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.
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.
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.
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, on her knees alongside 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.