Virgil on the verge

UPDATED: January 27, 2022

In my previous post I identified the three figures shown here as Dante Alighieri, Virgil and the half-hidden head as Plutarch (doubling up as Pluto, king of the dead and the underworld). They are part of the section known as the Panel of the Prince in the St Vincent Panels.

Virgil accompanied Dante as a guide through the depths of Hell and Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy poem, but was never able to enter Paradise because he wasn’t baptised. Although the stain of “original sin” remained with him, he was what was referred to as a “virtuous pagan”.

Notice the face shaped in the folds of his throat and looking down at the stain of original sin presented as a black spot on his white undergarment. Baptism is said to remove the mark of original sin humanity is born with.

The face in the folds of Virgil’s neck is a reminder of a gorget worn to cover and protect the throat (as seen in the figure of Philippa). Gorget lends itself to the word “gorge” meaning “chasm” and this refers to the gap or distance that Virgil was never able to cross to reach Paradise.

Hugo van der Goes borrowed this detail from a section of the Ghent Altarpiece that refers to the biblical parable of The Rich man and Lazarus and the words spoken by Abraham to the rich man, “Between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours” (Luke 16:26).

In the top image Virgil is placed in front of the twinned figure of Plutarch and Pluto (representing Hades), and on the verge or edge of the frame. His location is Limbo, meaning “edge” or “border”, and a special place the Church conceived for unbaptised “virtuous pagans” after death.

And if to suggest that Limbo is closer to Hell than Heaven, Hugo formed a second, more sinister face in Virgil’s neck. The darkened area below the cheekbone forms part of the creature’s forehead, while the rim of the rather long ear forms the shape of a horn.

The horn feature also serves as a reference to Plutarch’s book of biographies known as Parallel Lives and the chapter on the Life of Theseus. When Theseus arrived at Delos he joined a group of youths dancing around an altar called Keraton and made entirely of horns taken from the left side of animals. The dance was known as The Crane.

Was Van der Goes also suggesting with the altar reference that the Plutrach image had been altered in some to also represent Pluto, or his Roman equivalent Hades?

Standing on ceremony

Here’s another example of how Hugo van der Goes was inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece when he set out to paint the St Vincent Panels.

The Panel of the Prince, (St Vincent Panels), and the Singing Angels panel (Ghent Altarpiece)

In this instance he has taken elements and themes from the Singing Angels section of the Ghent Altarpiece and translated them to the Panel of the Prince in the St Vincent polyptych.

The Singing Angels represent a celestial scene, seven of which refer to the cluster of stars called the Pleiades, also known as “The Seven Sisters”. The eighth angel at the top of the group represents Joan of Arc, depicted in the guise of a ram and therefore the constellation Aries. This constellation is located next to the constellation Taurus which houses the Pleiades.

Joan of Arc, depicted in the guise of a ram. Singing Angels panel (Ghent Altarpiece)

Notice also the angels’ arc-shaped headbands studded with diamonds, the arch-shaped picture frame, and the arched shelf representing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Pentateuch or Torah.

The Holy Book, stones and arcs are features translated by Van der Goes to the Panel of the Prince. So too is the lead angel in her red vestment and the placing of her hands on the lectern as if she is at the helm, steering the ark. This is echoed in the figure of the deacon guiding and steering the kneeling man as to the right path to take in life.

Instead of angels, Van der Goes has arched a group of eleven men, and as an alternative to the headbands the arc on the forehead is formed by the brim of the men’s hats. The line of men is split into two groups. The first five men on the left represent an ascent culminating with a sixth figure at the peak, half-hidden behind the man with bald head.

Detail from the Panel of the Prince, (St Vincent Panels)

Francisco Petrarca or Petrarch (Italian poet) is the half-hidden figure at the peak and in descending order are: John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster), Henry Bolingbroke (King Henry IV), Geoffrey Chaucer (poet and diplomat), Edward Grimstone (diplomat), and Petrus Christus (painter). All represent variations of and are linked by the word stone, beginning with Petrus and ending with Petrarch (petra meaning stone or rock).

The group is also connected to another figure, the woman wearing the white headdress who is Philippa of Lancaster, Queen consort of Portugal through her marriage to King John I. She was the daughter of John of Gaunt and therefore a sister to Henry Bolingbroke. Chaucer mentored Philippa in her youth. He was also the brother-in-law of Philippa’s governess, Katherine Swynford having married her sister, also named Philippa.

Serving as an English diplomat at the Burgundian court of Philip the Good, Edward Grimstone was married three times. His third wife was named Philippa. His extant portrait (in the National Gallery, London) was painted by Petrus Christus.

The Philippa connection to Petrus comes through one of his paintings titled “Isabella of Portugal with St Elizabeth” (right) and which Hugo van der Goes translated to represent Philippa and her kneeling daughter Isabella in the Panel of the Prince.

The similarity between the faces of Philippa and St Elizabeth suggest that Petrus Christus may have modelled the Saint’s features on Isabella’s mother with whom she is said to have had a very close relationship.

Lookalikes…Philippa of Lancaster and St Elizabeth

Philippa’s mother was Blanche of Lancaster. Both women died of the plague, as did Philippa’s husband King John I and their son Edward. The moustached figure paired with Philippa is a double or two-layered image representing both kings matched by the double image of Philippa and her mother and the fact that all four individuals succumbed to the plague.

The Blanche/Philippa figure is placed in front of Geoffrey Chaucer to make a connection to the poet’s “Book of the Duchess” in which Blanche is featured as the character “White”. Blanche was John of Gaunt’s first wife and was only 26 when she died. Gaunt married three times but chose to be buried alongside Blanche when he died. Notice the head of the Duke of Lancaster is turned to look at the white headdress and dual image of Blanche and Philippa.

Grouped with Petrarch on his left are the artist Hugo van der Goes, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, and behind him the half-hidden Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch. What connects three of the men – Van der Goes, Dante and Virgil – is they were all sent into exile at sometime during their life. Plutarch represents an eternal exile when his name is played with Pluto, the Roman god of the dead and the underworld, equivalent to the Greek version Hades. He wears no hat. Like Petrarch, his head is cropped. Petrarch represents a capstone for the line of stone figures on his right, while the Pluto or Hades figure is also assigned a cap which is hidden, a cap of invisibility referred to as the “Cap of Hades” or the “Helm of Hades”. When the cap is donned the wearer becomes an invisible force at the helm of the ship steering and conducting the paths and souls of others on a descent to disaster.

This corresponds with Van Eyck’s angel steering the ark and the choir, but now the wingless angels represent a new choir, that of the mythological Sirens calling out with their sweet melodious voices to entice ships to shore and flounder on the rocks.

So the “exiles” represent a descent into death, but not just by exile alone. Hugo’s exile is somewhat of a mystery but there is a written record that he was, as a young man, pardoned by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, in March 1451.

However, in later years Hugo’s descent into Hades manifested once more when he suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide, claiming he was bound for damnation. His attempt at self harm was thwarted by those around him and he was placed into the care of Thomas van Vessem, prior of the the Red Cloister Augustinian community which Hugo had joined as a lay brother in 1478. Vessem is the figure standing cheek to cheek with Van der Goes. There are two references in the panel which point to his identity.

The first derives from the half-hidden figure of Petrarch. Widely travelled, the poet once ascended Mount Ventoux in the Provence region of France, a considerable feat in 1336. When he reached the summit (hence the earlier mention of capstone) he contemplated on his ascent and view of the Alps and then took from his pocket a copy of St Augustine’s “Confessions”. When Petrarch opened the book his eyes fell on a passage that suggested the climbing experience was but an allegory and a prompt to lead a better life.

Mount Ventoux (meaning “windy” in French) is nicknamed “Bald Mountain” and this is another connection to the word “arc” formed by the bald head of Thomas van Vessem. The word “windy” is also a pointer to the Windesheim Congregation which the Augustinians of the Red Cloister community joined in 1412.

More on this in my next post.