Translating transitions in the St Vincent Panels

I pointed out here in one of my earliest posts about the St Vincent Panels that this trio of faces represented the painter Hugo van der Goes (right), his half-brother Nicholas (back) and Thomas Vaseem, prior of the Red Cloister monastery, an Augustinian community that both brothers belonged to.

A pointer to the face at the back being Hugo’s half-brother is that only half of his head is visible. This also suggests a separation of some kind between the siblings – a subject present elsewhere in the Panels. In a recent post I explained why the coats of arms belonging to René II, duke of Lorraine had been “halved”.

The group of panels are also arranged in a half-and-half or mirrored formation, better understood when brought together, especially the two central panels.

Hugo has also applied more than one identity to some of the figures, but in these situations better understood when separated. For instance the figure of Thomas Vaseem has four identities which link to different narratives. In a way, it is similar to an index or a cross referencing system located at the end of a book. The figure relates to a number, so in this instance the “father” figure relates to both Hugo and his half-brother Nicholas. The figure of Hugo then relates or connects to other scenarios or narratives.

A second identity given to Vaseem is the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. There is a stone bust of Seneca similar in features to Vaseem which Hugo has sourced to introduce the narrative on the philosopher famed for his stoic approach to life, as likely Vaseem was also. The sculpture is part of what is known as the double Herm of Seneca and Socrates. The two philosophers are joined at the back of the head (another example of half and half). In a similar way Hugo has attached himself to the representation of Seneca, except that the heads are cheek-to-cheek. Here Hugo is proclaiming he has something in common with Seneca.

In another post I pointed out that Hugo along with the two men on his right, Dante and Virgil, had all been exiled in at sometime during their life. Seneca, too, was exiled to Corsica for a period by the Roman emperor Claudius. Later in life he committed suicide on the orders of Nero. This is another connection with Van der Goes who attempted to take his own life by cutting his throat with a sickle when in a state of manic depression. It was Vaseem who cared for Hugo after other brothers from the Red Cloister community who were with him at the time, including his half-brother Nicholas, prevented him from self-inflicting any fatal wound. It may have been the case that Hugo’s attempt at self-harm was somewhat half-hearted and a cry for help, rather than a serious intention to commit suicide.

Socrates, the other head on the Herm, also committed suicide. The herm, with its back-to-back heads is also suggestive of Janus, the double-headed Roman god of transitions, duality, doorways, new beginnings and endings (particularly of conflicts).

In the same post I explained that the line of men to the left of Vaseem all had a connection to stones, and that the men on the right were grouped as exiles. The figure of Vaseem, now also identified as Seneca, is a link between these two groups, a transition figure, both a stone sculpture and an exile. He cross references both groups.

A helm was also used as a boundary marker. Jan van Eyck made use of this varied motif as a marking point of transition in two of his paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait, and in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Helm also refers to a helmet, and here Hugo transitions the meaning to the red hat of the saintly figure in front, indicating what generally is assumed to be a depiction of St Vincent of Zaragosa is actually a representation of more than one saint. This “duality” or morphing process explains the ”twin” or mirrored appearance of seemingly the same saint shown in both central panels. Each “Vincent” has more than one saintly identity that form a “Communion of Saints”, a narrative which cross references with another major theme in the Panels, the Nicene Creed.

Van Eyck’s central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is titled Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In another sense it depicts the “Communion of Saints”

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Source: Closer to Van Eck

Half and half

So far, I’ve provided identities for two figures in the Panel of the Archbishop: René II, duke of Lorraine, and Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, placed either side of the central figure said to portray St Vincent of Zaragosa, hence the title of the polyptych, the St Vincent Panels.

However, Vincent is not all he appears to be. The artist Hugo van der Goes has applied a second identity that links to the two dukes already named.

The three coats of arms associated with René II… The duchies of Lorraine, Calabria, and Bar.

I pointed out in my previous post that the Duchy of Bar emblem could be recognised in the fish shape on René’s breastplate. There was no indication of the second fish that is part of the emblem. Hugo had also separated from René the group of three hands representing the three eaglets on the Duchy of Lorraine emblem. Like the second fish, the red “bend” or stripe is also absent. The grouping which forms the Duchy of Calabria emblem is also fragmented across two figures. And the figure of Charles the Bold is absent of any coat of arms because his body was stripped naked by scavengers after he was killed at the Battle of Nancy.

So why the missing parts and fragmentation of the emblems? A clue is in the reason for the absent red “bend” associated with the Lorraine emblem, matched by the absent red stripe on the deacon’s vestment when compared with the vestment’s two stripes shown in the Panel of the Prince. The absence also links to Charles’ death and naked state. One or many saw it fit to strip the dead duke of his clothes as their need was greater.

The two central panels of the St Vincent Panels.

In René’s situation his “coats” are halved or separated, and so missing from his person. Likewise the figure of St Vincent, except in this scenario the portrayal is of another saint – Martin of Tours, the Roman soldier who, on meeting a half-naked beggar on the street, cut his own military cloak in half and gave it to the poor man.

Charles the Bold was baptised with the names Charles Martin.

There are several references to saints in the St Vincent Panels. The figure of the deacon featured in the two central panels has been given at least four identities. This “communion of saints” is an integral part of the main theme expressed in the altarpiece.

• More on the Archbishop panel in my next post.

Marks of victory and defeat

The Panel of the Archbishop

My last post dealt wth revealing the identity of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, one of the figures in the Panel of the Archbishop that is part of the St Vincent Panels.

There’s still more to reveal about Charles who is linked in other ways to both the kneeling knight below him and the two men immediately above.

I also mentioned I would confirm the identity of René II, duke of Lorraine, who fought against the duke of Burgundy at the battle of Nancy on January 3, 1477. Rene is the knight mirrored on the opposite side of the frame,

In another post I explained that one of the reasons why the prelates in the picture are yoked in expensive gold ‘stoles’ that cover their arms was the artist’s method of introducing a “coat of arms” theme in the panel. Its a clue to help identify some of the other figures by their coat of arms or insignia.

René II duke of Lorraine (from1472) can be identified by his three coats of arms. He was also duke of Calabria (1481 to 1493) and Duke of Bar (1483 to 1508). Hugo van der Goes has embedded icongraphy to identify René by his coat of arms.

Coats of arms were an important part of dress and uniform for identifying knights in jousting tournaments and battle arenas. Rene’s grandfather, René of Anjou, was somewhat of an authority on tournament rules and history and produced a colourful illustrated treatise on the subject known as King René’s Tournament Book.

In contrast to René II’s three coats of arms, his opposite opponent Charles the Bold is mirrored without any. This was intended by the artist to reflect the duke of Burgundy’s physical state when his lifeless body was found stripped naked following his army’s defeat by René’s forces at the Battle of Nancy. HIs nakedness also reflected not only the loss of his clothes but also his kingdom and worldly possessions. Identification of Charles’ mutilated body was confirmed by his personal physician. Three spear wounds, two in the thighs and another in the abdomen were noted, along with the severe head injury above the ear from a blow by a halberd. The physician also identified a shoulder wound the duke received in a previous battle as well as more personal details, that Charles had long fingernails and a fistula swelling on his groin.

Hugo van der Goes has verified the identity of Charles the Bold as a figure in the Panel of the Prince with references to these wounds and personal details.

The wounds to the thighs and abdomen link to the three spears; the severe head injury above the ear is represented by the red hat and the green extension to the spear held by Charles which is shaped as a sprouting ear or barb on the blade to give the appearance of a halberd extension; the shoulder injury is defined by the grooved pattern at the joint on the armour plate, suggesting that Charles may have had difficulty or was restricted in rotating his arm; the pointed spear combined with the green barb can be understood as a long finger nail. The fistula reference is in two parts – Charles right hand forms a fist, while “fore” fingers on his left hand grip the “sheath” of his “sword”. His thumb rests on the “handle”. All are presented as phallic symbols to suggest Charles’ fistula swelling in his groin, a symptom of an abnormal urinary tract infection.

After Charles’ body was recovered and removed from the battlefield it was cleansed in “warm water and good wine”. A pointer to this is the hat on the figure kneeling below the duke, depicted as a crushed, burgundy colour grape and then sacked and sealed with a chain and medallion. The wine reference is also a pointer by Hugo van der Goes to one of two identities given to the kneeling figure. But I shall provide details on this a future post.

The three coats of arms associated with René II… The duchies of Lorraine, Calabria, and Bar.

Returning to René II and the coats of arms which reveal his identity…

Duke of Lorraine – In heraldic terms the diagonal band is called a “bend” and shown here in a “sinister” or left position. Imposed is a motif of three birds which are referred to as eaglets or “alerions” (an anagram of Lorraine).

The three alerions can be matched with the group of three hands that form the shape of a bird or, at another level, a dove representing the Holy Spirit descending into the heart of the kneeling knight. Like the bend on the shield, the descent is diagonal but in a “dexter” or right direction and not “sinister”, and so suggesting a change of heart or conversion experience by the kneeling figure. This turnaround implication also applies to the figure of René, duke of Lorraine, who recaptured his Duchy from the control of Charles the Bold.

Duke of Calabria – The “feathered” look of the kneeling knight’s purple hat, coupled with the wing shape section on René’ breastplate, introduces the connection to René’s title as duke of Calabria. His right hand grips the shaft of a raised spear. Combine this with the double-wing motif and this forms the feathered hand raising the sword in the Calabria coat of arms.

Duke of Bar – The wing outline on the breastplate can also be viewed as the shape of a rising or leaping fish and is one of two featured on the coat of arms representing the duchy of Bar. The bar fastener on the duke’s jacket is another clue.

The fish are what are known as dogfish or pike fish which explains one of the reasons why Hugo van der Goes has shaped René hairstyle as the head of a dog and facing the spear or pike blade. Another name the shark fish is known by is the “spiny dogfish”. It has two spines that enables it to arch its back (as depicted in the coat of arms) in a defensive capacity and pierce a captor with spines near its dorsal fins that secrete venom. The word “arch” links with other “arch” features in the panel.

Van der Goes has translated this feature to the figure of Charles opposite. The blade of his pike head is the shape of the fish while the green barb doubles up as the arched back (a second spine). The tassel strings represent the secreted venom.

So where’s the dog? Keyword is “spine”, the spine of the book placed at base of Charles’ neck and the start of his spine. The book spine is damaged and partly folded – “dog-eared”. The ear reference points to the site of Charles’ head injury and the blow which killed him. The dog reference points to the injuries to the side of his face inflicted by a wolf after death.

More details on the Panel of the Archbishop in my next post.