More on the butterfly effect

This figure is another “butterfly” featured in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry. His name is Sir Thomas Blount, a supporter of Richard II. He served as a napier at Richard’s coronation banquet in 1377.

Thomas was a participant in the Epiphany Rising to restore Richard after the king was dethroned by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. But the rebellion was unsuccessful and Thomas was captured and put to death at a place known as the Green Ditch on the outskirts of Oxford. His execution was brutal and recorded later by a chronicler as follows:

Sir Thomas Blount was hanged; but the halter was soon cut, and he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, and the executioner came with a razor in his hand, and knelt before Sir Thomas, whose hands were tied, begging him to pardon him his death, as he must do his office. Sir Thomas asked, “Are you the person appointed to deliver me from this world?” The executioner answered, “Yes, Sir, I pray you pardon me.” And Sir Thomas kissed him, and pardoned him his death. The executioner then knelt down, and opened his belly, and cut out his bowels, and threw them into the fire. While Sir Thomas was dying, one Erpyngham, the king’s chamberlain, insulting Blount, said to him, in derision, “Go, seek a master that can cure you.” Blount only answered, “Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the day on which I was born, and blessed be this day, for I shall die in the service of my sovereign lord, the noble King Richard”. His head was soon after cut off and he was quartered.

Elements of the execution are indicated in Blount’s portrayal. The location is referenced by the figure in green standing immediately behind Blount. The green colour represents the Green Ditch. One of the figure’s identities is the painter Jan van Eyck. Ditch can be translated as dyke, a pun on the name d’Eyck or Van Eyck. Blount’s hanging is matched to the string of beads around his neck and his beheading to the black collar. Quartering of the body is when limbs are severed from the torso, hence the surcoat’s serrated design. Other references to quartering are the folded napkin and the four pieces of bread on the table. As for Blount’s disembowelment, this is indicated by what appears to be a belt but actually represents where Blount’s belly was opened. Notice also the demonic feature, formed by part of the serated edge, appearing to look into the opened wound. The markings on the front of the red section of the surcoat are best understood if the image is turned upside down. Now the jagged edges can be recognised as representing rising flames and the markings as the eyes seen of a peacock’s feathers. The peacock is symbolic of eternal life. The flames are also associated with the mythical phoenix but this relates to another narrative associated with the Van Eyck figure.

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The account of Blount’s execution where its states he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, is mirrored in the group of men seemingly warming their hands “before a great fire” as they are commanded to approach by the marshall. In this scenario “the great fire” can be understood as the fire of Hell. The artist has also made sure that the prelate, in the guise of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, is portrayed seated on a bench with his hands raised. This, too, relates to another narrative that connects with the Epiphany Rising and recorded in the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers.

So how is Sir Thomas Blount portrayed as a butterfly by the artist Bathélemy d’Eyck? His wings are meant to represent a butterfly, wings that were torn from its body when he was tortured and executed after his capture.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry attributed to Jean Colombe

Jean Colombe picks up on this in his painting of the November folio in the Très Riche Heures. The two men in the wooded represent Jan and Hubert van Eyck (Hubert is a second identity applied to the Blount figure). They are clothed in white tops and wear black caps and stand apart, separated. This is a reference to Blount’s white and black wing features in the January folio. The figure of Barthélemy d’Eyck looking up is depicted in the process of shedding his outer coat to morph into a butterfly as the Van Eyck brothers. Notice his black cap and white undergarment, its hem shaped as a wing. In reality the artist is expressing Barthélemy’s conversion after witnessing a vision of the Lamb of God depicted among the oak trees. This is also a reference to another Van Eyck painting, The Stigmata of St Francis who is portrayed levitating when he is presented with a vision of the Crucified Christ portrayed as a six-winged seraph.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The Order of Things

At surface level, the January folio of the Très Riche Heures represents a banquet celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, but there are other scenarios within the scene that connect to the date of the event, January 6, and the meanining of the word epiphany.

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

For instance, one of the identities given to the kneeling figure in the right hand corner is King Richard II. January 6 is the date of his birthday.

Pol Limbourg, depicted leaning on the seat behind the Duke of Berry, is one of three brothers associated with illustrating many of the folios in the manuscript. He is named after St Paul the Apostle, who experienced his ‘epiphany’ moment on the Road to Damascus. St Paul’s conversion is celebrated on January 25.

Another reference which links to the Richard II figure is the Epiphany Rising, the failed rebellion against Henry IV of England in January 1400. Thomas Blount the knight at the table folding the napkin, was one of ‘rebels’ executed. Henry IV is the figure dressed in black placed immediately above him.

The ‘Rising’ theme is extended to the tablecloth. It represents the burial shroud of Jesus, and his resurrection or ‘Easter Rising’.

The Resurrection theme extends to the five five figures front of table. Each of them are linked to the three guards and three women featured in the Van Eyck painting titled Three Marys at the Tomb. In fact there are several other references to paintings by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

From these examples we can see how Bathélemy d’Eyck has taken his lead from the Van Eyck brothers to build his composition very much in the ‘jig-saw’ style used by Jan and Hubert in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where four identities are applied to each rider. In the January folio the number of identities applied to each figure are usually two, but in the case of the napier in red and white, there are four. This likely a hat-tip to Jan and Hubert van Eyck as the figure behind the napier is Jan and one of the identities given to the napier is Hubert van Eyck (d.1426). The three others are Thomas Blount (d.1400), Amery of Pavy (d.1352), and Geoffroi II de Charny (d.1398) who was the son of the seated Geoffroi de Charny.

The biblical Epiphany story relates how three Wise Men from the East followed a star to Bethlehem to seek out a new-born king and “do him homage”. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Hence the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas and New Year. So is Bathélemy paying homage to Jan and Hubert va Eyck. Hubert died in 1426, Jan in 1441. The folio is likely to have been painted sometime in the 1440s and probably as a work of homage after Jan had died, hence several pointers to paintings by the Van Eycks.

The Wise Men of Magi rmade their journey on camels, led by the light of the Star of Bethlehem. The Star and camels are also referenced in the painting.

The star is introduced by way of Geoffroi de Charny (mentioned in the previous post), a French knight who, along with the French king Jean II, founded the chivalric Order of the Star, sometimes referred to as the Company of the Star, in 1351. Geoffroi de Charney is the bald-headed figure seated opposite the Duke of Berry who also doubles up as King Herod.

Detail from folio 394 of Grand Chroniques de France showing the inception of the Order of the Star.

There is an interesting folio (394) which forms part of the Grandes Chroniques de France (14th century) that shows the inception of the Order and some of the knights feasting at table. There can be little doubt that both illustrations were used as a source by Barthélemy for the composition of the January folio. The similarity of the table scene speaks for itself, but the group of knights approaching the French king is echoed in the group of figures huddled together behind the seated Geoffroi de Charney who is dressed in the same colours and style adopted by the Order of the Star.

A banquet reception for members of the Order of the Star, (Grand Chroniques de France).

As well as being father and son the two Charny figures are connected in two other ways. Charney senior was the first recorded owner of the claimed burial shroud of Jesus, now known as the Turin Shroud. It later passed into the possession of his son, hence the representation of the shroud as the tablecloth. Charney senior also wrote three works on chivalry, the most acclaimed being the Book of Chivalry. However, recent scholarship suggests that this treatise may have instead been written by his son to commerorate his father’s death, in a similar way that Bathélemy d’Eyck has honoured Jan and Hubert van Eyck with his painting of the January folio.

More revelations about the January folio in my next post.