Fishers of men… and shekels

I ended my previous post pointing to some of the iconography attached to the figure of St James the Lesser and made mention he was presented as a sower of the word of God – but there’s more.

His blue cap is the shape of a fish head, the strap represents a fishing line. This is a pointer to another passage from Matthew’s gospel (17:24-27) when Peter was asked if Jesus paid the Temple tax. Jesus gave instructions to Peter: “Go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that bites; open its mouth and there you will find a shekel; take it and give it to them [the tax collectors] for me and for you.”

Notice James’ opened mouth shaped as the lips of a pouting fish, his silvery teeth and hook-shaped moustache. The shekel can also be identified in the sickle shape of the blue cap and tie. The work “sicle” was an Old French term for shekel.

The combination of the hook and the blue cap also serves as another narrative, that of the Hook and Cod Wars fought in the County of Holland from 1350 to 1490. The Hook and Cod reference appears in other works associated with the Van Eycks. Jan van Eyck has made a similar reference in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The term “Cod” referred to a trawling net and introduces a further fishing narrative that relates to when Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him and become “fishers of men”. Peter is the figure in green placed next to James the Lesser. Cod can also be understood as a pun on the word “God” – or the “word of God”.

This area of the “Witnesses to the Old Testament” is teeming with biblical references and I shall point out more and their connections in my next post.

The sons of Alphaeus

Two disciples of Jesus are named in the New Testament as sons of Alphaeus: Matthew the evangelist and James (the Less). But in the 13th century Golden Legend collection of hagiographies the compiler Jacobus de Varagine links two more sons to Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot and Jude Thaddeus who were sons of Mary Clophas, suggesting perhaps they were half-brothers to Matthew and James.

The Van Eycks have placed the four men together in the group of “Witnesses of the Old Testament” from the lower corner section of the Adoration of the Lamb panel in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Matthew’s hat is shaped as a white pearl and refers to the parable told by Jesus known as the Pearl of Great Price. Only Matthew’s gospel (13:44-46) records this parable.

Matthew’s brother is referred to as James the Less as there was another disciple named James (the Great) among the twelve apostles commisioned by Jesus to go out and sow the word of God and proclaim the kingdom of Heaven.

Both James’s are depicted wearing a type of berry cap worn by field workers. See the example alongside of the sower planting seed in the October folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.

John, duke of Berry, originally commisioned the Limbourg brothers to produce his Very Rich Book of Hours but they were never able to complete the work. The three brothers all died in 1416, as did the duke of Berry, most likely from the plague.

A closer look at James the Less reveals more detail about the connection to the Limbourg brothers and John of Berry. Firstly, the assumption that the men died from the plague, a disease that swept Europe at various times and was associated with the fleas of rats. The chin tie hanging from the cap is a visual reference to infer a rat’s tail. This in turn links with the figure in red above James – Judas Iscariot – the disciple who betrayed Jesus. He also is shown with iconography symbolising a rat.

The Duke of Berry’s Book of Hours has a calendar section depicting the labours of the month. The October page already mentioned is the month of tilling and sowing. Each calendar page is crowned with a semi-circle depicting signs of the zodiac related to the paticular month.

Several of the figures in the group of “Witnesses of the Old Testament” are also linked to celestial constellations. James the Less is one such figure. He represents Ursa Minor or the Lesser Bear. I revealed in a previous post that the hands of the nearby figure in green, one of which points in the direction of James, represents the composition of seven stars known as Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

The Van Eycks always confirmed links and connections in more ways than one, hence why I explain the method of constructing the picture as like fitting pieces of a jigsaw. A piece or reference rarely stands alone, it always has two or more connecting pieces.

So here’s another piece of the jigsaw to connect to the head of James the lesser that confirms the link to the Duke of Berry, his Book of Hours and the Lesser Bear.

Notice the “button nose” given to James. It is meant to mirror the “button nose” of John of Berry. A profile of the duke appears in the January calendar page of his Book of Hours. Notice too in this depiction John’s hands are shaped as bear claws, acknowledging his fondness for the small domesticated bear he kept as a pet. The bear is even sculpted on John’s tomb, but with human hands! And this brings the connection back to the hands of the figure in green symbolising the Great Bear constellation with human hands.

More on the sons of Alphaeus in my next post.