In a little corner with a little book

Sometime in the mid-1470s Hugo van der Goes left Ghent and moved to the Roode Klooster (Red Cloister) near Brussels to become a lay brother in a religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life, founded in the latter part of the 14th century by Gerard Groote. The priory contained an impressive library as well as a workshop for producing and illuminating books, and Hugo was allowed to continue with his painting there.

Books and their influence is one of the themes in Hugo’s painting of The Dormition (or Death) of the Virgin, while the group of Apostles reflect the pious way of life adopted by the brothers of the community, and referred to as Devotio Moderna (the Modern Devotion).

An early follower of the Modern Devotion was Thomas á Kempis, who wrote the popular book on Christian meditation, The Imitation of Christ. He is portrayed in The Dormition as Thomas the Apostle.

One of the quotes attributed to Thomas is: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”. This quotation is a key to locating his place and confirming his identity in the painting. The figure of Thomas à Kempis also serves as the figure of the apostle Thomas who doubted the resurrection of Jesus.

Detail from Death of the Virgin, revealing Thomas à Kempes twinned with Thomas the Apostle.

Hugo connects the two identities in this way. The family name of Thomas à Kempis was ‘Hammerlein’ meaning “little hammer” and appertained to his father’s profession as a blacksmith. Kempen was the town where his family lived. Hugo has portrayed Thomas’s hood or ‘cowl’ uncovering his ‘unkempt’ hair in the shape of a ‘little hammer’.

Switching identities to the other Thomas who refused to believe his companions had witnessed Jesus alive after being crucified, the doubting disciple said he would only believe if he could see and put his finger into the holes made by the nails that crucified Christ to his cross, and his hand into the wound in his side made by a soldier’s lance. Thomas is shown gripping the side of the headboard and his other hand resting on its beam. The beam is representative of the cross, a path to salvation, and referring to the words of John the Baptist taken from John’s gospel: “Make a straight way for the Lord” (John 1:23)

Like Jan van Eyck, Hugo was not adverse to including word-play in his paintings. For ‘straight way’ read ‘straight line’ – ‘line’ as in the German pronunciation for ‘lein’ taken from Hammerlein.

So in all of this where are the nails? They can be seen in the decorative crown embroidered on Peter’s green collar – ªthe green wood” (Luke 23:51). The four nails are shaped as fleur-de-lys, stylized lilies, and symbolic of the Virgin Mary. The sword-shaped petal is a reminder of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare” (Luke 2:35). However, Hugo has implied another meaning to the four fleur-de-lys and their spear-shaped petals. In the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the apostle was described as being martyred by four soldiers who each speared him. And the lance that pierced the side of Jesus is symbolised by combining the ‘hammer’ feature of Thomas’s cowl with the white triangle inside Peter’s collar. A cowl or ‘yoke’ serves as a cover or ‘protector’ for head, neck and shoulders, and so connects to the collar or ‘yoke’ worn by Peter in his priestly role as a pastor protecting his flock, hence his stance shielding the Thomas figure behind him.

Thomas the apostle was also known as ‘the Twin’ and this explains why Hugo has ‘twinned’ the two men. But there is a third identity given to the figure by Hugo – Simeon, the “upright and devout man” on whom the Holy Spirit rested and prophesied to Mary. This explains the ‘unkempt’ hair of the man – “the wind blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8) – and why he is gripping the headboard to stay upright. Like Thomas à Kempes, who was at least 90 when he died, Simeon was well on in years and reaching the end of his life when his eyes had seen the salvation promised to him by God, the same sight of salvation witnessed by Thomas à Kempes above him.

Returning to the Thomas à Kempis quotation mentioned earlier: “In a little corner with a little book”, note the panel in the corner of the headboard next to Thomas’s left hand. It’s design is shaped to represent an open book and one of many references in the painting to the “Imitation of Christ”.

Thomas à Kempis and a late 17th century printing of his book: The Imitation of Christ.

• More on revealing The Dormition’s many identities in my next post.

Niche work

Artist, goldsmith and sculptor Andrea del Verroccio, self portrait, c 1468-70, Uffizi, Florence

Andrea del Verroccio is probably better known for his work as a sculptor than a painter. Even the two principal figures in his Baptism of Christ painting appear rigid as if placed on pedestals. Both Christ and John the Baptist are shown standing on the bedrock of the shallow river Jordan with their feet submerged in water. The weight of each man is placed on his right leg and balanced by the left. The feet are the ‘footings’ or ‘founds’ supporting the whole body which in this scenario can be understood as Christ’s body representing the Church he founded.

I mentioned in a previous post how the river is depicted as both water and blood and is connected to the Massacre of the Innocents carried out by King Herod, and also the later beheading of John the Baptist. But there are also two other events which link to the blood and water theme: (1) the rite of Baptism in the Christian Church, seen as participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; and (2) when Jesus was pierced with a lance at his crucifixion and the wound was seen to pour out blood and water.

His pierced side was later witnessed by Thomas, one of the disciples who had doubted Christ’s resurrection. When Jesus later appeared to him he invited Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and feet and telling him, “Give me you hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.”

Before he painted the Baptism of Christ, Verrocchio was commissioned in 1467 by the Merchant’s Guild in Florence to produce a bronze sculpture depicting Christ and St Thomas. This bronze and the niche it was placed in on an exterior wall of the Orsanmichel was the main source of inspiration for Verrocchio when he came to outlining his composition for the Baptism painting completed in 1475. Work on the bronze sculpture very ikely took a back seat at times as it was not unveiled and in situ until 1483.

Christ and St Thomas, 1467-83, Andrea del Verrocchio, Orsanmichele, Florence
© photo courtesy of Ron Reznick, digital-images.net
Donatello’s gilded bronze of St Louis of Toulouse

The niche, or tabernacle, where Christ and St Thomas was displayed (it still is, but a copy), was previously occupied by Donatello’s gilded bronze sculpture of St Louis of Toulouse, completed in 1425. However, in 1459 the niche was sold to the Merchant’s Guild and Verrochio was commissioned to fill the gap with his bronze. The niche itself is said to have been sculpted by Donatello. Verrochio paid tribute to his former master by referencing some its features for his Baptism of Christ, as well as linking his painting to a legend attributed to St Louis.

The stance of Christ and St Thomas in the bronze commissioned by the Merchant’s Guild echoes the two standing figures in the Baptism painting. Donatello’s predella supporting the tabenacle area features two winged-angels carrying a wreath crown. These are the two ‘angels’ portrayed by Verrocchio. One carrying Christ’s garments and kneeling on the rock shelf by the waterside.

Donatello’s tabernacle showing the pediment and the frieze, montaged with the predella.
© photo courtesy of Ron Reznick, digital-images.net

The two heads looking out at the ends of the predella, facing right and left, are the two heads in the rock outcrop in the painting – one is King Herod, the other Goliath. It’s likely the heads featured on the predalla may refer to Greek or Roman philosophers.

The Trinity represented in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ.

Centred on Donatello’s triangular pediment are three heads encircled within a winged olive crown. They represent the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is also referenced in Verrochio’s painting and is an integral part of the Baptism of Christ account in John’s Gospel. The Father’s two hands are seen extending from Heaven, while the Spirit is coming down from heaven like a dove to rest on Jesus.

The frieze below the pediment is a twist bracelet of four winged-cherubs. The four heads represent four identities Verrocchio has linked to the face of the baptised Christ.

The spiralled columns inside the tabernacle and their Ionic capitals are the inspiration for the palm tree and its crown on the left of the painting, matched on the other side by the Baptist’s shaft crowned with a golden cross.

The scalloped ceiling inside the dome of the tabenacle is represented by the dish used by the Baptist to pour water over Christ’s head. The patterned scallop is echoed by the arrowed rays emanating from Heaven.

Either side of the dome are two angels with an arm reaching out along the arch, in a manner similar to the portrayal of John the Baptist reaching out over the head of Jesus. This is also reflected in the actual sculpture with Jesus’ right hand outstretched over Thomas and blessing the doubting disciple.

Doubting Thomas reaches into the side of Christ and the wound made by a soldier’s lance
Leonardo’s angel bearing Christ’s baptismal gown

As far as matching Thomas touching the side wound of Jesus, this is shown in the kneeling figure of the angel said to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Here Leonardo is drawing attention to the shoulder wound he apparently carried throughout his life (represented by him carrying the robe worn by Jesus – or even a shroud – and so referring to the death and resurrection aspect of baptism). The cloth can also be related to as a wing, and therefore pointing again to Leonardo’s damaged shoulder and his fascination for birds and for flying. This is another feature referenced in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi where Lorenzo de Medici is seen carrying the wrap of his light blue gown over his right forearm. It was this that protected him from a more serious injury during the attack in the Duomo on himself and his brother Giuliano who was not so fortunate and died during the assassination attempt.

Then there is the mystery of the halos in the Baptism of Christ painting… but more on this in my next 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.