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 1439. 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.