The Passover and the Primavera

Tomorrow, Holy Thursday, Christians celebrate the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his Apostles before his crucifixion. The Passover is a day and festival of remembrance for ever in God’s honour before he instigated the tenth plague against Egypt to convince its pharaoh to free the Israelites.

The Passover is referenced in Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The male figure with his back turned to the Three Graces is said to represent Hermes/Mercury, messenger to the Greco-Roman gods. The figure also has other identities. Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of the de facto ruler of Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent, is another.

In his monograph on the life and work of Botticelli, Ronald Lightbown describes the figure of Mercury as inspired by a passage from The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil: “Mercury, despatched by his father Jove to Aeneas, first ties his winged shoes to his feet, then takes his caduceus, and by its power drives off the winds and the turbid clouds as he descends to earth.

So how does the Passover and Giuliano de’ Medici fit in with this section of the painting? The passing cloud and the raised caduceus are clues.

Giuliano was assassinated while attending Mass in the Duomo cathedral in Florence. His head was sliced by a sword and he was stabbed several times. The signal for the time his killers planned to strike was during the time of Consecration when a bell was rung as the consecrated host was raised and held high before the congregation, hence the raised arm of Giuliano.

The Catholic belief is that the consecrated host is the True Presence of Jesus, echoing the time at the Last Supper when he took some bread, broke it and shared it with his Apostles, saying: “Take it and eat, this is my body” (Matthew 26:26).

The raising of the Host, symbolic of Jesus being raised on the Cross, can also be compared to the raising of the caduceus, the cloud being the darkness that came over the whole land at the time of his death. The caduceus with its two entwined dragons or serpents also represents the time when the Israelites complained to Moses and so God sent fiery serpents among the people. Their bite brought death to many. The people repented and God instructed Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a standard. He added: “If anyone is bitten and looks at it, he shall live” (Numbers 21:8), which is why some Christian crosses and the crucifix are depicted with the image of a serpent. 

As a mythological representation the dragons are seen as a sign of peace after Hermes/Mercury saw two serpents engaged in mortal combat. Hermes/Mercury separated them with his wand and brought peace between them.

The stance of the man, also relates to part of the Passover description in Exodus. “You shall eat it like this [the Passover meal]: with a girdle round your waist, sandals on your feet, a staff in your hand. You shall eat it hastily; it is a Passover in honour of Yahweh” (12:11).

And then there are the strands of dark clouds which the figure is reaching up to with his wand. The elongated shapes can be likened to lentil seed pods and therefore recognised as a cloud formation known as Stratocumulus lenticularis. Here Botticelli is punning on the word Lent (meaning Spring) and Lint, the fluffy substance derived from bits of fabric, and then extending the pun to refer to Lintel, the load-bearing beam placed above windows and doors. This then connects to another biblical passage relating to the Passover when Moses instructs the people to “Take a spray of hyssop, dip it in the blood [from the slaughtered animal] that is in the basin, and with the blood from the basin, touch the lintel and the two door posts. Let none of you venture out of the house till morning. Then, when Yahweh goes through Egypt to strike it, and see blood on the lintel and on the two door posts, he will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to enter your homes and strike” (Exodus 12:22-23).

In this scenario we can understand the figure as reaching up to touch the lintel with blood, and probably his own because the man also represents Lorenzo de’ Medici who suffered a slight wound to the neck during the assassination attempt. He managed to escape death by reaching the sacristy and fastening the bronze door to keep out “the destroyer” from entering and striking again. As to the clues for also identifying the figure as Lorenzo de’ Medici, I shall explain in a future post as it connects to the time Botticelli spent in Rome engaged in frescoing some of the walls in the Sistine Chapel.

Translating transitions in the St Vincent Panels

I pointed out here in one of my earliest posts about the St Vincent Panels that this trio of faces represented the painter Hugo van der Goes (right), his half-brother Nicholas (back) and Thomas Vaseem, prior of the Red Cloister monastery, an Augustinian community that both brothers belonged to.

A pointer to the face at the back being Hugo’s half-brother is that only half of his head is visible. This also suggests a separation of some kind between the siblings – a subject present elsewhere in the Panels. In a recent post I explained why the coats of arms belonging to René II, duke of Lorraine had been “halved”.

The group of panels are also arranged in a half-and-half or mirrored formation, better understood when brought together, especially the two central panels.

Hugo has also applied more than one identity to some of the figures, but in these situations better understood when separated. For instance the figure of Thomas Vaseem has four identities which link to different narratives. In a way, it is similar to an index or a cross referencing system located at the end of a book. The figure relates to a number, so in this instance the “father” figure relates to both Hugo and his half-brother Nicholas. The figure of Hugo then relates or connects to other scenarios or narratives.

A second identity given to Vaseem is the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. There is a stone bust of Seneca similar in features to Vaseem which Hugo has sourced to introduce the narrative on the philosopher famed for his stoic approach to life, as likely Vaseem was also. The sculpture is part of what is known as the double Herm of Seneca and Socrates. The two philosophers are joined at the back of the head (another example of half and half). In a similar way Hugo has attached himself to the representation of Seneca, except that the heads are cheek-to-cheek. Here Hugo is proclaiming he has something in common with Seneca.

In another post I pointed out that Hugo along with the two men on his right, Dante and Virgil, had all been exiled in at sometime during their life. Seneca, too, was exiled to Corsica for a period by the Roman emperor Claudius. Later in life he committed suicide on the orders of Nero. This is another connection with Van der Goes who attempted to take his own life by cutting his throat with a sickle when in a state of manic depression. It was Vaseem who cared for Hugo after other brothers from the Red Cloister community who were with him at the time, including his half-brother Nicholas, prevented him from self-inflicting any fatal wound. It may have been the case that Hugo’s attempt at self-harm was somewhat half-hearted and a cry for help, rather than a serious intention to commit suicide.

Socrates, the other head on the Herm, also committed suicide. The herm, with its back-to-back heads is also suggestive of Janus, the double-headed Roman god of transitions, duality, doorways, new beginnings and endings (particularly of conflicts).

In the same post I explained that the line of men to the left of Vaseem all had a connection to stones, and that the men on the right were grouped as exiles. The figure of Vaseem, now also identified as Seneca, is a link between these two groups, a transition figure, both a stone sculpture and an exile. He cross references both groups.

A helm was also used as a boundary marker. Jan van Eyck made use of this varied motif as a marking point of transition in two of his paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait, and in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Helm also refers to a helmet, and here Hugo transitions the meaning to the red hat of the saintly figure in front, indicating what generally is assumed to be a depiction of St Vincent of Zaragosa is actually a representation of more than one saint. This “duality” or morphing process explains the ”twin” or mirrored appearance of seemingly the same saint shown in both central panels. Each “Vincent” has more than one saintly identity that form a “Communion of Saints”, a narrative which cross references with another major theme in the Panels, the Nicene Creed.

Van Eyck’s central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is titled Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In another sense it depicts the “Communion of Saints”

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Source: Closer to Van Eck

St Valentine and the St Vincent Panels

“The idea that Valentine’s Day is a day for lovers is thought to originate with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, a poem written in the late 14th century. It describes a group of birds which gather together in the early spring – on ‘seynt valentynes day’ – to choose their mates for the year.” (British Library).

The poet Geoffrey Chaucer is featured in the St Vincent Panels, so is a reference to the Parliament of Fowls.

The poem begins with the narrator reading Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis in the hope of learning some “certeyn thing”. When he falls asleep, Scipio Africanus the Elder appears and guides him up through the celestial spheres to a gate promising both a “welle of grace” and a stream that “ledeth to the sorweful were/ Ther as a fissh in prison is al drye” (reminiscent of the famous grimly inscribed gates in Dante’s Inferno). After some deliberation at the gate, the narrator enters and passes through Venus’s dark temple with its friezes of doomed lovers and out into the bright sunlight. Here Nature is convening a parliament at which the birds will all choose their mates. The three tercel (male) eagles make their case for the hand of a formel (female) eagle until the birds of the lower estates begin to protest and launch into a comic parliamentary debate, which Nature herself finally ends. None of the tercels wins the formel, for at her request Nature allows her to put off her decision for another year (indeed, female birds of prey often become sexually mature at one year of age, males only at two years). Nature, as the ruling figure, in allowing the formel the right to choose not to choose, is acknowledging the importance of free will, which is ultimately the foundation of a key theme in the poem, that of common profit. Nature allows the other birds, however, to pair off. The dream ends with a song welcoming the new spring. The dreamer awakes, still unsatisfied, and returns to his books, hoping still to learn the thing for which he seeks. (Wikipedia)

In the Panel of the Prince, the back row of men all represent birds of one kind or another – the Parliament of Birds. Chaucer (representing an owl) is the figure standing third from the left. The three tercels are the three men grouped on the right of the frame: Hugo van der Goes, who painted the panel, and the poets Dante Alighieri alongside Virgil, his guide in in the Divine Comedy. No doubt, they have the look of eagles forsaken in love.

Van der Goes’ request to marry a woman he loved was rejected by her father which may have prompted the artist to become a “conversus”, a lay brother at the Red Cloister monastery; Dante’s lifelong love for Beatrice Portinari never came to fruition as she was already married; and Virgil, the Roman poet never married.

The reference to Scipio Africanus in Chaucer’s poem is also echoed by the kneeling figure in the panel, King Afonso V of Portugal, known by the sobriquet “The African”.

Virgil on the verge

UPDATED: January 27, 2022

In my previous post I identified the three figures shown here as Dante Alighieri, Virgil and the half-hidden head as Plutarch (doubling up as Pluto, king of the dead and the underworld). They are part of the section known as the Panel of the Prince in the St Vincent Panels.

Virgil accompanied Dante as a guide through the depths of Hell and Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy poem, but was never able to enter Paradise because he wasn’t baptised. Although the stain of “original sin” remained with him, he was what was referred to as a “virtuous pagan”.

Notice the face shaped in the folds of his throat and looking down at the stain of original sin presented as a black spot on his white undergarment. Baptism is said to remove the mark of original sin humanity is born with.

The face in the folds of Virgil’s neck is a reminder of a gorget worn to cover and protect the throat (as seen in the figure of Philippa). Gorget lends itself to the word “gorge” meaning “chasm” and this refers to the gap or distance that Virgil was never able to cross to reach Paradise.

Hugo van der Goes borrowed this detail from a section of the Ghent Altarpiece that refers to the biblical parable of The Rich man and Lazarus and the words spoken by Abraham to the rich man, “Between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours” (Luke 16:26).

In the top image Virgil is placed in front of the twinned figure of Plutarch and Pluto (representing Hades), and on the verge or edge of the frame. His location is Limbo, meaning “edge” or “border”, and a special place the Church conceived for unbaptised “virtuous pagans” after death.

And if to suggest that Limbo is closer to Hell than Heaven, Hugo formed a second, more sinister face in Virgil’s neck. The darkened area below the cheekbone forms part of the creature’s forehead, while the rim of the rather long ear forms the shape of a horn.

The horn feature also serves as a reference to Plutarch’s book of biographies known as Parallel Lives and the chapter on the Life of Theseus. When Theseus arrived at Delos he joined a group of youths dancing around an altar called Keraton and made entirely of horns taken from the left side of animals. The dance was known as The Crane.

Was Van der Goes also suggesting with the altar reference that the Plutrach image had been altered in some to also represent Pluto, or his Roman equivalent Hades?

Standing on ceremony

Here’s another example of how Hugo van der Goes was inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece when he set out to paint the St Vincent Panels.

The Panel of the Prince, (St Vincent Panels), and the Singing Angels panel (Ghent Altarpiece)

In this instance he has taken elements and themes from the Singing Angels section of the Ghent Altarpiece and translated them to the Panel of the Prince in the St Vincent polyptych.

The Singing Angels represent a celestial scene, seven of which refer to the cluster of stars called the Pleiades, also known as “The Seven Sisters”. The eighth angel at the top of the group represents Joan of Arc, depicted in the guise of a ram and therefore the constellation Aries. This constellation is located next to the constellation Taurus which houses the Pleiades.

Joan of Arc, depicted in the guise of a ram. Singing Angels panel (Ghent Altarpiece)

Notice also the angels’ arc-shaped headbands studded with diamonds, the arch-shaped picture frame, and the arched shelf representing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Pentateuch or Torah.

The Holy Book, stones and arcs are features translated by Van der Goes to the Panel of the Prince. So too is the lead angel in her red vestment and the placing of her hands on the lectern as if she is at the helm, steering the ark. This is echoed in the figure of the deacon guiding and steering the kneeling man as to the right path to take in life.

Instead of angels, Van der Goes has arched a group of eleven men, and as an alternative to the headbands the arc on the forehead is formed by the brim of the men’s hats. The line of men is split into two groups. The first five men on the left represent an ascent culminating with a sixth figure at the peak, half-hidden behind the man with bald head.

Detail from the Panel of the Prince, (St Vincent Panels)

Francisco Petrarca or Petrarch (Italian poet) is the half-hidden figure at the peak and in descending order are: John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster), Henry Bolingbroke (King Henry IV), Geoffrey Chaucer (poet and diplomat), Edward Grimstone (diplomat), and Petrus Christus (painter). All represent variations of and are linked by the word stone, beginning with Petrus and ending with Petrarch (petra meaning stone or rock).

The group is also connected to another figure, the woman wearing the white headdress who is Philippa of Lancaster, Queen consort of Portugal through her marriage to King John I. She was the daughter of John of Gaunt and therefore a sister to Henry Bolingbroke. Chaucer mentored Philippa in her youth. He was also the brother-in-law of Philippa’s governess, Katherine Swynford having married her sister, also named Philippa.

Serving as an English diplomat at the Burgundian court of Philip the Good, Edward Grimstone was married three times. His third wife was named Philippa. His extant portrait (in the National Gallery, London) was painted by Petrus Christus.

The Philippa connection to Petrus comes through one of his paintings titled “Isabella of Portugal with St Elizabeth” (right) and which Hugo van der Goes translated to represent Philippa and her kneeling daughter Isabella in the Panel of the Prince.

The similarity between the faces of Philippa and St Elizabeth suggest that Petrus Christus may have modelled the Saint’s features on Isabella’s mother with whom she is said to have had a very close relationship.

Lookalikes…Philippa of Lancaster and St Elizabeth

Philippa’s mother was Blanche of Lancaster. Both women died of the plague, as did Philippa’s husband King John I and their son Edward. The moustached figure paired with Philippa is a double or two-layered image representing both kings matched by the double image of Philippa and her mother and the fact that all four individuals succumbed to the plague.

The Blanche/Philippa figure is placed in front of Geoffrey Chaucer to make a connection to the poet’s “Book of the Duchess” in which Blanche is featured as the character “White”. Blanche was John of Gaunt’s first wife and was only 26 when she died. Gaunt married three times but chose to be buried alongside Blanche when he died. Notice the head of the Duke of Lancaster is turned to look at the white headdress and dual image of Blanche and Philippa.

Grouped with Petrarch on his left are the artist Hugo van der Goes, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, and behind him the half-hidden Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch. What connects three of the men – Van der Goes, Dante and Virgil – is they were all sent into exile at sometime during their life. Plutarch represents an eternal exile when his name is played with Pluto, the Roman god of the dead and the underworld, equivalent to the Greek version Hades. He wears no hat. Like Petrarch, his head is cropped. Petrarch represents a capstone for the line of stone figures on his right, while the Pluto or Hades figure is also assigned a cap which is hidden, a cap of invisibility referred to as the “Cap of Hades” or the “Helm of Hades”. When the cap is donned the wearer becomes an invisible force at the helm of the ship steering and conducting the paths and souls of others on a descent to disaster.

This corresponds with Van Eyck’s angel steering the ark and the choir, but now the wingless angels represent a new choir, that of the mythological Sirens calling out with their sweet melodious voices to entice ships to shore and flounder on the rocks.

So the “exiles” represent a descent into death, but not just by exile alone. Hugo’s exile is somewhat of a mystery but there is a written record that he was, as a young man, pardoned by Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, in March 1451.

However, in later years Hugo’s descent into Hades manifested once more when he suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide, claiming he was bound for damnation. His attempt at self harm was thwarted by those around him and he was placed into the care of Thomas van Vessem, prior of the the Red Cloister Augustinian community which Hugo had joined as a lay brother in 1478. Vessem is the figure standing cheek to cheek with Van der Goes. There are two references in the panel which point to his identity.

The first derives from the half-hidden figure of Petrarch. Widely travelled, the poet once ascended Mount Ventoux in the Provence region of France, a considerable feat in 1336. When he reached the summit (hence the earlier mention of capstone) he contemplated on his ascent and view of the Alps and then took from his pocket a copy of St Augustine’s “Confessions”. When Petrarch opened the book his eyes fell on a passage that suggested the climbing experience was but an allegory and a prompt to lead a better life.

Mount Ventoux (meaning “windy” in French) is nicknamed “Bald Mountain” and this is another connection to the word “arc” formed by the bald head of Thomas van Vessem. The word “windy” is also a pointer to the Windesheim Congregation which the Augustinians of the Red Cloister community joined in 1412.

More on this in my next 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.