I also pointed out in my previous post that Rembrandt’s 1439 engraving titled The Death of the Virgin is a work that pays homage to Hugo Van der Goes and includes many figures who feature in Hugo’s paintings.
A famous quote associated with Thomas à Kempis 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 Hugo’s painting.
Rembrandt linked to this quote in his engraving, but there is nothing little about his version. The ‘little book’ becomes the ‘big book’ placed at the corner of the table in front of the prominent seated figure in the foreground.
But who is this mysterious figure with his back to the viewer? Could there be a connection to the figure opposite, peering across the room through the ‘nook’ in the curtain?
Over the years art historians have speculated on the identity of the 60 figures in the St Vincent Panels, without ever able to agree on a definitive line-up. Their efforts, it seems, have always focused on linking the 58 males and two women to Portuguese society, perhaps led by the fact the panels were discovered in the 1880s – in the monastery of Saint Vicente de Fora, in Lisbon.
So for some figures multiple names have been posited for their identity. In a sense this mixed bag of identities held an answer historians were searching for, but had yet to consider since they were focused on producing a single identity for each figure. The fact is that each figure usually has more that one identity, depending on a particular theme the artist embedded. While the painting is officially attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, my preference is the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes who is featured on the back row of the Panel of the Prince. It may be that the work and the commission was shared between the two men, similar to the Ghent Altarpiece attributed to the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
The Ghent Altarpiece is perhaps the principal source of inspiration for the St Vincent Panels, and especially for the concept of using multiple identities. In the Just Judges panel Jan van Eyck has applied four identities to each of the ten riders. This was the challenge for Hugo van der Goes, to create a similar work embedded with multiple identities. To truly get to grips with the St Vincent Panels one has to understand the embedded themes and iconography Jan introduced in the Ghent Altarpiece. Without this knowledge or understanding it is not possible to grasp and comprehend all that Van der Goes presented in the St Vincent Panels.
Another painter, Barthélemy van Eyck, had knowledge of Jan’s disguised iconography in the Ghent Altarpiece and incorporated parts in the January folio he produced for Les Très Riche Heures when the manuscript was later in the possession of René d’Anjou. It’s also likely, Lambert van Eyck, a brother to Jan and Hubert, had knowledge of the cryptic narratives in the Ghent Altarpiece.
In the Panel of the Relic, Hugo van der Goes depicted the likeness of the three Van Eyck brothers. Barthélemy is also referenced but not seen and is a second ‘hidden’ identity given to Jan van Eyck. Jan also appears as John the Baptist, his name saint and the name of the church the Ghent Altarpiece was originally commissioned for until it was later renamed as St Bavo after it was rebuilt in the 16th century. St Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent.
Hugo van der Goes sourced a painting by Rogier van der Weyden for the image of Jan Van Eyck. The painting, now fragmented, portrayed Jan as Joseph the husband of the Virgin Mary, The section, which is housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon shows part of a church tower with a vacant aedicula to house a statue of some kind. The platform and canopy are there but the statue is missing. It’s very likely this motif partly inspired Van der Goes to portray Jan standing in front of an empty wooden box, which most observers presume is a coffin.
The wooden box acts as a visible link between the two Van Eyck brothers, so does it have other levels of meaning associated with the two figures? It’s constructed from a number of panels. Could it point to the wood panels that Jan and Hubert painted on to create the Ghent Altarpiece, perhaps a particular unfinished panel started by Hubert before his death in 1426? The Ghent Altarpiece is also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.
Observe Van Eyck’s red hat, shaped as a resting lamb, and a pointer to Jan’s self-portrait titled Man in a Red Turban, painted a year after the Ghent Altarpiece was unveiled. Hugo would have understood that the turban’s intricate folds also depicted the ‘Lamb of God’.
The Ghent Altarpiece was commissioned by the prosperous Flemish merchant and nobleman Joos Vijd, for his funeral bay chapel in the Ghent church of St John the Baptist. When completed in 1432 the painting was placed above the St Bavo altar in what became known as the Vidj Chapel.
St Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent. He came to faith late in life ‘after leading a worldly and dissipated life’ as a knight for nearly fifty years. His conversion came following his wife’s death and after listening to the preaching of St Amand. For a while he attached himself to a Benedictine monastery in Ghent but eventually moved out and lived a more secluded life out of a hollow tree in the forest of Malemedum, surviving only on herbs and spring water. The hollow tree, a natural harbour for shelter and rest, and a bay within the forest, has partly inspired Hugo’s empty wooden box. The mention of forest connects to the figure alongside of St Hubert whose conversion took place while hunting in a forest. However, the principle connection to the empty coffin or the hollow tree, is a pun to reference All Hallows’ Evening (Halloween, also known as All Saints’ Eve) followed by All Hallows Day – the Christian feast of All Saints; hence the many references made to Christian saints in the Panel of the Relic. The reference also serves to link to the phrase “communion of saints” (sanctorum communionem) declared in the Apostles’ Creed, which in turn connects to an earlier mention of the medieval poem: William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman.
There are other links. Understood as a niche or a nook, the box leads to a prevalent theme in the Panel of the Relic, that of books, and one of the most obvious being the holy book held by Jean Jouffroy. At the time of the painting Hugo van der Goes was a lay brother in a religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life based at the Red Cloister priory near Brussels that housed an impressive collection of books as well as a workshop for book production.
The pious way of life adopted by the brothers of the community was also known as Devotio Moderna (the Modern Devotion). An early follower was Thomas á Kempis who wrote the popular book on Christian meditation, The Imitation of Christ. One of the famous quotes attributed to Thomas is used by Hugo to link the wooden box with books: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but found it not, except in nooks and in books.” Hugo repeated the quote in a later painting known as the Dormition of the Virgin, depicting Kempes gripping the headboard of the Virgin’s bed and decorated with the carved shape of an open book.
Another written source Hugo called on so as to link Jan and his brother Hubert to a specific feature of the Ghent Altarpiece was Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (Natural History). The Roman author’s ‘encyclopedia’ provides an account of a contest between two Greek artists, Apelles and Protogenes. Apelles was attached to the court of the Macedonian king Philip II, and later served his son Alexander the Great. His rival Protogenes resided in Rhodes.
To enable to see and recognise some of the iconography in Rembrandt’s etching shown above, the viewer has to adopt a different view and turn the work 90 degrees clockwise. Was this Rembrandt’s own idea or did he take his lead from elsewhere? As the etching is primarily focused on the work of Hugo van der Goes, so is the answer. Rembrandt has imitated a feature from Hugo’s painting titled Adoration of the Shepherds, which he produced after recovering from his ‘breakdown’ and attempt to self-harm.
The painting records the Nativity of Jesus – the occasion when Christ became incarnate, the Word made flesh. The scene also became a life-changing occasion for the magi and shepherds who were called to witness, pay homage and proclaim the birth of Christ. The magi returned home a different way (conversion) and the shepherds repeated all they had seen and heard to everyone they could.
Another conversion narrative Hugo has blended into the scene is that of St Augustine. Like Hugo, he wrestled with God at times until one day he heard a child’s voice singing and repeating the words, “Pick it up and read it”. This prompted Augustine to pick up a Bible and open it. The first passage his eyes settled on was part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, urging them to be Children of the Light:
“Let us live decently as people do in the daytime: no drunken orgies, no promiscuity, or licentiousness, and no wrangling or jealousy. Let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ; forget about satisfying your bodies with all their cravings” (Romans 13:13-14).
Augustine’s heart was flooded with light and he changed his ways. He was baptised a Christian and later became bishop of Hippo.
The painting not only represents the Nativity of Jesus and the conversion of Augustine but also the rebirth and “turnaround” of Hugo van der Goes after his breakdown.
This experience of being overcome by heavenly light can been seen in the top right corner of Hugo’s painting. So powerful is the light and the angel’s message that one of the shepherds is bowled over. Another is brought to his knees. This is mirrored in the main scene. One shepherd is depicted on his knees while the other is almost bowled over.
So where is the clue that Hugo has referred to Augustine’s moment of conversion? It’s within the crib, but the crib and all it holds requires to be turned 90 degrees anti-clockwise (going back in time, so to speak), as Rembrandt did with his etching.
When turned round the cloth on which the infant is placed takes on the outline form of Augustine, sitting on the ground and reading his bible. The open pages of the book are seperated by the child’s right arm, resting on the spine as a bookmark. This is the reference to the child (the Word) instructing Augustine to pick up the book and read it – the word of God. The pointed corner fold on the cloth above the infant’s left hand represents a bishop’s mitre. The other end of the cloth overlapping the edge of the crib and pointing downwards represents the descent into darkness and imprisonment, hence the crib’s cage-like features.
Hugo has adapted the shape of the Augustine symbol from the painting by Fra Angelico, Conversion of St Augustine. He also repeats the posture in his painting Death of the Virgin, portraying himself seated on the floor in the same way. Notice as well the similarity in colours of the garments, and the extended ‘tail’ feature which is repeated in the crib detail.
Finally, the turnaround feature can be linked to the Thomas à Kempis quote: “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”.
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).
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.
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”.
• More on revealing The Dormition’s many identities in my next post.