Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban

Having already identified references to the Turin Shroud in some of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, notably the Arnolfini Portrait and the Ghent Altarpiece, it came as no surprise when I discovered that Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban is another work linked to what is claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus. The painting is dated 1433, a year after the unveiling of the Ghent Altarpiece, and the two works are connected.

The website of the National Gallery in London, where the portrait is housed, provides a high-res image, some key facts and a brief description. Wikipedia also publishes a page with details, particularly about the inscription on the frame of the painting.

Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, Jan van Eyck, 1433, National Gallery, London.

The most obvious focal point of the portrait is the sitter’s vivid red chaperon and its intricate folds, but there is a more subtle feature paired with the headwrap – the Christ-like face unveiled on the sitter’s left temple.

The modified chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus, particularly his denial by Peter, the disciple who had been entrusted earlier with the mission to build Christ’s church on earth and pasture his flock. After Jesus was arrested and taken into custody, Peter denied he knew him three times when questioned. At the third denial Peter wept bitterly when he remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him earlier: “Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times.” (John 13:38)

Van Eyck has portrayed himself as a rooster staring out from the darkness. The red chaperon represents the bird’s comb, the black coat its body, the sharp nose its beak, while the piercing, hooded eyes keep careful watch on all who come near to its roost. So is Van Eyck issuing a wake-up call of some kind with this portrait, a possible warning or reminder of betrayal? The rooster is an iconic emblem of Christianity. Also, as a weathercock and a familiar sight on church towers, it indicates which way the wind is blowing.

Jan van Eyck was known to travel abroad on missions for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. It is possible that one such excursion brought the artist to England in 1426. Ducal records show that Van Eyck was paid for trips that year on assignment for Philip. One such payment was made in October, perhaps to cover his expenses for an upcoming journey. It is notable that Jan was absent when his brother Hubert died on December 18th that year.

In England, Van Eyck’s turban or chaperon would be called a cocks-comb and, presuming he did travel there on a secret mission for the Duke of Burgundy, he would be familiar with the term. So what would be Jan’s reason for emphasising this feature in the portrait, apparently painted some seven years later? In the first instance the comb is meant to combine with the temple feature  – TEMPLE and COMB. When the two words are cleaved or joined they form TEMPLECOMB(E), which identifies a small village in Somerset.

Van Eyck would often employ punning examples in his work. His name Eyck as a signature motto on the frame of this painting is an example – AIC IXH XAN (AS I CAN). That he used Greek letters for this is not without reason and provides a further clue to unravelling the painting’s narratives and features disguised in the turban.

Jan’s motto is not only a pun on his name but can be also understood as “AN ICON”, or even “JAN ICON” – a religious work of art – its iconic features or themes to be found in the red chaperon. The icon theme also connects to the village of Templecombe and what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards, discovered in the roof of an outhouse in the village in 1945. It is claimed by some to represent the head of Christ with a link to the Turin Shroud. Details of its discovery and further information at this link.

The iconic Templecombe Head, Church of St Mary, Abbas and Templecombe.

That the painting was discovered beneath the roof of an outhouse makes another connection to the rooster theme in Van Eyck’s portrait. The building is thought to have been part of the Templecombe Preceptory established in the village by the Knights Templar in 1185. After the suppression of the Knights Templar in 1307 the Preceptory was granted to the Knights of St John until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. The Templecome Head is considered to date to the 13th century and is now displayed in the village Church of St Mary. It is also referenced by Jan van Eyck in the Ghent Altarpiece and in this way connects to his Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban.

More on this in a future post.

Translating hidden relics

In my previous post I explained how the iconography relating to the pages of the mysterious script in the Panel of the Relic translated into a passage from Isaiah (40 : 3-5), and is echoed in John’s gospel (1 : 23) by John the Baptist. But the artist also used another source to translate from: a section of the Knights of Christ panel that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The translation is focused on the central knight leading two other knights and a group of kings and princes. In this particular narrative the knight is a depiction of two people of a young age, Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort. Both men are also placed in the Panel of the Relic. Beaufort, as a Cardinal in later life, is on his knees holding the relic.

In the Knights of Christ panel the group is making a “straight way” to the Holy Land or the “New Jerusalem”.

So how is the passage from the Book of Isaiah, referenced by John the Baptist in John’s Gospel, identified in the iconography surrounding the knight? At this stage it is worth repeating Isaiah’s words:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yaweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken.”

The “straight way” is the red cross on the knight’s shield, similar to the vertical and horizontal spaces between the written words on the pages displayed by Jean Jouffroy in the Panel of the Relic. The valleys, mountains, hills and cliffs are the various shapes formed from the shields. The ridges are the highlight’s on the knight’s breastplate but “made plain” on the front of the knight to his right.

Another “straight way” is the straight strap across the knight’s breastplate. It’s stems from a descending, scrolling pattern of light, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and ends in shadow at the point of the cross on the shield, and also at the elbow of the knight alongside the central knight. “Elbow” translates as EL-BOW, God’s bow (a rainbow) symbolising his Covenant promise (Genesis 9 : 12-13).

Amidst the shadow area is a red triangular shape intended to represent the head of Christ as he hangs on his Cross. The upward sweep of the strap represents one of his arms, while his back is connected to another arm, that of the red cross on the shield. This represents God’s New Testament or New Covenant fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Below this motif is a galaxy of “stars’ on a blue background. However, one star has risen to appear in the groove of the shield. Not only is symbolic of the Resurrection but it also represents the rising star the wise men saw and followed and which led them to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant king. So the three knights can also be viewed as “wise men” making a straight way to Bethlehem. A similar motif is seen in the composition of the Panel of the Relic (and other panels) – the three front men are arranged as three wise men bearing gifts and paying homage.

The straight strap is also present in the Panel of the Relic. It falls across the chest of Van Eyck the pilgrim and ends at the elbow of Jean Jouffroy. While the prelate’s hand turns the pages in the book, the star is settled above another passage from Isaiah that prophesied “the coming of the virtuous king” (Isaiah 11 : 1-2).

In the previous post I mentioned what appears to be a head under the camel coat of Van Eyck, portrayed also as John the Baptist in the Panel of the Relic. The shape represents the head of the Baptist who while imprisoned was beheaded on the orders of Herod because the king had promised Salome anything she wanted after dancing for him. She requested the head of John on a dish.

The bloody head of John appears on the right arm of the knight from the Ghent Altarpiece, mounted on a green cushion. The curved piece of armour supporting his head is the dish.

This piece of iconography relates to the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy: “… then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken” – the mouth of Yaweh being both Isaiah and John the Baptist.

Unfortunately, since the recent restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece the face depicted on the arm is now hardly noticeable. The version shown here is before the altarpiece was “restored”.

The fact that the knight is a double image – Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort – is interesting. A connection is being made between the two men and the head of John the Baptist. Nuno Gonçlaves also connects the two men and the head in the Panel of the Relic, the relic beign a part of John’s skull. Both paintings also point to a location in England – Templecombe in Somerset – where a painting of John the Baptist was discovered in the roof of an outhouse that had a connection with a Templar priory and later the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem), John being John the Baptist.