This week there was news that an Italian historian had identified the bridge which appears in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Silvano Vinceti announced at a press conference in Rome that he has no doubt it was the Romito di Laterina bridge in the province of Arezzo and not two other candidates previously considered. The Good News Network reported:
“Using drone photographs and historical orecords of da Vinci’s whereabouts, including those owned by the De Medici family, historian Silvano Vinceti says he feels very sure that the bridge over Mona Lisa’s left shoulder is the Romito di Laterina bridge.
“The most telling clue was the number of arches. Three candidates for the bridge depicted in the Mona Lisa all have different numbers of arches. The Ponte Buriano near Laterina has six arches, while the Ponte Gobbo, in the town of Bobbio near Piacenza, has more than six.
“The bridge in the Mona Lisa, however, has four. Using drone photographs and by measuring the distance between the two banks of the river in Laterina, as well as the size of the single arch that remains from the historic bridge, Vinceti came to a mathematical conclusion that the Romito di Laterina surely had four arches.”
Four remaining arches of a bridge can be seen in Leonardo’s painting of The Annunciation.
Leonardo da Vinci once submitted a design to Sultan Bayezid II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, for a bridge to span across the Golden Horn. It wasn’t accepted. He also sketched drawings for a self-supporting style of bridge, constructed with interlocking logs.
Botticelli’s Primavera painting references Leonardo’s bridge designs with the interlocking fingers of the Three Graces and the arched arms of of the outside Graces forming the shape of a keystone. I made mention to the group’s connection to Istanbul and the Golden Horn in another post at this link.
From illuminated manuscripts to theatrically staged photography, the codified image of a crowned monarch has told the story of a rite that mixes religious and pre-Christian practices. More at The Art Newspaper.
I wonder if the PMA realises what a unique treasure it has in its possession and on exhibit?
The painting is dated circa 1490. At one time it was considered to have been produced by the Netherlandish painter Hans Membling, and I’m not aware of who or when the work was attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, but it is, in fact a self-portrait of the Florentine painter.
It must have been a late work by Ghirlandaio because he died from the plague at a relatively young age of 45 in January 1494.
In the following year, 1495, Leonardo da Vinci began work on painting his famous mural of The Last Supper in the refectory attached to the monastery of Santa Marie Delle Grazia, in Milan.
Ghirlandaio’s self portrait was the inspiration and model for the central figure of Jesus in The Last Supper mural.
And I would go as far as to hypothesise that the face of Christ in the Salvatore Mundi painting, auctioned at Christie’s in 2017, is a composite of both Leonardo da Vinci and Domenico Ghirlandaio.
There are other features in Ghirlandaio’s painting that Leonardo referred to in The Last Supper. Both paintings also reference one of Leonardo’s earliest works, The Annunciation.
I mentioned in the previous post that the study and placement of hands was important to Leonardo da Vinci in his work. It is claimed that Leonardo may have suffered with ulnar palsy, or what is known as “claw hand”. I posted about this diagnosis at the link below.
Botticelli, Mantegna and Ghirlandaio are three artists who portrayed Leonardo with a clawed hand and Giorgio Vasari made reference to this disability in his Battle of Marciano fresco. He shows Leonardo’s right hand gripping the wedge-shaped flask while refilling the musket with gunpowder. Notice also the horse-tail at the side of the flask. This is a reference to the flask also representing the shape of a Greek harp or lyre. Leonardo made a similar instrument in the shape of a horse head as a gift for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. This gift is also alluded to elsewhere in the fresco.
The hand also represents a crab, the fingers its legs. An eye is depicted in the corner of the pouch between the thumb and forefinger. The crab feature is also part of a group of disguised creatures listed as forbidden food in the Book of Leviticus, written in Hebrew from right to left. Leonardo was known to write with his left hand, possibly because of the abnormality in his right hand. He generally wrote from right to left on the page in a style known as mirror-writing.
Having pointed out in my previous post the connection between Leonardo’s musket and his painting of the Lady with an Ermine, (the ermine is a type of weasel, one of the forbidden foods) are there any other Leonardo’s paintings to be found in this section of Vasari’s fresco?
Let’s look at the honey or gold-coloured sleeve covering Leonardo’s left arm. Could this be a pointer to the rippling folds in the gold-coloured sleeves of the famous Mona Lisa painting? Cerca Trova (Seek and Find).
Another painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci is the controversial Salvatore Mundi, sold at auction in 2017 for $450 million U.S. Could there be any indication that this work features in Vasari’s Marciano fresco. I believe there is.
My understanding is that the Salvatore Mundi is a mirror reflection of Leonardo. Observe the globe held in the claw hand of Christ’s left hand, but in reality Leonardo’s right hand if we keep in mind it is a “mirror” portrait. And so the hand raised in blessing is therefore Leonardo’s left hand, and perhaps a pointer to the Salvatore Mundi portrait being made by “the hand of Leonardo”.
There is another reference to the Salvatore Mundi elsewhere in this section of Vasari’s fresco, and to an earlier painting by Leonardo: The Annunciation. More about this in a future post.
The scene is based on the short passage from Luke’s gospel (10 : 38-42) which reads:
…Jesus came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered: “Martha, Martha,” he said “you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.”
Bread is not mentioned in the passage, but features in the painting because the scene represents the two main liturgies in the celebration of the Catholic Mass – the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, with Christ present in both.
Mary’s Meals school feeding programme in Syria provides meals for children whose young lives have been scarred by unimaginable trauma. The charity works with a partner organisation, Dorcas.
Every school day, Mary’s Meals normally reaches 5,042 children across 18 schools and one community centre in Aleppo – a city which was under siege between 2012 and 2016. A dedicated team of volunteers prepare all the lunches in one school that has reliable access to water and electricity. The food is then delivered to the other locations across the city.
More information and details about Mary’s Meals emergency appeal for Syria at this link.
Luxury sports car maker Ferrari is supporting the restoration of a Cimabue fresco in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Cimabue’s fresco Madonna Enthroned with the Child, St Francis and Four Angels – known as the ‘Maestà di Assisi’ – is to be carefully restored in a project entirely made possible by Ferrari. The conservation programme will start next January and is expected to last around a year. More details at this link.
I’ve added a new page – ‘Personal stuff’ – to house some galleries of images taken in and around my home on a third generation iPad. Here’s the link. You can also access the page via the Catchlight Pages list in the sidebar under the title ‘Personal stuff’.
Amistice Day, also known as Veterans Day, is commemorated every year on November 11 to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War 1 and German at Compiègne, France, at 5:45am for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War 1, which took effect at eleven in the morning – the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. (Wikipedia)
The feast of St Martin of Tours is celebrated on this day also, and sometimes referred to as Martinmas or St Martin’s Day. The fourth century Roman soldier, who later became a bishop in Gaul, features in Botticelli’s famous Primavera painting. Details at this link.
An LS Lowry painting described as an “iconic masterpiece” has been sold at auction for a record-breaking £7.8 million. Going To The Match depicts a bustling throng of football fans gathered at the former home of Bolton Wanderers.
In a previous post I pointed out that Botticelli adapted the Four Cardinal Virtues sculpted on the early 14th century pulpit in Pisa Cathedral and featured them in his Birth of Venus painting.
I explained how the central figure of Venus in Botticelli’s painting represented Ecclesia (the Church) and also both the virtues of Justice and Prudence. The figure about to cover up the naked Venus, sometimes referred to as a goddess of the seasons, represents the two other Cardinal Virtues, Fortitude and Temperance.
My previous post also demonstrated how Botticelli adapted a drawing by Villard de Honnecourt for the woman’s composition. She is shaped to represent a buttress to support the tilting Venus, or Ecclesia in a state of nakedness representing the perceived failings and faults of the Church of the time.
One of Fortitude’s symbols is a lion, as seen in Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit sculpture. In Botticelli’s painting a lion’s head is formed by the shape of the red cloak, it’s mane being the long hair of the woman. The shape is also meant to mirror the head of the horse as in Villard’s drawing, except there is a small difference. The right fetlock of Villard’s horse appears to be growing out of the animal’s forehead or forelock.
This is matched by Botticelli with a similar feature grasped by the woman’s right hand. In this instance it represents a horn attached to the head of the horse and so becomes a unicorn. Both lion and unicorn are often featured as support symbols in heraldic coats of arms.
Another symbol associated with Fortitude is a yoke. This can be recognised as the red cloak’s collar or the mouth of the lion-cum-unicorn whose head is harnessed by the woman’s arms. The harness or bridle, a form of restraint, is also a symbol associated with Temperance.
Fish is another symbol attributed to Temperance; so are water and wine jugs. The lower half of the red cloak represents a fish, it’s tail held in the grip of the woman’s left hand. Protruding from the side of the head is the shape of another fish head formed by the headland.
The jug feature is shaped as a wine sack formed by the section of the red cloak below the woman’s right arm, it’s open spout held in her right hand. A jug handle shaped from the cloak’s collar.
The Pisa connection to the Birth of Venus painting extends beyond the Four Cardinal Virtues that form part of the Cathedral’s pulpit, and the short time Botticelli spent working in the city. More on this in a future post.
In his book, Botticelli, Life and Work, the late art historian Ronald Lightbown records the short period the artist spent working in Pisa, some 50 miles west of Florence.
Commissioned by the Opera del Duomo in January 1474, Botticelli first began to fresco a test piece depicting the Assumption of the Virgin in the cathedral’s Incoronata Chapel, starting in July of the same year. According to the Italian painter and historian, Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli was dissatisfied with the work and left it unfinished, seemingly some three moths after starting.
However, Botticelli’s experience in Pisa was not wasted and his months spent in the coastal town later proved to be a rich source of inspiration for his painting of the Birth of Venus.
The leaning Venus not only connects to the leaning Ecclesia drawing Botticelli utilised from the Portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt, but also to the famous and still standing leaning Tower of Pisa.
Furthermore, a sculpture representing Ecclesia and another figure associated with the naked Venus Pudica, form part of the early 14th century pulpit located in Pisa Cathedral. The complex design and its decoration was sculpted by Giovanni Pisano.
The figure of Eccelasia, or Mother Church, is one one of the support columns for the pulpit. She stands on a pedestal and is depicted wearing a crown and suckling two infants. At her right shoulder are two eagles. Surrounding the pedestal are four figures presented as the Cardinal Virtues, one of which is the naked Venus Pudica representing the Virtue of Prudence. The other Virtues are Justice, Fortitude and Temperance.
While the Venus Pudica corresponds with Botticelli’s Venus, the three remaining Virtues can also be identified in the painting.
It’s important to know that the Four Cardinal Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit are arranged in pairs, side by side and back to back, similar in a way that Villard’s drawing of the mountain bear and swan backs on to the image of Ecclesia. Fortitude and Prudence are paired standing side by side, as are Justice and Temperance. However, Prudence stands back to back with Justice, while Fortitude backs onto Temperance.
In his painting, Botticelli portrayed the woman holding up the mantle as Fortitude. The model is Lucrezia Donati, the same woman Botticelli featured in his famous painting of Fortitude in 1470, one of seven panels representing Virtues designated to decorate the Tribunal Hall of Palazzo della Signoria in Florence.
In a previous post – Fallen angels – I explained that the source for the winged figures left of Venus in Botticelli’s painting was Villard’s drawing representing Pride. Botticelli was also inspired by the same sketch in another novel way. He turned the page over, rotated it 90 degrees, and utilised the “see-through” image to form the upper half of the figure of Fortitude, echoing the back-to back formation of the paired Virtues on Pisano’s pulpit.
Botticelli also picked up on the double-eagle motif at Ecclesia’s right shoulder, which explains why Eagle wings are attached to the two “fallen angels” placed at the right shoulder of the leaning Venus (Mater Ecclesia, Mother of the Church). The bird seemingly speaking into the ear of Ecclesia can also be visualised as a dove representing the Holy Spirit, guiding the Church on its missionary journey.
But Botticelli invites the viewer to see through what appears at surface level and to consider the presentation from another viewpoint or perspective, to turn the page, so to speak, for it is said there are two sides to every story.
And so it is with the Four Cardinal Virtues shown on Pisano’s pulpit sculpture – a compact presentation of biblical events and moral standards ‘written’ in stone by a master craftsman.
To encounter face to face the pairing of Fortitude and Temperance sculpted from a single piece of stone requires the observer to change their viewpoint, as it does with the back-to-back formation of Justice and Fortitude. But the pairing of Fortitude and Prudence can be viewed together face-on. Likewise the pairing of Justice and Temperance.
Botticelli refers to this arrangement in his painting. Already mentioned is the figure of Fortitude. Prudence, in the form of Venus Pudica is placed to her left. The arrangement is contrapposto (opposite) to Pisano’s.
The back-up Virtue to the figure of Venus Pudica is Justice, so therefore Temperance is the Virtue hidden behind or within Fortitude. Both Justice and Temperance can be recognised by one or more of their symbolic attributes.
Justice is usually shown with a balance and scales, sometimes with a sword as well. So the reference to the falcon head and its sickle-shaped beak explained in my previous post represents the sword associated with Justice. As for the balance and scales, these are reflected in the oversized scallop shell. It is not on an even keel and dips to one side, the scale or degree of which is measured by the number of the shell’s ribs either side of Venus.
• My next post will deal with the Virtue of Temperance and how it connects with Villard de Honnecourt’s drawing of the falling man and horse representing Pride.
A feature which could be easily overlooked when viewing Botticelli’s painting of the so-called Birth of Venus (it wasn’t given that name until as late as the 19th century) is the cluster of tall bulrushes placed in the bottom left corner of the picture.
Art historians Ronald Lightbown and Frank Zöllner both point out that these species of rushes grow only beside freshwater and not a marine beach. Lightbown suggests Botticelli had not much knowledge of the sea strand, while Zöllner identifies the species as Typha latifoli, and surmises that the presence of bulrushes has an erotic significance and be regarded as phallic symbols.
That Botticelli has planted bulrushes alongside saltwater and not freshwater was deliberate, suggesting other elements and narratives within the painting are not what they appear to be, some clearly hidden or out of sight.
The four visible seed pods among the rushes can be compared with a similar motif present in Jan van Eyck’s famous painting known as the Arnolfini Portrait – the pair of pattens in the bottom left corner of the frame. This would suggest Botticelli was familiar with and probably had sight of the Arnolfini Portrait at some time. The Arnolfini family were wealthy cloth merchants based both in Bruge, Flanders, and also Lucca, Italy. Botticelli included several references to Lucca in his Primavera painting and to the Arnolfini Portrait. So it’s not by chance he borrowed another motif, the pair of pattens, to provide one explanation for the bulrushes.
Van Eyck’s pattens refer to a biblical passage from Exodus. They are arranged to represent the hands of a clock, one pointing to the number 3 position, the other to the number 5 position and so chapter 3, verse 5 of Exodus and the command given to Moses as he approached the burning bush: “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
Notice the four pods of the bulrushes are split into two pairs. Although they are not pointing out of the frame but upwards instead, it can be safely understood that they also reference a passage from Exodus – chapter two, verse two – a passage that describes The Birth of Moses. The verse reads: “She conceived and gave birth to a son, and seeing what a fine child he was, kept him for three months.”
So who was this woman and her son that Botticelli alludes to? The passage from Exodus provides more clues, as do the bulrushes.
When the Hebrew mother could no longer conceal her child – Pharaoh had earlier decreed that all new-born Hebrew boys be drowned – the woman placed her child in a papyrus basket and laid it among the reeds beside the river. Later, the Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids were walking on the bank of the river when they discovered the child in its basket. A nurse was fetched. She happened to be the infant’s mother and was told to take the child and suckle it. “When the child grew up she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son; she named him Moses because, she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’.” (Exodus 2 : 10)
That the infant Moses did not join Pharaoh’s family until he had grown is akin to Giulio de’ Medici, son of the assassinated Giuliano de Medici and Fioretta Gorini, being fostered by the family of Antonio Da Sangallo (the Elder) until the age of seven before he was handed over to the Medici family under the guardianship of his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Back to the bulrushes and the four seeded pods pointing in an upward direction to the winged couple usually described as the wind god Zephyr and his wife Chloris. She clings to Zephyr in a manner that suggests she is fearful of falling, despite having wings.
The woman is pregnant, but her swelling is hidden. Instead, Botticelli has exposed and framed the belly of Zephyr. Notice also the grip of the womans hands, and her fingers arranged to represent sexual union.
What is also noticeable is the wing of another bird wrapped around the right arm of Zephyr. Its elongated beak rests on his shoulder. The bird is depicted as a stork, perhaps symbolic of the bird associated with birth, but more likely the Egyptian hieroglyphic representing the soul or spirit.
So are the two flying figures modelled on Giuliano Medici and Fioretta Gorini? Fioretta, yes, but unlikely Giuliano. My understanding is that the flying angel represents Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli set out to identify him by association with Moses and the bulrushes, and the exodus from Egypt.
An early painting by Andrea del Verrocchio depicting the Baptism of Christ has a similar composition to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus except that Christ is the central figure while John the Baptist is the figure on the right with his arm raised in similar fashion to the Hora representing the season of Spring. The two kneeling figures are Leonardo da Vinci, with his back to the viewer, and Sandro Botticelli. But observe the bulrush with its seeded pod alongside the clearwater stream and placed in the left-hand corner of the frame pointing up to Leonardo. Rushes also surround the base of the garment that Leonardo holds ready to cover Christ with after his baptism.
So the bulrushes in the Birth of Venus painting can be understood as a device to make a connection to Leonardo and also find him, as Moses was, among the bulrushes.
There is another link to Leonardo and bulrushes, a drawing that is part of the Royal Collection Trust and described as “a study of a bulrush, with one seed-vessel”. Although the RCT dates the drawing between 1506 and 1512, other sources assign the drawing circa 1480.
As for linking Leonardo with Moses there is a series of frescoes in the Sistine Chapel depicting the life of Moses. Botticelli had a hand in producing some of these when he and a group of painters from Florence were sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Rome to decorate the newly-built chapel as an act of reconciliation and diplomacy between Florence and Pope Sixtus IV in the wake of the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478).
Two of the frescoes depict Leonardo face to face with Moses: The Trials of Moses in which Leonardo is portrayed as the Egyptian slain by Moses; and The Testament and Death of Moses which shows Leonardo in the guise of Joshua kneeling in front of the prophet receiving the baton of command as his successor.
Leonardo features in another part of the fresco (right) as being on trial after an anonymous accusation of sodomy was made against him. He is portrayed as a fallen angel, and for a reason which I shall reveal in my next post.
In my previous post I pointed out connections to the figure of Mars and his “harpe” with St Martin of Tours and the sword he used to cut his cloak in half to cover a half-naked beggar.
However, a sculpture of this scene displayed above eye level on the facade of Lucca Cathedral, and which inspired Botticelli to reference it in the Primavera painting, gives the impression that Martin is about to decapitate the beggar.
Botticelli adopts this illusion to link the figure and his sword to the Three Graces group. Remember, too, that the figure of Mars also represents Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in Florence Cathedral in 1478.
Adjacent to the Duomo is the famous Baptistery of St John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets who was beheaded on the orders of Herod Antipas.
At one time, before the turn of the 15th century, a sculpture of the Three Graces, or Virtues, representing, Faith, Hope and Love, stood above one of the three doors that opened into the Florence Baptistery. So in this scenario, Botticelli’s Three Graces can be understood as symbolic of the Sacrament of Baptism and their diaphanous gowns as the flow of cleansing water associated with the sacrament.
The decapitation theme – suggested by Botticelli’s observation of St Martin’s sword at the beggar’s neck, linked to the beheading of John the Baptist, and the fact that Giuliano de Medici’s head was also cleaved – is portrayed in very small detail below the edge of the sword’s sheath as a head on a plate.
This feature – a head on a plate – is also a link to the East door of the Baptistery, bordered in parts with a series of encircled busts, one of which is Lorenzo Ghiberti the sculptor who designed the door. Ghiberti had earlier designed and sculpted another of the Baptistery doors which became known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’. The commission was awarded as a result of a competition in which Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi were considered finalists. The judges were unable to decide on an outright winner and both men were invited to work together. However, Brunelleschi refused and took himself off to Rome before returning some years later when both men competed again for a commission to design and engineer the famous Duomo for Florence Cathedral. This time it was Brunelleschi who was favoured with the contract.
Botticelli references the Duomo – the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flower – with the figure representing the Virgin Mary beneath the dome shape formed by the branches of the trees and representing the two lungs of the Church, East and West, Byzantine and Latin.
Botticelli also extended the themes of water and severed heads to another Florentine sculptor to add to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Sculpture Garden: Andrea del Verrocchio, who was a painter and goldsmith as well.
There are four works attributed to Verrocchio that can be linked to this section of Primavera – (1) The Baptism of Christ, (2) the bronze figure of David with the Head of Goliath, (3) The terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici, and (4) the equestrian bronze statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni.
Mentioned earlier was Herod Antipas who ordered the beheading of St John the Baptist. Sculpted in the rock formation in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ painting is a depiction of Herod the Great, the father of Herod Antipas. Observe that the water flowing alongside the sculpted head has turned red with the blood from the children Herod the Great ordered to be slain in his attempt to find and kill Jesus, the ‘new-born’ King.
Verrocchio’s bronze of David with the head of Goliath at his feet can be compared with the figure of Giuliano whose sword is adjacent to the severed head of the Baptist. However, David is depicted as wearing armour on his upper body while Giuliano isn’t, as was the case when he was attacked and assassinated in Florence Cathedral. But in Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici he is shown wearing a breastplate that depicts the head of a screaming angel which, in fact, is a representation of Leonardo da Vinci, who is also shown as one of the kneeling angels in the Baptism of Christ painting, and was the model for Verrocchio’s David. The stone which David used to slay Goliath was one of five he picked out of a stream. The weapon he used to decapitate Goliath was the Philistine’s own sword.
Verrocchio’s equestrian bronze of the Italian condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni was commissioned by the Republic of Venice in 1483. Although he completed the wax model, Verrocchio died in 1488 before he could he could cast the work in bronze. This was undertaken by Alessandro Leopardi in 1496.
Botticelli has linked the military theme of Verrocchio’s equestrian sculpture with that of St Martin, who served in the Roman cavalry, and also to the equestrian statue of Mars (the Roman military god) that once stood on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence before it was swept away in the Arno River flood of 1333. Botticelli employs word-play in the Primavera, for instance, bridging Vecchio with Verrocchio.
The equestrian and water themes link back to the Three Graces which I touched on in a previous post.
• More on this and the Three Graces in my next post.
This post is a continuation from the previous, which setoutto identify some of the figures in the Panel of the Prince.
I named these six men in my previous post as (front row, left to right) Thomas Vassem, Hugo van der Goes, Dante Alighieri and Virgil. The two half-hidden faces belong to Francesco Petrarch and Plutarch (doubling up as Pluto, king of the underworld).
A further link to five of the figures is they all experienced some form of exile. Petrarch’s father ser Petracco was exiled from Florence in 1302, eighteen months before the birth of his son. Ser Petracco’s friend Dante was also exiled from Florence during the same year. Plutarch represents an eternal exile when his name is played with Pluto, the Roman god of the dead and the underworld, equivalent to the Greek version Hades. Virgil is placed on the verge of the frame for a reason. He accompanied and guided Dante through the depths of Hell and Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy poem but was never able to enter Paradise because he wasn’t baptised. However, although the stain of “original sin” remained with him, he was what was referred to as a “virtuous pagan”.
Notice the face shaped in the folds of Virgil’s throat and looking at the stain of original sin presented as a black spot on his white undergarment. Baptism is said to remove the mark of original sin humanity is born with. The face in the folds is a reminder of a gorget worn to cover and protect the throat and neck (as seen in the figure of Philippa). Gorget lends itself to the word “gorge” meaning “chasm” and this refers to the gap or distance that Virgil was never able to cross to reach Paradise. Hugo van der Goes borrowed this detail from a section of the Ghent Altarpiece that refers to the biblical parable of The Rich man and Lazarus and the words spoken by Abraham to the rich man, “Between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours” (Luke 16:26).
In the image shown above, Virgil is placed in front of the twinned figure of Plutarch and Pluto representing Hades, and on the verge or edge of the frame. His location is Limbo, meaning “edge” or “border”, and a special place the Church conceived for unbaptised “virtuous pagans” after death.
Thomas van Vessem was prior of the the Red Cloister Augustinian community which Hugo had joined as a lay brother in 1478. Vessem is the figure standing cheek-to-cheek with Van der Goes. There are two references in the panel which point to his identity.
The first derives from the half-hidden figure of Petrarch. Widely travelled, the poet once ascended Mount Ventoux in the Provence region of France, a considerable feat in 1336. After he reached the summit he contemplated on his ascent and view of the Alps and then took from his pocket a copy of St Augustine’s “Confessions”. When Petrarch opened the book his eyes fell on a passage that suggested the climbing experience was but an allegory and a prompt to lead a better life.
Mount Ventoux (meaning “windy” in French) is nicknamed “Bald Mountain” and this is another connection to the word “arc” formed by the bald head of Thomas van Vessem. The word “windy” is also a pointer to the Windesheim Congregation which the Augustinians of the Red Cloister community joined in 1412.
Just as Jan van Eyck planted puns and word play in the Ghent Altarpiece, so too did Hugo van Eyck in the St Vincent Panels.
“Cloister can be understood as “cluster” which serves as a meaning for “nest”. Birds is another theme in the painting which Hugo borrowed from the Ghent Altarpiece. Jan van Eyck sourced Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls to introduce this theme in the Just Judges panel which goes some way to making the connection to the figure of Chaucer standing close to the deacon said to represent St Vincent, patron saint of Portugal’s capital Lisbon.
Notice the feathered look of the deacon’s hair, shaped to represent both bird and nest. The hairstyles applied to some of the other figures in the painting also have a feathered appearance.
Perched on the deacon’s “cluster” is a red hat. The combination of red hat and nest is not only a reference to the bird depiction in Van Eyck’s famous self-portrait, Man in a Red Turban, but also to the red roof tiles that covered the Red Cloister priory.
Having previously posted on Jan van Eyck’s self portrait, Man in a Red Turban, I recently discovered Van Eyck’s source of inspiration for the painting, a book authored in 1354 by Henri de Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster; its title: Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines (The Book of Holy Medicines). A translation of the text into modern English by Catherine Batt was published in 2014 by ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).
It’s very likely Van Eyck possessed or had access to a copy of this book that can be described as a literary form of confession and penitence.
Written in the first person, the text also serves as a mirror for self examination by the reader. It focuses on the narrator’s spiritual wounds in a physical sense. Body parts, particularly those associated with the five senses, are described as gateways for the seven cardinal sins: pride, greed, anger, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Healing grace ministered by Christ the doctor, accompanied by his mother Mary, is compared allegorically with a variety of medicinal remedies used by the people in Henry’s time.
As a mirror of reflection, the book is echoed in Van Eyck’s self-portrait made with the aid of a mirror. The painter presents himself as both sinner and penitent.
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 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. For Christians, the cockerel also symbolises Christ’s resurrection.
By turning the chaperon 90 degrees clockwise it can be seen how Van Eyck has depicted the rooster’s head and beak, as well as it’s comb or ‘crown’. Other forms connected to the Passion can also be made out.
Another image to emerge at this angle is Christ crucified. It depicts his suspension from the cross, hanging by his left arm, and his bowed head capped or crowned. A third image is Mary, the mother of Jesus, resting her head against the rooster. When viewed at the normal angle the turban reveals the presentation of the ‘Lamb of God’. Also, when the images of the Lamb and Mary resting her head are united, the combination is recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.
Henry de Gosmont describes his heart as a whirlpool that swallows up all the sins of the world. Van Eyck has translated this as the passion and death of Christ whose self-sacrifice as the Lamb of God takes away or “swallows up” the sins of the world. Christ’s crucifixion and the Lamb of God are outlined in the “whirlpool” or “turbulent” presentation of the red turban. Jan was not slow to embed word-play in to his paintings. “Whirl and “world” is another example. Some observers may insist that Jan’s head-cover is actually a chaperon, but the artist’s intention was two-fold, both chaperon and turban.
Van Eyck also embedded the reference to chaperon as implied in “chaperone”, a person who accompanies and takes care of another individual or group, and in this instance the most obvious reference is the outline of the mother of Jesus who accompanied her Son on his way to Calvary, stood by him during his crucifixion, and was there to receive his body when it was taken down from the cross. The painting reflects Christ’s call for all to carry their cross and follow him. A similar message is mirrored in The Book of Holy Medicines In which Henry de Grosmont – “weak from his wounds and bodily sickness that he has lost his wits” – expresses his desire to be healed of his delirium, delusions and sinful thoughts in mind, body and spirit by meditating on the passion of Christ.
Grosmont’s remedy for healing his delirium is both practical and metaphorical. It was to place a cockerel on one’s head, “all split and dismembered and fully spread out, with the blood still hot […] the blessed cockerel who sang for us at dawn when we were in darkness and in shadows. […] I am the weak delirious wretch, and our precious Jesus Christ is the cockerel…” (translation by Catherine Batt, The Book of Holy Medicines, p217)
This remedy explains why Van Eyck has depicted the turban as the cockrel on his head. Batt also points to another treatise, Liber de Diversis Medicinis, which “recommends in cases of madness, a black cockerel, to be applied for three days”. This may also be the reason why Van Eyck is painted wearing a black coat.
Another description Grosmont applies to his heart is to liken it to a fox’s den of earth where the sinful creature of mischief retreats and hides during the day only to appear again at night under the cover of darkness to pursue its wicked vices. Grosmont relates how his eyes and ears, nose and mouth are all portals to the fox’s lair, his heart.
Apart from his portrayal as a cockerel, Van Eyck presents himself as an image of a fox. The entrance to his lair is the fox-trimmed collar; the small triangle shape depicts the white markings seen on a fox’s throat; his sharp nose points to the animal’s long snout, and his clamped thin lips to the long line of the fox’s mouth when closed. Van Eyck’s observant eyes depict those of a watchful fox eying its prey – the red cockrel disguised in the artist’s turban.
Already mentioned is that the cockerel represents Christ. In this portrait the fox represents the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas. The combination of cockerel and fox refers to the passage from Luke’s gospel (13 : 32). When warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day.
Grosmont also relates his sins and heart to “when a salmon wants to reproduce and have its young, it swims far from the sea, upstream towards the mountains and changes its nature completely.” In other words, the nature of sin is regarded as deadly, once it has entered and reached the heart via the senses.
In this instance Van Eyck depicts an observant eye as the spawning ground for salmon, the portal where sin enters his heart. His eyelid is shaped as a ‘leaping’ salmon. The eye and its pupil can be understood as the egg and food sac, and the small highlights the gravel that covers the egg. One corner of the eye is seemingly the point of entry for salmon to spawn; the other corner is bloodshot and represents the sinful wound.
One of the seven ‘deadly’ sins Grosmont warns about in detail is “Lady Sloth”, a creature of comfort and laziness who arrives at the gate of his ear pleading to enter and once inside is reluctant to leave the castle that is his body. Sloth encourages the body to rest and tend to the needs of the soul “some other day”. Grosmont confesses to the Lord he has badly conducted the defence of his castle and guarded his heart, the tower stronghold, even less so.
In Van Eyck’s self-portrait the sin of Sloth is expressed as the animal of the same name noted for its slowness and hanging upside down on trees. He depicts it as the shape in the turban showing Christ crucified, hanging on a tree. The feature covers Van Eyck’s ear, the gate where Grosmont allowed sloth to enter his castle. Christ is also considered as a gate to a heavenly kingdom and his Church on earth, his body, as a holy temple which the gates of Hell can never prevail against (Matthew 16 : 18). Unlike Sloth whose work is never completed, Christ hangs upright on the tree and confesses that his redemptive mission on earth is achieved. His final words before lowering his head and giving up his spirit were: “It is accomplished” (John 19 : 30).
Mary the mother of Jesus also has a role in Grosmont’s treatise. She is presented as a “most sweet Lady” who dresses and bandages the wounds of the sinner. The bandages of “Mary’s Joys” is portrayed as Van Eyck’s “bandaged” turban, and Mary as a chaperone accompanying Jesus, shown as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1 : 29).
Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait is not the only painting the artist is associated with that has embedded references from The Book of Holy Medicines. The Three Marys at the Tomb is another work that testifies to Grosmont’s confession, so also is the Agony in the Garden folio from Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.
• I shall present more on this in a future post.
• Previous posts about the Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban are at the following links:
Another painting attributed to Jan van Eyck – St Francis Receiving the Stigmata – draws its inspiration from the Agony in the Garden miniature featured in the Turin-Milan Hours, as well as the Three Marys at the Tomb attributed to either Jan or Hubert van Eyck, or both.
There are two versions of the St Francis painting, both said to have been produced by Jan van Eyck. A small version (above) measuring just 12.7cm x 14.6cm is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The larger work, 29.3cm x 33.4cm, is kept at the Sabauda Gallery in Turin, Italy.
Despite its smaller size the PMA version appears more detailed in its scenery and backdrop. Like the Agony in the Garden, it also sources Proverbs 30 for some of its embedded iconography. It’s not the only work by Jan that incorporates references from the Agony in the Garden. Could this be another example of Jan van Eyck possibly paying tribute to his brother Hubert?
St Francis is the kneeling friar; the other is Brother Leo of Assisi, a disciple, secretary and confessor of St Francis. Not only was Leo present when Francis received the stigmata, he also wrote an account of the acts and the words of his companion titled The Mirror of Perfection.
Van Eyck has depicted the ‘Acts’ according to Leo in a unique way by mirroring the two cords worn by the ‘brothers’. It has a central position in the painting, similar to the famous mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait painted by Jan in 1434. The dates considered for both St Francis paintings are 1430-32. The mirrored cords are linked to suggest that the two brothers are of one accord. This is a pointer to what Leo considered to be the true nature of the Franciscan life, for after Francis had died conflicts within the Order began to arise about remaining to the strict and simple life Francis had lived and dictated to others. The frayed ends of the cords may also be viewed as symbolic of the Order’s discipline unravelling or coming apart.
Another ‘brothers’ connection is the two men thought to have commissioned the St Francis paintings – Pieter and Jacob Adornes. They were from an Italian family of prosperous wool and cloth merchants that had settled in Brugge. It was likely Pieter who actually commissioned the work, portrayed here as St Francis and adopting the position of patron or donor, while Jacob is seen meditating, or even asleep!
Another possible brotherly connection is that of Hubert and Jan van Eyck. If Hubert did paint the Agony in the Garden and also contributed to the Three Marys at the Tomb, this may explain why Jan has ‘mirrored’ or translated much of the iconography in the St Francis paintings. Similar to Leo recording the acts of Francis after the saint’s death, so Jan has incorporated some of the works of Hugo after his death in 1426.
Another collection of writings (a florilegium) on the life of St Francis is the Little Flowers of St Francis. The collection has 53 short chapters. Van Eyck illustrates this in the central bed of little white flowers. They number fifty-three!
• There is much, much more about this painting which I intend to present in future posts. Readers can be notified of updates by email. Details at the head of the page.
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