Revealing the Relic

It has never been established which saint or martyr the skull fragment depicted in the so-called Panel of the Relic belongs to. Is it St VIncent of Zaragossa or, as some historians have suggested, Ferdinand, known as the Holy Prince or the Saint Prince (but never canonised), who died as a captive in a Moroccan prison?

Hugo van der Goes, the Flemish artist who painted the St Vincent panels, has provided visible clues that point to another saint, possibly even two, which as far as I know have never been considered before by historians.

While the focus of the Altarpiece is on St Vincent, he is not the only saint or martyr represented in the panels. There are many. In fact, Van der Goes has made “uncovering saints” one of the main themes in the painting. This stems from a connection with the first figure of many representing a saint – in this instance St Ambrose of Milan, depicted in the top left corner of the Friars Panel. More on this connection at another time.

So it should not be assumed that the so-called ‘twin’ figures said to be of St Vincent simply represent that particular saint alone. We are invited to “uncover the saints and martyrs” represented in all of the six panels, as well as other idenities associated with the St Vincent figures.

Van der Goes links each clue to another, as a method of confirming identities and connections. He was influenced in this type of construction by Jan van Eyck who employed the same technique in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where the ten riders interlock as jigsaw pieces.

Let’s explore how Van der Goes leads the viewer to discovering the saint associated with the skull fragment. The artist was well versed in producing heraldic decorations for the Burgundian court and the city of Ghent. In 1468 he was commissioned to do so for the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margareta of York and later other works for important occasions.

Aspects of Hugo’s knowledge and experience of heraldic disciplines and terminology feature in the St Vincent Panels. One particular term Hugo has utilised from the language of heraldry is ‘erasure’ which, according to The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, is the tearing off a part of a charge, to leave a jagged edge, and mostly applied to heads depicted with a ragged edge as if forcibly torn from the body.

In another post I pointed out that one of the works of art which Hugo borrowed features from to include in the St Vincent Panels was the Monsaraz fresco known as the Good and Bad Judge, most notably the damaged or ‘erased’ section that formed part of the Good Judge’s right arm and hand. This ‘erased’ or ‘hidden’ motif is utilised in all of the St Vincent Panels in a variety of ways – for instance: men with arms, men without arms, in a literal and military sense. Very few of the figures standing in the back row of the panels are depicted with arms or hands, and if they are, then there is usually a significant meaning to why this is so.

The Panel of the Relic is a typical example. Only the figure of Jan van Eyck doubling up as John the Baptist shows both arms and hands, and even his arms are partly cut off or covered. His two brothers on the back row, Hubert and Lambert, both named after saints, are also armless. The figure of the French prelate and diplomat Jean Jouffroy, twinned with Pierre Cauchon, another French bishop and also a prosecutor in the trial of Joan of Arc, are depicted with their right arm on show and hand on a holy book. Jouffroy later attacked Joan’s ‘saintly’ reputation in a eulogy given in 1459 to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, which may explain the symbolism of the hidden arm and underhand motif.

As to any visual reference to St Joan of Arc – yet another French connection – it is found in the patterned surplice worn by Hubert. Notice the stake-shaped arch in the centre and what appears to be rising flames, a reminder of how Joan suffered martyrdom by being burnt at the stake. The flames can also be understood as symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

The kneeling figure in the bright red gown depicts the French king Charles VI, referred to as ‘Charles the Mad’, who was plagued throughout his life with bouts of mental illness. The figure is also representative of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, said to have had a a hidden hand in the prosecution of Joan of Arc, although the absent left hand seemingly supporting the skull fragment also has a connection to the relic itself. Both Beaufort and Charles VI are also presented in Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent altarpiece.

As to the skull fragment itself, close inspection shows a ragged edge on its top side. This makes the connection to the heraldic term ‘erasure’ and a reason why Charles VI is holding the relic.

With its spiked back, the ‘torn’ fragment is meant to depict a porcupine and links to the French king’s younger brother, Louis I Duke of Orleans, who was assassinated on November 23, 1407, on the orders of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. He was lured to his death on a Paris street in broad daylight after being told his brother wished to meet with him. When he mounted his horse to start on his way a gang of fifteen masked men attacked and fatally stabbed him, cutting off one of his hands in the process, hence the image of his brother Charles depicted with one hand only.

As to the porpupine motif, this represents the chivalric Order of the Porcupine founded by Louis in 1394 to mark the occasion of the baptism of his son Charles of Orleans who was later held captive by the English as a prisoner of war for 25 years.

The Order’s insignia was represented by a gold porcupine standing on a green enamelled oval-shaped base, hence the green cloth base behind the skull fragment. The Order was sometimes referred to in France as the Ordre du Camail and here Hugo van der Goes makes another link to confirm his intended reference to the insignia. Depicted just above the king’s right shoulder is the coat of camel hair worn by John the Baptist. The word-play, camel and camail, is confirmed by the folds in the Baptist’s coat shaped to represent the legs of a camel.

But there is more to link to the Order of the Porcupine. Louis, duke of Orleans, did not enjoy the best of reputations with the people. He had many enemies and is said to have taken his brother’s wife as a mistress. It was also claimed that he dabbled in magic and the black arts, even necromancy. So when we look at the fuller figure in red, there are other clues that point to Louis, duke of Orleans. Saint he wasn’t, it seems.

To the right and slightly above the green cloth is the shape of demonic face with a sharp-pointed nose. It also has an open, laughing mouth with two teeth. The demonic face represents John the Fearless, noted for his long sharp nose, piercing the cameo, and the stabbing of Louis. This motif is also adapted by Hugo from the Monsaraz fresco, shown below.

But take a look at the green cloth to its full extent and we see portrayed another demonic feature, screaming on its way into the fires of hell. The folds in the red garment are angled and accentuated in a descending formation.

Some twelve years later John the Fearless was assassinated in similar fashion on the bridge at Montereau when an attempt to parley with the French dauphin and future Charles VII of France went amiss. One of the dauphin’s escorts panicked and attacked the duke of Burgundy with an axe to his face. The shape of the axe head can be made out in the demonic face of John the Fearless, cleaving his skull through to the socket of his eye.

So where is the saint feature in all of this? Van der Goes is pointing the way back to another Louis and another king, the only French king canonised by the Cathoic Church, Louis IX.

It was Louis who built a dedicated chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle, as a shrine to house the many relics associated with the life of Christ presented to him by Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. These included the Crown of Thorns and a fragment fo the True Cross, so the skull fragment held by king Charles VI can also be understood as a relic of St Louis and the porcupine’s thorns as the Crown of Thorns placed on the head of Christ during his Passion.

In all of this there is another connection to Jan van Eyck and a folio attributed to him in the Turin-Milan Hours depicting the Birth of John the Baptist. The minature refers to many of the items Louis IX received from Baldwin II and were kept in the Sainte-Chapelle. More recently, the Crown of Thorns was rescued from its sanctuary when the Paris cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire in April 2019.

The Order of the Porcupine is not the only chivalric company represented in the St Vincent panels. There are several, and at least three others in the Panel of the Relic.

More on this and other connections to be discovered in the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

Panel of the Friars – a link to Botticelli, Leonardo and Florence

In my previous post I presented two paintings which connected to the Panel of the Friars. One was the portrait of St Thomas Aquinas painted by Sandro Botticelli which Hugo van der Goes utilised for his figure of Aquinas (back row, centre). However, Hugo had given Aquinas the eyes of Botticelli. It was his way of directing the viewer to another painting by the Florentine artist – the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi and, in particular, to the group of figures on the left side of the frame as shown below.

Hugo was also inspired by two other artworks in creating his compostion – two frescoes – The Good and the Bad Judge, still to be seen in the old town hall of Monsaraz, Portugal; and a section of the cycle depicting the Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy.

More about the connecting details in the Panel of the Friars in my next post

Detail from the Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz, Portugal.
Details frrom the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, Arezzo, Italy.

Seeing double

The St Vincent panels attributed to Nuno Gonçalves, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

Why do the St Vincent Panels show a double image of the martyred deacon in the two centre frames, and almost identical in presentation? What or who inspired this ‘mirror’ effect. Is it designed to prompt the viewer to contemplate and ‘reflect’ on a particular mystery, or does it simply relate to two episode’s in St Vincent’s life and perhaps those who surround him?

Standing near to the deacon in the Panel of the Prince is the Hugo van der Goes (right), and probably the Flemish artist responsible for the painting and production of the St Vincent Panels, and not Nuno Gonçalves the Portuguese artist the work is currently attributed to.

I would go as far as to say that the St Vincent Panels may be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer mentioned in his diary after visiting Ghent in 1495, and attributed to “another great painter” who was “driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. He did not mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes who suffered a breakdown late in his life.

Hugo has made several references in the St Vincent Panels to the work of Jan van Eyck – also to other Flemish painters. Jan and his two brothers Hubert and Lambert are presented in the Panel of the Relic.

Van der Goes has sourced the Ghent Altarpiece for his two versions of St Vincent, deacon and martyr. Jan van Eyck included two tonsured deacons standing next to each other in the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, walled in between a line of three popes and a row of seven bishops (right). The two deacons are St Stephen and St Lawrence. The latter shares a common birthplace with St Vincent. Both were born in Huesca in Spain.

St Stephen, who was stoned to death, is identifiable by the rocks gathered in his dalmic vestment, and the collar resting on his shoulders, studded with precious stones. St Lawrence holds a Gospel book but can be more readily recognised by the pattern on his collar, a reference to the manner of torture he suffered when he was placed on a gridiron with hot coals underneath. Another clue is that Lawrence is turned facing away from the direction most of the group are looking toward. This is a reference to the length of time he was being roasted and quipped to his torturers: “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!”

Van Eyck placed these two particular deacons together for a reason, St Stephen was martyred in Jerusalem but eventually his relics were brought to Rome and laid to rest alongside those of St Lawrence, martyred in Rome. It is said that when Stephen’s bones were reinterred, Lawrence’s relics miraculously moved to one side to accomodate those of Stephen’s – perhaps another reason why Lawrence is shown turned towards his neighbour. The two deacon’s remains are interred under the high altar in what is now known as the Basilica Papale di San Lorenzo fuori le mura.

Although there is much mystery about the origin and history of the St Vincent panels, the assumption that the six sections formed part of a larger altarpiece dedicated to St Vincent in Lisbon Cathedral is widely promoted and referred to as the “Vicente thesis”.

At some time during its history, the six panels were presumed lost – as was the rest of the Lisbon Cathedral altarpiece – until they were discovered in the 1880s at the monastery of Saint Vicente de Fora in Lisbon. This find has led some researchers to consider the six panels were never part of the Cathedral altarpiece dedicated to St Vincent, and instead formed a single work commissioned solely for the São Vicente de Fora monastery. The monastery was founded in the 12th century by Portugal’s first king Alfonso Henrique for the Augustinian Order. It was rebuilt between 1582 and 1629, which may explain why the St Vincent panels were discovered “covered in dirt and soot” among scaffolding some 300 years, perhaps having been relocated during the reconstruction of the monastery – the monastery descibed as being “outside the walls”, just as the Basilica of St Lawrence in Rome is also descibed as being “outside the walls” (San Lorenzo fuori le mura).

So has the artist who painted the St Vincent Panels provided a clue to the location the polyptych was originally commissioned for by linking the two deacons in Van Eyck’s work to the double image of St Vincent and the fact that the two churches are referred to as being “outside the walls”?

Although a Vicente theorist, the Portuguese art historian Reynaldo dos Santos (1970) proposed the retable was destined for the monastery of São Vicente de Fora because he considered the only obvious relics of St Vincent depicted in the panels were the skull fragment and coffin, which were in possession of the monastery and not Lisbon’s cathedral.

Another point to consider is that Hugo van der Goes – if he was responsible for painting the St Vincent Panels – was also a lay brother from 1477 at the Rood Klooster (Red Cloister), an Augustinian priory near Brussels. It was around this period that he suffered a breakdown and attempted to self-harm. The method and instrument he used is illustrated in at least three of his later paintings including the St Vincent Panels.

The Red Cloister takes its name from the red tiles of the roof which could explain why the two St Vincent figures are wearing red hats – the artist confirming the work was produced during the time he lived at the priory. Or is this simply a hat-tip to Jan van Eyck’s self portrait of a Man in a Red Turban, shaped as a red rooster and a pun on Red Klooster? Perhaps both.

St Vincent’s red hat could also be viewed as a pointer to another painting by Jan van Eyck – the Arnolfini Portrait and its prominent mirror on the wall. Not only does it reflect the backs of the two main subjects but also shows two or possibly three other obscure figures in the room, one of whom is considered to be Van Eyck in the process of painting the couple and wearing his red hat.

This famous painting was echoed in a manuscript illumination attributed to Loyset Liédet and forrms part of a book titled Histoire de Charles Martel. The compiler of the text is thought to have been Jean Wauquelin, but the minature actually features David Aubert who transcribed or translated the text, and is shown wearing a similar red hat to St Vincent. His pose is also reminiscent of the saint as seen in the Panel of the Archbishop.

This folio provides the link to identifying two more of the figures in the St Vincent Panels. The man holding a book and standing at the right end of the line is Jean Wauquelin. Turning his head toward Wauquelin is David Aubert, minus his red hat. Van der Goes has ‘translated’ the hat onto the head of the figure in front who is Anthony of Burgundy, Aubert’s main patron and the favourite bastard son of Philip the Good. Anthony also features in the Loyset Liédet illumination. He’s the figure in the blue gown, wearing a gold chain and pointing to Aubert’s work.

The facial features of St Vincent are adapted from the Good and Bad Judge fresco in the old town hall of Monsaraz, where Van Eyck visited during his year-long diplomatic excursion to Portugal. The judge’s double-face or turned head was probably another feature what partly inspired Jan’s portrayal of the two deacons in the Ghent Altarpiece.

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.

“I was there!”

Last week I published an article on my website revealing how The Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz in Portugal, partly inspired the famous St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves. I also stated that the SV Panels were also influenced by the Ghent Altarpiece.

What I didn’t know at the time is that Jan van Eyck had also sourced The Good and Bad Judge fresco for the Ghent Altarpiece. At sometime during one of his diplomatic visits to Portugal he must have travelled to Monsaraz and viewed the fresco.

Here’s an example of how Van Eyck recycled some of the fresco’s iconography for the Pilgrims panel in the Ghent Altarpiece. The youth in red is meant to portray a young Jan van Eyck. Just as his statement on the wall in the Arnolfini Portrait, Van Eyck was visually confirming: “I was there!”

My presentation on The Good and Bad Judge is at this link.