Botticelli the weaver

Updates and additions to this post at THIS LINK

The Virgin Adoring the Child is one of many in a line of Mary-and-the-Infant-Jesus paintings by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. So what’s different in this Nativity portrayal? For starters, the artist has woven a representation of himself in his painting.

The Virgin Adoring the Child (1480-90), Sandro Botticelli, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

In Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects he devotes a chapter on the life and work of Sandro Botticelli. There is a notable anecdote in the biography that records a dispute Botticelli had with a neighbour who was a weaver. Botticelli confirms the incident in this painting, as well as another reference made by Vasari to Sandro’s health late in life. However, Botticelli uses the same iconography to apply other levels of meaning to interlock and weave with additional themes in the painting.

But first here is Vasari’s anedote about Botticelli and the weaver:

“Another time a cloth-weaver came to live in a house next to Sandro’s, and erected no less than eight looms, which, when at work, not only deafened poor Sandro with the noise of the treadles and the movement of the frames, but shook his whole house, the walls of which were no stronger than they should be, so that what with the one thing and the other he could not work or even stay at home. Time after time he besought his neighbour to put an end to this annoyance, but the other said that he both would and could do what he pleased in his own house; whereupon Sandro, in disdain, balanced on the top of his own wall, which was higher than his neighbour’s and not very strong, an enormous stone, more than enough to fill a wagon, which threatened to fall at the slightest shaking of the wall and to shatter the roof, ceilings, webs, and looms of his neighbour, who, terrified by this danger, ran to Sandro, but was answered in his very own words—namely, that he both could and would do whatever he pleased in his own house. Nor could he get any other answer out of him, so that he was forced to come to a reasonable agreement and to be a good neighbour to Sandro.”

Text is from the ten-volume edition published by Macmillan and Co. & The Medici Society, 1912-14, sourced from The University of Adelaide

The stone building blocks rising above the Infant represent Botticelli – a kind of ‘Lego’ figure, with arms outstretched, bearing a stone, and supported precariously on two wooden poles. The ox’s horns represent the dilemma faced by the weaver. If the ox dislodges the nearest pole, then Botticelli’s stone may fall on the stubborn donkey below (the weaver) that seems to be oblivious to the danger and interested only in peering out from the woven fence, tempted by the straw in the manger. However, Botticelli implies that the weaver doesn’t have a choice with the stone structure appearing to rest on one horn only.

The ox is also symbolic of Luke’s gospel and the two vertical poles alongside are a reference to chapter eleven, in particular the verse about the Return of the Unclean Spirit.

The specific number of looms mentioned by Vasari amount to eight, which tallies with the unclean spirit returning to the man’s house (his soul) that had been swept clean, bringing with it seven other spirits, even more wicked. Eight in total.

Without realising it, Vasari also alludes to the two poles supporting Botticelli’s arms: He writes: “Having grown old and useless, and being forced to walk with crutches, without which he could not stand upright, he died, infirm and decrepit, at the age of seventy-eight…”

So here Botticelli depicts himself as still standing, stiff as stone, but upright with a straight back, even if with the aid of crutches, on a cornerstone representing Christ, and still very much capable of producing meaningful paintings. Notice also his head is turned, not looking into darkness but at the light radiating from the Virgin Mary. Notice also the light from the Bethlehem Star falling onto Botticelli’s ‘capstone’ head, in line with the light’s descent onto the Saviour.

More Boticelli gems found in this painting on my website at this link.

Another version of Fioretta Gorini

The Virgin Adoring the Child (1480-90), Sandro Botticelli, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Here’s another painting of Fioretta Gorini and her son Giulio portrayed in the role of the Madonna and the Infant Christ, one of many similar paintings by Sandro Botticelli and his workshop. Not surprisingly it embeds features which point to Leonardo da Vinci, and not just because he painted the same woman in two of his paintings – the Benois Madonna, and later the portrait mistakingly titled Ginevra de’ Benci.

In his monograph, Botticelli Life and Works, Ronald Lightbown describes the adoration scene:

The composition of the small tondo of the Virgin Adoring the Child, painted around 1490, was repeated, as it deserved to be, in many workshop versions. The broken gray masonry of the stable in the foreground, converts the circle into a square within which the Virgin, wearing a pink robe beneath the deep blue of her cloak, kneels in the dark sward, adoring the Child who lies on the cloak’s end propped up by a bale of straw, stretching up his hands to her. The straw is painted with great attention: each outer straw is executed with a straight stroke, highlighted with touches of yellow. From the triangle of sky to the left of the thatched golden-brown roof, a gold star sends down its ray above the Child’s head. Behind, a duck swims on a pool; beyond are low dark-green undulations with a wooden gateway opening onto a path over bright green hills on the left. On the right is a brown fence and a river landscape. Such browns – pale tawny brown, golden brown, chestnut – are characteristic of Botticelli’s later pictures; so too is the conjunction of tawny and light green to give a delightful effect of pastoral gladness.

Ronald Lightbown, Botticelli: Life and Work, pp 217-218

The painting is housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the gallery’s date attribution is between 1480 and 1490. However, there are indications in the work that suggest it was produced after 1490, possibly as late as 1495. The painting may appear to be a simple portrayal of the Virgin and Child, but with Botticelli nothing is as straightforward as it appears at surface level. There is an underlying narrative that relates to the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonrola, a revolutionary figure in Florence between his arrival in the city in1490 and the time of his execution in May 1498.

My assessment for the date of the painting is not before the second half of 1498, and after the execution of Girolama Savonarola.

The Virgin Adoring the Child also inspired Mantegna’s Parnassus, said to have been painted in 1497, although some of its iconography does suggest a later date. Mantegna produced a second painting for Isabella d’Este’s studiolo, the Triumph of Virtues. This is dated between 1500 and 1502.

More details on this in a future post

Leonardo da Vinci’s Benois Madonna

The Benoir Madonna, on display at the Louvre exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: Reuters

I recently read in the Washington Post that the famed portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, kept at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, will not be crossing the Atlantic as part of the Louvre’s upcoming exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci.

However, visitors to the Paris exhibition will be able to view an alternative version of the so-named Ginevra de’ Benci. The same woman sat for an earlier painting by Leonardo – the Madonna and Child with Flowers, otherwise known as the Benois Madonna. It has travelled to Paris from the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

Madonna and Child with Flowers, also known as the Benois Madonna, 1478, by Leonardo da Vinci,
Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

In previous posts I presented evidence suggesting the woman identified in the portrait by art historians is not Ginevra de’ Benci but Fioretta Gorini, said to have been the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici. It is Fioretta and her child Giulio who are portrayed in the Benois Madonna.

The painting is thought to have been started in October 1478. A note in Leonardo’s handwriting and kept in the Uffizi in Florence states (“… 1478 I started painting two Virgin Mary’s). One of these is considered to be the Benois Madonna and the date of October 1478 was around five months after Fioretta gave birth to her son. Another source states that Fioretta was likely to have been only 15 years old at the time Giulio was born. This would explain her notably youthful appearance in the painting.

Fioretta’s child Giulio was eventually taken into care by the family of one of his godparents, Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder). Although the boy was said to be the son of Giuliano de’ Medici, it wasn’t until he had reached the age of seven that Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s brother, brought him into the Medici family to raise him as one of his sons.

Seemingly, soon after her son’s birth, Fioretta gave up her child and entered a religious community. Although there are no written records to suggest this, there are paintings by Leonardo’s contemporaries, notably Sandro Botticelli, that point to Fioretta surrendering her son and joining a religious order. Leonardo also points to this outcome in his two paintings of Fioretta – the Ginevra de’ Benci portrait and the Benois Madonna.

One of the features in the Benois Madonna painting that tempts art historians to suggest the work is unfinished, as some of Leonardo’s other early paintings, is the large vacant window above the Infant’s head. It contains nothing but the sky – no trees, no buildings, no mountains, just the sky and not even any clouds.

Such is its size and prominence that in its fnished or even unfinished state, it is there to make a statement. It contrasts greatly with the room’s dark interior, hardly adding any light to the backdrop. Light from another source appears to fall on the two figures – or does it? Could this light simply be a statement to reflect Christ’s claim as being the “light of the world”?

The window is shaped as a diptych, generally understood as a painting for an altarpiece, made of two-hinged panels that can be opened and closed like a book. In this instance what we see is almost like a blank canvas, but then it can be said that God constantly paints a new canvas – a new sky – day and night.

The diptych can also be understood as the two tablets representing the law handed down from Heaven to Moses on Mount Sinai and written in stone, referred to as the Mosaic Law or the Ten Commandments. So both Old and New Testaments (the Christ Child) are symbolised in the painting. As for the absence of any written list of heavenly commandments, Leonardo simply translates the list as an expression of the heavenly “light of God”.

When Moses was born the Pharaoh had decreed that all new-born boys of Hebrew mothers were to be drowned in the Nile. Likewise, Herod issued a similar command after the birth of Jesus, that all boys under the age of two were to be slaughtered. Following the assassination of Giuliano de Medici in Florence Cathedral and the attack on his brother Lorenzo, known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, much bloodletting took place in acts of revenge against the consiprators and anyone considered associates. They were dangerous times, and in the aftermath Pope Sixtus lV placed Florence under interdict and further attempts were made to oust the Medici’s from power. In this light it can be understood why Fioretta’s child was intially placed into the care and protection of the Sangallo family and not the Medici’s, and even why Fioretta, reputed to be the mistress of Giuliano de Medici and mother of his child, sought sanctuary and protection within the walls of a convent.

After Moses was born his mother kept him hidden for three months. When she could no longer hide him she placed the child inside a papyrus basket coated with bitumen and pitch and laid it among the reeds at the edge of the river Nile. When the Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the river to bathe, one of her servant girls noticed the basket and brought it to Pharaoh’s daughter who recognised the infant as a child of one of the Hebrews. The servant girl was the sister of the child and offered to find a nurse among the Hebrew women. She found the child’s mother and Pharaoh’s daughter asked the woman to take the child and suckle it for her. When the child grew up the mother brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter who treated him like a son, naming him Moses because, she said “I drew him out of the water”. (Exodus 2 : 1-10)

From this we can see parallels with Fioretta and her son Giulio. She kept him for a while before handing him over to the Sangallo family and then later to Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence.

The Moses narrative is usually described as “The Finding of Moses in the Bullrushes”. In Fioretta’s case the parallel is “The Finding of Jesus in the Temple” – her conversion to faith, and choosing to enter religious life..

So apart from the diptych as a reference to the tablets given to Moses, what other features in the painting point to finding the Hebrew prophet? First there is Fioretta’s basket-weave hairstyle, not only a reference to the woven basket which Moses was placed in but also to the Vinci name, which means “to entwine”. The ‘entwinement’ continues into a large knot and then flows down along Fioretta’s shoulder. The ‘flow’ start to take shape behind her ear – poorly drawn and painted, according to some critics, and not by the hand of Leonardo. The shape represents an Egyptian sphinx, crouching and protecting the neck of Fioretta.

Detail from Leonardo’s painting of Fioretta Gorini depicted as the Benois Madonna.

The Egyptian sphinx is usually depicted as having the body of a lion and a man’s head. In this instance the feature shows two heads, that of a bull (found among the bullrushes), and of a human shown in the bull’s nose. The flow of hair represents the river Nile, on whose west bank Egypt’s Great Sphinx stands and guards the entrance to Giza.

The Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. Notice the similarity and roundness of the face of the sphinx in comparison to Fioretta. Notice also the lion profile extended at the side of the head above the shoulder. The pyramid also has a role in Leonardo’s portrait of “Ginevra de’ Benci” which depicts the shape of a pyramid on her rght shoulder.

The Greek version of the sphinx generally has the face of a woman and wings of an eagle. Leonardo has combined the two, Greek and Egyptian. The shoulder reference represents the wing; the flow of hair, the wind. The Egyptian sphinx was viewed as benevolent and the Greek version as cruel and malicious. Both were recognised as temple and tomb guardians.

The Greek sphinx is associated with the legend of “Riddle of the Sphinx” where travellers were allowed passage only if they could answer a riddle posed by the sphinx. If they failed to give the correct answer, they were strangled. One of the riddles was: “There are two sisters: one gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first. Who are the two sisters? The answer – day and night – lends itself to Leonardo’s presentation of light and darkness in the Benois Madonna painting. Notice also how close the head of Leonardo’s sphinx is to the woman’s ear. Leonardo, perhaps a riddle in himself, wrote riddles in his notebooks.

The large knot behind Fioretta’s ear represents the sphinx’s riddle – and is a reference to the Gordonian Knot associated with Alexander the Great. It impossible to untie or see how it was fastened until Alexander sliced it through with his sword. This is Leonardo’s clever way of pointing to the assassination of Giulio de Medici and the Pazzi family’s plot, with others, to overthrow the Medici family as rulers of Florence. In the attack Giuliano was stabbed several times and killed by having part of his head sliced. Lorenzo escaped death, receiving only a cut to his neck.

Symbols of mourning and distress at the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici. However, the feathered strands of hair next to the ear’s orifice, and the angel’s feathers framing the open-mouthed depiction of Leonardo, also serve to point to a childhood memory recorded by Da Vinci in one of his notebooks.

Fioretta’s ear, isn’t badly drawn or painted as some critics have assumed. It depicts a hooded mourner screaming in grief and anguish, possibly Fioretta herself on hearing the news of Giuliano’s murder. A similar motif appears on the terracotta bust of Giuliano made by Andrea del Verrocchio. The gorgon feature shown on the breastplate is a wailing angel with its mouth wide open. The model for the ‘guardian angel’ was Leonardo da Vinci. On the day he was assassinated, Giuliano had chosen not to wear his normal body armour under his clothes.

Leonardo has also included a second subtle ‘scream’ feature, that of Giuliano himself, made from the ‘feathered’ strands of hair hanging over Fioretta’s temple, and so pointing to Giuliano’s murder in the Temple.

These features confirm the painting was started sometime after Giuliano was killed on Aril 26, 1478, and also after the birth of Fioretta’s son a month later, supporting the the note made by Leonardo later that year that the Benois Madonna was likely to be one of the “two Marie’s” he had started to paint.

The Moses references in this painting, along with those of Giuliano de Medici, Fioretta and the sphinx are all mirrored in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli also included references from Leonardo’s unfinished version of the Adoration of the Magi and his version of Jerome in the Wilderness. The latter work is part of the current Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre.

More on Fioretta Gorini

Continued from previous posts: • Leonardo, painter and prophetIn the beginning was the WordShe gave birth to a sonWhatever happend to Fioretta Gorini?

Detail from the Sistine Chapel fresco, Testimony and Death of Moses.

This detail is from a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testimony and Death of Moses. It shows Moses seated and preaching to a group of people, women and children on the left, men on the right. At his feet is the Ark of the Covenant. It is strategically placed at the side of two of the women with a babe in arms, one standing the other seated on the ground. They represent the Madonna and Child, a repeated subject of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings.

Guardan angels… Giuliano de’ Medici in the forefront can be matched to his depiction in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. The second angel is likely to represent Botticelli.

There are two angels standing behind the seated Madonna. The angel in the forefront, wrapped in prayer beads, is modelled on Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in 1478, some three years before the fresco was completed. Giuliano is portrayed as a guardian angel, keeping watch over the seated Madonna and Child who are modelled on Fioretta Gorini and her son Giulio. There are three versions of Fioretta. The second is the figure standing immediately behind the seated woman, also with a child in arms, and the third depiction is the head behind the head of the standing woman.

Let’s take a closer look at the last mentioned. She is closely matched to Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de Benci – aka Fioretta Gorini (right). Her hair is tied with a simple scarf, without decoration. Her eyes are looking to the right. Someone has caught her attention. It is Leonardo (not in the frame), the artist who painted her portrait. The fierce-looking woman on Fioretta’s shoulder is her protectress, a Gorgon feature, with a reputation of turning anyone who looked at her into stone.

The stone refererence is a reminder of the marble sculpture Verrocchio made of Fioretta – Lady with a Bouquet – and his terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici that shows a Gorgon feature on the breastplate depicting Leonardo as an angel. Fioretta’s father was a cuirasser who made protective armour. The breastplates would likely feature a Gorgon symbol.

The Giuliano and Leonardo ‘double-head’ also links to the appearance of a ‘double-head’ on the Fioretta figure in the fresco. This in turn provides another connection to Fioretta’s identity and Leonardo – a drawing made by the artist that is now housed in the British Museum. It depicts the Virgin and Infant Christ holding a cat. The Virgin is portrayed with a ‘double-head’ and it is this feature that the fresco artist has adopted and coalesced with the head of Fioretta in Leonardo’s painting known as Ginevra de’ Benci.

This composition detail in Leonardo’s drawing is echoed in the Sistine Chapel fresco. Particularly interesting in the Leonardo sketch is the cat turning its head seeking to escape from the grip of the Infant Christ. The same ‘escape’ motif is replicated in the fresco. So who does the child represent wanting to escape from the woman? Leonardo’s drawing is © The Trustees of the British Museum.

This combination and reference to Leonardo’s drawing also reveals that the woman in the sketch is Fioretta Gorini. The sketch and, more notably, a similar drawing in reverse and on the recto side of the sheet were prelimany drawings for the painting attributed to Leonardo and known as the Benoir Madonna. More on this in a future post.

Leonardo’s two drawings of the Madonna and the Infant Christ holding a cat (British Museum) which were preliminary sketches for his painting, the Benoir Madonna, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

The double-head feature in the fresco is meant to portray Fioretta at two stages in life, or two paths open to her. One that leads to death, the other to new life. She takes the path of transfiguration or religious conversion. Death, in the guise of the gorgon and representing her lover Giuliano de’ Medici, is at her side, after which she gives birth to her son.

Portrait of Giuliano da Sangallo by Piero di Cosimo, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Over her gold-decorated dress she puts on a purple cloak of ‘mourning’ and repentance, turning her head to the ‘Joseph’ figure opposite who is gazing adoringly at Fioretta’s child. In this instance the man is portrayed as Giuliano da Sangallo, brother of Antonio, the man who took charge of Fioretta’s son for the first seven years of his life. Giuliano is depicted instead of Antonio to link to the name of Giuliano de’ Medici and identify Fioretta’s son who was named Giulio.

The third stage in the transformation of Fioretta’s life shows her seated on the ground (an act of humility), simply dressed and holding her child. Her blue and gold garments are matched in colour to those seen in the Benoir Madonna. Her blue cap with its gold wings is similar to the cap and colours seen on the Moses figure and also in the figure of his successor Joshua shown elsewhere in the painting. The blue cap and gold ‘wings’ represent an anointing by the Holy Spirit.

In my previous post I suggested that Fioretta had joined a religious community of Carmelites. I mentioned also her connection to the Sangallo family and that one of the attributes of Saint Gallo was a bear carrying a piece of wood. Another attribute of the saint is a hermit’s tau staff and in the Sistine Chapel fresco we see Giuliano Sangallo leaning on a such a staff. Its end is placed at the bare feet of Fioretta. This is another pointer to Fioretta’s hermitic life, her removal from the world and discalced status, and also a reference back to Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta that art historians have mistakenly identified as Ginervra de’ Benci.

Fioretta Gorini with her child Giulio, watched over by Giuliano de’ Medici portrayed as an angel, and (right) Giuliano da Sangallo.

Fioretta’s ‘three-in-one” transformation connects to the transfiguration of Moses who was seen in a new light by the people when he descended from Mount Sinai after conversing with God. The first figure in the line of men on the right of the fresco is Elijah who, along with Moses, featured in the transfiguration of Jesus when he ascended a mountain in the company of three of his disciples. His face shone like the sun and God the Father’s voice was heard to say: This is my beloved son, with who I am well pleased; listen to him,” repeating the same words he spoke when Jesus was baptised by John in the wilderness. (Mark 1:11, 9:7)

Historians record Giuliano de’ Medici as the father of Fioretta’s son. Following the assassination of Giulio, his brother Lorenzo de’ Medici was informed by Antonio da Sangallo of the child’s birth and that Giuliano was its father. But was he?

More on this in a future post.

Whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini?

continued from previous posts: • Leonardo, painter and prophetIn the beginning was the WordShe gave birth to a son

So whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini after she gave birth to her child Giulio, said to have been the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici? For the first seven years of his life Giulio was raised by Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder) and then brought up in the Medici household. His uncle Lorenzo de Medici became Giulio’s guardian.

Elijah at the shoulder of Fioretta Gorini

It wasn’t until 1513 that Fioretta’s name surfaced again when the newly elected Pope Leo X wanted to make his cousin Giulio a cardinal. Problem for the Church was that Giulio’s illegitimacy stood in the way. This was rectified when apparently Fioretta’s brother, supported by some monks, testified that his sister and Giuliano de’ Medici had married secretly. Giulio’s birth was legitimised and he was made Cardinal on September 23, 1513 when he was 35 years old. Ten years later he became Pope Clement Vll. His birth is given as May 26, 1478, exactly a month after Giuliano de’ Medici’s assassination on April 26. If Giulio was aware that Giuliano and Fioretta had married, then why did it take a man in his influential position, or the Medici family, so long to pursue his legitimacy? Or was this claim of marriage simply one of convenience to clear the path for Giulio to join the ranks of the cardinalate?

That it was Fioretta’s brother who was said to have confirmed the marriage, and not his sister, would suggest she was no longer alive at the time. Neither has any record come to light as to when Fioretta died, but presumably it was prior to 1513.

Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder)

If Fioretta had been married to Giuliano then why would she not declare her marriage and her son to the Medici family? Why was it left to Antonio da Sangallo, the child’s godfaather, to inform Lorenezo de’ Medici of the birth and then to take the boy into his own house for the first seven years of his life? And was there a reason why Fioretta’s own family did not not take charge or support her child?

Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli provide clues in their paintings about Fioretta’s circumstances following Giuliano’s murder and the birth of her son. They both suggest that Fioretta entered cloistered life, which may explain why she was not on hand to raise her child. Leonardo points to the Carmelite Order while Botticelli implies she may even have an become an anchorite, walled into her cell. Was her exile from the world self-imposed, perhaps the result of a religious conversion of epiphany experience, or was pressure applied on Fioretta to ‘disappear’ in this way?

Testament and Death of Moses, Sistine Chapel, Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta.

There are two other paintings that point to Fioretta’s circumstances before and after Giuliano’s death. Of its time, around 1481, is a fresco in the Sistine Chapel titled Testament and Death of Moses, attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta. The other painting is titled Parnassus and was produced by Andrea Mantegna twenty years after the assassination of Giulio de Medici. It is now housed in the Louvre, Paris. Mantegna’s painting combines the references to Fioretta in Leonardo’s portrait known as Ginevra de’ Benci (NGA, Washington) and also those in Botticelli’s Madonna with Child and the Infant Saint John the Baptist (Barber Institute, Birmingham). The reference to Fioretta in the Sistine Chapel fresco points to her ‘new life’ or ‘transfiguration’.

Parnassus, Andrea Mantegna, Louvre Museum, Paris.

Leonardo’s Carmelite reference is the bearded head of the prophet Elijah placed among the juniper and above Fioretta’s right shoulder. Carmelites follow an ideal of life as witnessed and experienced by Elijah. Already mentioned in a previous post is the juniper was the tree that Elijah sat under in the wilderness, when he wished he was dead and asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4).

Detail of Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci (?) aka Fioretta Gorini, NGA, Washington DC

The water feature at Fioretta’s left shoulder represents ‘Elisha’s Spring’. Elisha was the ‘adopted’ son of Elijah. At the time the prophet was taken up into heaven, Elisha requested and received a double share of Elijah’s spirit. Soon afterward Elisha performed his first miracle by purifying Jericho’s water supply which was considered the cause of many miscarriages. The ‘adopted son of Elijah’ can be understood as Fioretta’s son Giulio being first ‘adopted’ by his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder), a notable Florentine woodworker (and later an architect), and so another identity Leonardo has applied to the ‘head’ in the trees – placed at the shoulder in support of Fioretta, as he would have been when the child was baptised. It was near to Jericho that John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus in the river Jordan. Notice also the young, golden tree that rises from the waterside and merges with the juniper – symbolic of a tree of life and the safe delivery of Fioretta’s son Giulio.

Further confirmation that the shape above the Fioretta’s right shoulder is a pointer to Antonio da Sangallo is the the name Sangallo, Italian for Saint Gaul. One of the saint’s artistic attributes is a bear bringing him piece of wood, as seen below in the right hand image. The image on the left represents an ‘upright’ bear carrying a forked branch. Leonardo points to this using a triangular ‘pyramid’ – symbolic of Giuliano’s recent death. The branch is shaped as the letter Y or the Greek upsilon. Its symbolism did not go unnoticed by Pythagorus and the Roman writer Persius commented: “…the letter which spreads out into Pythagorean branches has pointed out to you the steep path which rises on the right.” Isidore of Seville later wrote: “Pythagorus of Samos formed the letter Y as an example of human life; its lower branch signifies the first stage, obviously because one is still uncertain and at this stage submits oneself either to the vices or the virtues. The fork in the road begins with adolescence. Its right path is arduous, but conducts to the blessed life; the left one is easier but leads to pernicious death.” Leonardo has depicted Fioretta as taking the narrow, arduous path.

Left: Leonardo’s San Gallo bear representing Antonio da Sangallo.
Right: A mural in a German church of Saint Gaul with a bear carrying wood.

The scapular, though black and not brown, is symbolic of the one presented by the Virgin Mary in the 13th century to Simon Stock, prior general of the Carmelite Order, with the promise of salvation for those who wear it. The scapular formed part of the brown habit worn by Carmelites and also became a symbol of consecration to Our Lady of Carmel. That Fioretta’s scapular is black and not brown is because she is in mourning for Giuliano de’ Medici.

There is one more reference in Leonardo’s painting that links to Elijah and the ‘new life’ of Fioretta after Giuliano de’ Medici was slaughtered and stabbed 19 times by assassins during Mass in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria Fiore. It relates to the time Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call on their god to light a fire for their animal sacrifice (1 Kings 18:20-40). Despite their prayers, their chants and dancing around the altar, the wood on which the bull was laid did not catch fire. Even when the priests gashed themselves with swords and knives, as was their custom, and the blood flowed down them, their god remained silent and the fire unlit. The bloodletting and slaughter is the reference Leonardo has used to link his painting to the slaughter and stabbings in the Duomo.

Lady with a Bouquet, Andrea del Verrocchio,
said to be modelled on Ginevra Gorini.

Then Elijah prepared another altar and “took twelve stones, corresponding to the number of tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of Yaweh had come.” The reference to stone and the word of the Lord is Leonardo’s pointer to the stone appearance of Fioretta and Verrocchio’s marble sculpture which he may have used to base his portrait on, while “to whom the word of Yaweh had come” is applied to Fioretta’s religious conversion and decision to join the Carmelite Order.

Elijah doused his sacrifice in water (mixed with the blood of the bull) and then called on God to win back the hearts of the people. “Then the fire of Yaweh fell and consumed the holocaust and wood and licked up the water in the trench. When the people saw this they fell on their faces. ‘Yaweh is God’ they cried ‘Yaweh is God’.” (1 Kings 18:38-39). It was at this moment during the Mass in the Duomo, following the Eucharistic prayer offered by the priest, and when the consecrated Host was raised and heads bowed, that was the signal for the attack on the Medici brothers.

My next post deals with the reference to Fioretta as she appears in one of the Sistine Chapel’s frescoes… More on Fioretta Gorini

She gave birth to a son

continued from previous posts:
Leonardo, painter and prophetIn the beginning was the Word

The portrait below is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and said to have been painted sometime between 1474 and 1478. Art historians consider the sitter to be Ginevra de’ Benci, the daughter of a Florentine banker and admired for her intellect and beauty. However, there is evidence to suggest the portrait is of Fioretta Gorini, mother to the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici who was assassinated in Florence Cathedral on April 26, 1478. As to when Fioretti gave birth to her child, there are two versions: he was born a month after his father’s death, or a year before Giuliano was killed.

Ginevra de’ Benci (?) by Leonardo da Vinci, Natonal Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The black scapular worn by Fioretta – a symbol of mourning – would suggest the painting was completed after Giuliano’s assassination. Neither is she wearing any jewellery. This is the same woman portrayed by Botticelli in his painting The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist; the same woman Leonardo depicted as the Mother of Jesus in his unfinished painting of the Adoration of the Magi; the same woman sculpted in marble by Leonardo’s master Andrea del Verrocchio – Lady with a Bouquet. (Could it be that Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta was based on Verrocchio’s sculpture and not from life?)

Two of a kind… (left) Lady with a Bouquet, Andrea del Verrocchio, Bargello Museum, Florence.
(right) detail from Leonardo’s unfinished painting of the Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Gallery.

Some time after completion, for whatever reason, the Leonardo painting of Fioretta / Ginevra was shortened at its base, and if the painting was copied from Verrocchio’s sculpture then the arms, hands and bouquet disappeared with the reduction in size.

The painting is now housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The gallery’s website explains that “The reverse side of Ginevra de’ Benci depicts a wreath of laurel and palm encircling a sprig of juniper with a scroll bearing the Latin motto “Beauty Adorns Virtue.” Infrared reflectography revealed beneath the surface another motto – “Virtue and honor” – that of Bernardo Bembo.”

It is this link to Bembo, together with the painting’s juniper tree backdrop, which art historians present as main evidence for the woman being Ginevra de’ Benci. However, there is another interpretation that can be applied to these two features and one which Botticelli has incorporated within his painting of The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist, the version housed at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham.

The emblem on the reverse of the painting by Leonardo da Vinci, supposedly of Ginevra de’ Benci

Let’s start with the motif that appears on the reverse side of the NGA painting Ginevra de’ Benci. It’s incomplete because of the reduction made to the size of the panel, but there is enough of the emblem remaining to be able to make a judgement. The branches are laurel, palm and juniper. The laurel and palm entwine to encircle the smaller juniper branch. The emblem as a whole symbolizes protection. The two Medici brothers Lorenzo (laurel) and the assassinated Giuliano (martyr’s palm) are the covering branches, while the juniper represents the woman in the portrait, Fioretta Gorini, presumed to have been the mistress of Giuliano and mother of his son Giulio.

A medieval cuirass

Very little is known about Fioretta. Possibly a courtesan, she was the daughter of Antonio Gorini, a cuirass maker. A cuirass is a piece of armour consisting of breastplate and backplate fastened together, and it is this protective reference that Leonardo has taken for his motif on the back of the portrait painting, fastening together two sections or two branches to protect the juniper sprig. The sprig is also a metaphor for the child in Fioretta’s womb. As to the original motto Virtus et Honor (Virtue and Honour), the laurel and the palm represent virtue while the juniper represents honour.

The juniper tree as a symbol of protection also has a biblical connection. It was the fearful Elijah, fleeing from Jezebel, who sheltered under a juniper (furze) bush in the wilderness, wishing he was dead. After falling asleep he was woken by an angel who then ministered to him. There is also the legend of the Holy Family fleeing with their donkey from the wrath of Herod seeking to slaughter all the new-born boys. The family and the donkey hid under the boughs of a large juniper tree, completely out of sight of the soldiers in pursuit.

Elijah amidst the juniper, protecting and keeping watch over Fioretta Gorini.

So if the woman is not Ginevra de’ Benci then why would Leonardo want to place Fioretta under the protection of a prominent juniper tree? The connection goes back to Elijah and the time an angel of God came to minister and encourage him to continue his journey to Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:1-8). The “thin space”, the gap between the juniper trees above Fioretta’s right shoulder represents the head of Elijah, the prophet who was to return to earth before the coming of the Messiah, the prophet Jesus claimed went unrecognised in the guise of John the Baptist (Matt 11:14), the prophet Botticelli sometimes portrays in his paintings as Leonardo da Vinci. Juniper was also used as a deterrent against evil and hung over doorways. However, its berries signified honour or the birth of a boy.

Very little is known about Fioretta as the daughter of a cuirass maker. There is no doubt she gave birth to a child. The boy was taken care of for the first seven years of his life in the house of his godfather Antonio da Sangallo (the Elder), and then afterwards Lorenzo de’ Medici became his guardian.

Andrea del Verrocchio’s terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici with a depiction of Leonardo da Vinci on the breastplate of the cuirass. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

The mention of Fioretta being the daughter of a manufacturer of armour also links Leonardo and Giuliano de’ Medici to the terracotta bust made by Andrea del Verrocchio. Whie the bust is of Giuliano, the ‘gorgon’ feature on the breastplate is of a screaming, winged Leonardo da Vinci, and perhaps a reference to his attempt at flight, or even as a protector or guardian angel.

So where was Fioretta, the child’s mother, in all of this? There is no record of her raising the boy. Leonardo’s portrait of Fioretta provides some clues, Botticelli’s painting even more. I shall present these in my next post: Whatever happened to Fioretta Gorini?

Leonardo, preacher and prophet

continued from previous post: In the beginning was the Word

In my previous post I mentioned that the Infant Baptist figure in the Botticelli painting displayed in the Barber Institute is also a representation of Leonardo da Vinci. Botticelli refers to Leonardo in this guise in several of his paintings. He was not the first to do so. The connection stems from the Baptism of Christ painting attributed to Andrea Verocchio in which Leonardo is said to have had a hand in as well, painting one on the angels (himself). The other angel gazing in admiration is Sandro Botticelli. The Christ figure is Verocchio who has portrayed Leonardo as John the Baptist.

Matching Botticelli’s Baptist figure with Verocchio’s version, both depicting Leonardo da Vinci.

Notice the the similarity in the Baptist’s stance, the placement of feet and the raised right arm above the head of Christ, compared with the infant Baptist in the Botticelli painting. It’s tempting to say that the Christ child could even be Botticelli – but it’s not. Compare also the similar placing of the Madonna’s feet with those of the baptised Christ, and with Leonardo’s under-drawing of the Virgin’s ‘pointy’ toes in his abandoned painting of the Adoration of the Magi.

Left and right: The Madonna and Christ…feet set apart… Christ’s feet stand in water mingled with the blood of the Holy Innocents slaughtered under Herod’s orders, while the Madonna steps out from beneath the hem of her blood-coloured gown. Centre: the ‘pointy’ toes of Leonardo’s Madonna in his unfinished version of the Adoration of the Magi.

Another pointer to Leonardo is the shape of the red cloak draped over the Baptist’s clothes made of camel hair. This relates to Leonardo’s first memory as a child in his cradle. In later years, while making notes about the flight pattern of birds and the fork-tailed red kite (milvus vulgaris), he wrote: “Writing like this so particularly about the kite seems to be my destiny, since the first memory of my childhood is that it seemed to me, when I was in my cradle, that a kite came to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me several times with its tail inside my lips.” Although the notebook entry is thought to be have been made around 1505, it is possible that the incident was related orally to others at earlier stages in Leonardo’s life.

The fork-tailed red cape also relates to another type of kite – one that Leonardo constructed in his quest to fly. Although there is no written evidence that Leonardo ever did get off the ground in this way, Botticelli included a similar reference in the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. In making the attempt Leonardo may have possibly sustained a permanent injury to his right shoulder. This could explain his preference for writing and painting with his left hand, despite recent claims by researchers that he was ambidextrous.

The caped and winged Leonardo, poised to take off and depart for Milan…
Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

My next post will deal with some of the features from Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci which Botticelli has cleverly adapted to conceptualise his painting of The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist.

In the beginning was the Word

Some years ago there was a UK vehicle manufacturer that traded under the name of LDV (Leyland DAF Vans). The company was based in Birmingham and for a brief time sponsored Aston Villa, one of the local football clubs. The team’s shirts were emblazoned with the LDV logo and the sponsorship ran for a couple of seasons, from 1998 to 2000.

Aston Villa striker Julian Joachim wearing the LDV sponsored shirt. Photo © Empics

Last weekend I came across another logo made up from the letters L, D, and V. It has a strong and long connection with Birmingham, as far back as 1943, although the logo itself is considerably older and was designed over 600 years ago by the polymath Leonardo da Vinci.

A logo or signature represents a mark of identity or attribution. It is used to authenticate and to indicate ownership, a sign of endorsement or sealing, a symbol of recognition.

Leonardo da Vinci signed his name in various ways, sometimes abbreviating it to three intials and merging them to create monograms as shown below.

Variations of Leonardo da Vinci’s monogram from his notebooks

A variation of Leonardo’s monogram or logo appears in a painting housed in the Green Gallery of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts located on the campus of the University of Birmingham. The painting is by the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli – a contemporary of Leonardo – and titled: The Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist. There is a copy or another version of this work housed at the Galleria Palatina in Florence with some variations, notably the mirrored figures.

Left: Botticelli’s The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist, Barber Institute.
Right: A mirror version attributed to Botticelli and titled: Madonna and Child and the Young St John the Baptist, Galleria Palatine, Florence

The logo is not the only Leonardo reference in the painting. There are others. The child Baptist figure is a depiction of Leonardo. The Madonna references two of Leonardo’s works: The Adoration of the Magi and the painting titled Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci – a misnomer as the woman is Fioretta Gorini, said to have been the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici and mother of his son given the name Giulio. He later became Pope Clement Vll.

So what about the monogram or ‘logos’? It’s formed by the rather contrived scarf or symbolic knotwork of the Madonna’s headcover. In the Barber version it reads left to right. However, the Palatina version the letters are mirrored, acknowledging Leonardo’s tendency for mirror-writing predominant in his notebooks.

Detail of the Leonardo monogram or logo that Botticelli has embedded in his painting.

I mentioned earlier that a monogram or ‘logos’ as a type of seal or endorsement. Notice the Baptist’s right thumb playing or pressing on the lobe of the Christ child’s ear – a play on the greek words lobos (lobe) and logos (word, speech). It is not unknown for Leonardo to have left a thumb or finger print (a unique identifier) when picking up his work, as shown in the drawing below. This is echoed by the Madonna’s left hand lifting her mantle.

Leonardo’s thumbprint from a drawing titled: The Cardiovascular System and Principal Organs of a Woman. Courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust; © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Both hands of the Madonna also echo those of the same figure drawn by Leonardo for his painting of the Adoration of the Magi. The so-called ‘pointy toes’ that are a prominent feature of the Madonna in the Adoration painting are also replicated by Botticelli on his Madonna.

Matching hands… left, the Madonna’s hands as seen in Leonardo’s unfinished painting of the Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi, Florence), and right, a similar composition of hands in Botticelli’s painting of The Madonna and Child with the Infant John the Baptist.

But why would Botticelli want to drape Leonardo’s monogram around the Madonna’s neck and shoulders. Was he implying that there was some kind of attachment by Leonardo to the Virgin – or even the model Fioretta Gorini? For sure there is the primary overlay of religious meaning to the painting but could there also be an underlyng and a more secular narrative that Botticelli has embedded in the work? It was not unknown for Botticelli, for whatever reason, to target and refer to Leonardo in many of his paintings.

continued in next post: Leonardo, preacher and prophet

A who’s who, what’s what list

There is a key that Pol Limbourg has devised to lock and unlock the composition and its features in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures calendar section, also referred to as “labours of the month”.

Here’s a visual clue. It shows the facing page to the feasting illustration, a list of holy days, or saints’ days, for the month of January, some of which were considered more important than others. At least five of the feast days are referred to in the banquet illustration. There may be others:

Jan 1 New Years Day and the Circumcision of the Lord
Jan 6 The Epiphany of the Lord
Jan 18 St Peter’s Chair, Rome
Jan 21 St Agnes, virgin and martyr
Jan 25 Conversion of St Paul

The calendar is not the only list Pol has used to construct his illustration. There are two others, plus references to ‘list’ as a word in itself. The more important of these lists helps identify some of the figures and their placement in the painting. It is a legal document held at the National Archives and provides a list of magnates and their roles in the proceedings at Richard II’s coronation on June 23, 1377. A second list, or inventory, compiled for John duke of Berry, was also utilised by Pol Limbourg. There are three extant inventories covering 1400 to 1416 which list the duke’s possessions during that period. Richard II also produced a ‘treasure roll’ describing the jewels and plate in his possession. It is made up of 40 sheets of parchment and when laid out measures around 28 metres. From this we can see the significance of the tablecloth laden with plate in the Limbourg miniature.

Pol Limbourg fuses the lists of Richard and John to create another meaning to ‘lists’ – that of the boundary or partition associated with the sport of jousting, the Middle English word ‘liste’ meaning stripe or strip (of land) on which the knights would compete. He takes the meaning of stripe of strip and applies it another way, almost like a book or page marker. The spine edge of the illustration is a vertical strip or list placed beside the calendar list.

At the top of the strip is a set of lances and two distinct flags which I am unable to identify, but they probably represent the coming together of two families, possibly in marriage. There is also a steep hill in the background and, combined with the lances, may represent an emerald coloured stone to mount thorns taken from Christ’s crown of thorns, bought by the French king Louis lX in 1238, similar to the thorn mounted on a blue sapphire given to John duke of Berry, mentioned in a previous post.

Next item down is the man wearing a black chaperon, seemingly warming his hands at the fireplace. This is Michael de la Pole, 1st earl of Suffolk. He served as a trusted adviser to Richard II and was once tasked to arrange a marriage for the king. His waving hands are a pointer to his own marriage and wife Katherine Wingfield. A feature of the Wingfield coat of arms are three winged birds, inverted or ‘conjoined in lure’, meaning the tip of the wings point downwards. In this instance the hands or finger tips point upwards, and for two specific reasons.

The wings are symbolic of the Holy Spirit and the Light of God descending or hovering over Pol Limbourg. It represents a moment of conversion, from darkness to light. Whether Limbourg is implying a conversion experience in his own life, I can’t be sure, but what he is referring to is the Conversion of St Paul on his way to Damascus. St Paul’s feast day is celebrated on January 29 and is listed on the calendar.

Notice also the relaxed pose of Pol Limbourg as he leans forward on the back of the seat in front of him. Observe also that the fabric on the back of the seat is striped. Pol is a spectator or observer in the unfurling events happening before him. He is listless – not a participant. The striped fabric that extends past the end of the table represents the barrier or list between the jousting guests, not for any favours from the absent ladies but from the boy king Richard II and John duke of Berry. Richard’s coronation list provides evidence of competitiveness between high-ranking individuals seeking to be honoured and affirmed.

The distinct red scarf around Pol’s neck is a reference to the Welsh dragon and relates to another theme in the minature which I will explain in a future post. But it also connects to the next item on the list, the gold, boat-shaped ‘nef’ used as a container for tableware. The boat could be said to be listing, weighed down by its cargo of riches. However, it is kept buoyant and afloat by the saltcellar underneath. The bear and the swan are devices of John duke of Berry. Here the resting Pol Limbourg is referring to the passage from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus invites all who labour and are overburdened to come to him and find rest for the soul as his yoke is easy and his burden light (11:28-30). The ploughing analogy is echoed in the March folio of the Très Riche Heures.

Detail from the March folio, Très Riche Heures, Musé Condee MS 65 F3v

The three plates are a reference to the tablecloth (a treasure roll) that is another theme Pol has woven into the painting and which I will explain at another time. Likewise the two small cats that represent a play on two words, catalyst and catastrophe.

So now we arrive at the last item on the list, the young man who has moved from the place of honour to a servant’s role of feeding the white greyhound. As explained in the previous post the placement represents the deposition of Richard ll who was ten years old when crowned king of England, hence the small figure compared to others in the illustration. The white greyhound belongs to the ‘usurper” Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, who coerced Richard into giving up his throne in 1399. The dog at this stage is portrayed in a submissive, begging role, eagerly waiting to be fed by the hand of Richard. The roles later became reversed. Richard’s emblem was a white hart wearing a crown collar. Now it is Bolingbroke’s dog – a hunter – who wears the jewelled collar. It is said that Richard ll starved himself to death after he was captured and later imprisoned in Pontefract Castle. But notice also the black scarf around Richard’s neck. Is this Limbourg suggesting that the king may have been strangled and not starved, or is he referring to the earlier death of one of his enemies, Thomas of Woodstock, who is said to have been murdered while held prisoner at Calais on Richard’s orders? A manuscript of the time depicts Thomas being stangled by his own scarf.

Murder of Thomas of Woodstock, Froissart, Chroniques, BnF MS Fr 2646, fol. 289

Richard can also be linked to the calendar list. He was born on January 6, Feast of the Epiphany. A failed rebellion against Henry lV to to reinstate Richard ll as king was planned to take place on this feast day in 1400 and resulted in Richard’s capture and eventual death in February that year. It’s at this stage that the black chevron seen on the yellow flag at the top of the list, coupled with the inverted wings above Limbourg’s, head can be recognised as symbolic of hierarchical change. Limbourg has switched the visual references to the order of feasts. Pol, or St Paul, has been raised after falling frorm his horse, while Richard has fallen from grace and occupies the last place. St Paul’s ‘epiphany’ has taken presidence over Richard’s association with the Ephiphany. Richard was a firm believer in the divine right of kings to rule, but here Limbourg demonstrates that divine will is not always “done on earth as it is in heaven”. This links to another aspect of the ‘inverted’ symbols which I shall post on at another time.

Playing hide and seek

Detail from January folio in the Calendar section of the Très Riche Heures de Duc de Berry

Here’s more on Pol Limbourg’s January illustration from the Très Riche Heures produced for John duke of Berry. .

Apart from the battle scene depiction in the background, said to be a reference to the Trojan Wars, the main action of the painting centres on and around the banquet table.

The ‘pole’ position at the table is taken up by the host, John duke of Berry, wearing a blue gown. He is turned to isten to what the “man of the cloth” at the end of the table has to say. But notice the gap on the seat between the two men, seemingly guarded by the chamberlain stood behind the space. It’s a place reseved for a very special guest to sit at the right hand of the host. But who is he? Could he be one the group of men in a line approaching the chamberlain? No, they are there for other reasons. and not just to warm their hands at the fire.

Artist Pol Limbourg has purposely displaced the duke of Berry’s honoured guest and positioned him elsewhere in the frame, almost out of the picture! In fact, he is not even seen in the cropped image above. To discover him and the reason for Pol Limbourg’s inventive design the folio needs to be viewed in its entirety.

The ‘servant’ feeding the greyhound in the bottom right corner of the frame is the man who has given up his seat at the table, not that he has been asked to by the host. He is placed as a corner stone on which the main theme of the January folio is built upon.

His name is Richard II, King of England

More on this in a future post.

Much more than an adjective*

There’s a new book by art historian Simon Hewitt due out in October – Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom. The publisher’s blurb on Amazon describes the work as “an in-depth investigation into the art, politics and muderous cynicism of Renaissance Milan and an academic detective story sketched out with erudition and journalistic panache.”

A more sensational approach was adopted by the publisher when informing various media channels. Hence the similar headlines that appeared with the story this week:

“Italians laughed at Leonardo da Vinci, the ginger genius”
“Master’s Misery: Leonardo da Vinci was bullied for being ginger and gay… ”
“Artists Leonardo da Vinci was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan”
“Fellow artists mocked Leonardo da Vinci for his red hair and sexual leanings”

Here’s part of the report behind the headline published by The Guardian:

Far from being admired as an extraordinary genius, Leonardo da Vinci was repeatedly lampooned and teased about his unusual red hair and his unconventional sexuality by other leading artists of his day. Although the work of the great Italian was popular in his time, an extensive new study of the artist to be published this week has outlined evidence that he was the butt of gossipy jokes in Renaissance Milan.

Author Simon Hewitt has unearthed a little-studied image held in Germany, a “comic strip” design made in 1495 to illustrate a poem, that showed how Leonardo was once ridiculed. In one of its colourful images, An Allegory of Justice, a ginger-haired clerk, or court lawyer, is shown seated at a desk, mesmerised by other young men, and represents Leonardo da Vinci. “The identity of Leonardo as the red-headed scribe is totally new,” Hewitt told the Observer ahead of the publication of Leonardo da Vinci and the Book of Doom.

The key passage in Hewitt’s book identifies the painter through a series of clues in the precious illustration. He is shown as a “left-handed clerk … with a wooden lyre at his feet: evidently a caricature of Leonardo da Vinci”. The lyre was Leonardo’s instrument and his father, Ser Piero, who is depicted resting his right arm on his shoulder, “is brandishing a sheet of paper that surely represents the anonymous document denouncing Leonardo for sodomy, deposited in a Florence tamburo in April 1476”.

Close study of the illuminated manuscript copy of Gaspare Visconti’s epic poem Paolo e Daria, revealed to Hewitt that Leonardo da Vinci is also likely to be the object of ridicule because of the absent-minded way he is shown to be drawing on the tablecloth, rather than on his sketch notebooks, and by his apparent fascination with a half-naked young man who is clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”.

“Further evidence of Leonardo’s identity, and homosexual leanings, is provided by the group of eight strapping figures alongside,” argues Hewitt, who has conducted five years of research into Leonardo and his circle in search of the truth about a controversial portrait, La Bella Principessa…”

This is the illustration Simon Hewitt refers to that appears in Gaspare Visconti’s Romanazo e Diana.

I don’t have a problem with Leonardo being identified as the seated figure with his father Piero standing behind him. It’s a good spot by Hewitt. So also the left hand, but is the claim that Leonardo had ginger hair really valid? Compare the colour of his hair with the colour of the hair on the figures on the right. Haven’t they all got ‘ginger’ hair? If so, why has Hewitt placed the emphasis on Leonardo? There are depictions of Leonardo by other artists of his time which would dispute Hewitt’s claim.

But let’s assent to Hewitt’s opinion on the ginger hair and instead consider if there was a sound reason why the illustrator not only portrayed Leonardo with ginger hair – it may even be classed as ‘red’ or even ‘golden’ – but also the group of figures on the right of the frame.

For sure this is a painting mostly about Leonardo da Vinci. Hewitt states that it points to Leonardo’s sexuality and the time he was charged with sodomy before he left Florence to work for Ludovicp Sforza, duke of Milan, seen sitting in judgement and conversing with Piero, Leonardo’s father, who was a notary by profession. Hewitt also points out the note in Piero’s right hand, suggesting it is the unsigned report posted to the Florentine authorities accusing Leonardo and others of sodomy. Yes, it is, and it isn’t. Leonardo was brought to court in Florence, not Milan, but the artist Birago is resurrecting this incident to confirm Leonardo’s identity in the picture.

Hewitt also points out another identifier to Leonardo, the broken lyre on the floor in front of the desk. Leonardo was a notable musician. He even presented a silver lyre in the shape of a horse-head as a gift to the duke when he arrived in Milan. So could the broken lyre be a metaphor for Leonardo’s brokenness – not referring to his sexuality – but to a damaged shoulder, the one on which his father’s right hand rests, as an outward sign of confirmation that not only is Leonardo his son in whom he is well pleased with, but also that the injury would be a cross to bear in life. It may also explain Leonardo’s tendency to write with his left hand. Whether this injury occured early in his life, it cannot be certain, but there are specific references to Leonardo’s shoulder in paintings by his contemporaries.

It is said that Leonardo once built a flying machine and launched himself into flight from the side of a hill. Again, paintings that depict Leonardo suggest the injury occured before he moved to Milan. Could it have been the result of his attempt at flying, a dislocated shoulder or a broken collar-bone,perhaps, as a result of a bumpy and uncontrolled landing?

Simon Hewitt also makes a point in his published comments that Leonardo is apparently fascinated with a half-naked young man who is apparently clutching “a rocket-like, Leo-invented contraption”. In reality the ‘contraption’ is the broken neck and strings of the lyre. It also serves to represent the flying machine Leonardo is said to have taken into the air, now broken in two after crash-landing. Notice the bird shape wings and its long neck – a reference to one of Leonardo’s paintings, Leda and the Swan. Notice also the shape of the split between the two pieces –another pointer to the Leda painting and the broken eggs. But can egg shells ever be repaired and put back together in one piece? Seemingly not by human hands. Just look at the fit between the two halves of the instrument. They don’t match. Divine intervention is required.

The ‘Shroud’ image of Jesus.

And so the illustrator takes us a step towards identifying the “half-naked” young man who Leonardo can’t take his eyes off. He does this by placing a ghostly “Manylion” feature or face of Christ as depicted on what is now referred to as the Turin Shroud. It appears just under the neck of the lyre on the thigh of the man in the blue “shroud”.

The Baptism of Christ, attributed to Andrea del Verocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery.

The figure represents Jesus Christ, – a leader not a Leda – and points to the painting by Andrea Verocchio and which Leonardo had a hand in – The Baptism of Christ. In this work Leonardo is depicted in a blue gown, kneeling and looking up at Jesus being baptised by John. And this explains why the illustrator has depicted Leonardo seated at his desk looking up at the ‘half-naked’ man. In the Baptism painting, Jesus is shown ‘half-naked”. The model for Jesus (the head, certainly) is Andrea del Verocchio, Leonardo’s tutor and master during his apprenticeship in Florence – an adopted father, after his family sent him to train as an artist in Verocchio’s studio where he remained until he moved to MIlan. See the similarity in the two portraits representing Jesus; the plumpness in the face and the heavy eyes and there is even a suggestion of a light beard in both. See also the highlighted right collar bone and another pointer to Leonardo’s injury.

The similar features of Andrea del Verocchio portrayed as Jesus.

So now we have three ‘father figures’ in the miniature that Leonardo could relate to: his natural father, Piero, standing in support behind him; Ludovico Sforza, who took Leonardo under his wing in MIlan; and Andrea del Verocchio during his training period in Florence.

As to repairing the broken instrument, Leonardo would have been famliar with Scripture and the words of Jesus – “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). And who is the red-haired woman standing next to Jesus? Could it be the woman caught in adultery by the scribes and the Pharisees. They wanted to stone her as the law of Moses provided for, but Jesus responded by writing on the ground with his finger and saying, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8: 7). Observe also the ‘hook’ feature that represents the swan’s head, yet another scripture reference to include both Leonardo and the adulterous woman. It refers to the period shortly after the baptism of Jesus and when he dealt with temptation in the wilderness. On his return to Galilee Jesus saw the brothers Simon and Andrew casting their net in the lake and called out to them: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4: 19).

So this brings the analysis back to Leonardo sitting at the table – scribing, so to speak. Hewitt points out that Leonardo is so distracted by the “half-naked” man that he is absent-mindely drawing on the tablecloth. But this is the illustrator’s method of pointing to Jesus seemingly not paying attention to the scribes and Pharisees by writing on the ground with his finger. It’s also a reference to the Mosaic Law and Moses writing on tablets or tables. Leonardo was considered a ‘Moses’ figure by some, recording the laws of nature in his notebooks and perhaps even for covering up his “crime” as the prophet did when he killed an Egyptian guard and buried him in the sand.

There is other iconography which points to Leonardo, perhaps even issuing a warning to others and recalling the wooden horse of Troy and its associated adage: beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Leonardo had writen and informed Ludovico Sforza that he wanted to produce a horse sculpture as a monument to the duke’s father Francesco Sforza. For reasons I won’t go into here it was started but never completed. The table at which Leonardo sits represents the wooden horse and a likely reference to the scaffolding used to construct the initial clay model. It’s head is formed by the upper part of the wooden lyre. The blue cloth serves as a cover for the work in progress. Beneath the table there is an anomaly. Leonardo is depicted with only one leg, a direct reference by the illustrator to Leonardo’s masculinity hidden under the table or inside the horse.

A less obvious narrative in this miniature again points to Leonardo and one of his paintings. Two notebooks are placed on the table both with pronounced markings, spots, in fact. They refer to the phrase that “a LEOpard never changes its spots”, meaning that Leonardo’s sexuality is as it is, but more importantly they connect to the lyre and represent musical notation by the notary’s son Leonardo and the painting attributed to him: Portrait of a Musician. In the painting the musician is seen holding in his right hand a piece of paper with musical notation written on it; the piece of paper that Piero is passing into Leonardo’s right hand, or perhaps taking from it – not just a piece of paper, but also a piece of music. See how the illustrator has matched the ‘ginger’ and curled-fringe look of Leonardo’s hair with that of the Musician. Could it be that the Musician is a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci? Why else would the illustrator draw attention to the painting in this way? Perhaps also the golden-haired figures grouped at the side of Jesus represent a heavenly choir of angels conducted by Leonardo with a small baton doubling up as a writing tool in his left hand. Leonardo liked his angels.

In harmony, Portraits of Musicians, both possibly representing Leonardo da Vinci.

At this stage it is worth pointing out that the illustration was likely inspired by another source that depicts Leonardo in similar circumstances, where he is accompanied by his father and judgement is passed. It’s one of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, and part of a series that illustrates the lives of Moses and Jesus. The particular fresco is titled the Testimony and Death of Moses, part of which shows the prophet passing on the baton to Joshua. The kneeling Joshua is in fact Leonardo sa Vinci. His father Piero, the notary defined by his scrolled hat, stands behind his son, his right hand pointing to Leonardo’s ‘winged’ shoulder. More about this here.

A section of the Sistine Chapel fresco. Testimony and Death of Moses.

Seated on the judgement seat is Lady Justice with scales and sword. She wears no blindfold, so her impartiality is questionable. The scales of justice are broken as one of the pans is missing. Justice, it seems, will not be applied evenly. Does she favour Leonardo, or not? In his book, Hewitt identifies the woman as Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza. Ludovico, sceptre in hand is the man in the middle, the fulcrum. In his hands is the balance of power – justice according to the duke’s measure. As to the armoured lady, I can’t be certain. She sits alongside Ludovico and therefore possibly his wife Beatrice d’Este who died in childbirth at the age of 21. On the other hand it could be speculated that she represents Ludovico’s daughter Bianca Sforza, heavily disguised in dark armour. Like Beatrice she also died young – just three months earlier when she was only 14 – but in mysterious circumstances. Her peacock-head helmet could be considered symbolic of her resurrection. If it is Beatrice, then she’s there for a reason that connects to Leonardo, possibly because he knew the cause of her death. He hinted at it in the portrait he made of Beatrice which came to light in recent years and was titled La Bella Princepessa by the Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp.

As for who Lady Justice might be, try Lucrezia Tornbuoni, mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence at the time of Leonardo’s arrest along with three other men on a charge of sodomy. One of them was named Leonardo Tornabuoni.

* “Giving more importance to the adjective rather than the noun, this is not good.”

A very rich duke and his bear

The above image is detail from the January folio of the Calendar section that forms part of the Très Riche Heures manuscript. It shows John duke of Berry hosting a New Year banquet where gifts are exchanged between the host and his guests.

This particular panel of the folio was probably painted by Pol Limbourg, one of three brothers the duke commissioned in 1410 to produce the manuscript. The artist has cleverly embedded features that serve several narratives and themes. The duke of Berry figure is an example.

He is portrayed seated at a banquet table, wrapped in a fur-lined blue gown, wearing a large fur hat and a chain around his neck. Fifteenth century castles and mansions could be cold places in winter time, even when sat in front of a blazing fire.

The colour of the duke’s gown is said to emphasise his connection to the French court. In his time John was a son of a French king, a brother to another, and an uncle to a third. But close inspection of his gown shows that the gold pattern is not the fleur-de-lys, but represents something more personal in his life – a bear. The motif is a pawprint.

The duke of Berry kept several bears in his menagerie but was attracted to one in particular; a small bear became his companion in his later years and is even depicted chained and resting at the feet of the duke on his tomb effigy.

Along with the swan, the bear was also adopted by John as one of his heraldic devices or emblems.

Pol Limbourg has also portrayed the duke of Berry with claws as hands, resting on the banquet table, and to his left there’s a bear placed on the bridge of the gold, boat-shaped, serving dish. There’s an interesting contrast on the duke’s tomb sculpted by Jean de Cambrai where one of the bear’s paws is depicted as a human hand (see image below).

Notice the bear’s human-like front paw… a nod by the sculptor to Pol Limbourg’s miniature.

Back to the minature and between the duke’s hands (claws) is a glove. It also has a bear connection but not to the one associated with the duke, which I will explain in a future post.

Another bear reference is the pole behind the duke’s back which, in this instance, can be considered as a “scratch-pole”. It also has other connotations, notably as a reference to Pol Limbourg, the figure portrayed behind the duke of Berry. The scratch-pole, or “back-scratcher”, is symbolic of mutual benefit, but conditional, even extending to the custom of exchanging gifts at the New Year banquet. It also points to the biblical passage in Luke’s gospel and the advice given when inviting guests to dinner (14 : 12-14).

The pole may also be a pointer to the banquet’s venue – the Hôtel de Pol in Paris, one of many residences belonging to the duke, and one where he died in 1416.

Earlier, I mentioned the exchange of gifts. In the past the Duke of Berry had been given a special gift by his brother, the French king Charles V. It was a thorn from the crown of thorns associated with the passion of Jesus and which Charles had obtained and kept in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. A reliquary was made to house and display the Holy Thorn mounted upright on a sapphire stone. The reliquary and thorn is now in the British Museum. The duke’s blue gown represents the sapphire, and his hat is portrayed not as fur, but as a crown of thorns.

The Holy Thorn Requilary and a close-up of the thorn and sapphire. © British Museum

Finally, the artist Pol Limbourg may also have had in mind one of Aesop’s Fables when he linked references to the thorn and the bear – The Hermit and the Bear.

The Hermit had extracted a thorn from the bear’s foot. The animal was more than grateful and offered to serve the Hermit from thereon. The Hermit accept the Bear’s offer and they passed the time in friendship. Then one day as the Hermit slept the Bear noticed a fly had settled on the man’s nose. In his effort to swat the fly the bear came down heavy with his paw and crushed the Hermit’s nose in the process. The Hermit concluded he would rather have a dozen flies settle on his nose that to suffer the pain and discomfort of the Bear attempting to protect him in this way.

How this applies to John duke of Berry may refer to his role as Regent, first when Charles VI was a minor, and again at the time when the king began to suffer attacks of insanity. Could it be said the duke may have been over-protective at times during his role as Regent?

A more visual connection is that John did not share the sharp or long nose featues of his father John, or three brothers, Charles, Louis and Philip. His nose was rather fleshy and stubby in comparison, as shown on his tomb effigy. No flies on Pol Limbourg!

The head of Jean duke of Berry from his tomb at Bourges Cathedral

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.

The Pearl / Gawain Poet in Ghent

Detail from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. British Library.

I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been taking a fresh look at the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the five lower register panels when opened.

The four outer panels on the lower register – Just Judges, Knight of Christ, Hermits and Pilgrims – depict four groups of society making their way through life (pilgrimage) towards a New Jerusalem, the focus of the centre panel, Adoration of the Lamb of God.

The four panels also point to four poems written annonymously and who medievalist scholars refer to as the Pearl Poet, or Gawain Poet.

Four lower-register panels of the Ghent Altarpiece… lambic links to the Lamb of God

Without going into any detail at this stage we can rename the panels with the poem titles:

PEARL – for Just Judges
SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT – for Knights of Christ
PATIENCE – for Hermits
CLEANNESS – for Pilgrims

Some of the connections will seem pretty. obvious, but I’ll explain at another time the iconography that links to the titles, probably a post for each panel.

And, yes, I now know the name of the elusive Pearl Poet according to Jan van Eyck, and his reason for revealing him in the Ghent Altarpiece – which was not just solely to connect to the poetry narrative embedded in the painting.

Two other poets of the period, Geoffrey Chaucer and Thomas Hoccleve, are also referenced in the altarpiece.

The great and the small

Lately, I’ve been taking a fresh look at the Ghent Altarpiece (or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) and have discovered three versions of John the Baptist. He is depicted on the top register as John the Baptist Enthroned (left) and also as one of the Hermits in the lower register (centre), standing alongside St Anthony the Great. His third appearance is next to the colossus figure of St Christopher on the adjacent Pilgrims panel (right).

John the Baptist enthroned in glory… in certainty… and in doubt.

It was John the Baptist who pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God. He stared hard at him as he passed and said to two of his disciples: “Look, there is the lamb of God.” (John 1 : 36).

The left foot points to temptation – the right foot to the Lamb of God and saving grace.

On the Hermits panel at the feet of the Baptist and his companion Anthony the Great alongside him there is a representation of a sacrificial lamb outlined on the stony ground. St Anthony’s right foot steps on it. Poets out there should consider this symbolism as a ”lambic foot”. On the chest of St Anthony is the outline of a Tau cross, symbol of the Hospital Brothers of St Anthony, a congregation founded late in the 11th century.

Anthony’s comfortable-looking footwear is something special. Are the uppers made of lambskin? Their soft, silvery appearance, along with Anthony’s ‘pruned’ walking stick, point to a folded clip of silver lying on the ground. This is a variation on the story associated with the saint when he went into the desert and the devil attempted to distract him by placing silver in his path. The placing of the Baptist a step back from St Anthony the Great is a pointer to John’s discussion with his followers when he said: “He [Jesus] must grow greater, I must grow smaller.” (John 3 : 30).

St Christopher assisting pilgrims (and Christ) in making the crossing to the New Jerusalem.

The great and the small theme carries through to the next panel. The colossal figure is probably better recognised as St Christopher, patron saint of travellers. Looking somewhat uncertain, John the Baptist is the man again positioned a step behind the leader – Christopher, which means Christ-bearer, and so named because of the legend that he carried a child on his back across a river who revealed himself to be Christ (Annointed One). When John was in prison he became uncertain about Jesus and so sent two of his disciples to question him and ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” ( the Christ).

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

The weather-worn headstone at St Christopher’s right foot can be viewed as a boundary marker, a crossing point, particularly in its position at the edge of the frame. It can also be understood as the separation point between the Old and the New Testaments represented by John the Baptist as the last OT prophet and Jesus as the NT prophet. In Roman times boundary markers were dedicated to the god Terminus. The headstone also points to the decollation of John the Baptist on the orders of the pagan ruler Herod Antipas. Could that be the outline of the Baptist’s head buried in the sand – a motif similar to the lamb outline on the ground seen in the Hermits panel? For certain the stone is meant to connect to the huge sculpted head of Constantine the Great who converted to Christianity on his deathbed – his terminus). The stone is still on display in Rome today. The head of the young man at the rear of the group is based on the Constantine sculpture. One of the identities given to this figure by Jan van Eyck is himself!

Three heads… Terminus, Constantine the Great, and a young but growing Jan van Eyck.

The Pilgrims scene has figures that represent the major pilgrimage sites of the day: Rome, Canterbury, Santiago Compostella and Jerusalem.

Ligatures and letters

Last year, I posted information on my website explaining how Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait relates to the linen burial cloth known as the Turin Shroud, and two illustrations depicting the deposition and resurrection of Jesus that appear in the Pray Codex, a Hungarian manuscript produced between 1192 and 1195.

In the section Ligatures and Letters, I pointed to two blood flows on the forehead of the figure on the Shroud, one above the right eye, usually described as a reversed number three or the Greek epsilon (e); the other on the left temple shaped as the Greek lamda (l) (λ). Van Eyck, noted for his word play and the visual puns in his paintings, would not have unnoticed the connection between these two letters and its significance to the claim that the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus. Brought together as a typographical ligature, the letters become EL the biblical word meaning GOD. I pointed out that this ligature also appeared in the Pray Codex but at the time didn’t pick up on how Van Eyck had embedded the ligature in the Arnolfini Portrait. Now I can reveal this.

The lamda is the pair of pattens pointing to the edge of the left frame; the epsilon is the white edging of the woman’s green gown (but not the white hem part on the floor –that’s another story!). Brought together they form the word LE – Spanish for ‘the’ and a pointer to the woman in the painting, Isabella of Portugal. However, Van Eyck invites the viewer to take one step further and use the mirror placed prominently on the back wall of the room to reflect the scene. Now the letters form the word EL as seen on the Shroud.

And if we are still not sure, then Van Eyck provides a further link to the Shroud. See how the patten shoes or clogs in the bottom corner of the painting conform to the shape of a ‘shrouded’ body, as if wooden dolls or even idols, the straps and buckle representing folded arms and pierced hands. A closer inspection of the clog’s heel nearest the corner of the frame reveals an image representing the face of Jesus. It is a biblical reference pointing to the verse found in the Book of Genesis (3 :15) where Yahweh tells the serpent that the woman’s offspring (Jesus) would crush its head and the serpent would strike (bruise) the offspring’s heel, a prophecy foretelling the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Notice also the dog – an early breed of the Smouje – is also brought to heel. Art historians generally view the dog as a symbol of faithfulness and obedience.

I sense the Shroud’s EL feature had a big impact on Jan can Eyck because he refers to this in some of his other paintings. More on this in a future post.

A book to reflect on

It all seems so obvious now – the mirror, that is – and why Jan van Eyck made it the central focus in his famous Arnolfini Portrait. Since the painting first found its way to the National Gallery in London 167 years ago, countless questions have been asked about the mirror’s significance and what it represents, and a myriad of answers given.

I’m proposing that the mirror is a symbol of a widely popular book in late-medieval England of meditations originally attributed to Bonaventure, and adapted and translated from Latin by Nicholas Love, a Carthusian monk and prior of Mount Grace Priory in East Yorkshire. It was written at the start of the 15th century and titled The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ.

The Arnolfini Portrait makes reference to the Carthusian monastery in Champmol, near Dijon, so it is feasible that Van Eyck may have had access to a copy of the book there or, perhaps, was given a copy when he travelled to England on business for Philip the Good. The Carthusians live a silent and meditative life.

More on the Arnolfini Mirror HERE and HERE.

Ahead of his time

The masthead used for his blog shows detail (in reverse) from Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man, thought to be of the artist himself, and dated October 21, 1433. It is on display at the National Gallery, London. More information about the painting can be accessed at this link.

Whether the date on the painting is the completion or start date, I cannot say, but it places the work in the year following the installation of Van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral on May 6, 1432. As well as the proximity in completition dates, Van Eyck has inked the two works in other ways.

Jan van Eyck began his artistic career as an illuminator of books and manuscripts. Some samples of his early work appear in the Turin-Milan Hours manuscript, and he also referenced the work of other illuminators, notably the Limbourg brothers, in the Ghent Altarpiece.

An illuminator’s role was to illustrate the text in and decorate the pages of a book, creating a visual interpretation of a storyline or theme. In some cases the illustration would have more impact with the reader than the words. Invairably, some illuminators would shine the light beyond the subject matter and embed other narratives that were not part of the text. Jan van Eyck did this and continued with the technique when he started to paint on panels with oils, sometimes cross-referencing his embeded narratives with other works, his own included.

Perhaps a simple example of this is the Portrait of a Man (in a Red Turban) shown here. Jan van Eyck’s signature motto is inscribed on the frame, as is the date, so the painting is generally viewed as a portrait of its time, and probably of the artist himself, Jan van Eyck.

However, that the work is signed by Van Eyck suggests there is more to appreciate and discover in the painting than a striking portrait of a 15th century man.

There are hidden narratives which art historians have not uncovered.

More on this in a future post