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

Changing course on Henry the Navigator

The image below is the frontispiece of a manuscript titled Crónica dos Feitos da Guiné written by the Portuguese chronicler Gomes Eanes de Zuara.

The manuscript was commissioned by Portugal’s King Afonso V and records the recollections of his uncle Henry the Navigator and Portugal’s maritime exploration during the first half of the 15th century.

The original manuscript was completed in 1453 but a century later declared missing or lost. However, in 1839, an intact and preserved copy was rediscovered in the Royal Library of Paris. The Paris Codex includes the frontispiece shown above. It is presented as a representation of Henry the Navigator. Since its discovery the portrait has served as the basis of multiple other images depicting Henry.

That the portrait was of Henry was seemingly confirmed with the rediscovery in 1882 of the St Vincent Panels at the monastery of St Vincent de Fora in Portugal. In what is known as the Panel of the Prince is a mirror image of that shown in Zuara’s Chronicle of Guinea.

Panel of the Prince, St Vincent Panels

For almost a century Infante D. Henrique was the general consensus of researchers and historians for the identity of the figure wearing the Burgundian style chaperon and that the illustration in the Zuara chronicle was the source for the mirror image in the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.

But in the 1980s two researchers presented a new suggestion for the identity of the figure in the Panel of the Prince… King Edward of Portugal. This raised the question as to which of the two representations was painted first, and was the Paris Codex version added later. The frontispiece is an intact folio and part of the original manuscript. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility the illustration was painted on a reserved blank page at a later date.

So was the Paris Codex image produced after the completion of the St Vincent Panels? If so, this could place a question mark over the completion date of the St Vincent Panels and possibly the accepted attribution to Nuno Gonçalves. My understanding is the the St Vincent Panels panels were produced by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes who included his own image in the Panel of the Prince, above and to the right of the figure considered to be Prince Henry.

Henry, or his brother Edward, is moustached. There is a written record that Edward was moustached at some time in his life. Most images of Edward depict him with a full beard but his tomb effigy portrays him as clean-shaven. Henry’s effigy is also without a beard or moustache. Bearing in mind it is highly unlikely Hugo ever set eyes on Edward before the King died of the plague in September 1438, so if Van der Goes is the originator of the St Vincent Panels, where did he locate his source for the image of Edward or Prince Henry?

Petrus Christus

A clue to the source is portrayed in the panel itself. Some researchers believe the figure on the extreme left of the back row is the painter of the panels Nuno Gonçalves. It’s not. It’s the artist Petrus Christus who took over the workshop of Jan van Eyck after the Flemish master died in July 1441.

If Hugo van der Goes is the painter who produced the St Vincent Panels, then this could be the work and the artist that the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer referred to in his diary after visiting Ghent and wrote, “another great painter was driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Hugo wasn’t mentioned by name, but historians generally agree Münzer was referring to Van der Goes.

Hugo has mirrored several references and themes from the Ghent Altarpiece in the St Vincent Panels, so it should be no surprise to find the work of Petrus Christus is also reflected in the panels, particularly the Panel of the Prince.

There are at least five references to the works of Petrus Christus in the panel, but one in particular relates to the image of KIng Edward / Prince Henry. A pointer to this work are the unusual silver sleeves of the bald-headed man standing behind the figure believed to be St Vincent. The sleeves protect his forearms because he is portrayed in one guise as a falconer. Silver and falconer are pointers to the silver-point portrait, Man and his Falcon by Petrus Christus.

Elements of this drawing are incorporated into the Edward/Henry portrait. The face in the drawing is a younger version (but let’s discard Henry and replace him with the brothers’ father instead, King John I of Portugal, because the panel image is, in fact, a double portrait which I shall explain in a future post).

Silver-point portrait, A Man and his Falcon by Petrus Christus.

The low eyebrows and hooded eyelids can be matched, so can the thin upper lips and pronounced lower lips. But perhaps the most telling feature is the strong similarity of the ears. Hugo has adapted the firm brim of the hat to feature instead as the moustache, while Hugo adapts the falcon at the shoulder into an image of himself standing just behind the man in the chaperon representing John and his son Edward.

There are more elements in the drawing that link to other features and figures in the panel but better discussed as a separate topic in a future post.

So who is the man with the falcon in the silverpoint drawing? He bears a remarkable resemblance to the Burgundian duke Philip the Good who in 1430 married Isabella, daughter of King John I and sister of Edward. Compare the silverpoint drawing with two paintings of Philip by Rogier van der Weyden. Observe the large and similar ear, the low eyebrows and hooded eyes, the thin upper lip and full lower lip. Could the falcon dawng be a depiction of Philip the Good?

If so, then the kneeling woman in the Panel of the Prince could be said to be Isabella with her mother Philippa standing over her, and her father John, brother Edward and husband Philip all represented in the figure wearing the chaperon. This intimate connection could suggest that the painting may have been originally commissioned by Isabella herself. She died in December 1471. Petrus Christus died sometime in 1475 or 1476. Hugo van der Goes closed his workshop around 1477 and joined the Roode Klooster as a lay brother where he continued painting until his death, thought to be around 1482.

The date attribution for the silver point drawing is 1450. It’s kept at the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt.

Panel of the Relic… more connections

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.

More on this in my next post

Rembrandt’s rhyming riddle

The painter Hugo van der Goes, seen here in Rembrandt’s etching being nursed back to health, suffered from depression, not helped by his fondness for alcohol. When returning from a visit to Cologne with a group of brothers from the Rood Klooster monastery, Hugo suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to self-harm, claing he was damned. Was it a suicide bid? Possibly. But he was prevented from killing himself by the men he was travelling with.

While art historians provide no further information about the attempt on his life, or the method used, Hugo does – as does Rembrandt.

Hugo used a bill-hook or sickle to slash himself on the left side of his head and neck (which suggests he was right-handed). Was this an attempt to cut off his ear and eradicate any ‘voices’ he might have heard in his head; or in his confused state did he associate himself with Malchus, the servant of the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, whose ear was cut off by Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane?

There is evidence in Hugo’s painting of Death of the Virgin, to suggest this, and in Rembrandt’s etching and his painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Hugo also referred to his breakdown in at least four of his other paintings.

So how did Rembrandt concoct the name of Hugo van der Goes in the details from his etching shown below? He created a rhyming riddle – rhyme as in his name Rijn.

Hugo’s last name, Goes, is pronounced “Hoose”, hence being rhymed with Goose, the shape of the pillow Hugo’s head rests on. The “hand” on the pillow is rhymed with “van der” (on the). So now we have “hand on the Goose” – van der Goes. His first name is matched to Hugo’s Portuguese ancestry and the word “jugo”, meaning “yoke”. The yoke is the pillow beneath Hugo’s head and refers to the passage from Matthew’s gospel (11:28-30):

Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

At the time of Hugo’s breakdown he was burdened by the weight of having so many paintings to complete, a heavy load. The soft goose-down pillow is the light and easy yoke.

To see and understand the riddle more clearly, Rembrandt invites the viewer to look at the scene in another way, to turn the sheet around and see things from a different perspective. The turnaround represents not only Hugo’s recovery after his attempt at mutilation and self-destruction, but also an occasion of conversion for his soul, a return of the Prodigal Son to hs father’s arms, the father in this instance being God working through the prior Thomas Vessem who took charge of Hugo’s care when he was brought back to the Rood Klooster .

Detail from an early 18th century image of the Rood Klooster (Red Cloister).

The yellow stripe along the goose’s neck not only represents the lacing on the pillow but also symbolises the stitching applied on Hugo’s neck by the hand of the Prior. The snake-like stitching also represents a goose horn – both symbolising deceit – and also the horn of a beast and its yoke,

The green strip also has more that one meaning. It serves as a coupling or washer between the goose-shaped yolk and the father figure sharing Hugo’s burden. It also represents a swan’s neck and serves as a reference to the Rood Kloster which was located at Soingnes – pronounced Swanyay. Another identity is that of a serpent meant to symbolise the temptation to self-doubt and self-harm Hugo succumbed to.

The orange cowl with its liripipe represents the choristers and musicians at the monastery called on by Prior Thomas to help calm Hugo’s anxiety and revive him from his slumber. It also connects to the swan feature and points to Hugo’s last painting – Death of the Virgin – as his swansong.

Finally the shape of the monk’s cowl also takes on the appearance of a sickle, the tool or weapon of a reaper that Hugo utilised to slash his own neck.

My next post will reveal what prompted or inspired Rembrandt to want the viewer to turn the etching on its side and be able to see and understand the iconography more clearly.