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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Having previously posted on Jan van Eyck’s self portrait, Man in a Red Turban, I recently discovered Van Eyck’s source of inspiration for the painting, a book authored in 1354 by Henri de Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster; its title: Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines (The Book of Holy Medicines). A translation of the text into modern English by Catherine Batt was published in 2014 by ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).
It’s very likely Van Eyck possessed or had access to a copy of this book that can be described as a literary form of confession and penitence.
Written in the first person, the text also serves as a mirror for self examination by the reader. It focuses on the narrator’s spiritual wounds in a physical sense. Body parts, particularly those associated with the five senses, are described as gateways for the seven cardinal sins: pride, greed, anger, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Healing grace ministered by Christ the doctor, accompanied by his mother Mary, is compared allegorically with a variety of medicinal remedies used by the people in Henry’s time.
As a mirror of reflection, the book is echoed in Van Eyck’s self-portrait made with the aid of a mirror. The painter presents himself as both sinner and penitent.
The modified chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus, particularly his denial by Peter, the disciple who had been entrusted earlier with the mission to build Christ’s church on earth and pasture his flock. After Jesus was arrested and taken into custody, Peter denied he knew him three times when questioned. At the third denial Peter wept bitterly when he remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him earlier: “Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times” (John 13:38).
Van Eyck has portrayed himself as a rooster staring out from darkness. The red chaperon represents the bird’s comb, the black coat its body, the sharp nose its beak, while the piercing, hooded eyes keep careful watch on all who come near to its roost. For Christians, the cockerel also symbolises Christ’s resurrection.
By turning the chaperon 90 degrees clockwise it can be seen how Van Eyck has depicted the rooster’s head and beak, as well as it’s comb or ‘crown’. Other forms connected to the Passion can also be made out.
Another image to emerge at this angle is Christ crucified. It depicts his suspension from the cross, hanging by his left arm, and his bowed head capped or crowned. A third image is Mary, the mother of Jesus, resting her head against the rooster. When viewed at the normal angle the turban reveals the presentation of the ‘Lamb of God’. Also, when the images of the Lamb and Mary resting her head are united, the combination is recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.
Henry de Gosmont describes his heart as a whirlpool that swallows up all the sins of the world. Van Eyck has translated this as the passion and death of Christ whose self-sacrifice as the Lamb of God takes away or “swallows up” the sins of the world. Christ’s crucifixion and the Lamb of God are outlined in the “whirlpool” or “turbulent” presentation of the red turban. Jan was not slow to embed word-play in to his paintings. “Whirl and “world” is another example. Some observers may insist that Jan’s head-cover is actually a chaperon, but the artist’s intention was two-fold, both chaperon and turban.
Van Eyck also embedded the reference to chaperon as implied in “chaperone”, a person who accompanies and takes care of another individual or group, and in this instance the most obvious reference is the outline of the mother of Jesus who accompanied her Son on his way to Calvary, stood by him during his crucifixion, and was there to receive his body when it was taken down from the cross. The painting reflects Christ’s call for all to carry their cross and follow him. A similar message is mirrored in The Book of Holy Medicines In which Henry de Grosmont – “weak from his wounds and bodily sickness that he has lost his wits” – expresses his desire to be healed of his delirium, delusions and sinful thoughts in mind, body and spirit by meditating on the passion of Christ.
Grosmont’s remedy for healing his delirium is both practical and metaphorical. It was to place a cockerel on one’s head, “all split and dismembered and fully spread out, with the blood still hot […] the blessed cockerel who sang for us at dawn when we were in darkness and in shadows. […] I am the weak delirious wretch, and our precious Jesus Christ is the cockerel…” (translation by Catherine Batt, The Book of Holy Medicines, p217)
This remedy explains why Van Eyck has depicted the turban as the cockrel on his head. Batt also points to another treatise, Liber de Diversis Medicinis, which “recommends in cases of madness, a black cockerel, to be applied for three days”. This may also be the reason why Van Eyck is painted wearing a black coat.
Another description Grosmont applies to his heart is to liken it to a fox’s den of earth where the sinful creature of mischief retreats and hides during the day only to appear again at night under the cover of darkness to pursue its wicked vices. Grosmont relates how his eyes and ears, nose and mouth are all portals to the fox’s lair, his heart.
Apart from his portrayal as a cockerel, Van Eyck presents himself as an image of a fox. The entrance to his lair is the fox-trimmed collar; the small triangle shape depicts the white markings seen on a fox’s throat; his sharp nose points to the animal’s long snout, and his clamped thin lips to the long line of the fox’s mouth when closed. Van Eyck’s observant eyes depict those of a watchful fox eying its prey – the red cockrel disguised in the artist’s turban.
Already mentioned is that the cockerel represents Christ. In this portrait the fox represents the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas. The combination of cockerel and fox refers to the passage from Luke’s gospel (13 : 32). When warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day.
Grosmont also relates his sins and heart to “when a salmon wants to reproduce and have its young, it swims far from the sea, upstream towards the mountains and changes its nature completely.” In other words, the nature of sin is regarded as deadly, once it has entered and reached the heart via the senses.
In this instance Van Eyck depicts an observant eye as the spawning ground for salmon, the portal where sin enters his heart. His eyelid is shaped as a ‘leaping’ salmon. The eye and its pupil can be understood as the egg and food sac, and the small highlights the gravel that covers the egg. One corner of the eye is seemingly the point of entry for salmon to spawn; the other corner is bloodshot and represents the sinful wound.
One of the seven ‘deadly’ sins Grosmont warns about in detail is “Lady Sloth”, a creature of comfort and laziness who arrives at the gate of his ear pleading to enter and once inside is reluctant to leave the castle that is his body. Sloth encourages the body to rest and tend to the needs of the soul “some other day”. Grosmont confesses to the Lord he has badly conducted the defence of his castle and guarded his heart, the tower stronghold, even less so.
In Van Eyck’s self-portrait the sin of Sloth is expressed as the animal of the same name noted for its slowness and hanging upside down on trees. He depicts it as the shape in the turban showing Christ crucified, hanging on a tree. The feature covers Van Eyck’s ear, the gate where Grosmont allowed sloth to enter his castle. Christ is also considered as a gate to a heavenly kingdom and his Church on earth, his body, as a holy temple which the gates of Hell can never prevail against (Matthew 16 : 18). Unlike Sloth whose work is never completed, Christ hangs upright on the tree and confesses that his redemptive mission on earth is achieved. His final words before lowering his head and giving up his spirit were: “It is accomplished” (John 19 : 30).
Mary the mother of Jesus also has a role in Grosmont’s treatise. She is presented as a “most sweet Lady” who dresses and bandages the wounds of the sinner. The bandages of “Mary’s Joys” is portrayed as Van Eyck’s “bandaged” turban, and Mary as a chaperone accompanying Jesus, shown as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1 : 29).
Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait is not the only painting the artist is associated with that has embedded references from The Book of Holy Medicines. The Three Marys at the Tomb is another work that testifies to Grosmont’s confession, so also is the Agony in the Garden folio from Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.
• I shall present more on this in a future post.
• Previous posts about the Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban are at the following links:
Unfortunately, I have only been able to locate a black and white copy of this new find titled The Three Maries and attributed to the 15th century Italian painter Niccolio Antonio Colantonio, but the copy shows enough detail to see that the artist has made a composite of the two mentioned works in the previous post.
The three Marys are clearly modelled on the Tomb version (Hugo or Jan van Eyck?). While it shows only a single guard lying awake at the tomb, the figure is a blend of the three disciples depicted in the Gethsemane folio while it also references the three guards in the Resurrection painting.
Here’s how: The guard is bearded, as is the disciple St Peter; his legs are crossed as is the guard in the Tomb painting, which in turn referenced the crossed hands of St James in folio 30v. He is turned on his side as is St John and also the guard sleeping in front of the stone tomb.
The rock in the bottom left corner is meant to match the rock that appears in the same position in the Gethsemane painting. It has a biblical reference: “It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the cornerstone” (Matthew 21:42). There are several other scripture passages embedded in the rocks in all three paintings.
The three lozenge shapes on the front of the tomb are references to stones of another kind – diamonds. They represent the colours worn by the three disciples and which are repeated in the three women visiting the tomb: red and blue represent sapphire, and green, emerald. The disciples and the women are considered as precious stones embedded in the rocks – the bedrock and foundation of the Christian Church.