of the Shadows”, the latter associated with the shadow features depicted in Les Très Riche Heures. Van der Goes points to this style by showing the right elbow of the man in black ‘eclipsing’ the right arm of the pilgrim, except in this scenario the composition is points to a shadow or eclipse feature in the March calendar folio of the Très Riche Heures. Here we see a field being ploughed by two oxen. The one in the forefront is brown; the other black, seemingly eclipsed or a shadow of the brown ox.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic suggesting a partial Lunar eclipse.

The ‘elbow’ eclipse also refers to a solar eclipse where a segment of the Earth is immersed in shadow cast by the Moon partially blocking out sunlight. The brown colouring of the pilgrim’s coat represents the earth, while the crescent-shaped, white hair of the kneeling man in red represents the moon. Notice, too, the sun flare extending from the elbow, and another reference to the Oriflamme. More on this theme in a future post.

This eclipse motif leads to another identity given to the pilgrim figure, and is one of a “series of pointers’ Hugo van der Goes has embedded in the panel… pointing stars, pointed weapons, porcupine needles, pointing fingers and hands, pointed ears – hare and donkey and the left ear of Jouffroy, pointed stake,  pointed saw teeth, cutting instruments, hence the reference to the plough (and symbolic of another heavenly navigator. All these pointed motifs can be summed up by the word ‘pierce’ – even the fingers and hand, a reference to Christ’s invitation to Thomas to examine the piercing he suffered on the Cross. And this brings us to connect the piercing action of the plough to the medieval poem: William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman, attributed to William Langland.

More on this in a future post.

Revealing the Relic

It has never been established which saint or martyr the skull fragment depicted in the so-called Panel of the Relic belongs to. Is it St VIncent of Zaragossa or, as some historians have suggested, Ferdinand, known as the Holy Prince or the Saint Prince (but never canonised), who died as a captive in a Moroccan prison?

Hugo van der Goes, the Flemish artist who painted the St Vincent panels, has provided visible clues that point to another saint, possibly even two, which as far as I know have never been considered before by historians.

While the focus of the Altarpiece is on St Vincent, he is not the only saint or martyr represented in the panels. There are many. In fact, Van der Goes has made “uncovering saints” one of the main themes in the painting. This stems from a connection with the first figure of many representing a saint – in this instance St Ambrose of Milan, depicted in the top left corner of the Friars Panel. More on this connection at another time.

So it should not be assumed that the so-called ‘twin’ figures said to be of St Vincent simply represent that particular saint alone. We are invited to “uncover the saints and martyrs” represented in all of the six panels, as well as other idenities associated with the St Vincent figures.

Van der Goes links each clue to another, as a method of confirming identities and connections. He was influenced in this type of construction by Jan van Eyck who employed the same technique in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where the ten riders interlock as jigsaw pieces.

Let’s explore how Van der Goes leads the viewer to discovering the saint associated with the skull fragment. The artist was well versed in producing heraldic decorations for the Burgundian court and the city of Ghent. In 1468 he was commissioned to do so for the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margareta of York and later other works for important occasions.

Aspects of Hugo’s knowledge and experience of heraldic disciplines and terminology feature in the St Vincent Panels. One particular term Hugo has utilised from the language of heraldry is ‘erasure’ which, according to The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, is the tearing off a part of a charge, to leave a jagged edge, and mostly applied to heads depicted with a ragged edge as if forcibly torn from the body.

In another post I pointed out that one of the works of art which Hugo borrowed features from to include in the St Vincent Panels was the Monsaraz fresco known as the Good and Bad Judge, most notably the damaged or ‘erased’ section that formed part of the Good Judge’s right arm and hand. This ‘erased’ or ‘hidden’ motif is utilised in all of the St Vincent Panels in a variety of ways – for instance: men with arms, men without arms, in a literal and military sense. Very few of the figures standing in the back row of the panels are depicted with arms or hands, and if they are, then there is usually a significant meaning to why this is so.

The Panel of the Relic is a typical example. Only the figure of Jan van Eyck doubling up as John the Baptist shows both arms and hands, and even his arms are partly cut off or covered. His two brothers on the back row, Hubert and Lambert, both named after saints, are also armless. The figure of the French prelate and diplomat Jean Jouffroy, twinned with Pierre Cauchon, another French bishop and also a prosecutor in the trial of Joan of Arc, are depicted with their right arm on show and hand on a holy book. Jouffroy later attacked Joan’s ‘saintly’ reputation in a eulogy given in 1459 to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, which may explain the symbolism of the hidden arm and underhand motif.

As to any visual reference to St Joan of Arc – yet another French connection – it is found in the patterned surplice worn by Hubert. Notice the stake-shaped arch in the centre and what appears to be rising flames, a reminder of how Joan suffered martyrdom by being burnt at the stake. The flames can also be understood as symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

The kneeling figure in the bright red gown depicts the French king Charles VI, referred to as ‘Charles the Mad’, who was plagued throughout his life with bouts of mental illness. The figure is also representative of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, said to have had a a hidden hand in the prosecution of Joan of Arc, although the absent left hand seemingly supporting the skull fragment also has a connection to the relic itself. Both Beaufort and Charles VI are also presented in Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent altarpiece.

As to the skull fragment itself, close inspection shows a ragged edge on its top side. This makes the connection to the heraldic term ‘erasure’ and a reason why Charles VI is holding the relic.

With its spiked back, the ‘torn’ fragment is meant to depict a porcupine and links to the French king’s younger brother, Louis I Duke of Orleans, who was assassinated on November 23, 1407, on the orders of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. He was lured to his death on a Paris street in broad daylight after being told his brother wished to meet with him. When he mounted his horse to start on his way a gang of fifteen masked men attacked and fatally stabbed him, cutting off one of his hands in the process, hence the image of his brother Charles depicted with one hand only.

As to the porpupine motif, this represents the chivalric Order of the Porcupine founded by Louis in 1394 to mark the occasion of the baptism of his son Charles of Orleans who was later held captive by the English as a prisoner of war for 25 years.

The Order’s insignia was represented by a gold porcupine standing on a green enamelled oval-shaped base, hence the green cloth base behind the skull fragment. The Order was sometimes referred to in France as the Ordre du Camail and here Hugo van der Goes makes another link to confirm his intended reference to the insignia. Depicted just above the king’s right shoulder is the coat of camel hair worn by John the Baptist. The word-play, camel and camail, is confirmed by the folds in the Baptist’s coat shaped to represent the legs of a camel.

But there is more to link to the Order of the Porcupine. Louis, duke of Orleans, did not enjoy the best of reputations with the people. He had many enemies and is said to have taken his brother’s wife as a mistress. It was also claimed that he dabbled in magic and the black arts, even necromancy. So when we look at the fuller figure in red, there are other clues that point to Louis, duke of Orleans. Saint he wasn’t, it seems.

To the right and slightly above the green cloth is the shape of demonic face with a sharp-pointed nose. It also has an open, laughing mouth with two teeth. The demonic face represents John the Fearless, noted for his long sharp nose, piercing the cameo, and the stabbing of Louis. This motif is also adapted by Hugo from the Monsaraz fresco, shown below.

But take a look at the green cloth to its full extent and we see portrayed another demonic feature, screaming on its way into the fires of hell. The folds in the red garment are angled and accentuated in a descending formation.

Some twelve years later John the Fearless was assassinated in similar fashion on the bridge at Montereau when an attempt to parley with the French dauphin and future Charles VII of France went amiss. One of the dauphin’s escorts panicked and attacked the duke of Burgundy with an axe to his face. The shape of the axe head can be made out in the demonic face of John the Fearless, cleaving his skull through to the socket of his eye.

So where is the saint feature in all of this? Van der Goes is pointing the way back to another Louis and another king, the only French king canonised by the Cathoic Church, Louis IX.

It was Louis who built a dedicated chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle, as a shrine to house the many relics associated with the life of Christ presented to him by Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. These included the Crown of Thorns and a fragment fo the True Cross, so the skull fragment held by king Charles VI can also be understood as a relic of St Louis and the porcupine’s thorns as the Crown of Thorns placed on the head of Christ during his Passion.

In all of this there is another connection to Jan van Eyck and a folio attributed to him in the Turin-Milan Hours depicting the Birth of John the Baptist. The minature refers to many of the items Louis IX received from Baldwin II and were kept in the Sainte-Chapelle. More recently, the Crown of Thorns was rescued from its sanctuary when the Paris cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire in April 2019.

The Order of the Porcupine is not the only chivalric company represented in the St Vincent panels. There are several, and at least three others in the Panel of the Relic.

More on this and other connections to be discovered in the Panel of the Relic in my next post.