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.