The Pearl Poet… another sighting

Jan van Eyck was not the first artist to point out the name of the Pearl Poet when he painted the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432. An earlier work exists where the poet is referenced and identified. Sir Hugh Stafford, earl of Stafford, is illuminated front of stage in a manuscript attributed to the Limbourg brothers.

Detail from the month of January, Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry, Condé Museum, Oise.

The folio forms part of the Calendar section in the Très Riche Heures, a ‘book of hours’ commissioned by John, duke of Berry, and produced in part by the Limbourg brothers between 1412 and 1416. The three brothers and the duke, possible victims of the plague, all died in in the same year of 1416. The Très Riche Heures was added to and completed by other artists at later stages during the 15th century.

The above illustration shows detail from the folio depicting the month of January, where a gathering of nobles are said to be celebrating New Year and exchanging gifts. The duke of Berry is the man seated at the table wearing a fur hat. However the scene is not as simple as its seems. In fact, it’s detail was the basis for Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel. There is no doubt that Jan was inspired by this minature and adopted many of its references, particularly to the Pearl Poet, and perhaps as a tribute to the Limbourg brothers.

Sir Hugh Stafford, aka the Pearl Poet, is the figure standing in the forefront alongside the man in green who is carving the meat.

I shall publish more details on this at another time.

More on the Pearl Poet’s identity

So what else is there that can help identify Sir Hugh, the earl of Stafford, as the Pearl Poet? His title for starters.

In Old English the thorn letter þ was used for the digram th. The thorn resembles a letter p. Placed ahead of the word earl we arrive at a new ‘title’ for Sir Hugh Stafford – Pearl (Poet)

Van Eyck made use of this visual pun in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece when he pointed to the lead figure in the group as Sir Hugh. He placed a thorn bush above the man’s head – a representation of Christ’s crown of thorns – “on his head a helmet of salvation” (Isaiah 59:17), and also a pointer to the holly or holy twig carried by the Green Knight who was described as having “a beard as big as a bush”.

The knight was also described as having his arms covered “in the manner of a king’s hood” (capados). Here an oversized red cape cover’s the man’s arms – arms in the sense of a shield of protection and another pointer to the apocalypse passage by Isaiah: “He put vengeance on lke a tunic and wrapped himself in ardour like a cloak” – red being the colour of ardour or passion – passion in the sense of love and purity being put to the test, as in Lady Bertilak’s amorous approaches to Gawain represented by the pearl white berries which can be interpreted as mistletoe, collected and hung over doorways and in houses at Christmas time. Here Van Eyck is pointing to the Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe and the three kisses Lady Bertilek gave to Gawain. Mistletoe can also be recognised as a forbidden fruit, its toxcity is posionous and known to cause death. Alternatively, the white berries can be viewed as those from a myrtle tree replacing the ‘crown of thorns’ as prophesied by Isaiah (55:13) in the conclusion of the Book of Consolation: “Cypress will grow instead of thorns, myrtle instead of briars, and this will make Yaweh famous, a sign forever, ineffaceable.”

Speaking of death, the head ‘attached’ to the right shoulder of the figure in red is John the Baptist, decapitated on the orders of Herod Antipas. John once sent disciples to ask Jesus if he was the true Messiah (Christ). In the detail above John is shown “staring hard” at the right hand of the cloaked figure. The composition is a reference to the sweat cloth (sudarium) that shows a true image (vera icon) of Christ’s face and which “was made without hand” – Acheiropoietaand ineffaceable. Notice the sweat band on the man’s head. Notice also the forefinger of the figure’s left hand pointing to his covered hand. The index and long fingers are crossed – a variation of the first letter of the Greek alphabet Alpha. The index finger and thumb form the last letter of the Greek alphabet Omega. The combination of three digits also points to the Book of Revelation when Jesus proclaimed three times that he is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. The number three forms part of the numerology theme in the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And it was on the third day of his entombment that Jesus was resurrected. The Resurrection theme is one of the links to the next panel and the Patience poem which highlights the story of Jonah being in the belly of a whale for three days.

The Terminus boundary marker and the buried head in the sand, possibly of John the Baptist.

Another ‘transition’ feature in the Pilgrims panel that marks out Hugh Stafford is the weathered stone placed at the edge of the frame by his right foot. I explained in a previous post, The Great and the Small, that this was a boundary marker associated with Roman times and dedicated to the deity Terminus. The earl of Stafford died on the island of Rhodes, some say while on his way to Jerusalem, other sources say he died on his return journey. Whatever direction he was facing, the Terminus stone is there to indicate his end of life as he was about to make his crossing from the island of Rhodes, either to his home in England or on his onward journey to Jerusalem. Either way, his continued journey would take him to a ‘New Jerusalem’. During his illness at Rhodes Sir Hugh was taken care of by the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem). Was Hugh himself a knight of the Order? Possibly. Van Eyck has clothed him in the colour of the Order’s flag, which was predominately red, bearing a white cross.

Although Hugh’s life ended in Rhodes, his squire brought the body (or at least the bones) back to England to be entombed alongside his wife Philippa Beauchamp who had died a few months earlier. Both Hugh and his wife were entombed at STONE Priory in Staffordshire less than ten miles from Hugh’s castle outside the town of Stafford. Hence another reason why Van Eyck placed a Terminus, a headstone, at the feet of Sir Hugh. After dying at Rhodes his body was translated to a tomb ‘carved out of Stone’. See how the giant figure of Hugh is about to step out of the frame (his box) to the next panel which features the hermits stepping out from their desert cave and the figurative ‘belly of the whale’ as explained by the Pearl Poet in his poem titled Patience.

Yet another visual pointer and pun by Van Eyck to Sir Hugh’s presence makes a direct reference to his name: Hugh (Huge) Staff (or stave) Ford (as in crossing to the other side), and woven into another identity Van Eyck has given the figure – St Christopher.

More on this panel and how it directly links with a specific passage of text in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight in my next post.

A poet (and painter) of great value

Detail from the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

Gawain gazed on the gallant that goodly him greet,
and thought him a brave baron that the burg owned,
a huge man in truth, and mature in his years;
broad, bright was his beard and all beaver-hued,
stern, striding strongly on stalwart shanks
,
face fell as the fire, and free of his speech;
and well he seemed to suit, as the knight thought,
the leading a lordship, along of lords full good.

Poetry in Translation

The Gawain Poet, author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and three other poems: Pearl, Patience and Cleanness, had been in his tomb about 45 years before his ghostly presence showed up in the Ghent Altarpiece painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. Neither brother had ever set eyes on the mysterious poet, but Jan was certainly acquainted with his work and his name, as he was with the names and poems of the two other contemporary poets referred to in the altarpiece.

Detail from the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

Whlle researchers have never conclusively agreed on the identity of the Gawain Poet, Jan van Eyck has threaded cryptic clues in the altarpiece which keep pointing to one name in particular. Follow the trail and it keeps leading back to the start – an endless knot, so to speak.

In the Just Judges panel each of the ten riders has four identities. This also happens with some of the other figures in the narrow panels of the lower register. For example, the St Christopher figure (above) in the red cloak is draped with three more identities, one of whom is the so-called Pearl Poet. The other two are Constantine the Great and the artist Robert Campin, considered the first ‘great’ master of Flemish and early Netherlandish painting.

The Pearl Poet also shows up in two other panels of the Ghent Altarpiece but in different guises, and there are references to his work in all of the panels on the lower register when opened and in the closed section of the altarpiece.

The Pearl or Gawain Poet was indeed a man from the West Midlands, UK –
HUGH STAFFORD, 2nd earl of Stafford, KG, c 1342 – October 13, 1386

My next post will start to illustrate some of the iconography in the Ghent Altarpiece that identifies with the Pearl Poet and Van Eyck revealing him as Hugh Stafford.