Ringing the changes

The Three Mary’s at the Tomb, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The painting above – The Three Marys at the Tomb – is generally attributed to Hubert van Eyck, but there is an opinion that the work may be by his brother Jan, or even a shared production as the Ghent Altarpiece was.

Another painting, Folio 30v from the Turin-Milan Hours depicting Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, also has an uncertain attribute. Generally classed as by Hand G, but considered to be the work of either Hubert or Jan van Eyck, the miniature shares many similarities with the Three Marys

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, attributed to Hand G, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin, digital copy: Closer to Van Eyck

So are the two paintings the work of the same artist and if so, by Hubert or Jan? It’s not hard to see how the artist has rung some of the changes in the Three Marys picture, using the Gethsemane folio as the original source of inspiration.

For starters, the composition is very similar; three men asleep against a stone tomb. The central figure of Jesus has been replaced by an angel facing Mary the mother of Jesus and announcing his resurrection, similar in style to paintings of the angel Gabriel announcing to the `Virgin Mary that she was to conceive and bear a son. 

The three Marys are substitutes for the three main figures behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, the red, blue and green colours matched to the colours given to the three disciples asleep by the rocks.

The cohort led by the high priest Caiaphas arrive at the Gethsemane to arrest Jesus.

The cohort coming to arrest Jesus are depicted against a background representing the Mount of Olives. One man’s hat is shaped and coloured as an olive. This corresponds to the three Mary’s bringing oil to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus.

A sleeping guard at the tomb of Jesus.

The figure asleep at the right of the tomb has his legs crossed. This echoes the sleeping disciple James (the brother of John) whose hands are crossed. Both men are dressed in green and placed at the edge of the frame. The shape of the guard’s hat is matched to the blue hat of the mysterious figure behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, and his bandaged legs and knee protector links to the helmeted soldier and the torse supporting the red-peaked hat of the man alongside.

Another link to this group is the guard’s left hand pointing to his right ear. It’s a pointer to the armoured guard behind the fence seen with a pronounced ear protector attached to his helmet. The figure represents Malchus, the servant of the high priest Caiaphas. It was Malchus who had his right ear sliced off by Peter when the Jewish guards came to arrest Jesus, and that’s why it is hidden behind the ‘bandaged’ torse on the head of Malchus and explains why the crossed legs of the guard in the Three Marys painting are bandaged.

Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus

On the right shoulder of Caiaphas is Judas Iscariot wearing a hat depicted as a coiled rope. It has two representations: The betrayal and binding of Jesus in Gethsemane and the rope Judas used later to hang himself. In the Three Marys painting the rope feature is echoed in the lining of the red gown worn by the kneeling Mary Magdalene. It was this Mary who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and wiped them with her hair before anointing them with ointment. The other connection to Judas is when he complained about Mary using the expensive pure nard when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Judas was also a thief and robbed the common purse of which he was in charge of.

There are several other connections between the two paintings, enough to confirm that the artist who painted The Three Mary’s at the Tomb had detailed knowledge of the disguised and hidden iconography in the Gethsemane folio, enough to postulate that both works were produced by the same artist. My assumption is that the artist was Hubert van Eyck, as his brother later translated some of the features in both paintings to the Ghent Altarpiece as a tribute to Hubert who was the artist commissioned originally to produce the polyptych. Hubert died in1426 before he was able to finish the project and It was then given to Jan van Eyck for completion.

More on this in a future post.

Panel of the Relic… more links

The above detail depicting John the Baptist is from the left wing of the Donne Triptych painted by Hans Membling and housed at the National Gallery in London. Model for the Baptist figure is Rogier van der Weyden. In the background is another Flemish painter, Dieric Bouts.

This pairing is repeated in the Panel of the Knights, the fifth section of the St Vincent Panels as shown here. Hugo van der Goes has featured several artists and made references to their paintings in the St Vincent Panels, usually placing them on the back row.

However, Hans Membling is given a more prominent position. He is one of the identities applied to the kneeling figure in the Panel of the Relic and is shown well advanced in age compared with the some of the other paintings in which he appears as a young man, sometimes in the role of the youngest apostle John the Evangelist.

Membling portrays himself as John in the right wing of the Donne Triptych, holding the poisoned chalice he was invited to drink from by a pagan priest. Hugo has also made a connection to the chalice and the skull fragment held by the ageing Henry Beaufort whose likeness is based on the painting of the Cardinal by Jan van Eyck.

Here Hugo has attempted to morph the two men into one likeness, just as Van Eyck did with himself and the figure of Philip the Good in the Arnolfini Portrait, and so we have another indication for Hugo attempting to emulate the work of Van Eyck.

But there is more to this connection. Beaufort had amassed a great fortune in his life-time and was considered to be one of the wealthiest men in England, so rich that kings and emperors came to him for loans to finance their military and war efforts.

According to the art historian Til-Holger Borchert, so successful was Hans Membling during his painting career and at making investments (he owned several houses) that he was listed among the richest citizens in Bruge, and so an obligatory subscriber to the loan raised by Maximillian I of Austria to finance hostilities towards France in 1480.

Was Hugo van der Goes making a judgement on the success of Membling, or was the reference to the descent into Hell featured in the red-robed figure (as explained in a previous post) a pointer to one of Memling’s most famous and dramatic paintings, The Last Judgment triptych, now housed at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland?

Close inspection of the St John figure and the poisoned chalice shows a fold in the red gown shaped to represent a demonic figure with its nose pointing to the rim of the cup.

A similar motif with a sharp nose can be seen “attacking” the skull fragment in the Panel of the Relic.

The chalice and the skull fragment connect to another narrative disguised in the St Vincent Panels, but more on this at another time.

Hugo also combines two elements from Membling’s two triptychs into one of his own – the towers which appear in the left wing of The Last Judgment and the right wing of The Donne Tryptich – to form the wooden upright box in the Panel of the Relic.

Finally, the inspiration for the coupling of Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts in the Panel of the Knights can also be found in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts painted in the 1460’s and probably around the same time as Membling produced The Last Judgment.

The two portraits shown in the serving hatch of The Last Supper painting are Dieric Bouts and Hans Membling. Another ‘servant’ depicted in the painting is Rogier van der Weyden who died during the time Bouts was painting The Last Supper, and so another possible reason for Van der Goes to link Bouts and Van der Weyden in the St Vincent Panels. Bouts died in 1475.

More revelations on the Panel of the Relic in a future post.

Making straight highways…

Detail from the Knights of Christ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

Last May, I posted an item titled “A case of déjà vu” which explained some of the iconography in the Panel of the Relic, the sixth section in a set known as the St Vincent Panels painted by Hugo van der Goes.

I pointed out the figure in black represented bishop Jean Jouffroy (among others) and the open book of Scripture referred to a passage from Isaiah (40:3-5), echoed in John’s gospel (1:23) by John the Baptist:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yaweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken.”

Close inspection of the book’s pages reveals the straight highways between columns and verses, and the ridges and valleys on the turning pages.

More recently I discovered that the inspiration for this symbolism was based on iconography Jan van Eyck used in the Knights of Christ panel that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece. Van Eyck makes reference to the same passage but in a different way. Instead, it is the two curved shields which represent the curved pages – the mountains and hills. The straight highway – the straight lines and verse segments on the opposite page – is represented by the straight lines depicted as the cross of St George on the leading rider’s shield. Van Eyck also confirmed the passage with another representation – the three vertical flag poles and furled banners.

Rembrandt and the Vienna Diptych

Here’s how Rembrandt matched a third painting by Hugo van der Goes, the Vienna Diptych, to a section of his etching referred to as Death of the Virgin. Again, I’ve numbered the figures to make identification easier, but some of the match-ups need explanation.

The left panel of the Vienna Diptych – the Fall of Man – shows the serpent tempting Eve to take the fruit from the tree and share it with Adam. Eve reminded the serpent that God had said they must not eat the fruit, or touch it, under pain of death. But the serpent responded with a lie saying: “You will not die”. (Genesis 3 : 4)

Adam (1) is portrayed as Hugo van der Goes, and as the man on his deathbed (1) in Rembrandt’s etching. Rembrandt has also matched Hugo to the Redeemer (1) portrayed in the Lamentation panel.

Where Hugo has portrayed himself (6) as the man wearing the red cap, looking downcast, with his left arm raised and his right hand connected to Christ’s wrist, Rembrandt has placed himself in the role of the artist taking the pulse of the bed-ridden figure, his left arm raised, and looking downwards.

The figure of Eve, the first woman (3), is shown as the first in a group of three women In Rembrandt’s etching – all portrayed as temptresses. The woman next to Eve represents Mary Magdalen (4) in the Lamentation panel. Both heads are tilted and hands clasped. Completing the trio is the old woman (5), the serpent in disguise. The clue to recognition is the striped hat, meant to match the bold, combed lines depicted in the serpent’s hair. That the serpent is present at the time of Hugo’s death is a biblical reference to the time Jesus was tempted in the wilderness when “having exhausted all ways of tempting him, the devil left him to return at the appointed time” (Luke 4 : 11) – the appointed time being the Crucifixion when at the point of death Christ felt abandoned and forsaken by his Father.

The woman wiping her tears (7) is meant to represent Veronica who wiped the face of Jesus as he carried his cross to Calvary. In the Lamentation panel she is shown receiving two of the nails used to crucify Christ, those which pierced his hands. This is a subtle reference to the relic known as the Veil of Veronica or the Volto Santo (Holy Face), said to bear the likeness of the face of Jesus and not made by human hands. Close inspection of Veronica’s veil shows a wolf’s head meant to represent a sheep or the Lamb of God – and so a false representation – and probably the artist’s thoughts about the legitimacy of the relic.

Rembrandt has picked up on this and does show a representation of Christ’s face on the cloth his Veronica is using to wipe her tears. The nails or piercings are matched to the holes on the edge of her headdress.

Rembrandt has transferred the figure of John (8) supporting the VIrgin Mary seen in the Lamentation panel to the bearded man in the etching supporting himself at the side of Hugo’s bed.

Figures (9) and (10) in the etching are a combination of the same figures in the Lamentation panel. The male figure (10) looking up towards ‘Veronica’ and passing her the two nails, has been switched to represent a female figure in the etching, not kneeling, but standing, and still looking up. Notice also the extended finger representing one of the nails.

Hugo’s combination of these two figures is interesting as they are designed to point to a similar combination from another of Hugo’s painting – the Adoration of the Shepherds, which suggests that the Lamentation panel was painted after the Adoration of the Shepherds. Briefly, the sharp-nosed man in the friar’s brown habit is Hugo’s half-brother, Nicholas. The woman in the gold-colour robe is another gender switch, the friar and chronicler Gaspar Ofhuys. It is no coincidence that Hugo has linked the two figures to the legendary figure of Veronica, just as Rembrandt has placed them side by side with Veronica in his etching. More on the background to this particular group in a future post.

The heavily veiled woman in the Lamentation panel with her arms raised (11) is matched to the figure of John the Evangelist and his raised arms in the etching. The woman is another variation of Veronca, and a reference to the many veils said to be the cloth used to wipe the face of Jesus. This time the face of the wolf is depicted on the woman’s neck and breastbone. The veils of the two women are linked by the headdress of the women in the gold-colour robe. It represents a sudarium and one of several relics in circulation said to have covered the face of Jesus when he was entombed.

The connection to John is his Gospel report of himself and Peter seeing the linen cloths lying on the ground in Christ’s tomb and also “the cloth that had been over his head […] rolled up in a place by itself.” (John 20 : 3-10)

The bearded friar (2) supporting the dead weight of Jesus is the bearded man with his arm supporting Hugo’s head in the etching – Thomas Vessem, the prior who took Hugo under his wing and cared for him after his breakdown.

The kneeling woman, hands joined in prayer (12) and placed in front of John, both in the etching and the painting, is the Virgin Mary.

Rembrandt’s homage to Hugo

Could the ‘mirror’ effect shown below be evidence that points to the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves – the work considered one of Portugal’s national treasures – may have been produced in the Burgundian Netherlands?

On the left is detail from Rembrandt’s etching Death of the Virgin dated 1639. On the right is the section from the St Vincent Panels known as the Panel of the Relic and estimated to have been painted between 1450 and 1480, some 150 years before Rembrandt made his etching at the age of 33. The title of the etching, Death of the Virgin, is a misnomer. The bed-ridden person is not the Virgin Mary but the painter Hugo van der Goes. Rembrandt’s etching is about paying homage or tribute to Hugo – homage being one of the prominent themes of the St Vincent Panels.

Knowing this, it’s not difficult to match the figures and the iconography. The detail shown in the hand and arm of John the Evangelist extending in from the left represents the man holding the book of scripture in the Relic Panel. He is the French priest Jean Jouffroy and an ambassador of the Burgundian court at the time. Behind him are two clerical administrators matched to the two seated women in the etching. The figure in red is Henry Beaufort and Rembrandt has matched himself to the prelate as a kind of cameo appearance drawing back the curtain to symbolise an act of revelation in a similar way the cardinal is revealing the precious relic wrapped in a green cloth.

The man matched to the shadowy figure in the etching, is the man portrayed as a pilgrim in the Relic Panel. This is the painter Jan van Eyck, placed in front of the wooden box – some say, a coffin. This piece of furniture, cupboard or coffin, can be matched to the empty chair seen in the lower corner of the etching.

It is said that Rembrandt never left his native Holland, although there are myths suggesting he may have travelled to England and Italy, even Sweden! But the myths never mention Portugal.

So for Rembrandt to have recorded such detail from the Relic Panel and rearrange it, or rebuild the temple, so to speak, he must have had sight of the St Vincent Panels to be able to make notes and preparatory sketches for his engraving. This would suggest that circa 1439 the St Vincent Panels were located in the Burgundian Netherlands and possibly Amsterdam at the time when Rembrandt moved to the city late in 1431.

If the panels were commissioned and produced in Holland, and it certainly seems that Hugo van der Goes had a hand in painting them, then who could have commissioned the work and when did the panels make their way to Lisbon in Portugal?

Many art historians consider the six panels formed part of a twelve-panel retable in Lisbon Cathedral. Other researchers dispute this. What seems very probable is that the panels did not leave Holland before Rembrandt had sight of them to embed details from the Relic Panel in his engraving. This isn’t the only example of Hugo’s later work that features in the engraving. The Vienna Diptych (Kunsthistorisches Museum) gets a good showing, and there are references to Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), and his version of Death of a Virgin (Groeningmuseum, Ghent).

• More details on this in a future post.

Who do you say we are?

So who are the twelve disciples sat around the tabel in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts?

Running clockwise from Jesus, they can be identified as follows: John, Thomas, James the Less, Matthew, Bartholmew, Jude, Judas, James the Great, Simon the Zealot, Andrew, Philip, and Simon Peter.

John the Evangelist

John is the easiest to identify as he is generally considered to be the youngest of the disciples and usually portrayed without a beard. In the two images above, the left a section of The Donne Triptych by Hans Memling (National Gallery), John can be easily matched with the clip from The Last Supper, probably because Memling is the model in both paintings.

John is often depicted in paintings holding a chalice or with one close to him, sometimes containing a snake, as shown below. Notice the twist pattern on the lid of the silver chalice lid and the ‘snake’ handle.

The disciples are not seated at random. Each man connects in some way with the one on his left. So there is a specific link between John and Thomas, the disciple next to him. It is this: John has his eyes focused on the bread which Jesus says is his body, Thomas hasn’t. His appears to be deep in thought, “somewhere else”. This scenario points to the time when Jesus appeared in the same room after his Resurrection. Thomas was not present. He was “somewhere else”. When he did return the other disciples said to Thomas “We have seen the Lord!” Thomas doubted the claim until Jesus later appeared a second time to the disciples, Thomas included. This account only appears in John’s Gospel and is the link.

Thomas

Some of the iconography identifying Thomas was pointed out in a previous post, but there is more.

Thomas was also known as Didymus – meaning “twin”. Bouts has interpreted “twin” as meaning “two-fold” – the folding of Thomas’ hands and the folding of the table cloth on which his hands are placed.

Thomas was a builder by profession, so one of his attributes in art is a builder’s square. To the left of his head is a pattern of square floor tiles. He is also seated at the corner of the table, and the fold in the table cloth forms a 45 degree angle. Thomas was the first disciple to profess his faith in Jesus by acknowledging the resurrected Christ as his Lord and God, a cornerstone and foundation of faith.

The link from Thomas to the next figure of James the Less is ritual cleansing, and the iconography identifying James, as well Matthew and Bartholomew is for my next post.