Revealing the Relic

It has never been established which saint or martyr the skull fragment depicted in the so-called Panel of the Relic belongs to. Is it St VIncent of Zaragossa or, as some historians have suggested, Ferdinand, known as the Holy Prince or the Saint Prince (but never canonised), who died as a captive in a Moroccan prison?

Hugo van der Goes, the Flemish artist who painted the St Vincent panels, has provided visible clues that point to another saint, possibly even two, which as far as I know have never been considered before by historians.

While the focus of the Altarpiece is on St Vincent, he is not the only saint or martyr represented in the panels. There are many. In fact, Van der Goes has made “uncovering saints” one of the main themes in the painting. This stems from a connection with the first figure of many representing a saint – in this instance St Ambrose of Milan, depicted in the top left corner of the Friars Panel. More on this connection at another time.

So it should not be assumed that the so-called ‘twin’ figures said to be of St Vincent simply represent that particular saint alone. We are invited to “uncover the saints and martyrs” represented in all of the six panels, as well as other idenities associated with the St Vincent figures.

Van der Goes links each clue to another, as a method of confirming identities and connections. He was influenced in this type of construction by Jan van Eyck who employed the same technique in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where the ten riders interlock as jigsaw pieces.

Let’s explore how Van der Goes leads the viewer to discovering the saint associated with the skull fragment. The artist was well versed in producing heraldic decorations for the Burgundian court and the city of Ghent. In 1468 he was commissioned to do so for the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margareta of York and later other works for important occasions.

Aspects of Hugo’s knowledge and experience of heraldic disciplines and terminology feature in the St Vincent Panels. One particular term Hugo has utilised from the language of heraldry is ‘erasure’ which, according to The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, is the tearing off a part of a charge, to leave a jagged edge, and mostly applied to heads depicted with a ragged edge as if forcibly torn from the body.

In another post I pointed out that one of the works of art which Hugo borrowed features from to include in the St Vincent Panels was the Monsaraz fresco known as the Good and Bad Judge, most notably the damaged or ‘erased’ section that formed part of the Good Judge’s right arm and hand. This ‘erased’ or ‘hidden’ motif is utilised in all of the St Vincent Panels in a variety of ways – for instance: men with arms, men without arms, in a literal and military sense. Very few of the figures standing in the back row of the panels are depicted with arms or hands, and if they are, then there is usually a significant meaning to why this is so.

The Panel of the Relic is a typical example. Only the figure of Jan van Eyck doubling up as John the Baptist shows both arms and hands, and even his arms are partly cut off or covered. His two brothers on the back row, Hubert and Lambert, both named after saints, are also armless. The figure of the French prelate and diplomat Jean Jouffroy, twinned with Pierre Cauchon, another French bishop and also a prosecutor in the trial of Joan of Arc, are depicted with their right arm on show and hand on a holy book. Jouffroy later attacked Joan’s ‘saintly’ reputation in a eulogy given in 1459 to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, which may explain the symbolism of the hidden arm and underhand motif.

As to any visual reference to St Joan of Arc – yet another French connection – it is found in the patterned surplice worn by Hubert. Notice the stake-shaped arch in the centre and what appears to be rising flames, a reminder of how Joan suffered martyrdom by being burnt at the stake. The flames can also be understood as symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

The kneeling figure in the bright red gown depicts the French king Charles VI, referred to as ‘Charles the Mad’, who was plagued throughout his life with bouts of mental illness. The figure is also representative of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, said to have had a a hidden hand in the prosecution of Joan of Arc, although the absent left hand seemingly supporting the skull fragment also has a connection to the relic itself. Both Beaufort and Charles VI are also presented in Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent altarpiece.

As to the skull fragment itself, close inspection shows a ragged edge on its top side. This makes the connection to the heraldic term ‘erasure’ and a reason why Charles VI is holding the relic.

With its spiked back, the ‘torn’ fragment is meant to depict a porcupine and links to the French king’s younger brother, Louis I Duke of Orleans, who was assassinated on November 23, 1407, on the orders of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. He was lured to his death on a Paris street in broad daylight after being told his brother wished to meet with him. When he mounted his horse to start on his way a gang of fifteen masked men attacked and fatally stabbed him, cutting off one of his hands in the process, hence the image of his brother Charles depicted with one hand only.

As to the porpupine motif, this represents the chivalric Order of the Porcupine founded by Louis in 1394 to mark the occasion of the baptism of his son Charles of Orleans who was later held captive by the English as a prisoner of war for 25 years.

The Order’s insignia was represented by a gold porcupine standing on a green enamelled oval-shaped base, hence the green cloth base behind the skull fragment. The Order was sometimes referred to in France as the Ordre du Camail and here Hugo van der Goes makes another link to confirm his intended reference to the insignia. Depicted just above the king’s right shoulder is the coat of camel hair worn by John the Baptist. The word-play, camel and camail, is confirmed by the folds in the Baptist’s coat shaped to represent the legs of a camel.

But there is more to link to the Order of the Porcupine. Louis, duke of Orleans, did not enjoy the best of reputations with the people. He had many enemies and is said to have taken his brother’s wife as a mistress. It was also claimed that he dabbled in magic and the black arts, even necromancy. So when we look at the fuller figure in red, there are other clues that point to Louis, duke of Orleans. Saint he wasn’t, it seems.

To the right and slightly above the green cloth is the shape of demonic face with a sharp-pointed nose. It also has an open, laughing mouth with two teeth. The demonic face represents John the Fearless, noted for his long sharp nose, piercing the cameo, and the stabbing of Louis. This motif is also adapted by Hugo from the Monsaraz fresco, shown below.

But take a look at the green cloth to its full extent and we see portrayed another demonic feature, screaming on its way into the fires of hell. The folds in the red garment are angled and accentuated in a descending formation.

Some twelve years later John the Fearless was assassinated in similar fashion on the bridge at Montereau when an attempt to parley with the French dauphin and future Charles VII of France went amiss. One of the dauphin’s escorts panicked and attacked the duke of Burgundy with an axe to his face. The shape of the axe head can be made out in the demonic face of John the Fearless, cleaving his skull through to the socket of his eye.

So where is the saint feature in all of this? Van der Goes is pointing the way back to another Louis and another king, the only French king canonised by the Cathoic Church, Louis IX.

It was Louis who built a dedicated chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle, as a shrine to house the many relics associated with the life of Christ presented to him by Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. These included the Crown of Thorns and a fragment fo the True Cross, so the skull fragment held by king Charles VI can also be understood as a relic of St Louis and the porcupine’s thorns as the Crown of Thorns placed on the head of Christ during his Passion.

In all of this there is another connection to Jan van Eyck and a folio attributed to him in the Turin-Milan Hours depicting the Birth of John the Baptist. The minature refers to many of the items Louis IX received from Baldwin II and were kept in the Sainte-Chapelle. More recently, the Crown of Thorns was rescued from its sanctuary when the Paris cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire in April 2019.

The Order of the Porcupine is not the only chivalric company represented in the St Vincent panels. There are several, and at least three others in the Panel of the Relic.

More on this and other connections to be discovered in the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

Battles and beards

This Portrait of a Carthusian Monk was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446 and is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It was this painting, along with another work by Petrus, that was the inspiration for the bearded Carthusian figure in the Panel of the Friars, the first of six frames that make up the St Vincent Panels.

The long-bearded monk is holding an upright plank of wood – upright as in the sense of righteous (a righteous or just judge). This contrasts to the first figure on the back row, Pontius Pilate, who sentenced Jesus Christ to death by crucifixion after telling the Jews he could find no fault in the man.

It’s not just the beard and white robe that Gonçlaves adopted from the Carthusian painting. The orange, fiery background is echoed in the fiery cross on the monk’s black hat, while the box edge that runs top and right of the frame is represented by the box standing behind Jan van Eyck in the Panel of the Relic.

The plank of wood as representative of the Cross is forefront in another painting by Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, and forms the counter on which various items are displayed. This, too, was incorporated by Nuno Gonçalves into the Panel of the Friars.

A Goldsmith in his Shop, by Petrus Christus. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Researcher Clemente Baeta has identified eleven holes in the plank featured in the Panel of the Friars. The eleven holes match the number of round items grouped on the shop counter, excluding the red ribbon and the mirror. In the Petrus painting they represent the positions of the English forces when it laid seige to Orleans in 1428. The seige was relieved the following year when French forces led by Joan of Arc attacked and overpowered the English positions.

Gonçalves has linked this to reference the siege and conquest of Ceuta by Portugal in 1415 and its successful defence when Moroccan forces counter-attacked in 1419.

Notice also how the right hand of both St Eligius and the monk rest on the panel of wood.

There is another detail in the St Vincent Panels that links to a third painting by Petrus Christus. More about this in a future post.

The St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

Several Flemish painters are shown in the St Vincent Panels. The long-bearded monk is meant to represent Roger Campin. Hugo van der Goes shows up in the Panel of the Prince, as does Petrus Christus (see below). Jan van Eyck is the pilgrim featured in the Panel of the Relic, while Dieric Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Jaques Daret line up in the Panel of the Knights.

Left: Petrus Christus as portrayed in the St Vincent Panels and (right), probably twenty years earlier, as St Eligius in A Goldsmith in his Shop.

Just Judges… a slanted view

JJ-frame

Ever wondered why the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is so named? Ever asked the question why the ten riders are considered just judges and who they may be? Ever thought that Jan van Eyck was being his usual cryptic self and playing word games – again?

Over the past couple of months I’ve spent time researching the identities of the riders, trying to understand their complex arrangement and how they connect to each other, as well as the various narratives they present and link to. There’s no doubt that Jan van Eyck has mined Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as well as literary gems by other writers – painters, sculptors and jewellers, too.

So how does the title Just Judges fit into all of this? Is it to be understood in a literal sense? Could Jan van Eyck be making his own judgment in some way that is related to events or people featured in the painting?

A key to understanding the role and identities of the ten riders is to view them as “figures of speech”. In this way the title can be considered simply as a “figure of speech” in an ironic sense and not taken literally.

This would also suggest that Van Eyck is expressing a sense of injustice, that justice was not served correctly.

There’s a clue in the latin title painted on the frame. Compare the upright letter ‘S’ in the word JUST to the same but slanted letter in JUDGES.

Upright, as in righteous… Slant, as to maliciously or dishonestly distort or falsify.

So who is Van Eyck referring to in the painting when he points to injustice? The most obvious person is Joan of Arc, who Jan parallels with the false judgment against Christ and as a lamb led to slaughter.

Joan was condemned to death and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. The Ghent Altarpiece had its public presentation less than a year later on May 6, 1432. Considering the painting was presented so soon after her execution, Joan’s portrayal as a lamb led to slaughter was a remarkable risk on Jan’s part, especially as the Catholic Church didn’t overturn the trial verdict and pronounce her innocence until 1456.

The slanted ‘S’ also resembles the formation of an open-ended knot. It begs the question: which is its beginning and which is its end, and a conclusion that there is no beginning and no end. It was always this way.

This motif is replicated in the Petrus Christus painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop, as is much of the iconography from the Just Judges. And, as for Van Eyck’s painting, the same question can be asked: Which is the beginning and which is the end of the knot?

It’s not wihout reason that Petrus has placed the red knot emblem on the wood counter. It serves to echo the frame where the knot is placed on the Just Judges panel. Notice also the knot clue next to the ribbon.

More insights on the Just Judges in my next post.

Petrus-knot

images: RKD and The Met, New York

Maid by Jan van Eyck

Two-Joans

There are several pointers to the identity of Joan of Arc as one of the riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

• Of the ten featured riders Joan is is the only figure with her head uncovered.
• Her hair is cut short. It was cropped in May 1428, at the same time when she was made to dress in men’s clothes to disguise her femininity before journeying to Chinon to meet with the dauphin Charles.
• Her blue mantle is symbolic of heaven and holiness. Other figures in the frame wearing the colour blue also have a religious significance.
• The figure of Joan is fashioned to represent her family’s coat of arms, “Azure, a bow or in fess, thereon three arrows crossed …, on a chief argent a lion passant gules.”

Azure is the blue coat, on which is a bow-or – the gold chain shaped as a bow. The three arrows are the three pointed segments of her collar, the fess. The chief is a charge that runs across the top edge of the shield, in this case the white, argent, fur trim of the blue mantle, while the lion passant gules refers to Joan’s shorn red mane. “En passant” (in passing) is also a pawn capture move in the game of chess and points to Joan’s capture at Compiègne on May 23, 1430. The pawn reference also connects to another figure elsewhere in the painting.

There are more references in the painting that point to Joan. Her inclusion is down to Jan van Eyck and not his brother Hubert who died in 1426, and at least two years before Joan set out on her misssion to have the dauphin Charles crowned as King of France.

So what prompted or inspired Jan to profile Joan in this way so soon after her death? Was he making a point of some kind about her trial conducted by an ecclesiatical court. Is this one of the reasons for the latin title of the panel “Iusti Iudices” (Just Judges), and could it refer to Psalm 94 (The Justice of God), in particular, verse 20-21?

You never consent to that corrupt tribunal
that imposes disorder as law,
that takes the life of the virtuous
and condems the innocent to death.

More details that connect to the identity of Joan of Arc in a future post.

references: history.com and heraldica.org

Disguising Joan of Arc

Goldsmith-in-his-Shop
A Goldsmith in his Shop, Petrus Christus 1449, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975,
on view at The Met Fifth Avenue

So why in 1449 did Petrus Christus choose to ‘disguise’ Joan of Arc and the reference to the siege of Orleans in his painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop, apart from the historical fact that the “Maid” dressed in male attire to conceal her identity?

It wasn’t until seven years later in 1456 and 25 years after being burned at the stake that a posthumous retrial declared Joan innocent of the charges brought against her. Before then, the official line was that Joan was guilty, not only of heresy, but of cross-dressing.

So producing a painting gloryfying the deeds of Joan before her posthumous trial carried risks. Hence the reason for the surreptitious approach taken by Petrus Christus in 1449.

But Petrus was not the first painter to “immortalise” Joan in this way. Jan van Eyck did so shortly after her execution in May, 1431. In fact, just 12 month’s after the Maid was put to death at Rouen, Jan unveiled her image to the public on May 6, 1432.

Joan-of-ArcIt’s unlikely that many who came to admire the Ghent Altarpiece would have recognised Joan in her male attire and featured as one of the riders in the Just Judges panel. She is the hatless figure wearing the blue mantle.

Pterus Christus knew this, as was likely did other contemporaries of Jan. Petrus reworked the Just Judges concept for his Goldsmith presentation. Much of the iconography created by Jan is repeated and adapted for the Petrus painting and explains just why Petrus was inspired to include Joan of Arc in his work. He is paying homage to a predecessor and mentor, Jan van Eyck.

The iconography in the Just Judges panel is heavily woven into several themes and there is a multi-level of identities. Most of the figures represent three different people and each is connected to an identity alongside.

The much researched Quatrain featured on the closed section of the altarpiece is a major clue to unravelling the principal narrative in the Judges panel which links to other panels in the altarpiece.

More to come on this.

Match-making

Ideas-match

Can it be coincidence that the seated figure in the Petrus Christus painting “A Goldsmith in his Shop” (1449) is similar in composition and concept to Jan van Eyck’s Léal Souvenir portrait of Pierre de Bauffremont (1432)?

The inscribed underside of the shop counter and foundation stone share the same theme of a sacrificial altar; the faraway, searching gaze of the two men, both wearing red pleated coats and holding an object in the right hand, is also matched; the hand descending on the shoulder mirrors the descending liripipe of the green chaperon; the  left forearm of both men extends across their chest and the sleeve cuff is fur-lined – but note the fur cuff is absent on the right sleeves!

So is Petrus attempting to link the identity of the man in Van Eyck’s painting, Pierre de Bauffremont, with one of the identies assigned to the goldsmith, apart from St Eligius? Or is he hinting at the possibility that the woman, standing at the goldsmith’s right hand and portrayed as Joan of Arc, may have had some connection to Pierre?

In an article for the British Society for the Turin Shroud and re-published at the Shroud of Turin website, researcher Hugh Duncan has raised the possibility Joan of Arc, as a child, may have visted the Bauffremont castle located a few kilometres from Doremy where Joan was brought up.

Goldsmith-in-his-Shop

A Goldsmith in his Shop by Petrus Christus 1449
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. On view at The Met Fifth Avenue

Resurrecting Joan of Arc

Finding St Eligius in the Petrus Christus painting, A Goldsmith in his Shop, isn’t difficult; discovering Joan of Arc is more demanding – but she’s there!

There are two areas of the Petrus painting with iconography relating to “The Maid of Orleans”: The counter displaying the goldsmith’s weights alongside the gold coins, and the gold gown worn by the woman to the left of the picture.

Joan of Arc was born in 1412 in Domrémy, Bar, France. A national heroine of France, at age 18 she led the French army to victory over the English forces at Orléans. Captured a year later, Joan was burned at the stake as a heretic by the English and their French collaborators.

More at Resurrecting St Eligius

Siege-of-Orleans