An open book

There has always been somewhat of a mystery about the signficance of the book, presumably a Bible, held by the figure (claimed to be St Vincent) in the Panel of the Prince, one of six sections that make up what is known as the St Vincent Panels.

The medieval Latin writing has been identified as two separate texts; the left page as part of a verse from John’s gospel (14:30-31), while the facing page is thought to refer to the Preface from the liturgy of the Mass of the Holy Spirit.

The text from John’s gospel, the final two verses, is a pointer to the discourse given by Jesus to the apostles after the Last Supper when he spoke about his relationship with the Father and promised to ask the Father to send another Advocate to be with them for ever, “that Spirit of truth” (14:16-17). This promise manifested at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles and others in the Upper Room.

The discourse ends when Jesus said, “I shall not talk with you any longer, because the prince of this world is on his way. He has no power over me, but the world must be brought to know that I love the Father and that I am doing exactly as the Father told me. Come now, let us go” (14:30-31).

In ecclesiastical terms the Preface is described as “an introduction to the canon of the Mass”. In an ordinary sense the word stems from Latin praefationem, “fore-speaking, to say beforehand”. When Jesus gave his farewell discourse he was speaking “beforehand”, that is before his arrest, passion and crucifixion. Hence the prominence of the left hand and four fingers of the Saint bearing the book. He is proclaiming a message beforehand, before the “prince of the world” impacts on the life of the kneeling prince who is “prefaced” directly with the “Spirit of truth”.

The Holy Spirit is often portrayed as a dove, based on the witness of John the Baptist recorded in John’s gospel: “I saw the Spirit coming down on him (Jesus) from heaven like a dove and resting on him” (1:31).

Spirit can also mean breath or wind as revealed in John’s gospel account of Nicodemus visiting Jesus under the cover of darkness: “The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear it’s sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit” (3:8).

The cover of darkness is represented by the black cloth covering the holy book; the conversation is the word of God; the wind of the Spirit is reflected in the two turning pages; the Spirit as a dove is the shape of the Saint’s left hand, the thumb being the bird’s head nestling under the feathers of one of its wings represented by the three fingers that symbolise the Holy Trinity.

• The Father and Son reference is part of the father and son theme present elsewhere in the Panel of the Prince. The Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) also connects to a trinitarian theme in the panels, while the word “canon” is represented in several forms in the altarpiece and represents another major theme. More on this in a future post.

His name is…

Here’s an interesting figure painted by the 15th century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. It represents two people and appears in one of a series of frescoes depicting the life of John the Baptist displayed in the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

At surface level the figure represents Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, in the process of naming his new-born son. But Ghirlandaio also embedded another narrative in the scene centred on Leonardo da Vinci and presents the artist in the process of drawing and making a Virgin and Child study.

Detail from the fresco, Zechariah Writes John’s Name, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Tornabuoni Chapel

The composition is inspired by a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, the Testimony and Death of Moses painted in 1481-82, while the commission for the Tornabuoni Chapel paintings was carried out between 1486-90.

Testimony and Death of Moses, Sistine Chapel

More on this in a future post.

Like assembling pieces of a jigsaw…

Like the Just Judges panel where the identity of each rider has a connection to one next to it, as if they were jigsaw pieces fitted together, so too the figures featured in the Witnesses of the Old Testament.

For instance, the three central figures in the detail below, the prophet Isaiah wearing the red chaperon, and two men behind him, John the Baptist and the poet Virgil, all connect a way to relate to prophecies made by Isaiah – “The wolf will live with the lamb…” (11:6); “A voice cries in the wilderness, prepare a straight way for the Lord…” (40:3); and the Saviour as a sheep “burdened with the sins of all of us…”(53:6).

Detail from the Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece. Image source: Closer to Van Eyck

Virgil, as a Roman represents the Capitoline Wolf, the symbol of Rome since ancient times. John the Baptist replied to the question put to him by the men sent by the Pharisees to ask who he was, by saying: “I am, as Isaiah prophesied, a voice that cries in the wilderness, make a straight way for the Lord.” The next day, seeing Jesus coming towards him, John said to his disciples, “Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

The muzzle and shape of an ear depicting the sacrificial lamb of God is shaped into Isaiah’s red chaperon, not an unfamiliar feature in the work of Jan van Eyck. Virgil also makes reference in his First Eclogue to a tender lamb often staining the altar, and offered to a god who gives peace.

The second line of Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the virtuous king is also referred to: “The leopard lies down with the kid (goat)…(11:6)” This is illustrated in the two figures above Virgil, the apostles Philip and Peter. The fur rim of Peter’s hat represents the spotted leopard lying down while Philip’s unusual-shaped profile with its narrow eyes, and the two black horns shaped into his hat represent the goat.

I mentioned in my previous post that some of the figures in the group have been given double identities (even more in some instances). Virgil is also cast in more than one role, not just as a poet in his own right but as a companion who acted as one of three guides to the soul of poet and philospher Dante Alighieri during the writer’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy, “an allegory of human life”.

As Dante starts his journey he is confronted by three beasts, a lion, a leopard and a she wolf. He is rescued by Virgil and the pair continued their travels together. Two of the beasts, the lion and the she-wolf, are depicted in the beards of Virgil and St Peter, but the figures need to be turned upside down to recognise the feature. St Peter’s beard represents the she-wolf, while the beard belonging to Virgil portrays the lion.

Upside down… left: the merged representation of a she-wolf and a she-bear and, right, the lion.

The upside down feature also points to a second identity the Van Eycks applied to Virgil, that of Simon Magus, the ‘magician’ described in the Acts of the Apostles who offered money to be able to receive the power to call down the Holy Spirit on people. His name has since extended to the word “simony”, understood and considered sinful as “selling church offices and sacred things”. Virgil and Dante met with Simonists in the Inferno level of the Divine Comedy. The Simonists were “upside down in round holes the size of baptismal fonts”.

The figure of St Peter is also portrayed in the guise of another Pope, Nicholas III, who Dante placed in hell among the Simonists. Nicholas reveals himself in the poem as the son of a she-bear. The family name was Orsini, meaning “bearlike”. In the papal representation of Nicholas the bear reference is indicated by the shape and visible fingers of the two hands. They represent the stars and formation that combine to form the Great Bear constellation. The pronounced vein seen on the right hand represents an adjacent constellation to the Great Bear known as Draco, that forms the shape of a serpent dragon.

The leopard attribute is the one revealed earlier on the rim of St Peter’s hat. This may be a subtle reference by the Van Eyck’s to Dante’s run-in with Church authorities and his belief that the authority of kings and emperors was not dependent on the authority of the Pope but descended from the “fountain of universal authority” which is God. This creed could also explain one of the reasons why Jan van Eyck included a fountain feature below the altar in the Adoration of the Lamb panel.

The St Peter figure as head of the Church points to another connection concerning the travels of Virgil and Dante. Because Virgil was unbaptised (depicted with his back to John the Baptist), he was prevented from entering Paradise as Dante did in the Divine Comedy. Virgil remained in Limbo, along with oher souls considered by the Church as “virtuous pagans”. The Van Eycks have illustrated this by separating the figure of Virgil and that of Dante (a second identity given to the Judas figure) with the portrayal of St Peter as first pope and representing the Church. St Peter’s raised hand can also be interpreted as indicating no entry into the green pastures of Paradise for the unbaptised Virgil.

Left: Dante Alighieri by Sandro Botticelli. Right: The dual image of Dante and Judas.

The composition is carefully crafted and constructed because now the dual identity of the the figure in red as both Judas and Dante introduces another narrative – that of wasted talents – which I will detail in a future post.

What’s in a name… Joanna or Joan, John or Jan?

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.

Detail from the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

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.

Detail from the January folio

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.

Detail from the Singing Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece
Detail from The Three Marys at the Tomb

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.

Detail from folio 394 Grand Chroniques de France

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.

A Goldsmith in his Shop, Petrus Christus 1449, Robert Lehman Collection, Met Museum

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.

Lights that shine in the dark

Mentioned in a previous post was Barthélemy van Eyck, an artist in the service of duke René of Anjou. He is credited with producing some of the Calendar folios of The Very Rich Hours belonging to John, duke of Berry.

René also acquired a Book of Hours originally illuminated by an unknown artist. He subsequently commissioned several more pages to add to the manuscript. One of the commissioned artists was Barthélemy van Eyck, responsible for the rather gruesome image shown here depicting René as a decomposing corpse. 

Book of Hours, Use of Paris (The ‘Hours of René of Anjou’), British Library, Egerton MS 1070

The manuscript (referred to as Egerton MS 1070) is kept by the British Library. It describes this particular folio as a memento-mori portrait placed at the beginning of the Office of the Dead. The banner reads, “Memento homo quod sinis es et in sinere reverteris” (Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return).

It is this folio which Hugo van der Goes has sourced to make the connection to René and Barthélemy van Eyck (as well as to the figures of Lambert and Jan van Eyck), and to reference another two saints in the frame, SS Michael and Bartholomew.

René of Anjou is one of four identities Van der Goes has given to the man in black in the Panel of the Relic (St Vincent Panels).

Detail of René of Anjou from the Matheron Diptych, Louvre, Paris

The link to St Michael derives from the Matheron Diptych by the French artist Nicolas Froment, a double portrait of René with his second wife Jeanne de Laval (Louvre, Paris). René is wearing the collar of the Order of St Michael founded by Louis XI of France in 1469. It was dedicated to the archangel Michael.

The collar is unusual in that it is made up of a series of scallop shells (the badge of pilgrims). Van der Goes makes the pilgrim connection to the pilgrim figure depicted by Jan van Eyck, but more subtly mirrors the shape of the shells in the waved and cockled pages of the holy book.

Another link to René of Anjou and the pilgrim figure – in this instance in the guise of John the Baptist – is the proclaimer’s coat which is made of camel hair.

René was a keeper of exotic animals and one of his menageries housed six camels. The shape of the camel legs  in the Baptist’s coat was pointed out in a previous post.

The next set of connections link the death and later translation of Jan van Eyck’s corpse. When he died in July 1441 he was initially buried in the precincts of the church of St Donatian, Bruges. Seven months later, in March 1442, at the request of his brother Lambert, permission was given for Jan’s body to be translated into the church and buried near the baptismal font. This is depicted in the Seven Sacraments painting by Rogier van der Weyden.

So here we have Hugo van der Goes creating a link between the figures of Lambert and René and also connecting the baptism theme. The exhumation of Jan’s body and translation also lends to the figure of Jan standing in front of what is understood to be an upright coffin, perhaps also signifying the upright nature of the man during his life. The motif also points to another painting by Van der Weyden, The Joseph Portrait, that shows Jan placed in front of an empty niche. This in turn sets up another theme in the panel which I shall post on at another time.

The rotting flesh of the René figure in the memento-mori is also a reminder of Jan van Eyck’s exhumation. Hugo van der Goes has deliberately arranged Jan’s hands in a way to echo those of the corpse. Even the left hand’s grip on the scroll is matched to Jan’s hold on his staff. The corpse’s stomach is represented by the dark area beneath Jan’s arms with the descending folds below his belt its disgorging contents, a combination of intestines and worms.

Notice also the tattered and torn state of the scroll held by the corpse. The scroll has a peculiar shape and hangs over the shroud representing Rene’s coat of arms and earthly kingdoms.  The shape of the scroll loosely resembles the Greek lambada, or the letter ‘l’ (λ). Combined with the bow shape, we arrive at a word that sounds like ´El-bow’, meaning God’s bow, a reminder of his covenant promise. And if we look to the corpse’s right arm, another Greek letter, Delta (Δ), is formed. confirmed by the ‘branches’ of the trees inside the shape of the counter. Also, the corpse’s elbow points to and confirms the ‘El-bow’ shape produced by the scroll.

Hugo has incorporated these elements in the pilgrim figure. A lower-case Delta (𝛿) symbol can be seen on the cuff of Jan’s sleeve; the tributaries are three pronounced veins on the back of his right hand. This can be understood in two ways: (1) As part of a trinitarian theme that runs throughout the St Vincent panels and (2) symbolic of the three Van Eyck brothers, Lambert, Hubert and Jan and their branches of the Van Eyck family. The Delta symbol is turned to point to the torn elbow, and so connects to the torn scroll and another branch of the Van Eyck family, Barthélemy.

Hugo visualised the unfolding scroll stemming from the pierced flesh of the memento-mori figure as an extended piece of peeling flesh. This was to introduce another Saint into the scene that linked to Barthélemy – his namesake Bartholomew, who was one of the Twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus. Bartholomew is said to have been martyred when flayed alive and his head cut off, hence the torn fabric at the elbow and the white blade-shapes underneath his loose camel skin. The shape of an axehead is formed in the cuff of the left sleeve below the head of Elijah formed from the knuckles on the left hand, and a reminder that John the Baptist was also beheaded. Another account claims Bartholomew was crucified upside down, which may also explain why the Delta symbol is shown upside down beneath the profile of Christ crucified.

More on the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

More heads… and shoulders

This is the second part of a sequence demonstratrating how Hugo van der Goes ‘translated’ iconography from Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished painting of Jerome in the Desert (see previous two posts) to the Panel of the Relic, the sixth section of the St Vincent Panels.

The Vatican Museums which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Jerome dates the unfinished work to c1482, the year that is also put forward for the death of Hugo van der Goes.

Below are details from two versions of the St Jerome painting, before and after its latest restoration. At some time the oil on wood panel was cut into five parts, generally considered to have happened after Leonardo had died in 1519. You can see some of the cut marks on the earlier version that frame Jerome’s head. The latest restoration has also brought back to life the sky backdrop which tapers to a sharp point and which had been overpainted on a previous restoration, probably at the time the cut-down pieces were reassembled.

Apart from representing tassels hanging from a cardinal’s hat, the larger mount and the smaller one next to it equate to the ears of both donkey and hare, attributes associated with the story of St Jerome in the desert.

Both the tapering gap between the rock formation and the vertical cut mark which runs through Jerome’s shoulder are two key components adpated by Hugo van der Goes for linking Leonaardo’s Jerome painting to his own version of Jerome in the Panel of the Relic.

There is another scenario to this coupling which refers to an injury sustained by Leonardo which I shall put aisde for posting at another time.

Hugo has converted the tapering sky section to represent the ears of the donkey and the hare. As for the cut mark, was the panel already in pieces when Hugo had sight of the painting? Possibly, because he has shown a saw blade cutting into the shoulder of his version of Jerome, parallel with the representation of the hare. But in this instance the hare now becomes a blade. Here we see Hugo punning on saw (sore) shoulder and shoulder blade!

Another pun made by Hugo is hare to hair. Leonardo was noted for writing fables and humerous anecdotes in his notebooks. One such fable in Notebook XX is about a razor blade:

The razor having one day come forth from the handle which serves as its sheath and having placed himself in the sun, saw the sun reflected in his body, which filled him with great pride. And turning it over in his thoughts he began to say to himself: “And shall I return again to that shop from which I have just come? Certainly not; such splendid beauty shall not, please God, be turned to such base uses. What folly it would be that could lead me to shave the lathered beards of rustic peasants and perform such menial service! Is this body destined for such work? Certainly not. I will hide myself in some retired spot and there pass my life in tranquil repose.” And having thus remained hidden for some months, one day he came out into the air, and issuing from his sheath, saw himself turned to the similitude of a rusty saw while his surface no longer reflected the resplendent sun. With useless repentance he vainly deplored the irreparable mischief saying to himself: “Oh! how far better was it to employ at the barbers my lost edge of such exquisite keenness! Where is that lustrous surface? It has been consumed by this vexatious and unsightly rust.”
The same thing happens to those minds which instead of exercise give themselves up to sloth. They are like the razor here spoken of, and lose the keenness of their edge, while the rust of ignorance spoils their form.

Fables of Leonardo da Vinci (Book, 1973) [WorldCat.org]

I previously identified the “rustic peasant” as Jan van Eyck representing John the Baptist, but there are two more identities asociated with the figure which I shall reveal in one of my next posts in this series.

Hugo’s Jerome figure also represents cardinal Henry Beaufort, one of the richest men in England during his lifetime. The portrait is adapted from Jan van Eyck’s version of Beaufort, and not just because of his razored haircut. Notice in Van Eyck’s Beaufort (not dressed as a cardinal) the gament’s sleeves lined with sheep-wool – and shaped to represent the ears of a donkey – a reference to Beaufort’s Midas touch at turning everything into riches!

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.

Translating hidden relics

In my previous post I explained how the iconography relating to the pages of the mysterious script in the Panel of the Relic translated into a passage from Isaiah (40 : 3-5), and is echoed in John’s gospel (1 : 23) by John the Baptist. But the artist also used another source to translate from: a section of the Knights of Christ panel that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The translation is focused on the central knight leading two other knights and a group of kings and princes. In this particular narrative the knight is a depiction of two people of a young age, Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort. Both men are also placed in the Panel of the Relic. Beaufort, as a Cardinal in later life, is on his knees holding the relic.

In the Knights of Christ panel the group is making a “straight way” to the Holy Land or the “New Jerusalem”.

So how is the passage from the Book of Isaiah, referenced by John the Baptist in John’s Gospel, identified in the iconography surrounding the knight? At this stage it is worth repeating Isaiah’s words:

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.”

The “straight way” is the red cross on the knight’s shield, similar to the vertical and horizontal spaces between the written words on the pages displayed by Jean Jouffroy in the Panel of the Relic. The valleys, mountains, hills and cliffs are the various shapes formed from the shields. The ridges are the highlight’s on the knight’s breastplate but “made plain” on the front of the knight to his right.

Another “straight way” is the straight strap across the knight’s breastplate. It’s stems from a descending, scrolling pattern of light, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and ends in shadow at the point of the cross on the shield, and also at the elbow of the knight alongside the central knight. “Elbow” translates as EL-BOW, God’s bow (a rainbow) symbolising his Covenant promise (Genesis 9 : 12-13).

Amidst the shadow area is a red triangular shape intended to represent the head of Christ as he hangs on his Cross. The upward sweep of the strap represents one of his arms, while his back is connected to another arm, that of the red cross on the shield. This represents God’s New Testament or New Covenant fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Below this motif is a galaxy of “stars’ on a blue background. However, one star has risen to appear in the groove of the shield. Not only is symbolic of the Resurrection but it also represents the rising star the wise men saw and followed and which led them to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant king. So the three knights can also be viewed as “wise men” making a straight way to Bethlehem. A similar motif is seen in the composition of the Panel of the Relic (and other panels) – the three front men are arranged as three wise men bearing gifts and paying homage.

The straight strap is also present in the Panel of the Relic. It falls across the chest of Van Eyck the pilgrim and ends at the elbow of Jean Jouffroy. While the prelate’s hand turns the pages in the book, the star is settled above another passage from Isaiah that prophesied “the coming of the virtuous king” (Isaiah 11 : 1-2).

In the previous post I mentioned what appears to be a head under the camel coat of Van Eyck, portrayed also as John the Baptist in the Panel of the Relic. The shape represents the head of the Baptist who while imprisoned was beheaded on the orders of Herod because the king had promised Salome anything she wanted after dancing for him. She requested the head of John on a dish.

The bloody head of John appears on the right arm of the knight from the Ghent Altarpiece, mounted on a green cushion. The curved piece of armour supporting his head is the dish.

This piece of iconography relates to the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy: “… then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken” – the mouth of Yaweh being both Isaiah and John the Baptist.

Unfortunately, since the recent restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece the face depicted on the arm is now hardly noticeable. The version shown here is before the altarpiece was “restored”.

The fact that the knight is a double image – Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort – is interesting. A connection is being made between the two men and the head of John the Baptist. Nuno Gonçlaves also connects the two men and the head in the Panel of the Relic, the relic beign a part of John’s skull. Both paintings also point to a location in England – Templecombe in Somerset – where a painting of John the Baptist was discovered in the roof of an outhouse that had a connection with a Templar priory and later the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem), John being John the Baptist.

A case of déjà vu

This section of the St Vincent Panels is known as the Panel of the Relic, so called because of the kneeling prelate holding the fragment of a skull. Some say the relic belongs to St Vincent of Zaragoza, the saint who is the focus of the two panels in the centre of the altarpiece, while others suggest it belongs to Ferdinand the Holy Prince, the youngest son of John l of Portugal who was taken as a hostage following the Siege of Tangier and eventually died in captivity.

The panels are attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves and one of the main narratives is the translation to Lisbon of the relics belonging to St Vincent and Ferdinand. But what makes the Panel of the Relic notably different from the rest is that there are no Portuguese representatives. The kneeling prelate is English whose father was Flemish, and the four other men represent the House of Valois-Burgundy. So why should any of them be associated with a relic of St Vincent or Ferdinand the Holy Prince?

If the relic belonged to neither of these two saintly men then what relic could link the Portuguese House of Aviz with Cardinal Henry Beaufort, son of John of Gaunt, and the rest of the group of Flemings? The clue lies is in ‘translating’ the open pages of the book held by the prelate dressed in black. He is Jean Jouffroy, one time almoner of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The two men standing in the back row are assistants to Jouffroy, but unnamed. The figure portrayed as a humble pilgrim is Jan van Eyck.

Gonçlaves has sourced two of Van Eyck’s paintings and the work of another Flemish painter, Rogier van der Weyden, to build on the ‘translate’ narrative found in the altarpiece. Van der Weyden is portrayed as one of four artists featured in the Panel of the Knights.

The two works of Van Eyck are the Knights of Christ panel in the Ghent Altarpiece, and the portrait of Henry Beaufort, currently mistitled, Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati. The Van der Weyden paintings are: The Seven Sacraments, the Altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints (now fragmented with some parts lost) and the Exhumation of St Hubert.

By using some of the iconography created by other artists in their paintings and translating it to a new location, Gonçlaves is, in a sense, paying homage to the particular artist and their work. This echoes the foremost theme of the St Vincent panels – paying homage and celebrating the translation of St Vincent’s lost relics to Lisbon, and so establishing a new creation and a spiritual rebirth for the city, commemorated annually.

The translation of Jan van Eyck

There is a reference by the art historian James Weale in his book on the life and works of Hubert and John van Eyck, that in March 1442, at the request of Lambert van Eyck, the Chapter of St Donatian, Bruges, “grants permission for the body of his brother John, buried in the precincts, to be, with the bishop’s licence, translated into the church and buried near the font, on condition of the foundation of an anniversary and of compliance with the rights of fabric.”
 
In his Seven Sacraments painting, Van der Weyden depicts this translation of Van Eyck’s remains as the raised stone covering the grave and supporting the baptismal font. Hence the ‘raised’ coffin also signifying the upright baptismal font. The child in the baptism scene is Van Eyck’s own, and the Sacrament signifies being raised to new life in Christ. And so in death Van Eyck is resurrected to new life through the Sacrament. Close inspection of the priest performing the baptism reveals the same priest that stands next to the coffin Van Eyck is placed in front of in the Panel of the Relic.

But there is another reason why Jan is portrayed standing in front of the coffin, and it connects to another painting by Rogier van der Weyden. It’s part of the cut-down altarpiece referred to as the Virgin and Child with Saints. The figure of Joseph is represented by Jan van Eyck, frail and seemingly approaching the end of life. The head and upper part of his body is now a portrait presentation housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

The building in the background shows an empty tabernacle or aedicula. The pedestal and canopy are there but the statue is missing. This may be seen as Van der Weyden preparing to elevate his humble friend Jan to kingly or even saintly status. “King of Painters” was an epithet awarded to Jan.

So the empty coffin is also symbolic of the empty tabernacle. However the surplice worn by the priest alongside the coffin also depicts a tabernacle, but not vacant. It contains the presence of the Holy spirit, symbolised by the flames shown within the veil.

The Holy Flame is reflected in the Panel of the Friars, under the figure with the long beard. The figure also has his right hand placed on what is said to be the lid of the coffin behind Van Eyck. But the plank has other meanings as well.

The figure of Jean Jouffroy, who later became an influential ‘Prince of the Church’ – a Cardinal – is shown holding open a book of Scripture. The text is unreadable (although it has been claimed that some Hebrew words can be identified) but its message can be understood when read as a piece of iconography. It relates to the 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. The wise men who came from the East to pay homage to the new-born King had to travel across the desert, and were led straight to Bethlehem by following a star. That’s the red star seen on the front of Jouffroy. It also represents a military order of that time known as the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem.

A second connection to John the Baptist is the Jan van Eyck figure dressed in a camelskin coat. The hind legs of the camel are shaped in the folds below his belt. His coat is opened at the front and beneath the belt is a suggestion of a head in profile. The profile is facing the head of Henry Beaufort, and in his hands he holds part of the skull of John the Baptist. How the relic came into the possession of Van Eyck and eventually Beaufort is another story, but for the artist to link this feature to a painting that is primarily about St Vincent and the Portuguese House of Aviz is a pointer to where the skull relic was translated from to arrive in England.

The connection also links to what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards of a head discovered in 1945 in the roof of an outhouse in Templecombe. The painting is of the beheaded John the Baptist.

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