When stones cry out

One of many questions asked about the St Vincent Panels is: Why are there so many figures crammed into the panels and who do the men standing in the back rows represent?

The St Vincent Panels, attributed to Nuno Gonçalves.

It’s as if each panel is divided into two sections – front stage and back stage. In all there are a total of 60 figures in the panels. The St Vincent figure is featured twice and central around which the other 58 figures are gathered, perhaps explaining why the painting is sometimes referred to as the Adoration of St Vincent.

A scene akin to this is the central panel in the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece – the Adoration of the Lamb. That an adoration scene is common to both works is not without coincidence. Both paintings drew inspiration from the Monzara fresco known as The Good and Bad Judge. Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert were the first to incorporate elements of the freso in their famous work. The painter of the St Vincent Panels knew this and followed the example of the Eyck brothers, except that he also drew further inspiration from the Ghent Altarpiece which had been completed in 1432.

Monsaraz Castle, once a home to the Templars.

There is little doubt that Jan van Eyck visited Monsaraz during one his diplomatic excurrsions to Portugal. The infamous stolen Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece points to the Good and Bad Judge fresco in Monsaraz. The Knights of Christ panel references Monsaraz castle and its Templar connections. The Hermits panel, is a pointer to the caves in the area adopted as hermitages. The Pilgrims panel is probably the most interesting. It depicts St Christopher leading pilgrims across the river, probably the Guadiana that borders Spain and Portugal and runs close to Monsaraz.

St Christopher and his band of dog-head pilgrims. Ghent Altarpiece, Pilgrims panel.

With his collared hair and flowing beard, St Christopher, reputed to stand over seven feet tall, has the appearance of a hairy dog. Van Eyck has even given the saint’s nose a shine. Closer inspection of others in the pack with their squinting eyes suggests they too have a-bit-of-the-dog about them.

The explanation is that in Eastern Orthodox iconography St Christopher is represented with the head of a dog. Apparently it came about from a mistranslation of the latin word Cananeus which means Canaanite (Cana in Galilee is where Christopher, who was originally named Reprobus, is said to have come from). Along the way Cananeus became misinterpreted as Canineus (canine). There was also a belief that a race of people with a head of a dog really did exist at one time!

The adjective describing someone as having the head of a dog, or jackal, is cynocephalic, and it is this term that Van Eyck has taken and linked to local landmarks near to Monsaraz – the megalithic stones of Herdade de Xerex (since relocated to a new site close to Monsaraz) and in particular the large phallic menhir that stands central among the square ring of stones. Van Eyck has referenced these stones in three of the Ghent Altarpiece panels, sculpting them into a form representing biblical scenes.

Sculptured rocks, a feature in the Knights of Christ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Some of the stones are inscribed with symbols and these too have been incorporated into both sets of panels by the painters.

Megalithic stones of Herdade de Xerex, now relocated and known known as the Xerex Cromlech (below)

Nuno Gonçalves has also taken the stones and reformed them to represent the figures in the St Vincent Panels, particularly the Saint himself portrayed as the tall menhir. Fifty-five stones form part of what is now known as the Xerex Cromlech. There may even have been 60 before the stones were relocated, which would have matched the number of the figures in the painting. A similar site known as the Almendres Cromlech is near to Évora, about halfway between Monsaraz and Lisbon. This megalith may also have inspired both artists, although there are almost 100 stones still standing.

While Gonçalves made some canine mentions in his painting he chose instead to generally refer to a race of people generally known as Beakers. He did this in two ways, first by alluding to the making of pottery and secondly by emphasising the noses of some of the figures to link to narratives in the painting about birds and beaks.

Upright men from the Panel of the Knights… Beakers, Potters and Painters.

For instance: the brown earthy colours prominent among some of the men in the background are meant to suggest the earth in which the monoliths stood, but in in the Panel of the Knights the four men wearing cottas (or surplices) is linked with the word ‘terra’ (earth) to form terracotta, the brown colour of the earthenware produced by local potters. The range of ‘beaker’ styles are represented by some of the men’s hats.

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.

“A bit of the dog in all of us”

A priest was once heard to say to a group of pilgrims: “There’s a bit of the dog in all of us”. He was referring to the times when people break out from their ordered and obedient nature.

There is sense of disorder in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece – a giant of a man leading a group of rough but seemingly ready-to-follow pilgrims, all men with the exception of the woman at the back of the group identified in the previous post as the Wife of Bath and one of the travellers featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Could it be that Jan van Eyck is hinting at “long and tall tales”, or even “shaggy dog” stories told by ‘shaggy’ pilgrims? The clue comes through the leader of the group, St Christopher. His collared hair and flowing beard has a hairy-dog appearance. Van Eyck has even given the saint’s nose a shine. Closer inspection of others in the pack with their squinting eyes suggests they too have a-bit-of-the-dog about them.

An Orthodox Christopher portrayed as a dog-headed saint.

The explanation is that in Eastern Orthodox iconography St Christopher is represented with the head of a dog. Apparently it came about from a mistranslation of the latin word Cananeus which means Canaanite (Cana in Galilee is where Christopher, who was originally named Reprobus, is said to have come from). Along the way Cananeus became misinterpreted as Canineus (canine). There was also a belief that a race of people with a head of a dog really did exist at one time! In The Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath, seen at the rear of the group, also made mention of Cana in Galilee where Jesus miraculouly turned water into wine.

Reputed to stand over seven feet tall, St Christopher is also depicted here as a Colossus, possibly mirroring the smaller version portrayed by Jankyn, the youth behind him wearing a red tunic and representing a young Constantine. So in this instance Van Eyck is pointing to St Christopher as the Roman Emperor Constantine who moved the imperial capital to Byzantium and renamed it Nova Roma (later known as Constantinople) straddling the Bosphorus.

This East to West connection links to another panel in the altarpiece, so too does the straddling stance taken up by the “Colossus”. It is meant to mirror the straddling theme applied to Henry Beaufort in the Just Judges panel.

 Notice also how St Christopher’s feet are set wide apart, ready to take “one giant leap” across the Bosphorus for Christianity! And the man standing next to the clossus portrayed as Constantine the Great? Possibly St Paul, “called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1) And if Van Eyck intended the white-haired figure to represent Paul, he may also have had in mind the missionary’s warning to the Philippians: “Beware of dogs!” (3:2) 

“Set apart” may also be Van Eyck referencing the East-West Schism of the Church and Constantine’s move to Byzantium, a move seen by some as rash and reckless, and so echoing the the metaphor from Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool reverts to his folly.” But with this metaphor Van Eyck also points to the indiscretion of his mentor Roger Campin, and an adulterous liaison which initially resulted in him being banished from Burgundy and having to set up his ‘business’ elsewhere before he was pardoned and allowed to return. As mentioned in the previous post, Van Eyck has used Campin’s likeness to depict St Christopher.

Images: russianicons.wordpress.com and closertovaneyck