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