How did Jan van Eyck incorporate some of the elements of the Monsaraz fresco into the Ghent Altarpiece, notably the Just Judges panel?
He took the group of five figures in the fresco that make up the section representing the Bad Judge and transformed them into five figures that form the central group in the Just Judges panel.
Van Eyck applied four identities to each figure, but I will identify only those necessary to explain the transformation. The central rider is the French king Charles Vl, known as Charles the Mad. To his right, wearing the blue hat, is the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. To the left of Charles, wearing black, is Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and on his left is the artist Pol Limbourg. Riding at the rear of Charles VI is his brother Louis l, Duke of Orleans. A sixth rider also plays a role in the narrative, the figure in blue placed above the French king.
As a trio, Sigismund, Charles and Philip represent the maxim “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil (see earlier post for explanation). The maxim is also depicted as the evil figure representing temptation placed behind the judge in the fresco: large staring eyes, a wide mouth and elongated ears.
The fresco judge in the red hat is shown as Charles VI, also wearing a red hat. Both are key figures portrayed as being in two states of mind. In the original Just Judges panel the brim of Sigimund’s hat covers the king’s mouth (pictured below) as if it was an overgrown moustache causing his speech to be impeded. Unfortunately for Charles, he suffered from bouts of psychosis and struggled to communicate or make sense to others during these periods. The portrayal of his startled horse with its head turned indicates the turning head of the moustached judge seen in the fresco. Notice also the animal’s wide, staring eyes and pointed ears – an indication it has been spooked and uncertain which direction to take.
The demon behind the judge’s left shoulder and his claw resting on the right shoulder is also represented by Louis 1, Duke of Orleans, reputed to have been the lover of the king’s wife Isabeau of Bavaria.
The duke’s shoulder is shaped as a shield, symbolic of protecting himself (and not his brother). He is draped in three gold chains (symbolic of the claws of the demon resting on the judge’s back and shoulder), two of which are twisted which, in heraldic terms, is referred to as a tortilly or wreath. The chains form part of the insignia, along with an emblem of a gold porcupine on a green base, associated with the Order of the Porcupine founded by the Duke of Orleans in 1394. Van Eyck is equating the spiky symbol and the duke’s betrayal of his brother as a stab in the back. The pattern on the duke’s coat confirms the analogy.
The twisted chains are echoed in the twisted under-sleeve of the rider in blue that appears also to be protruding from the king’s hat. In the original painting the twist features the face of a demon. This serves a two-fold purpose as one of the identities of the rider in blue is Joan of Arc, said by her accusers to be possessed. The claim may also have been made to explain Charles’ mental state.
On the left of King Charles is Philip the Good (the kneeling figure in the fresco wearing the dark tunic). The French king was also Philip’s father-in-law as his daughter Michelle was the Duke’s first wife. Philip the Good can also be considered a counter-balance to the evil reputation of the Duke of Orleans, the pivot being King Charles known as both The Beloved and The Mad depending on the state of his mental health – sane or insane.
The mention of balance is associated with the French town of Troyes from where the Troy weight system is said to originate from and was a process measured in units of barley grain.
The grains are represented by the prayer beads suspended around the Duke of Burgundy’s neck. Another clue to a barleycorn connection is that the two strands of beads align with the ears of the startled horse. Ears of barley – pearl barley, hence the rosy pink tinge of the beads. Van Eyck has taken his inspiration for this feature from the holes in the two uprights of the judge’s chair next to the kneeling figure.
Alongside the rider in black is the artist Pol Limbourg representing the court scribe in the fresco who is observing and recording the scene in front of him. Limbourg’s baton is the scribe’s writing utensil. But notice the subtle detail Van Eyck has observed in the depiction of the scribe. It appears that the scribe is carrying the table top under his right arm. An illusion of course, but one Jan has replicated by giving the impression that the baton (representing an artist’s paintbrush) is carried by Pol Limbourg under his arm.
The fresco figure kneeling on the right side of the judge is the source for Van Eyck’s depiction of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who hears no evil as his ear is covered by the fur hat of another rider next to him. His ‘V’ shape neck chain is reflected in the pronounced ‘V’ shape of the collar of the bearded fresco figure. So is Sigismund’s beard. The two birds in the right hand of the fresco figure are echoed by Sigismund’s hands formed as wings, the right hand depicted in an offering gesture. Charles’ right hand is shown adjacent to Sigismund’s right hand, as are the two right hands in the fresco. The turned head of the horse mirrors the turned head of the judge.
As to the depiction of the startled horse this can be picked up from the shape and features seen at foot of the judge’s gown.
These matching observations, coupled with those pointed out in my previous post, are evidence that Jan van Eyck had sight of the Monsaraz fresco, known as The Good and the Bad Judge, before he began work on the Ghent Altarpiece which was completed in 1432, and that his lead was later followed by Hugo van der Goes in his attempt to emulate the Ghent Altarpiece and pay homage to the Van Eyck brothers.
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