A recent discovery that a painting by the Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) has been exhibited upside down for 75 years has caused quite a stir in the art world. The Art, Law and More blog has details about the finding and artwork titled New York City 1.
I wonder if the detection will change any understanding or perception of the painting (or even the artist) now that it can be viewed from a different perspective?
Sometimes paintings require a degree of rotation, or to be mirrored, in order to convey further information.
Jan Van Eyck was not adverse to using this technique. Neither were Sandro Botticelli and Hugo Van der Goes. Even Rembrandt.
Examples of this approach can be seen at these links.
I also pointed out in my previous post that Rembrandt’s 1439 engraving titled The Death of the Virgin is a work that pays homage to Hugo Van der Goes and includes many figures who feature in Hugo’s paintings.
A famous quote associated with Thomas à Kempis is: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”. This quotation is a key to locating his place and confirming his identity in Hugo’s painting.
Rembrandt linked to this quote in his engraving, but there is nothing little about his version. The ‘little book’ becomes the ‘big book’ placed at the corner of the table in front of the prominent seated figure in the foreground.
But who is this mysterious figure with his back to the viewer? Could there be a connection to the figure opposite, peering across the room through the ‘nook’ in the curtain?
‘Face to Face with Death’ is the title of a new exhibition that features Hugo Van der Goes’ famous painting, The Death of the Virgin.
Over the past four years the painting has been extensively restored and is now the central focus of an exhibition opening today in Saint John’s Hospital in Brugge, Belgium, until February 5, 2023.
The Death of the Virgin is one of the most important works in Musea Brugge’s world famous collection of Flemish primitive art. The Museum’s website explains:
“By exploring six different themes, this exhibition will take a deeper look at ‘The Death of the Virgin’. Each theme will be developed with reference to other great masterpieces, some of which belong to the Musea Brugge collection, while others have been brought to Bruges from all over Europe. These works include paintings by Hans Memling, Jan Provoost and Albrecht Bouts, but sculptures, manuscripts and pieces of music will also be used to bring visitors face to face with death in its different forms. In total, more than seventy works of art will be displayed.”
It would be interesting to know if Rembrandt’s famous etching produced in 1639 and with the same title, The Death of the Virgin, is on display at the exhibition. The etching (shown below) is a tribute to Van der Goes and features several characters from many of his paintings. It could be said that the person dying in bed is not the Virgin Mary but Hugo Van der Goes!
I posted some details on Hugo’s painting some time ago, and also on Rembrandt’s etching at these links:
In my previous post I pointed out the connection to the ‘coffin’ in the St Vincent Panel of the Relic to the ‘hollow tree’ that St Bavo made his abode for a time, and how this further linked to another theme in the panel, Halloween and All Saints Day (All Hallows Day)
What I didn’t mention at the time was also the connection to the birth name given to St Bavo – Allowin.
The Relic Panel is ‘mirrored’ in a section of Rembrandt’s 1639 etching Death of a Virgin, which I posted a year ago at this link. The ‘hollow tree’ is also featured in the etching, and features Rembrandt, aka St Bavo, looking into the scene through a gap (the hollow) in the curtain representing the tree.
The likeness of Rembrandt is similar to a 15th century limestone sculpture of St Bavo shown above, now housed at the Met Museum in New York. Look closely at Rembrandt’s left arm in the etching and you will see the faint outline of the shape of a bird. This represents a falcon, one of the attributes associated with St Bavo.
Another etching of St Bavo was published in 1650 by the Dutch artist Pieter Southam. The saint is depicted in all his glory as a noble soldier before his conversion, but notice the way his cloak is open widely and the similarity to Rembrant’s version of appearing through an open curtain. Is Southam’s illustration a hat-tip to his contemporary as Rembrandt’s is to the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes?
That the representations of St Bavo appear to be stepping out from the coffin or from behind the curtain relates to a passage from St Matthew’s gospel: The veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked; the rocks split; the tombs opened and the bodies of many men holy men rose from the dead, and these, after resurrection, came out of the tombs and entered the Holy City and appeared to a number of people (29 : 51-53).
This passage also relates to Hubert van Eyck, placed right of the coffin in the Panel of the Relic, and one of his few extant paintings: The Three Marys at the Tomb (of the Risen Christ).
Rembrandt picked up on this, and made a group of the three women, two of them with their back to the viewer. (replacing Hubert and Lambert van Eyck). The Virgin Mary is seated on a ‘cushion’ chair, a reference to one of the other identities in the Panel of the Relic – the priestly figure in black, Pierre Cauchon.
When Hugo van der Goes set about including choristers in two panels of the St Vincent polyptych there can be no doubt he was inspired by the two prominent panels of singing and musical angels that Jan van Eyck had painted in the Ghent Altarpiece. However, instead of angels, Hugo preferred Flemish painters in the guise of choristers.
Another reason was to point to the period in his life after he joined the Rood Klooster, an Augustinian community, in 1475 and suffered a mental breakdown some five years later. To aid Hugo’s recovery the prior Thomas Vessem arranged regular choral sessions as part of the painter’s therapeutic treatment. This rationale was based on the biblical account of David playing his harp for Saul who was plagued by an evil spirit. Whenever the evil spirit bothered Saul, David would play his harp, Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would go away.(1 Samuel 16 : 14-23)
Rembrandt picked up on this in his etching referred to as Death of the Virgin (1639), except that the person in the bed is Hugo van der Goes and not the Virgin Mary! Hugo is surrounded, not by choristers or musicians, but by the many characters from the paintings he produced after his recovery.
Centuries later, and based on a chronicle account by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk who resided at the Rood Klooster during Hugo’s time there, the Belgian artist Emile Wauters created a painting in 1872 showing a manic Hugo seated and listening to four choristers and two musicians.
The work even drew comment from the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in letters he wrote to his brother Theo, stating he likened his own appearance to the depiction of Hugo.
So does Hugo’s pointer in the St Vincent Panels to the treatment he received after his breakdown suggest that the polyptych was completed after his recovery, sometime during the years he was at the Rood Klooster, between 1475 and the less-than-certain date of 1482 given for his death?
The detail below is taken from Rembrandt’s etching Death of the Virgin (1639). It’s a profile view of the head of the kneeling cross-bearer.
The profile is unusual in that it doesn’t feature an eye, a nose or a mouth. The head is practically faceless.
However, close inspection of the man’s ear reveals two of the facial features – an eye and an open mouth with a protruding tongue doubling up as the ear lobe. The composite represents the adage “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”.
Rembrandt took his lead from the same saying embedded in the Panel of the Friars, the outer left wing of the St Vincent Panels painted by Hugo van der Goes. Hugo’s inspiration came from Jan van Eyck’s version found in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. Details about this are published in a previous post.
It’s very likely that Van Eyck’s inspiration stemmed from a section of a fresco titled the The Good and Bad Judge which is located in the old court house at Reguenos de Monsaraz. The fresco was also a source for some of the features Hugo van der Goes included in the St Vincent Panels.More about the fresco here.
The shorn and almost-faceless cross-bearer shows up again some thirty years later in Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, as do other figures from this section of the etching.
Earlier this year I posted an item revealing that a section of a Rembrandt etching – Death of the Virgin, 1639 – was based on one of the panels from the St Vincent Panels. The etching is, in fact, a tribute to Hugo van der Goes and does not represent the death of the Virgin Mary.
Seemingly Rembrandt considered Hugo the painter of the St Vincent Panels and not the Portuguese artist Nuno Gonçalves to whom the work is currently attributed.
Rembrandt also “translated” another section from the St Vincent Panels into his etching, the Panel of the Friars. The two sections are shown below for comparision. The section from the etching later served as the basis for the famous work Rembrandt painted late in life, The Return of the Prodigal Son. The third panel (right) shows detail from Dieric Bouts’ Last Supper painting which Van der Goes used as the basis for the Panel of the Friars.
My previous post pointed out the connection between the two end panels of the Merode Altarpiece and the two end sections of the St Vincent Panels.
Another link is the pair of pincers seen on the workbench in the St Joseph Panel, used to identify the figure standing next to the coffin in the Relic Panel. He is Jan van Eyck’s brother, Hubert. On Hubert’s left is another brother, Lambert van Eyck. The three brothers, Jan, Hubert and Lambert were all artists.
The circumstances of Hubert’s death are unknown. He died in September 1426 and was buried in St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, next to his sister Margaret. Wikipedia states that one of his arms was preseved in a casket above the portal of St Bavo. Hubert never married and it is thought he may have belonged to a minor order of the Church.
When Jan van Eyck died in July 1441 he was buried in the graveyard of St Donatian’s church in Bruges. A year later, his brother Lambert organised for Jan’s body to be exhumed and reinterred inside the church next to the baptismal font.
Rogier van der Weyden, a contemporary of Jan van Eyck, recorded this new place of rest in the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece. In fact, Jan is depicted in all of the seven scenes. Hubert and Lambert also show up, standing behind Jean Jouffroy – the duke of Burgundy’s almoner at the time – between the two scenes depicting Baptism and Confirmation. The third figure alongside Jouffroy is Jan van Eyck to complete the trio of brothers.
Hugo van der Goes has repeated this arrangement of the four figures in the Panel of the Relic.
Another painting attributed to Van der Weyden and his workshop that features the three Van Eyck brothers is The Exhumation of Saint Hubert, housed at the National Gallery, London. Hubert is shown wearing a cotta over his red cassock, and in conversation with the Burgundian prince Charles the Bold. But seemingly Hubert’s left arm has been overpainted in a neutral grey colour, covering the cassock’s red sleeve.
Could this overpaint signify and confirm the claim that Hugo’s left arm was removed and put on display in a casket after his death?
So where does the pair of pincers come into this? Hugo van der Goes has matched them, to the shape of Hubert’s collar. They also double up as the shape of a bow – hence the ‘double collar’. The doubling-up reference is a pointer to the legend of the conversion of Holy Hubertus, or St Hubert.
When Hubert’s wife died giving birth to their son he retreated from court life for a pastime of hunting in forests. One Good Friday morning while pursuing a stag, the animal turned to face Hubert who was shocked to perceive a crucifix fixed between the stag’s antlers. A voice then warned Hubert that he needed to turn back to God and directed him to seek out Lambert, a bishop at Mastricht, who became his spiritual director.
Hubert van Eyck’s red collar represents both a hunter’s bow and the stag’s antlers. The anguished face of Van Eyck represents his final agony shared with the suffering Christ on his Cross. Jan van Eyck was away on ducal business, possibly in England, when his brother Hubert died. So the burial arrangements were most likely undertaken by Lambert van Eyck. It was Lambert who also arranged for the translation of Jan’s remains to be moved inside St Donatian’s church.
There are very few extant examples of Hugo’s work. He was commissioned to produce the Ghent Altarpiece but after his death the work was offered and completed by his brother Jan. Another painting considered to be by Hubert is The Three Mary’s at the Tomb. What is noticeable in this work is the wooden coffin lid laid across the open stone tomb. Christ has already risen.
The Resurrection theme, the open coffin and lid is echoed in the two end frames of the St Vincent Panels, the lid and coffin both upright. Van der Goes has placed the coffin lid next to the figure of Robert Campin in the Friars Panel, while the upright coffin stands beside Hubert van Eyck in the Relic Panel. There is a reason for this placing, Van der Goes is acknowledging a similar Resurrection scene (right) from Campin’s Sielern Triptych which shows Christ stepping out from his stone tomb, its lid askew, and suggesting that perhaps this was the inspiration for Hubert’s version. And instead of Three Marys portrayed beside the tomb, Hugo has shown three Van Eyck brothers.
A common theme throughout the St Vincent Panels is the translation of relics, of bodies and bones, and not just those of St Vincent. This theme is also extended to translation in other senses – of words and languages –crypt to cryptic – visual to verbal, of shifts in power and authority, of inspiration, both human and divine.
Although the St Vincent Panels are generally attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, my choice for the painting the Panel of the Relic would be Hugo van der Goes. It’s the same choice that Dutch painter Rembrandt made some 170 years later when he ‘translated’ many references to Hugo’s work in his etching known as The Death of the Virgin.
In my previous post I pointed out that the red turban in Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait was configured to represent aspects of the Passion of Christ.
When rotated 90º clockwise part of the turban takes on the appearance of a rooster, symbolic of Christ’s resurrection.
Another image to emerge at this angle is that of Christ crucified. It depicts his suspension from the cross, hanging by his left arm, and his bowed head capped or crowned.
A third image is that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, resting her head against the rooster.
When viewed at the normal angle the turban reveals the presentation of the ‘Lamb of God’.Also, when the images of the Lamb and Mary resting her head are united, the combination can be recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.
Another Flemish artist,Hugo van der Goes, picked up on three of these features and incorporated them in the St Vincent Panels painted some forty years later.
A contemporary of Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, was also aware of what Jan had depicted in the red turban and made reference to it in two of his paintings, the Magdalen Reading, and the Seven Sacraments altarpiece.
There is also evidence that Rembrandt was aware of Van Eyck’s construction, even going as far to incorporate some of its features in his own ‘disguised’ style in the 1639 engraving referred to as The Death of the Virgin.
So what inspired Jan van Eyck to want to represent himself as a rooster and disguise elements of Christ’s passsion in his red turban? And what could possibly link this painting to the Somerset village of Templecombe and the discovery in 1945 of a painting on wooden boards known ast he Templecombe Head?
This is another painting by Hugo van der Goes – The Trinity Altarpiece – that Rembrandt sourced for his etching Death of the Virgin.
He incorporated some of it features in the left corner of the etching, the section he later adapted for one of his final paintings, the Return of the Prodigal Son, details of which I presented in an earlier post, as seen below.
So that makes a total of five paintings by Hugo that Rembrandt utilised to pay tribute to Van der Goes – the figure depicted on his deathbed and not, as presumed, the Virgin Mary.
All the paintings were produced in the latter years of Hugo’s life: The Panel of the Relic from the St Vincent Panels; Adoration of the Shepherds; Death of the Virgin; The Vienna Diptych; and the Trinity Altarpiece.
Here’s how Rembrandt matched a third painting by Hugo van der Goes, the Vienna Diptych, to a section of his etching referred to as Death of the Virgin. Again, I’ve numbered the figures to make identification easier, but some of the match-ups need explanation.
The left panel of the Vienna Diptych – the Fall of Man – shows the serpent tempting Eve to take the fruit from the tree and share it with Adam. Eve reminded the serpent that God had said they must not eat the fruit, or touch it, under pain of death. But the serpent responded with a lie saying: “You will not die”. (Genesis 3 : 4)
Adam (1) is portrayed as Hugo van der Goes, and as the man on his deathbed (1) in Rembrandt’s etching. Rembrandt has also matched Hugo to the Redeemer (1) portrayed in the Lamentation panel.
Where Hugo has portrayed himself (6) as the man wearing the red cap, looking downcast, with his left arm raised and his right hand connected to Christ’s wrist, Rembrandt has placed himself in the role of the artist taking the pulse of the bed-ridden figure, his left arm raised, and looking downwards.
The figure of Eve, the first woman (3), is shown as the first in a group of three women In Rembrandt’s etching – all portrayed as temptresses. The woman next to Eve represents Mary Magdalen (4) in the Lamentation panel. Both heads are tilted and hands clasped. Completing the trio is the old woman (5), the serpent in disguise. The clue to recognition is the striped hat, meant to match the bold, combed lines depicted in the serpent’s hair. That the serpent is present at the time of Hugo’s death is a biblical reference to the time Jesus was tempted in the wilderness when “having exhausted all ways of tempting him, the devil left him to return at the appointed time” (Luke 4 : 11) – the appointed time being the Crucifixion when at the point of death Christ felt abandoned and forsaken by his Father.
The woman wiping her tears (7) is meant to represent Veronica who wiped the face of Jesus as he carried his cross to Calvary. In the Lamentation panel she is shown receiving two of the nails used to crucify Christ, those which pierced his hands. This is a subtle reference to the relic known as the Veil of Veronica or the Volto Santo(Holy Face), said to bear the likeness of the face of Jesus and not made by human hands. Close inspection of Veronica’s veil shows a wolf’s head meant to represent a sheep or the Lamb of God – and so a false representation – and probably the artist’s thoughts about the legitimacy of the relic.
Rembrandt has picked up on this and does show a representation of Christ’s face on the cloth his Veronica is using to wipe her tears. The nails or piercings are matched to the holes on the edge of her headdress.
Rembrandt has transferred the figure of John (8) supporting the VIrgin Mary seen in the Lamentation panel to the bearded man in the etching supporting himself at the side of Hugo’s bed.
Figures (9) and (10) in the etching are a combination of the same figures in the Lamentation panel. The male figure (10) looking up towards ‘Veronica’ and passing her the two nails, has been switched to represent a female figure in the etching, not kneeling, but standing, and still looking up. Notice also the extended finger representing one of the nails.
Hugo’s combination of these two figures is interesting as they are designed to point to a similar combination from another of Hugo’s painting – the Adoration of the Shepherds, which suggests that the Lamentation panel was painted after the Adoration of the Shepherds. Briefly, the sharp-nosed man in the friar’s brown habit is Hugo’s half-brother, Nicholas. The woman in the gold-colour robe is another gender switch, the friar and chronicler Gaspar Ofhuys. It is no coincidence that Hugo has linked the two figures to the legendary figure of Veronica, just as Rembrandt has placed them side by side with Veronica in his etching. More on the background to this particular group in a future post.
The heavily veiled woman in the Lamentation panel with her arms raised (11) is matched to the figure of John the Evangelist and his raised arms in the etching. The woman is another variation of Veronca, and a reference to the many veils said to be the cloth used to wipe the face of Jesus. This time the face of the wolf is depicted on the woman’s neck and breastbone. The veils of the two women are linked by the headdress of the women in the gold-colour robe. It represents a sudarium and one of several relics in circulation said to have covered the face of Jesus when he was entombed.
The connection to John is his Gospel report of himself and Peter seeing the linen cloths lying on the ground in Christ’s tomb and also “the cloth that had been over his head […] rolled up in a place by itself.” (John 20 : 3-10)
The bearded friar (2) supporting the dead weight of Jesus is the bearded man with his arm supporting Hugo’s head in the etching – Thomas Vessem, the prior who took Hugo under his wing and cared for him after his breakdown.
The kneeling woman, hands joined in prayer (12) and placed in front of John, both in the etching and the painting, is the Virgin Mary.
In my pevious post I showed that Rembrandt had mirrored one of the sections from the St Vincent Panels for his etching, Death of the Virgin.
Some 30 years later Rembrandt also used another area of the etching as a basis for one of his most famous paintings, the Return of the Prodigal Son. The match ups are easy to spot but I’ve numbered them for identification.
There is a third section of the etching that Rembrandt sourced or ‘matched’ to another painting (by Hugo van der Goes), the group of figures gathered at the far side of the bed. This will be the subject of my next post.
Could the ‘mirror’ effect shown below be evidence that points to the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves – the work considered one of Portugal’s national treasures – may have been produced in the Burgundian Netherlands?
On the left is detail from Rembrandt’s etching Death of the Virgin dated 1639. On the right is the section from the St Vincent Panels known as the Panel of the Relic and estimated to have been painted between 1450 and 1480, some 150 years before Rembrandt made his etching at the age of 33. The title of the etching, Death of the Virgin, is a misnomer. The bed-ridden person is not the Virgin Mary but the painter Hugo van der Goes. Rembrandt’s etching is about paying homage or tribute to Hugo – homage being one of the prominent themes of the St Vincent Panels.
Knowing this, it’s not difficult to match the figures and the iconography. The detail shown in the hand and arm of John the Evangelist extending in from the left represents the man holding the book of scripture in the Relic Panel. He is the French priest Jean Jouffroy and an ambassador of the Burgundian court at the time. Behind him are two clerical administrators matched to the two seated women in the etching. The figure in red is Henry Beaufort and Rembrandt has matched himself to the prelate as a kind of cameo appearance drawing back the curtain to symbolise an act of revelation in a similar way the cardinal is revealing the precious relic wrapped in a green cloth.
The man matched to the shadowy figure in the etching, is the man portrayed as a pilgrim in the Relic Panel. This is the painter Jan van Eyck, placed in front of the wooden box – some say, a coffin. This piece of furniture, cupboard or coffin, can be matched to the empty chair seen in the lower corner of the etching.
It is said that Rembrandt never left his native Holland, although there are myths suggesting he may have travelled to England and Italy, even Sweden! But the myths never mention Portugal.
So for Rembrandt to have recorded such detail from the Relic Panel and rearrange it, or rebuild the temple, so to speak, he must have had sight of the St Vincent Panels to be able to make notes and preparatory sketches for his engraving. This would suggest that circa 1439 the St Vincent Panels were located in the Burgundian Netherlands and possibly Amsterdam at the time when Rembrandt moved to the city late in 1431.
If the panels were commissioned and produced in Holland, and it certainly seems that Hugo van der Goes had a hand in painting them, then who could have commissioned the work and when did the panels make their way to Lisbon in Portugal?
Many art historians consider the six panels formed part of a twelve-panel retable in Lisbon Cathedral. Other researchers dispute this. What seems very probable is that the panels did not leave Holland before Rembrandt had sight of them to embed details from the Relic Panel in his engraving. This isn’t the only example of Hugo’s later work that features in the engraving. The Vienna Diptych (Kunsthistorisches Museum) gets a good showing, and there are references to Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), and his version of Death of a Virgin (Groeningmuseum, Ghent).
To enable to see and recognise some of the iconography in Rembrandt’s etching shown above, the viewer has to adopt a different view and turn the work 90 degrees clockwise. Was this Rembrandt’s own idea or did he take his lead from elsewhere? As the etching is primarily focused on the work of Hugo van der Goes, so is the answer. Rembrandt has imitated a feature from Hugo’s painting titled Adoration of the Shepherds, which he produced after recovering from his ‘breakdown’ and attempt to self-harm.
The painting records the Nativity of Jesus – the occasion when Christ became incarnate, the Word made flesh. The scene also became a life-changing occasion for the magi and shepherds who were called to witness, pay homage and proclaim the birth of Christ. The magi returned home a different way (conversion) and the shepherds repeated all they had seen and heard to everyone they could.
Another conversion narrative Hugo has blended into the scene is that of St Augustine. Like Hugo, he wrestled with God at times until one day he heard a child’s voice singing and repeating the words, “Pick it up and read it”. This prompted Augustine to pick up a Bible and open it. The first passage his eyes settled on was part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, urging them to be Children of the Light:
“Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: no drunken orgies, no promiscuity, or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy. Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ; forget about satisfying your bodies with all their cravings” (Romans 13:13-14).
Augustine’s heart was flooded with light and he changed his ways. He was baptised a Christian and later became bishop of Hippo.
The painting not only represents the Nativity of Jesus and the conversion of Augustine but also the rebirth and “turnaround” of Hugo van der Goes after his breakdown.
This experience of being overcome by heavenly light can been seen in the top right corner of Hugo’s painting. So powerful is the light and the angel’s message that one of the shepherds is bowled over. Another is brought to his knees. This is mirrored in the main scene. One shepherd is depicted on his knees while the other is almost bowled over.
So where is the clue that Hugo has referred to Augustine’s moment of conversion? It’s within the crib, but the crib and all it holds requires to be turned 90 degrees anti-clockwise (going back in time, so to speak), as Rembrandt did with his etching.
When turned round the cloth on which the infant is placed takes on the outline form of Augustine, sitting on the ground and reading his bible. The open pages of the book are seperated by the child’s right arm, resting on the spine as a bookmark. This is the reference to the child (the Word) instructing Augustine to pick up the book and read it – the word of God. The pointed corner fold on the cloth above the infant’s left hand represents a bishop’s mitre. The other end of the cloth overlapping the edge of the crib and pointing downwards represents the descent into darkness and imprisonment, hence the crib’s cage-like features.
Hugo has adapted the shape of the Augustine symbol from the painting by Fra Angelico, Conversion of St Augustine. He also repeats the posture in his painting Death of the Virgin, portraying himself seated on the floor in the same way. Notice as well the similarity in colours of the garments, and the extended ‘tail’ feature which is repeated in the crib detail.
Finally, the turnaround feature can be linked to the Thomas à Kempis quote: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”.
The painter Hugo van der Goes, seen here in Rembrandt’s etching being nursed back to health, suffered from depression, not helped by his fondness for alcohol. When returning from a visit to Cologne with a group of brothers from the Rood Klooster monastery, Hugo suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to self-harm, claing he was damned. Was it a suicide bid? Possibly. But he was prevented from killing himself by the men he was travelling with.
While art historians provide no further information about the attempt on his life, or the method used, Hugo does – as does Rembrandt.
Hugo used a bill-hook or sickle to slash himself on the left side of his head and neck (which suggests he was right-handed). Was this an attempt to cut off his ear and eradicate any ‘voices’ he might have heard in his head; or in his confused state did he associate himself with Malchus, the servant of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, whose ear was cut off by Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane?
There is evidence in Hugo’s painting of Death of the Virgin, to suggest this, and in Rembrandt’s etching and his painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Hugo also referred to his breakdown in at least four of his other paintings.
So how did Rembrandt concoct the name of Hugo van der Goes in the details from his etching shown below? He created a rhyming riddle – rhyme as in his name Rijn.
Hugo’s last name, Goes, is pronounced “Hoose”, hence being rhymed with Goose, the shape of the pillow Hugo’s head rests on. The “hand” on the pillow is rhymed with “van der” (on the). So now we have “hand on the Goose” – van der Goes. His first name is matched to Hugo’s Portuguese ancestry and the word “jugo”, meaning “yoke”. The yoke is the pillow beneath Hugo’s head and refers to the passage from Matthew’s gospel (11:28-30):
“Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
At the time of Hugo’s breakdown he was burdened by the weight of having so many paintings to complete, a heavy load. The soft goose-down pillow is the light and easy yoke.
To see and understand the riddle more clearly, Rembrandt invites the viewer to look at the scene in another way, to turn the sheet around and see things from a different perspective. The turnaround represents not only Hugo’s recovery after his attempt at mutilation and self-destruction, but also an occasion of conversion for his soul, a return of the Prodigal Son to hs father’s arms, the father in this instance being God working through the prior Thomas Vessem who took charge of Hugo’s care when he was brought back to the Rood Klooster .
The yellow stripe along the goose’s neck not only represents the lacing on the pillow but also symbolises the stitching applied on Hugo’s neck by the hand of the Prior. The snake-like stitching also represents a goose horn – both symbolising deceit – and also the horn of a beast and its yoke,
The green strip also has more that one meaning. It serves as a coupling or washer between the goose-shaped yolk and the father figure sharing Hugo’s burden. It also represents a swan’s neck and serves as a reference to the Rood Kloster which was located at Soingnes – pronounced Swanyay. Another identity is that of a serpent meant to symbolise the temptation to self-doubt and self-harm Hugo succumbed to.
The orange cowl with its liripipe represents the choristers and musicians at the monastery called on by Prior Thomas to help calm Hugo’s anxiety and revive him from his slumber. It also connects to the swan feature and points to Hugo’s last painting – Death of the Virgin – as his swansong.
Finally the shape of the monk’s cowl also takes on the appearance of a sickle, the tool or weapon of a reaper that Hugo utilised to slash his own neck.
• My next post will reveal what prompted or inspired Rembrandt to want the viewer to turn the etching on its side and be able to see and understand the iconography more clearly.
In my previous post I pointed out that the title applied to Rembrandt’s signed and dated etching, Death of a Virgin (1639), is a misnomer, and it isn’t the Virgin Mary who is depicted dying in her bed.
In fact, the person is actually recovering from a near death experience, both in a physical and spiritual sense, thanks to the intercession and tender care of those in attendance.
So who is the sick person in the bed being cared for if not the Virgin Mary? Are they a woman or a man, perhaps a mother or a brother, saint or a sinner, or, more likely, both?
For Rembrandt, the person lived a common life some two centuries beforehand and, like Rembrandt, their name, reputation and achievements live on.
He is HUGO VAN DER GOES.
Rembrant has carved out Hugo’s name in section of the etching, not in normal handwriting like his own name, which can be found in the bottom left corner of the print, but in a symbolic way.
The references to Hugo go further, and there are at least thirty that Rembrandt has taken from what is considered the last painting produced by Van der Goes, Death of a Virgin, in which he portrays himself as the Prodigal Son, the same subject Rembrandt has presented with this etching and in the acclaimed Return of the Prodigal Son, painted before his own death in 1669. This work also pays tribute to Hugo van der Goes whose features are portrayed in the elder brother. Like the etching, there are several references that can be matched to Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, as many as fifty.
• My next post will explain the iconography that reveals the name of Hugo van der Goes in Rembrandt’s etching.
Yesterday, I looked to find paintings by other artists depicting the death of the Virgin Mary and came across this etching with the same title, produced by Rembrandt in 1439.
Many prints from the engraving are in circulation, owned privately and in museum and gallery collections. However, the title is a misnomer. The etching doesn’t depict the death of the Virgin. She is shown elsewhere in the illustration, seated in from of John the Evangelist.
The etching was a precursor for Rembrandt’s painting that followed some thirty years later: The Return of the Prodigal Son. It is the wayward son – once lost, but now found – who rests in the bed with his father’s arm around him. Rembrandt is the figure peering through the curtain. John is to his right.
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