“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me five gold rings…” is probably the most memorable line from the Christmas carol, The Twelve days of Christmas.
Another recognisable five-rings motif is the Olympic Games symbol created by Pierre de Coubertin who founded the International Olympic Committee. The educator and historian was also a talented designer.
The five-rings design first saw the light of day during preparations for the 1914 Olympic World Congress in Paris, but is wasn’t until after the First World War that the symbolic flag made its official world debut at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium.
Although the new Olympic flag was displayed in the stadium throughout the four weeks of the Games, the symbol wasn’t incorporated on the 90,000 posters printed in 17 languages advertising the event.
The poster features a naked discus thrower as a reference to the Games of Antiquity. The figure is wrapped in a ribbon of national flags representing the competing nations. The coat of arms of the host city Antwerp – a castle with three towers, two hands and a wreath of laurel and six roses – is placed in the top right corner. In the background is the city of Antwerp and one of its most notable landmarks, the tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp.
The Cathedral is approximately five kilometres from Antwerp’s Olympic Stadium, now home to the Belgian football club, Beerschot. It houses a stunnng set of the Stations of the Cross painted by two Belgian artists, Louis Hendrix and Frans Vinck. The 14 paintings were produced between 1864 and 1868.
The fourth station – Jesus meets his mother – is attributed to Hendrix. Like Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, it is structured as a coat of arms. The group of supporters on the left side of the frame depicts the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clophas and Joanna the wife of Chuza.
All five figures of the group are presented with halos shown as five gold interlocking rings!
So while the Olympic five-rings flag was flown only at the stadium during the month-long event, a similar motif had been present and on display in Antwerp for 50 years prior to the 1920 Olympic Games. I sometimes wonder if Pierre de Coubertin was aware of the connection to the “five gold rings” in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Antwerp.
In my previous post I explained how the woman in green featured in The Three Marys at the Tomb painting was Joanna, wife of Chuza, and not Mary Salome. I also described how the figure also related to St Peregrine and mentioned that Jan van Eyck had ‘translated’ the figure of Joanna to the Ghent Altarpiece.In similar fashion, Barthélemy d’Eyck translated Jan’s pointers to Joan to the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.
St Peregrine was known as the “Angel of Good Counsel” for the good advice he gave to so many people. Here we can relate the dual identity of Joanna and Peregrine to the angel figure kneeling on the cover of the tomb in The Three Marys painting. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the angel counsels the fearful women who came to the empty tomb to leave and report to the disciples that “Jesus has risen from the dead”.
Joanna, in her dual depiction as the Hebrew servant to the wife of Naaman the leper, also gave good counsel when she said to her mistress: “If only my master would approach the prophet of Samaria. He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5 : 3).
Joanna is also said to have retrieved the head of John the Baptist after he was decapitated on the orders of Herod Antipas, and there are embedded references to the Baptist’s head in the three linked paintings: The Three Mary’s at the Tomb, the Ghent Altarpiece and the January folio of the Très Riche Heures. The disguised pointers all refer to Templecombe in Somerset where, in 1945, a painting known as the Templecombe Head was discovered in the roof of an outbuilding. The panel has been dated to the 13th Century. Views differ as to who the painted head represents, Jesus or John the Baptist, but as the eyes and mouth are open, the Baptist is the more favoured opinion.
So how has Jan van Eyck translated Joanna to the Ghent Altarpiece? There are two panels where this transpires, the Just Judges, and the Singing Angels.
In the Just Judges panel, four identities are given to the ten riders. One of the riders is disguised to represent a woman – Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans. As Joan did not appear on the scene until after the death of Hubert van Eyck in 1426, it more than suggests that the panel was painted by his brother Jan. Joan was executed in May, 1431, just a year before the Ghent Altarpiece was officially celebrated in May 1432.
• Of the ten featured riders Joan is the only figure with her head uncovered. • Her hair is cut short. It was cropped in May 1428, at the same time when she was made to dress in men’s clothes to disguise her femininity before journeying to Chinon to meet with the dauphin Charles. • Her blue mantle is symbolic of heaven and holiness. Other figures in the frame wearing the colour blue also have a religious significance. • The figure of Joan is fashioned to represent her family’s coat of arms, “Azure, a bow or in fess, thereon three arrows crossed …, on a chief argent a lion passant gules.” • Azure is the blue coat, on which is a bow-or – the gold chain shaped as a bow. The three arrows are the three pointed segments of her collar, the fess. The chief is a charge that runs across the top edge of the shield, in this case the white, argent, fur trim of the blue mantle, while the lion passant gules refers to Joan’s shorn red mane. “En passant” (in passing) is also a pawn capture move in the game of chess and points to Joan’s capture at Compiègne on May 23, 1430. The pawn reference also connects to another figure elsewhere in the painting.
In the January folio Joan is the partially hidden figure behind the man in the red turban (representing Jan van Eyck and also the dauphin Charles, who Joan helped crown as the French king Charles VII). Joan claimed to have been guided in her mission by the voices of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The folio depicts Joan’s right arm on the shoulder of Charles. It’s a gesture of protection emphasised by the shape of his arm as a shield. As to any reference to an angel the shoulder on which Joan’s left hand rests can be understood as a wing. Like Joanna in the Tomb painting Joan’s right hand is hidden but her arm appears to point towards the rise in the back of the long seat. The ‘rise’ is known as a wing. The rise is also located next to the napier’s ‘feathered’ garment. His two arms represent the wings of a butterfly which relates to another narrative in the scene.
In the Just Judges panel. the dauphin Charles is shown riding behind Joan and positioned next to his father, Charles the Mad. Notice the shield-shaped arm of the dauphin. Jan van Eyck is the figure in black.
The Joan and/or Joanna connection to angels is also reflected in the Singing Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. The Maid of Orleans is shown in profile at the highest point of the arc at the top of the frame. Notice the end of her nose is clipped or missing, echoing the disfigured nose portrayal of the leper feature covering Joanna’s hand in the The Three Marys painting. It also symbolises Joan of Arc’s excommunicatuion from the Catholic Church, cast out from the Christian community and treated as a leper. It wasn’t until twenty-fours years after her death that the French heroine was declared by the Church to have been tried and executed unlawfully and her conviction reversed.
In the January folio the arm on the shoulder feature is also borrowed from the miniature featuring the lineup of knights belonging to the Order or Company of the Star. There are two instances in the scene showing a hand resting on someone’s shoulder.
That Joan is depicted with an arm around Jan van Eyck is also reflected in a painting by an artist said to have become the prinicpal painter in Brugge after Jan had died in 1441. He was Petrus Christus and his painting known as a Goldsmith in His Shop (1449) shows a mirror image of Van Eyck with his arm around a woman disguised as Joan of Arc. His hand rests on the point where Joan was wounded by an arrow during the Siege of Orléans. As in the January folio, Joan’s left arm stretches down at the ‘wing’ of the goldsmith. In fact there are several features in the Christus painting ‘translated’ from the January folio and, not surprisingly references to John the Baptist and Templecombe.
Joanna is also indicated in Jean Colombe’s November folio of the Très Riche Heures. The main figure is portrayed as Bathélemy d’Eyck who served as a painter and “valet de chambre” to René d’Anjou, a similar position that the biblical Chuza held in the service of the army commander Naaman the leper. Joanna was the maid to the wife of Chuza.
The name Chuza is interpreted as ‘seer’ or ‘visionary’, and in the November folio Barthélemy (or Chuza) is shown looking up at the trees above.
Close examination of the golden glow of a section of the leaves reveals the shape of the Lamb of God, and so another connection to John the Baptist whose head was recovered by Joanna.
The title of this painting by Hubert or Jan van Eyck is usually referred to as The Three Marys at the Tomb, that is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary Salome.
However, the artist has only portrayed two Mary’s, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. The other woman (in green) is Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza. She is mentioned twice in Luke’s gospel, and as one of the women who went to the tomb with spices and found it empty (Luke 24 : 9-11).
Joanna is also portrayed here in the role of the unnamed Hebrew girl and servant to the wife of the Naaman the Syrian leper, also mentioned by Luke (4 : 27), which explains the mystery of why the woman is depicted carrying what is described by researchers as a Syrian apothecary jar.
Notice also that the woman’s left hand is hidden, echoing the sentiment expressed by Jesus that when giving alms the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing (Matthew 6 : 3). The left hand is also hidden for another reason. Its cover forms the shape of a face disfigured by leprosy.
Joanna’s right hand is also distorted, but for another reason. It is meant to portray a falcon’s claw, a peregine in particular. The Latin version of peregrine is “peregrinus” meaning “coming from foreign parts” and so a reference to the unnamed servant girl captured from Israel and brought to Syria.
The story of Naman and his healing from leprosy appears in the Second Book of Kings (5 : 1-27). Mentioned are several servants and the services they undertake. It is in this role that Joanna is presented – as a servant – fulfilling the command of Christ to serve others, and as lady in waiting in line behind the Virgin Mary.
The falcon image is also extended to the woman’s white head covering. The head is shaped as that of a falcon, its beak and an eye facing out of the painting, its wings suggested by the pointed ends of the cloth. Notice there are no black markings on the woman’s head that are a familiar feature of the Egyptian falcon, signifying Naman’s healing from leprosy.
The artist, be it Jan or Hubert van Eyck, also puns on the word peregrine. Pere (French) as in Father, a title attached to a priest; and “grine” sounding like green, the colour of the woman’s gown. The connection is to the priest Peregrine Laziosi, an Italian saint of the Servite Order who died in 1345. The Servite Order, also known as the Order of Servants of Mary, strives among other objectives to propagate devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Late in life, at the age of 60, Peregrine developed an infection in his right leg which deteriorated to the extent that a doctor decided he would have to amputate. During the night before he was to have his leg amputated in the morning Peregrine had a vision of Jesus descending from his Cross and touching the infected limb. When the physician arrived the next day to perform the surgery, all signs of the cancerous wound had disappeared and a miraculous cure was proclaimed. Peregrine is now considered a patron saint of cancer.
This account is one of three delberate references to legs in the painting made by the artist. A second is associated with the guard lying down asleep on the floor, and the third connects to the guard sat with his legs crossed. I shall present an explanation about this in a future post other than to say than to state at this stage that the iconography relating to the three legs is echoed in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures, as are connections to the three guards and the three women.
Another connection to Joanna and the falcon motif is that the founderess of what is known as the Religious Sisters of the Third Order of Servites was a woman named Juliana Falconieri. Her uncle, Alex Falconieri, was one of the seven founders of the Servite Order. When Juliana was approaching death in June 1341, she was too sick to receive Holy Communion. Instead she requested the priest to lay the corporal on her chest and place the Eucharistic Host on it. Shortly after she died an image of a crucifix, as that impressed on the Host, was discovered on Juliana’s breast.
This explains why the artist has depicted Joanna’s headress extended to cover her chest.
The Syrian woman account is also translated in Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, suggesting that he may have done so to pay homage to his brother Hubert who died before the commission was completed.
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