Revisiting the Très Riche Heures

During the past two years I have posted several times about the January folio from the Très Riche Heures calendar section. More recently I have uncovered some interesting features about the painting which, as far as I know, have not come to light in any other commentaries concerning the miniature.

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

The Très Riche Heures (Very Rich Hours) was commissioned by John, Duke of Berry and assigned to the Limbourg brothers to produce illustrations for the calendar section and collection of prayers. However, both the sponsor and the brothers died in 1416 before the work was completed. The book was inherited by René of Anjou and further pages were completed in the 1440s, attributed to Barthélemy d’Eyck, a relative of the brothers Hubert, Jan and Lambert van Eyck. The Duke of Savoy acquired the book in the 1480s and more pages were finished by the painter Jean Colombe.

Some historians attribute the March, September (part of), October and December calendar pages to Barthélemy van Eyck and refer to him as the “Master of the Shadows”. However, there is evidence to postulate that the January folio was also painted by Bathélemy d’Eyck.

In previous posts made about the January folio, I referred to Pol Limbourg as being the painter. He does feature in the scene, as does Barthélemy, who I now believe painted the banquet scene celebrating the feast of the Epiphany which occurs on January 6.

Sat at the table is a priest wearing a white alb which symbolizes purity of the soul, so the banquet can also be considered as a celebration of the Catholic Mass, the Eucharist, which is a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection. The host of the occasion is the Duke of Berry, clothed in royal blue and sat before the host-shaped fireguard. Christ’s death is denoted by the duke’s hat, a crown of thorns. The table represents an altar and the cloth is depicted as the shroud that covered Jesus in his tomb.

Parts of the picture are based on the Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to Jan van Eyck or his brother Hubert, which indicates that the folio was completed after the attribution date of 1425-1435 given to the Three Marys by the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam and where the painting is housed. If this is the case then it rules out Pol Limbourg or one of his brothers as having produced the January folio.

Most of the guests at the banquet are assigned with double identities. For instance, the kneeling figure in the bottom right corner of the frame is portrayed as both Richard II and St Bartholomew, the latter as a pointer to the artist, Barthélemy d’Eyck. The iconography relating to Richard ll was published in a previous post.

St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He is also identified as Nathaniel, the disciple brought to Jesus by Philip (John 1 : 43-51). Tradition holds that he was martyred by being skinned alive for proclaiming the Gospel. His skin was cut into strips and then peeled back to expose his inner flesh. The body was then allowed to bleed for some time before Bartholomew was eventually beheaded. Most representations of the saint show him holding his peeled skin along with a flensing knife.

The illustration alongside shows the hem of the Duke of Berry’s gown peeled back to reveal the patterned strips of the dias beneath. The figure’s gown also hangs in a manner to suggest a piece of loose flesh. In his hand is a knife, seemingly carving strips from a piece of meat (notice the very faint suggestion of strips). The loop of his chaperon is shaped as a sickle, indicating the saint’s decapitation.

The knife also represents a bull’s horn. This connects to the black hood of the chaperon that hangs down and doubles up as the face of a cow and also a shield which both connect to Edward the Black Prince, father of Richard ll. The bovine reference echoes a similar attribute depicted in the Three Mary’s at the Tomb, as do the four men standing left of Richard ll who doubles up as Barthélemy d’Eyck. The group of four men also have two identities.

Interestingly, Barthélemy has painted both the January and December folios, the beginning and the end of the year, when one looks back on the past and forward to the future. The month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, transitions and duality. He is usually depicted as having two heads. The bear-like figure of the Duke of Berry is the head looking back on the past, while the bear perched on the boat-shaped ‘nef’ is shown facing the opposite direction, looking forward into the future and the new year.

The painting is designed to entertain and amuse, an occasion to ‘spot the historic celebrities’ among the crowded scene, even though all of the ‘faces’ are practically identical, making it somewhat a puzzler for art historians and researchers, especially as the painting is also embedded with word play features and riddles.

For instance: why are two kittens allowed to eat on the banquet table, and why are some of the guests seemingly warming their hands at the fireplace?

My next post will present more details about Barthélemy d’Eyck’s connection to the Très Riche Heures, revealed in one of the folios attributed to Jean Colombe.

Themes of Threes

In the Three Marys at the Tomb painting the trinitarian theme, or theme of threes, also extends to the guards representing the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men who brought gifts to the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Traditionally they are named as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar but in this representation the figures share several identities. The artist, be it Hubert van Eyck or his brother Jan, has sourced a collection of writings attributed to the Pseudo-Bede (Excerptiones Patrum, Collectanea, Flores ex diversis, Quaestiones et Parabolae) in which a Latin description of the three kings is given.

The second king, Caspar, is described as a youth without a beard and ruddy, which goes some way to describing the face of the guard wearing upper body armour. Melchior is stated to be aged and hoary, with a long beard and hair, while Balthazaar is said to be sallow (dark) in complexion and full bearded.

The “youth without a beard and ruddy”, and no mention that he has long hair, seems a good match to the artist’s depiction for the central king. Beards and long hair also fit well for the other two figures.

That they are kings is clue to a third level of identities, but can they be linked or identified in other ways? The oversized golden helmet for a seemingly large head, placed alongside Casper is pointer. Its crest is a wyvern, a legendary bipedal winged dragon adopted by Thomas Crouchback, titled Earl of Lancaster and Leicester. The Wyvern is still incorporated in the Arms of the City of Leicester. Another animal probably more associated with Leicester is the fox. To locate the fox look closely at the top of the outcrop of rock on painting’s right side.

In a letter to Scottish barons, Crouchback signed off with the pseudonym “Arthur” as in King Arthur, inferring that he was the rightful ‘king’ of England and not his cousin Edward II who he was at war with. The final outcome for Thomas was he was captured and beheaded, hence the lighter colour of his blade-shaped neck and his helmet on the ground.

As to the other two kings they are Thomas’s father Edmund Crouchback (right) and uncle, King Edward 1.

More about the identities of the three guards in a future post and how they link to other narratives in the painting.

A Trinitarian theme

There is somewhat of a Trinitarian theme detectable in the Agony in the Garden miniature (folio 30v in the Turin-Milan Hours) attributed to Jan or Hubert van Eyck.

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin, digital copy: Closer to Van Eyck

There are three apostles, Peter and the brothers John and James, each wearing one of the primary colours related to physics that when mixed or overlapped produce a white light; there are three trees to the right of Jesus representing three crucifixions on Calvary; three principal figures are grouped behind the fence and represent the cohort arriving to arrest Jesus; there are three main grouping of stones among the apostles; and in the bible account relating to the Agony in the Garden Jesus returned to his sleeping followers three times.

Another painting attributed to either of the two Van Eyck brothers and which takes its inspiration and translates some of the iconography from the Gethsemane miniature is the Three Marys at the Tomb: three being the number of women and also the men guarding the tomb who, like the three apostles, are sound asleep. The three guards are also positioned in a similar fashion as the disciples: one is lying down as John; the guard suited in plated armour sleeps with his back against the tomb as Peter; and the third guard as James has his back resting against a rock at the far corner of the tomb.

The Three Mary’s at the TombMuseum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

There are also three other features that connect the guards to the three apostles. James’ hands are crossed, the guard, his legs; Peter’s hands rest on his lap while the armoured guard’s hands are arranged in a similar position; John’s hands act as a pillow under his head, so do those of the guard lying down.

Detail from the Agony in the Garden, folio 30v, Turin-Milan Hours

The three guards at the tomb also connect to the three men behind the fence in the Gethsemane miniature. The armoured guard’s ear is mutilated, and has the appearance of having been sliced. This refers to the armoured figure behind the fence who represents Malchus. The servant of the high priest Caiaphas had his ear cut off by Peter’s sword. 

Caiaphas is the central figure in the group of three men behind the fence. His red pointed hat, its wreath or torse, and the long hair covering his neck, are translated as the hat worn by the sleeping guard lying down. The hat is pointed, its green peak represents the wreath, and the neck protector the long hair. The third figure in the group behind the fence is Judas and is matched to the guard in green with his hand gripping the side of his jaw.

This feature is meant to mirror the heavy stubble or shadow on the jaw of Judas. The shape of the guard’s hat matches the bottle shape of the blue hat of the figure behind Judas. But its circular pattern is also designed to reflect the roped hat worn by Judas – and both the pseudo text and the extended peak is perhaps symbolic of the false heart of Judas and his lying tongue. 

Another meaning the artist – Hubert or Jan – has applied to the guards at the tomb is they represent the three churches that share custody of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

The trinitarian theme also extends to the guards representing the Magi, the Three Kings or Wise Men who brought gifts to the Infant Jesus at Bethlehem. I shall explain the connection in my next post.

By wisdom a house is built…

This post sets out to illustrate another example of how Jan van Eyck translated iconography from the Agony in the Garden miniature to the smaller version of St Francis Receiving the Stigmata.

St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Jan van Eyck, Philadelphia Museum of Art

One of the original followers of St Francis was Brother Juniper. He was received into the Order of Friars Minor by Francis himself who once said about his follower: “Would to God, my brothers, that I had a whole forest of such Junipers.”

The expression was not lost on Jan van Eyck, as he was also partial to planting puns and other forms of word play in his paintings.

Placed behind St Francis is a line of spiky shrubbery – Juniper – not only a reference to Brother Juniper but also as a symbol of protection. It’s meant to echo the pointed fence that surrounds Jesus and three of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane miniature. It also relates to a story about Brother Juniper’s great power against demons recorded in the Little Flowers of St Francis.

“The devils could not endure the purity of Brother Juniper’s innocence and his profound humility, as appears in the following example: A certain demoniac one day fled in an unaccustomed manner, and through devious paths, seven miles from his home. When his parents, who had followed him in great distress of mind, at last overtook him, they asked him why he had fled in this strange way. The demoniac answered: ‘Because that fool Juniper was coming this way. I could not endure his presence, and therefore, rather than wait his coming, I fled away through these woods.’ And on inquiring into the truth of these words, they found that Brother Juniper had indeed arrived at the time the devil had said. Therefore when demoniacs were brought to St Francis to be healed, if the evil spirit did not immediately depart at his command, he was wont to say: ‘Unless thou dost instantly leave this creature, I will bring Brother Juniper to thee.’ Then the devil, fearing the presence of Brother Juniper, and being unable to endure the virtue and humility of St Francis, would forthwith depart.”

Van Eyck uses simple pointers to direct the viewer to specifics. In this instance the tip of Francis’ cowl points to the head of the ‘demoniac’ covered by the spiky juniper leaves.

This in turn relates to the impaled head of Judas, one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus, positioned left in the group behind the pointed fence in the Gethsemane scene. Luke’s gospel (22-3) states: “Satan entered into Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the Twelve.” From that moment he set out to betray Jesus and hand him over to the chief priests and the officers of the guard.

Judas had earlier complained about the woman at Bethany wasting expensive spikenard to anoint the feet of Jesus, saying it could have been sold and the money given to the poor (John 12 : 1-8). Judas was in charge of the common purse, but also a liar and a thief who used the purse for his own needs—unlike Brother Juniper who had a tendency to give any items to the poor that he found lying around, which occasionally belonged to other brothers of the Order..

However, there was one particular Franciscan brother who some considered to have been a ‘Judas’ in betraying the Order and the way of life followed by its founder, even to the extent of furnishing himself a worldly lifestyle from funds he raised to build a basilica in honour of St Francis. His name was Elias, a form of Elijah the biblical prophet. This connection refers back to Van Eyck’s depiction of the juniper shrub and its mention in the First Book of Kings when Elijah fled in fear from Jezebel and sat under a juniper tree in the desert, wishing himself dead (1 Kings 19 : 4). So the demoniac embedded beneath the juniper shrub is a reference to Brother Elias, also referred to as Helias (Latin) and which Van Eyck would pun as “He lies”, comparing his words and deeds to the transgressions of Judas. The Gethsemane fence is considered the ‘pale’ — a perimeter, a kind of city wall built for protection from attack by enemies; hence the juniper shrub as a protective measure around Francis.

The line of juniper shrub also extends to the right of Francis and in this section can be seen another vague visage. It’s a cross between a cow and a lion. Again, the feature originates in the Gethsemane miniature among the group of men on the Mount of Olives coming to arrest Jesus. At the rear of the group is a faceless figure whose hat is shaped and coloured as an olive. In front of him is a figure wearing a blue hat. The hat is bottled shaped and represents a container for the olive oil retrieved from Gethsemane (meaning oil-press) – holy oil, hence the hat’s blue colour. 

Detail from the Agony in the Garden, folio 30v, Turin-Milan Hours

The hat is also shaped to represent a horn and refers to the horn God commanded Samuel to fill to anoint David as king, and take with him a heifer to sacrifice (Samuel 16 : 1-13). The somewhat mysterious face beneath the hat represents a heifer.  The heifer also links to  comparisons of Samson with Jesus as a saviour of his people. Sansom referred one time to his wife as a heifer (Judges 14 : 18).

The connection to the cow in the Stigmata painting derives from a play on the word cowl, as worn by Brother Leo, its tip indicating the feature just as Francis’ cowl points to the other face disguised in the juniper shrub. The founder had a love for all creatures and called them brothers, often blessing and curing sick animals, even cattle.

The lion motif is also associated with the name of Brother Leo. Another Leo, Pope Leo IV, who ordered a protective wall to be built around part of the city of Rome following the sacking of Old St Peter’s Basilica in 846 by Muslim raiders. It is now known as the Leonine Wall. Here we can see the connection Van Eyck has made to Brother Elias and his ambitious project to build a basilica in honour of St Francis.

The building projects also link to the voice Francis heard in the spring of 1206 while contemplating an icon depicting the Crucified Christ. The voice commanded Francis to “Go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling down.” Francis thought the instruction meant to repair the church of San Damiano in which he heard the voice, and proceeded to do so and also repair other churches elsewhere. He never asked for money from anyone to do so, only for stones, of which plenty feature in Van Eyck’s painting, stacked high in all shapes and sizes!

So now we have three references to building projects, that of St Francis, Pope Leo IV, and Brother Elias. But Jan van Eyck introduces another, and by doing so gives a clue to who commissioned the painting — the Adornes brothers from Bruges, Pieter and Jacob. It is likely Pieter who actually ordered the work, portrayed here as St Francis and adopting the position of patron or donor, while Jacob is seen meditating, or even asleep!

When the Adornes brothers returned to Bruges from making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 1420s, they started to rebuild a family chapel which was erected earlier by their forefathers in memory of the Passion of Christ and his Holy Sepulchre. The private chapel, known as the Jerusalem Chapel, was consecrated on Palm Sunday 1429 and is still in the ownership of the Adornes family. 

It’s possible that both the large and small versions of Van Eyck’s paintings were commissioned as a reminder of the brothers’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land, perhaps one for each brother, or maybe one for use as private devotion and the larger painting for display in the newly built chapel.

Further analysis of the iconography in St Francis Receiving the Stigmata will be presented in a future post.

All about brothers

Another painting attributed to Jan van Eyck – St Francis Receiving the Stigmata – draws its inspiration from the Agony in the Garden miniature featured in the Turin-Milan Hours, as well as the Three Marys at the Tomb attributed to either Jan or Hubert van Eyck, or both.

There are two versions of the St Francis painting, both said to have been produced by Jan van Eyck. A small version (above) measuring just 12.7cm x 14.6cm is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The larger work, 29.3cm x 33.4cm, is kept at the Sabauda Gallery in Turin, Italy.

Despite its smaller size the PMA version appears more detailed in its scenery and backdrop. Like the Agony in the Garden, it also sources Proverbs 30 for some of its embedded iconography. It’s not the only work by Jan that incorporates references from the Agony in the Garden. Could this be another example of Jan van Eyck possibly paying tribute to his brother Hubert?

St Francis is the kneeling friar; the other is Brother Leo of Assisi, a disciple, secretary and confessor of St Francis. Not only was Leo present when Francis received the stigmata, he also wrote an account of the acts and the words of his companion titled The Mirror of Perfection.

Van Eyck has depicted the ‘Acts’ according to Leo in a unique way by mirroring the two cords worn by the ‘brothers’. It has a central position in the painting, similar to the famous mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait painted by Jan in 1434. The dates considered for both St Francis paintings are 1430-32. The mirrored cords are linked to suggest that the two brothers are of one accord. This is a pointer to what Leo considered to be the true nature of the Franciscan life, for after Francis had died conflicts within the Order began to arise about remaining to the strict and simple life Francis had lived and dictated to others. The frayed ends of the cords may also be viewed as symbolic of the Order’s discipline unravelling or coming apart.

Another ‘brothers’ connection is the two men thought to have commissioned the St Francis paintings – Pieter and Jacob Adornes. They were from an Italian family of prosperous wool and cloth merchants that had settled in Brugge. It was likely Pieter who actually commissioned the work, portrayed here as St Francis and adopting the position of patron or donor, while Jacob is seen meditating, or even asleep!

Another possible brotherly connection is that of Hubert and Jan van Eyck. If Hubert did paint the Agony in the Garden and also contributed to the Three Marys at the Tomb, this may explain why Jan has ‘mirrored’ or translated much of the iconography in the St Francis paintings. Similar to Leo recording the acts of Francis after the saint’s death, so Jan has incorporated some of the works of Hugo after his death in 1426.

Another collection of writings (a florilegium) on the life of St Francis is the Little Flowers of St Francis. The collection has 53 short chapters. Van Eyck illustrates this in the central bed of little white flowers. They number fifty-three!

There is much, much more about this painting which I intend to present in future posts. Readers can be notified of updates by email. Details at the head of the page.

No water, no life; no blue, no green*

A maritime theme is embedded in the miniature of the Agony in the Garden, portrayed in folio 30v of the Turin-Milan Hours.

The artist, be it Jan or Hubert van Eyck, has translated one of the questions posed in Proverbs 30: “Who has wrapped the waters in his cloak?” as a basis for merging references to both sea and land.

The colours of the cloaks worn by the three disciples represent three seas: the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias), and the Mediterranean Sea (called the Great Green by the Ancient Egyptians).

The cloak worn by Jesus also represents water, the waters under and above the vault (called Heaven) created by God (Genesis 1 : 7-8).

In the next passage God said, “Let the waters under heaven come together under a single mass. and let dry land appear” And so it was. God called the dry land ‘earth’ and the mass of waters ‘seas’. (Genesis 1 : 9-10)

This quotation corresponds to another question in Proverbs 30: Who has set all the ends of the earth firm?

In all four figures can be found several references to Proverbs 30 and other verses from Scripture. However, the figure of Jesus is also shaped and presented to point to a series of events current during the life of the artist and known as the Hook and Cod Wars – “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490”. The ‘fish’ reference also links to the three disciples as being fishermen and also “fishers of men”.

The visual reference to Cod is Christ’s cloak, shaped as a trawl dragged behind a boat to catch fish – the bulging section is known as the ‘cod-end’. The hook is shaped as his bent arms and praying hands.

Another miniature from the Turin-Milan Hours which references the Hook and Cod Wars is the Prayer on the Shore, also said to be by Jan or Hubert van Eyck.

Some of the iconography embedded in the Agony of the Garden has been translated to the Arnolfini Portrait, possibly suggesting that Jan van Eyck painted both works. However, it can also be understood that Jan is simply paying homage to his brother by mirroring the iconography and so affirming the inscription on the Ghent Altarpiece declaring Hubert as “the greatest painter there was”.

* No water, no life; no blue no green. – Sylvia Earle

The Lamb and the Ram

Following on from my previous post, this version of the Resurrection is by another Flemish artist, Dieric Bouts. It’s unusual in that the medium used is distemper on linen. The painting is displayed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

Resurrection by Dieric Bouts, Norton Simon Museum. Repro source: Commons Wikipedia

Dieric Bouts is portrayed as one of the soldiers guarding the tomb, the figure depicted awake with his arm raised in astonishment at seeing the Risen Christ stepping out of the sarcophagus. Notice that his legs are crossed, similar to the guard seen in the Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to either Hubert or Jan van Eyck. There is a reason for this. The artist is identifying himself by his boots, as in Bouts. Notice also the facial expression on—in the folds of one of the boots – a good-natured smile similar to a modern-day ‘smiley’ face.

Another interesting feature is disguised in the folds of the white tunic worn by the guard lying flat on the ground. It depicts both a lamb and a ram, meant to represent two sacrifices: Jesus as the Lamb of God, and the ram sacrificed by Abraham in place of his son Isaac. However, to recognise the iconography the shape has to be rotated in two directions, 90º clockwise to see the Lamb and its foreleg (accompanied by his mother the Ewe), and 90º to make out the head and horn of the ram. Half-closing one’s eyes helps in visualising the shapes.

Ringing the changes, part two

Following on from my previous post – Ringing the changes – I’ve come across another version of the Three Mary’s which connects to both the Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v depicting Christ’s Agony in the Garden and the painting titled The Three Mary’s at the Tomb.

The Three Maries at the Tomb and the Resurrection, attributed to Niccolò Antonio Colantonio

Unfortunately, I have only been able to locate a black and white copy of this new find titled The Three Maries and attributed to the 15th century Italian painter Niccolio Antonio Colantonio, but the copy shows enough detail to see that the artist has made a composite of the two mentioned works in the previous post.

The three Marys are clearly modelled on the Tomb version (Hugo or Jan van Eyck?). While it shows only a single guard lying awake at the tomb, the figure is a blend of the three disciples depicted in the Gethsemane folio while it also references the three guards in the Resurrection painting.

Here’s how: The guard is bearded, as is the disciple St Peter; his legs are crossed as is the guard in the Tomb painting, which in turn referenced the crossed hands of St James in folio 30v. He is turned on his side as is St John and also the guard sleeping in front of the stone tomb.

The rock in the bottom left corner is meant to match the rock that appears in the same position in the Gethsemane painting. It has a biblical reference:  “It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the cornerstone” (Matthew 21:42). There are several other scripture passages embedded in the rocks in all three paintings.

The three lozenge shapes on the front of the tomb are references to stones of another kind – diamonds. They represent the colours worn by the three disciples and which are repeated in the three women visiting the tomb: red and blue represent sapphire, and green, emerald. The disciples and the women are considered as precious stones embedded in the rocks – the bedrock and foundation of the Christian Church.

More on this in a future post.

Ringing the changes

The Three Mary’s at the Tomb, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The painting above – The Three Marys at the Tomb – is generally attributed to Hubert van Eyck, but there is an opinion that the work may be by his brother Jan, or even a shared production as the Ghent Altarpiece was.

Another painting, Folio 30v from the Turin-Milan Hours depicting Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, also has an uncertain attribute. Generally classed as by Hand G, but considered to be the work of either Hubert or Jan van Eyck, the miniature shares many similarities with the Three Marys

Turin-Milan Hours folio 30v, Agony in the Garden, attributed to Hand G, Museo Civico d’Arte Antica of Turin, digital copy: Closer to Van Eyck

So are the two paintings the work of the same artist and if so, by Hubert or Jan? It’s not hard to see how the artist has rung some of the changes in the Three Marys picture, using the Gethsemane folio as the original source of inspiration.

For starters, the composition is very similar; three men asleep against a stone tomb. The central figure of Jesus has been replaced by an angel facing Mary the mother of Jesus and announcing his resurrection, similar in style to paintings of the angel Gabriel announcing to the `Virgin Mary that she was to conceive and bear a son. 

The three Marys are substitutes for the three main figures behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, the red, blue and green colours matched to the colours given to the three disciples asleep by the rocks.

The cohort led by the high priest Caiaphas arrive at the Gethsemane to arrest Jesus.

The cohort coming to arrest Jesus are depicted against a background representing the Mount of Olives. One man’s hat is shaped and coloured as an olive. This corresponds to the three Mary’s bringing oil to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus.

A sleeping guard at the tomb of Jesus.

The figure asleep at the right of the tomb has his legs crossed. This echoes the sleeping disciple James (the brother of John) whose hands are crossed. Both men are dressed in green and placed at the edge of the frame. The shape of the guard’s hat is matched to the blue hat of the mysterious figure behind the fence in the Gethsemane painting, and his bandaged legs and knee protector links to the helmeted soldier and the torse supporting the red-peaked hat of the man alongside.

Another link to this group is the guard’s left hand pointing to his right ear. It’s a pointer to the armoured guard behind the fence seen with a pronounced ear protector attached to his helmet. The figure represents Malchus, the servant of the high priest Caiaphas. It was Malchus who had his right ear sliced off by Peter when the Jewish guards came to arrest Jesus, and that’s why it is hidden behind the ‘bandaged’ torse on the head of Malchus and explains why the crossed legs of the guard in the Three Marys painting are bandaged.

Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus

On the right shoulder of Caiaphas is Judas Iscariot wearing a hat depicted as a coiled rope. It has two representations: The betrayal and binding of Jesus in Gethsemane and the rope Judas used later to hang himself. In the Three Marys painting the rope feature is echoed in the lining of the red gown worn by the kneeling Mary Magdalene. It was this Mary who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and wiped them with her hair before anointing them with ointment. The other connection to Judas is when he complained about Mary using the expensive pure nard when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Judas was also a thief and robbed the common purse of which he was in charge of.

There are several other connections between the two paintings, enough to confirm that the artist who painted The Three Mary’s at the Tomb had detailed knowledge of the disguised and hidden iconography in the Gethsemane folio, enough to postulate that both works were produced by the same artist. My assumption is that the artist was Hubert van Eyck, as his brother later translated some of the features in both paintings to the Ghent Altarpiece as a tribute to Hubert who was the artist commissioned originally to produce the polyptych. Hubert died in1426 before he was able to finish the project and It was then given to Jan van Eyck for completion.

More on this in a future post.

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth…

In a recent post (Lines of Succession) I mentioned the Latin ‘quatrain’ inscribed on four of the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece, part of which declares Hubert van Eyck “the greatest painter there was” and his “brother Jan second in art”.

Although Hubert was originally commissioned to produce the polyptych it was Jan van Eyck who later took on the commission after his brother’s death in 1426. The project was completed in 1432.

As to how much progress Hubert had made with the commission before his death is uncertain, but apart from the mention in the quatrain Jan acknowledged and paid homage to his brother in other areas of the altarpiece, which suggests where this is the case, the particular panels were executed by Jan “second in art”.

The method Jan used was not only to depict an image of Hubert in some of the panels but also to make reference to some of his brother’s earlier works, thereby building on his statement in the quatrain that his brother was “the greatest painter”.

Below is an example of Jan’s approach to reformatting a part of Hubert’s earlier work. I must say at this stage that the painting I am presenting for comparison is generally attributed to Jan himself, but there is a view held by some art historians that the work is by Hubert and not his brother.

The detail is from the Crucifixion panel of the painting known as the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych housed at the Met Museum of Art, New York. The comparison is made with detail in the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

left: the Crucifixion scene… right: the Pilgrims panel from the Ghent Altarpiece

The Crucifixion detail portrays a bearded man nose to nose with a white horse. The most striking feature is the open mouths displaying their white teeth, while the eye of the horse looks down on the seemingly closed eye of the man. The grouping is an analogy for the biblical expression, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”.

Detail from the Crucifixion scene of the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych and the Pilgrims panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

Jan van Eyck echoes the expression in a different format. The woman is portrayed as The Wife of Bath, a feisty character who features in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (a theme in the Ghent Altarpiece). In lines 605-606 she claims “I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth, but yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth. Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me wel… (I was forty, if I tell the truth; but then I always had a young colt’s tooth. Gap toothed I was, and that became me well…)”

So in this instance we have a match for the teeth and colt (horse) reference in Hubert’s painting. As to the eye reference in the bearded man and horse, this is portrayed in the man alongside, depicted with one eye as if blind, and his hat shaped as the muzzle of a horse resting on a cushion. Notice also in Hubert’s version how the horse’s muzzle is cushioned on the brim of the hat belonging to another figure of a man below.

Jan van Eyck has included in the Ghent Altarpiece other elements of paintings attributed to his brother Hugo which I shall present in a future post.

Jan van Eyck and the Monsaraz fresco known as The Good and the Bad Judge

How did Jan van Eyck incorporate some of the elements of the Monsaraz fresco into the Ghent Altarpiece, notably the Just Judges panel?

He took the group of five figures in the fresco that make up the section representing the Bad Judge and transformed them into five figures that form the central group in the Just Judges panel.

Van Eyck applied four identities to each figure, but I will identify only those necessary to explain the transformation. The central rider is the French king Charles Vl, known as Charles the Mad. To his right, wearing the blue hat, is the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. To the left of Charles, wearing black, is Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and on his left is the artist Pol Limbourg. Riding at the rear of Charles VI is his brother Louis l, Duke of Orleans. A sixth rider also plays a role in the narrative, the figure in blue placed above the French king.

As a trio, Sigismund, Charles and Philip represent the maxim “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil (see earlier post for explanation). The maxim is also depicted as the evil figure representing temptation placed behind the judge in the fresco: large staring eyes, a wide mouth and elongated ears.

The fresco judge in the red hat is shown as Charles VI, also wearing a red hat. Both are key figures portrayed as being in two states of mind. In the original Just Judges panel the brim of Sigimund’s hat covers the king’s mouth (pictured below) as if it was an overgrown moustache causing his speech to be impeded. Unfortunately for Charles, he suffered from bouts of psychosis and struggled to communicate or make sense to others during these periods. The portrayal of his startled horse with its head turned indicates the turning head of the moustached judge seen in the fresco. Notice also the animal’s wide, staring eyes and pointed ears – an indication it has been spooked and uncertain which direction to take.

The demon behind the judge’s left shoulder and his claw resting on the right shoulder is also represented by Louis 1, Duke of Orleans, reputed to have been the lover of the king’s wife Isabeau of Bavaria.

The duke’s shoulder is shaped as a shield, symbolic of protecting himself (and not his brother). He is draped in three gold chains (symbolic of the claws of the demon resting on the judge’s back and shoulder), two of which are twisted which, in heraldic terms, is referred to as a tortilly or wreath. The chains form part of the insignia, along with an emblem of a gold porcupine on a green base, associated with the Order of the Porcupine founded by the Duke of Orleans in 1394. Van Eyck is equating the spiky symbol and the duke’s betrayal of his brother as a stab in the back. The pattern on the duke’s coat confirms the analogy.

The twisted chains are echoed in the twisted under-sleeve of the rider in blue that appears also to be protruding from the king’s hat. In the original painting the twist features the face of a demon. This serves a two-fold purpose as one of the identities of the rider in blue is Joan of Arc, said by her accusers to be possessed. The claim may also have been made to explain Charles’ mental state.

On the left of King Charles is Philip the Good (the kneeling figure in the fresco wearing the dark tunic). The French king was also Philip’s father-in-law as his daughter Michelle was the Duke’s first wife. Philip the Good can also be considered a counter-balance to the evil reputation of the Duke of Orleans, the pivot being King Charles known as both The Beloved and The Mad depending on the state of his mental health – sane or insane.

The mention of balance is associated with the French town of Troyes from where the Troy weight system is said to originate from and was a process measured in units of barley grain.

The grains are represented by the prayer beads suspended around the Duke of Burgundy’s neck. Another clue to a barleycorn connection is that the two strands of beads align with the ears of the startled horse. Ears of barley – pearl barley, hence the rosy pink tinge of the beads. Van Eyck has taken his inspiration for this feature from the holes in the two uprights of the judge’s chair next to the kneeling figure.

Alongside the rider in black is the artist Pol Limbourg representing the court scribe in the fresco who is observing and recording the scene in front of him. Limbourg’s baton is the scribe’s writing utensil. But notice the subtle detail Van Eyck has observed in the depiction of the scribe. It appears that the scribe is carrying the table top under his right arm. An illusion of course, but one Jan has replicated by giving the impression that the baton (representing an artist’s paintbrush) is carried by Pol Limbourg under his arm.

The fresco figure kneeling on the right side of the judge is the source for Van Eyck’s depiction of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who hears no evil as his ear is covered by the fur hat of another rider next to him. His ‘V’ shape neck chain is reflected in the pronounced ‘V’ shape of the collar of the bearded fresco figure. So is Sigismund’s beard. The two birds in the right hand of the fresco figure are echoed by Sigismund’s hands formed as wings, the right hand depicted in an offering gesture. Charles’ right hand is shown adjacent to Sigismund’s right hand, as are the two right hands in the fresco. The turned head of the horse mirrors the turned head of the judge.

As to the depiction of the startled horse this can be picked up from the shape and features seen at foot of the judge’s gown.

These matching observations, coupled with those pointed out in my previous post, are evidence that Jan van Eyck had sight of the Monsaraz fresco, known as The Good and the Bad Judge, before he began work on the Ghent Altarpiece which was completed in 1432, and that his lead was later followed by Hugo van der Goes in his attempt to emulate the Ghent Altarpiece and pay homage to the Van Eyck brothers.

Patching up with the past

The Monsaraz fresco known as The Good and Bad Judge, was discovered in 1958 during renovations to the town’s old court building. There is a consensus that the artwork was likely created in the latter part of the 15th century, although later additions (primarily depicting two coats of arms) and perhaps some restoration work were carried out later.

My understanding is that the fresco was painted at a much earlier date, before 1425 and the year the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck was part of the Burgundian diplomatic miission sent to Portugal to pave the way for the marriage of Philip ll, Duke of Burgundy, to Isabella, the only daughter of King John l.

There are elements of the fresco which afterwards Van Eyck incorporated in the Ghent Altarpiece completed in 1432, notably in the Just Judges panel.

In later years Hugo van der Goes seemingly had sight of and studied the fresco as he too was inspired to include some of its features in the St Vincent Panels in his attempt to emulate the Ghent Altarpiece and pay homage to the Van Eyck brothers.

As a citizen of Ghent, Van der Goes would have been more than familiar with the town’s famous altarpiece, and probably the hidden iconography embedded in its panels. For what other reason would Hugo choose to mirror many references to the iconic work of Jan and Hubert van Eyck in the St Vincent Panels?

Returning to the Monsaraz fresco as a source of inspiration for both Jan van Eyck and Hugo van Der Goes, it’s not difficult to match to sections in the St Vincent Panels. For starters, the three figures on the left side of the fresco’s lower register can be compared to the group of three men wearing white religious habits featured in the Panel of the Friars. Two are wearing black hats and one has a beard.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

Van der Goes made some adjustment in his painting with the positioning of two of the friars, moving the notary to the front of the frame and the fairhead friar into the centre of the trio.

Now as to the question which artwork was produced first, the fresco or the St Vincent Panels, there are TWO notable clues in the fresco that provide the answer and which Hugo has referenced in his unique way in the Panel of the Friars.

The fresco is damaged in some areas. Paint and its plaster base is missing. In the lower section part of the right arm and hand of the seated judge is lost. Van der Goes has referenced the shape of this missing piece as the black hat worn by the kneeling friar and which covers the hands of the friar behind him.

Detail from the Monsaraz fresco and the St Vincent Panel of the Friar

The shape of the damaged arm in the fresco can also be matched to a ‘mirror’ image in the Panel of the Relic – the relic itself – confirming that Van der Goes had prior sight of the damaged fresco before he completed painting the St Vincent panels. Further confirmation is part of the hand protruding from beneath the damaged area. Hugo picks up on this as well and reproduces the fingers feature as extending from the sleeve of the bearded friar.

Another obvious missing section in the fresco is the top right segment of the upper register. The angel blowing the trumpet is almost obliterated, as is the head of the Suffering Christ in Glory as if decapitated from the body. A piece of the Saviour’s hair is all that remains visible. The word ‘hair’ is not only a key to discovering the Suffering Christ connection in the Panel of the Friars, but also to a series of embedded homophones revealing other identities and connections in the frame.

Christ on his throne… Monsaraz fresco…

Van der Goes also references this missing feature in the Panel of the Friars. Look closely at the head of the figure first in line on the back row. In this instance his identity is the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who was the judge at the trial of Jesus, the judge who responded to Christ’s claim to have been born to witness to the truth: “Truth, what is that?” before handing Jesus over to be crucified.

Pontius Pilate… his ear… and Lambert van Eyck… St Vincent Panels

Hugo has illustrated Christ’s crucifixion within the shape of Pilate’s ear, (a reminder that Pilate had listened to Jesus witness he was the Son of God. But notice that the head of Christ and part of the upper body is missing, hidden under Pilate’s hairline. This is not only a reference to the missing head of Christ in the fresco but also to the phrase found in the Nicene Creed: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Various references to the Nicene Creed can be found in other sections of the St Vincent Panels. Truth is also reflected in the head of Lambert van Eyck seen in the Panel of the Relic (and a pointer to Van Eyck’s famous mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait). Truth can be understood as the Holy Spirit shaped into Lambert’s hair, and to the first part of his name as Lamb (of God).

So while some may argue that the fresco was painted after and inspired by the St Vincent Panels, it is highly unlikely that whoever painted the fresco deliberately damaged the work to coincide with Hugo’s references to the missing limbs and head. Hugo has restored the missing parts of the fresco in new light, as if rediscovering or resurrecting lost relics.

“Then the One sitting on the throne spoke: “Now I am making the whole of creation new,” he said. “Write this, that what I am saying is sure and will come true.” And then he said. “It is already done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End…” (Revelation 21 : 5-6)

Notice the Alpha and Omega symbols below “the One sitting on the throne” in the upper register of the fresco!

• My next post will deal with a section of the fresco that inspired Jan van Eyck to utilise in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Lines of succession

Another written source Hugo van der Goes called on so as to link Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert in the St Vincent Panel of the Relic was Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (Natural History). The Roman author’s ‘encyclopedia’ provides an account of a contest between two Greek artists, Apelles and Protogenes. Apelles was attached to the court of the Macedonian king Philip II, and later served his son Alexander the Great. His rival Protogenes resided in Rhodes.

Protogenes and Apelles

“A circumstance that happened to him [Apelles] in connection with Protogenes is worthy of notice. The latter was living at Rhodes, when Apelles disembarked there, desirous of seeing the works of a man whom he had hitherto only known by reputation. Accordingly, he repaired at once to the studio; Protogenes was not at home, but there happened to be a large panel upon the easel ready for painting, with an old woman who was left in charge. To his enquiries she made answer, that Protogenes was not at home, and then asked whom she should name as the visitor. “Here he is,” was the reply of Apelles, and seizing a brush, he traced with colour upon the panel an outline of a singularly minute fineness. Upon his return, the old woman mentioned to Protogenes what had happened. The artist, it is said, upon remarking the delicacy of the touch, instantly exclaimed that Apelles must have been the visitor, for that no other person was capable of executing anything so exquisitely perfect. So saying, he traced within the same outline a still finer outline, but with another colour, and then took his departure, with instructions to the woman to show it to the stranger, if he returned, and to let him know that this was the person whom he had come to see. It happened as he anticipated; Apelles returned, and vexed at finding himself thus surpassed, he took up another colour and split both of the outlines, leaving no possibility of anything finer being executed. Upon seeing this, Protogenes admitted that he was defeated, and at once flew to the harbour to look for his guest.”

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History
Jan and Hubert van Eyck, as Apelles and Protogenes

Jan van Eyck was sometimes referred to as Apelles by his contemporaries, such were his skills and knowledge as an artist, but there was another reason why he was compared to the Greek painter in this way. While Jan served Philip II, duke of Burgundy, as valet de chambre, he was also employed as the Burgundian court painter

“The Dukes  of Burgundy saw their ambitions in historical contexts. The fascination with Alexander the Great, revealed in their patronage, demonstrated their ambitions to be compared to this great ancient model. This interest further enhanced the status of individuals like Jan van Eyck. The comparison was made between the court of Alexander with his painter Apelles and the court of Philip the Good with his painter Jan van Eyck.”

Jan van Eyck as a Court Artist


But by relating Jan and Hubert van Eyck to the Pliny account of Apelles and Protogenes, Hugo van der Goes intended yet another connection to the Ghent Altarpiece – the Latin ‘quatrain’ inscribed on four of the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece, part of which declares Hubert van Eyck “the greatest painter there was” and his “brother Jan second in art”.

Part of the quatrain featured on one of the frames of the Ghent Altarpiece

However, although the consesus is that Jan is referring to himself as second best, Van der Goes may have interpreted the phrase “second in art” as “second in line”, that is Jan being the second artist born in the Van Eyck family, Hubert being the first – Protogenes (proto = original or first; gene = from genos, meaning generation of birth). Also, ‘Protogenes’… a subtle play on the word ‘Portuguese’ (Portogees) by Hugo van der Goes.

UPDATE July 21, 2021: So where in the Panel of the Relic is the “line of singularly minute fineness” to be found? It’s the black strap worn over the right shoulder of the figure of Jan van Eyck. In heraldic terms it represents a ‘bend’ or a line of partition placed on a shield (the shape of the white undergarment). A ‘bend’ is a band or strip running from the upper dexter corner of the shield to the lower sinster and can be further partitioned.

More details about the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

The hollow tree

In my previous post I pointed out the connection to the ‘coffin’ in the St Vincent Panel of the Relic to the ‘hollow tree’ that St Bavo made his abode for a time, and how this further linked to another theme in the panel, Halloween and All Saints Day (All Hallows Day)

What I didn’t mention at the time was also the connection to the birth name given to St Bavo – Allowin.

The Relic Panel is ‘mirrored’ in a section of Rembrandt’s 1639 etching Death of a Virgin, which I posted a year ago at this link. The ‘hollow tree’ is also featured in the etching, and features Rembrandt, aka St Bavo, looking into the scene through a gap (the hollow) in the curtain representing the tree.

Jan van Eyck as a type of St Bavo stepping out of a ‘hollow tree’… Rembrandt mirroring the theme… and a 15th century limestone sculpture of St Bavo.

The likeness of Rembrandt is similar to a 15th century limestone sculpture of St Bavo shown above, now housed at the Met Museum in New York. Look closely at Rembrandt’s left arm in the etching and you will see the faint outline of the shape of a bird. This represents a falcon, one of the attributes associated with St Bavo.

Another etching of St Bavo was published in 1650 by the Dutch artist Pieter Southam. The saint is depicted in all his glory as a noble soldier before his conversion, but notice the way his cloak is open widely and the similarity to Rembrant’s version of appearing through an open curtain. Is Southam’s illustration a hat-tip to his contemporary as Rembrandt’s is to the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes?

Rembrandt’s Death of a Virgin and Peter Southam’s St Bavo, Met Museum, New York

That the representations of St Bavo appear to be stepping out from the coffin or from behind the curtain relates to a passage from St Matthew’s gospel: The veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked; the rocks split; the tombs opened and the bodies of many men holy men rose from the dead, and these, after resurrection, came out of the tombs and entered the Holy City and appeared to a number of people (29 : 51-53).

The Three Marys at the Tomb, by Hubert van Eyck, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

This passage also relates to Hubert van Eyck, placed right of the coffin in the Panel of the Relic, and one of his few extant paintings: The Three Marys at the Tomb (of the Risen Christ).

Rembrandt picked up on this, and made a group of the three women, two of them with their back to the viewer. (replacing Hubert and Lambert van Eyck). The Virgin Mary is seated on a ‘cushion’ chair, a reference to one of the other identities in the Panel of the Relic – the priestly figure in black, Pierre Cauchon.

• More on the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

Panel of the Relic… more connections

Over the years art historians have speculated on the identity of the 60 figures in the St Vincent Panels, without ever able to agree on a definitive line-up. Their efforts, it seems, have always focused on linking the 58 males and two women to Portuguese society, perhaps led by the fact the panels were discovered in the 1880s – in the monastery of Saint Vicente de Fora, in Lisbon.

So for some figures multiple names have been posited for their identity. In a sense this mixed bag of identities held an answer historians were searching for, but had yet to consider since they were focused on producing a single identity for each figure. The fact is that each figure usually has more that one identity, depending on a particular theme the artist embedded. While the painting is officially attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, my preference is the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes who is featured on the back row of the Panel of the Prince. It may be that the work and the commission was shared between the two men, similar to the Ghent Altarpiece attributed to the brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

The Ghent Altarpiece is perhaps the principal source of inspiration for the St Vincent Panels, and especially for the concept of using multiple identities. In the Just Judges panel Jan van Eyck has applied four identities to each of the ten riders. This was the challenge for Hugo van der Goes, to create a similar work embedded with multiple identities. To truly get to grips with the St Vincent Panels one has to understand the embedded themes and iconography Jan introduced in the Ghent Altarpiece. Without this knowledge or understanding it is not possible to grasp and comprehend all that Van der Goes presented in the St Vincent Panels.

Another painter, Barthélemy van Eyck, had knowledge of Jan’s disguised iconography in the Ghent Altarpiece and incorporated parts in the January folio he produced for Les Très Riche Heures when the manuscript was later in the possession of René d’Anjou. It’s also likely, Lambert van Eyck, a brother to Jan and Hubert, had knowledge of the cryptic narratives in the Ghent Altarpiece.

In the Panel of the Relic, Hugo van der Goes depicted the likeness of the three Van Eyck brothers. Barthélemy is also referenced but not seen and is a second ‘hidden’ identity given to Jan van Eyck. Jan also appears as John the Baptist, his name saint and the name of the church the Ghent Altarpiece was originally commissioned for until it was later renamed as St Bavo after it was rebuilt in the 16th century. St Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent.

Hugo van der Goes sourced a painting by Rogier van der Weyden for the image of Jan Van Eyck. The painting, now fragmented, portrayed Jan as Joseph the husband of the Virgin Mary, The section, which is housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon shows part of a church tower with a vacant aedicula to house a statue of some kind. The platform and canopy are there but the statue is missing. It’s very likely this motif partly inspired Van der Goes to portray Jan standing in front of an empty wooden box, which most observers presume is a coffin.

The wooden box acts as a visible link between the two Van Eyck brothers, so does it have other levels of meaning associated with the two figures? It’s constructed from a number of panels. Could it point to the wood panels that Jan and Hubert painted on to create the Ghent Altarpiece, perhaps a particular unfinished panel started by Hubert before his death in 1426? The Ghent Altarpiece is also known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

Observe Van Eyck’s red hat, shaped as a resting lamb, and a pointer to Jan’s self-portrait titled Man in a Red Turban, painted a year after the Ghent Altarpiece was unveiled. Hugo would have understood that the turban’s intricate folds also depicted the ‘Lamb of God’.

The Ghent Altarpiece was commissioned by the prosperous Flemish merchant and nobleman Joos Vijd, for his funeral bay chapel in the Ghent church of St John the Baptist. When completed in 1432 the painting was placed above the St Bavo altar in what became known as the Vidj Chapel.

St Bavo is the patron saint of Ghent. He came to faith late in life ‘after leading a worldly and dissipated life’ as a knight for nearly fifty years. His conversion came following his wife’s death and after listening to the preaching of St Amand. For a while he attached himself to a Benedictine monastery in Ghent but eventually moved out and lived a more secluded life out of a hollow tree in the forest of Malemedum, surviving only on herbs and spring water. The hollow tree, a natural harbour for shelter and rest, and a bay within the forest, has partly inspired Hugo’s empty wooden box. The mention of forest connects to the figure alongside of St Hubert whose conversion took place while hunting in a forest. However, the principle connection to the empty coffin or the hollow tree, is a pun to reference All Hallows’ Evening (Halloween, also known as All Saints’ Eve) followed by All Hallows Day – the Christian feast of All Saints; hence the many references made to Christian saints in the Panel of the Relic. The reference also serves to link to the phrase “communion of saints” (sanctorum communionem) declared in the Apostles’ Creed, which in turn connects to an earlier mention of the medieval poem: William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman.

There are other links. Understood as a niche or a nook, the box leads to a prevalent theme in the Panel of the Relic, that of books, and one of the most obvious being the holy book held by Jean Jouffroy. At the time of the painting Hugo van der Goes was a lay brother in a religious community known as the Brethren of the Common Life based at the Red Cloister priory near Brussels that housed an impressive collection of books as well as a workshop for book production.

The pious way of life adopted by the brothers of the community was also known as Devotio Moderna (the Modern Devotion). An early follower was Thomas á Kempis who wrote the popular book on Christian meditation, The Imitation of Christ. One of the famous quotes attributed to Thomas is used by Hugo to link the wooden box with books: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but found it not, except in nooks and in books.” Hugo repeated the quote in a later painting known as the Dormition of the Virgin, depicting Kempes gripping the headboard of the Virgin’s bed and decorated with the carved shape of an open book.

Another written source Hugo called on so as to link Jan and his brother Hubert to a specific feature of the Ghent Altarpiece was Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (Natural History). The Roman author’s ‘encyclopedia’ provides an account of a contest between two Greek artists, Apelles and Protogenes. Apelles was attached to the court of the Macedonian king Philip II, and later served his son Alexander the Great. His rival Protogenes resided in Rhodes.

More on this in my next post

Leonardo’s Head of a Bear up for auction

A small drawing of a bear’s head by Leonardo da Vinci is expected to sell for up to £12m ($16.7m) at a London auction today.

Measuring 7x7cm, Head of a Bear is more than 500 years old.

The sale could surpass the previous record for a da Vinci drawing, set by the Horse and Rider in 2001.

According to Christie’s auction house, holding the sale, it is among just a few drawings by the Italian Renaissance master which are still privately owned.

More details at this link.

UPDATE: The drawing sold for a record £8.8m ($12.1m).

Lights that shine in the dark

Mentioned in a previous post was Barthélemy van Eyck, an artist in the service of duke René of Anjou. He is credited with producing some of the Calendar folios of The Very Rich Hours belonging to John, duke of Berry.

René also acquired a Book of Hours originally illuminated by an unknown artist. He subsequently commissioned several more pages to add to the manuscript. One of the commissioned artists was Barthélemy van Eyck, responsible for the rather gruesome image shown here depicting René as a decomposing corpse. 

Book of Hours, Use of Paris (The ‘Hours of René of Anjou’), British Library, Egerton MS 1070

The manuscript (referred to as Egerton MS 1070) is kept by the British Library. It describes this particular folio as a memento-mori portrait placed at the beginning of the Office of the Dead. The banner reads, “Memento homo quod sinis es et in sinere reverteris” (Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return).

It is this folio which Hugo van der Goes has sourced to make the connection to René and Barthélemy van Eyck (as well as to the figures of Lambert and Jan van Eyck), and to reference another two saints in the frame, SS Michael and Bartholomew.

René of Anjou is one of four identities Van der Goes has given to the man in black in the Panel of the Relic (St Vincent Panels).

Detail of René of Anjou from the Matheron Diptych, Louvre, Paris

The link to St Michael derives from the Matheron Diptych by the French artist Nicolas Froment, a double portrait of René with his second wife Jeanne de Laval (Louvre, Paris). René is wearing the collar of the Order of St Michael founded by Louis XI of France in 1469. It was dedicated to the archangel Michael.

The collar is unusual in that it is made up of a series of scallop shells (the badge of pilgrims). Van der Goes makes the pilgrim connection to the pilgrim figure depicted by Jan van Eyck, but more subtly mirrors the shape of the shells in the waved and cockled pages of the holy book.

Another link to René of Anjou and the pilgrim figure – in this instance in the guise of John the Baptist – is the proclaimer’s coat which is made of camel hair.

René was a keeper of exotic animals and one of his menageries housed six camels. The shape of the camel legs  in the Baptist’s coat was pointed out in a previous post.

The next set of connections link the death and later translation of Jan van Eyck’s corpse. When he died in July 1441 he was initially buried in the precincts of the church of St Donatian, Bruges. Seven months later, in March 1442, at the request of his brother Lambert, permission was given for Jan’s body to be translated into the church and buried near the baptismal font. This is depicted in the Seven Sacraments painting by Rogier van der Weyden.

So here we have Hugo van der Goes creating a link between the figures of Lambert and René and also connecting the baptism theme. The exhumation of Jan’s body and translation also lends to the figure of Jan standing in front of what is understood to be an upright coffin, perhaps also signifying the upright nature of the man during his life. The motif also points to another painting by Van der Weyden, The Joseph Portrait, that shows Jan placed in front of an empty niche. This in turn sets up another theme in the panel which I shall post on at another time.

The rotting flesh of the René figure in the memento-mori is also a reminder of Jan van Eyck’s exhumation. Hugo van der Goes has deliberately arranged Jan’s hands in a way to echo those of the corpse. Even the left hand’s grip on the scroll is matched to Jan’s hold on his staff. The corpse’s stomach is represented by the dark area beneath Jan’s arms with the descending folds below his belt its disgorging contents, a combination of intestines and worms.

Notice also the tattered and torn state of the scroll held by the corpse. The scroll has a peculiar shape and hangs over the shroud representing Rene’s coat of arms and earthly kingdoms.  The shape of the scroll loosely resembles the Greek lambada, or the letter ‘l’ (λ). Combined with the bow shape, we arrive at a word that sounds like ´El-bow’, meaning God’s bow, a reminder of his covenant promise. And if we look to the corpse’s right arm, another Greek letter, Delta (Δ), is formed. confirmed by the ‘branches’ of the trees inside the shape of the counter. Also, the corpse’s elbow points to and confirms the ‘El-bow’ shape produced by the scroll.

Hugo has incorporated these elements in the pilgrim figure. A lower-case Delta (𝛿) symbol can be seen on the cuff of Jan’s sleeve; the tributaries are three pronounced veins on the back of his right hand. This can be understood in two ways: (1) As part of a trinitarian theme that runs throughout the St Vincent panels and (2) symbolic of the three Van Eyck brothers, Lambert, Hubert and Jan and their branches of the Van Eyck family. The Delta symbol is turned to point to the torn elbow, and so connects to the torn scroll and another branch of the Van Eyck family, Barthélemy.

Hugo visualised the unfolding scroll stemming from the pierced flesh of the memento-mori figure as an extended piece of peeling flesh. This was to introduce another Saint into the scene that linked to Barthélemy – his namesake Bartholomew, who was one of the Twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus. Bartholomew is said to have been martyred when flayed alive and his head cut off, hence the torn fabric at the elbow and the white blade-shapes underneath his loose camel skin. The shape of an axehead is formed in the cuff of the left sleeve below the head of Elijah formed from the knuckles on the left hand, and a reminder that John the Baptist was also beheaded. Another account claims Bartholomew was crucified upside down, which may also explain why the Delta symbol is shown upside down beneath the profile of Christ crucified.

More on the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

Plowmen, poems and puns

In a previous post I revealed how Hugo van der Goes embedded a reference in the Panel of the Relic to a medieval poem titled William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman. This was to mimic the references Jan van Eyck made to Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales in the Ghent Altarpiece. Another ‘tale’ that was provided a place in the Just Judges panel of the altarpiece was the Plowman’s Tale, said to have been sourced from Pierce the Plowman’s Crede. Van der Goes also included references to these two poems in the Panel of the Relic.

Barthélemy van Eyck picked up on Jan’s references and depicted the conversation between the Pelican and the Griffin in the January folio of Les Très Riche Heures. Hugo went further back in time for his source to a similar debate found in the poem, The Owl and the Nightingale.

It’s not difficult to recognise Hugo’s owl in the Panel of the Relic. It’s the figure portrayed as Jean Jouffroy, except that in this scenario the figure is given a fourth identity, William of Paris, a Dominican priest and theologian, and confessor to the French king Philip IV. He was made Inquisitor of France in 1303 and began a campaign against the Templars in 1307.

The other three identities Hugo has applied to the figure in black is Jean Jouffroy, René of Anjou and Pierre Cauchon.

Detail from Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments

The link to William of Paris comes via the group of three Van Eyck brother alongside Jouffroy. The four men are also grouped in one of the scenes from the triptych painted by Rogier van der Weyden, known as the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1445-1450), now displayed in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. 

William of Paris completed writing the Dialogus de Septem Sacramentis (Dialogue of the Seven Sacraments) in 1314, the same year the Templar knight Geoffroi de Charney was executed, burnt at the stake on a small strip of land in the River Seine.

The nightingale can be discovered in the central panel of the surplice worn by man in the red collar, already identified as symbolic of the Templar flag, the Beauceant. The panel also represents the island in the Seine, known as both Jews Island and Templars Island.

As stated in an earlier post Hugo van der Goes was an accomplished heraldic artist. ‘Engrailed’ around the top of the centre panel in the surplice is a series of of border arcs forming outward points. ‘Knight’ coupled with ‘engrail(ed)’ puns as ‘nightingale’! 

Not without coincidence is the engrailed feature and the eyes of the man in black placed on the same level, although the debate makes clear the owl and the nightingale did not see ‘eye to eye’.

Sourcing the sun and the moon

In yesterday’s post about the Panel of the Relic, I mentioned the Limbourg Brothers, John duke of Berry, and a partial solar eclipse. What I wasn’t aware of when I published the post was some parts of the world had or would experience different extents of a solar eclipse that day!

So who or what inspired Hugo van der Goes to reference a solar eclipse in the Panel of the Relic? The idea is rooted in the January calendar folio of the manuscript Les Très Riches Heures. The detail is presented here and shows the duke of Berry seated in front of a circular fire screen. Standing on his left is Pol Limbourg, his left arm and elbow cutting into the screen that represents the moon. The boat-shaped serving dish forms another eclipse motif – the golden sun.

Also mentioned in the previous post was the possibility that some parts of the Calendar folios were not completed until the 1440s, probably by Barthélemy van Eyck. His relative Jan van Eyck died in 1441, nine years after completing the Ghent Altarpiece. Barthélemy made references to the famous polyptych in the January folio, some of which Hugo has picked up on and transferred to the St Vincent Panels.

The duke of Berry’s spiked hat is another motif Hugo has matched with the porcupine relic reference explained in a previous post, except that Berry’s hat also represents the Crown of Thorns. The duke owned several ‘Holy Thorns’, one of which still exists and is mounted in a reliquary displayed in the British Museum.

More signs and pointers

It’s about three weeks since I last posted information about the St Vincent Panels and in particular the Panel of the Relic. All previous posts with links are listed in the masthead menu under the title St Vincent Panels.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic (St Vincent Panels).

In a post made in April I identified the figure in black from the Panel of the Relic as being two French prelates, Jean Jouffroy doubling up as Pierre Cauchon, and connected them to the French heroine Joan of Arc and the surplice worn by Hubert van Eyck, suggesting the shaped arch in the centre represented the stake Joan was tied to when burnt alive, and its pattern symbolised the flames.

There is also a secondary French connection to the shaped arch or stake which relates and plays on the name Jouffroy.

The link is what was a small island in the middle of the River Seine in Paris known as île aux JuifsJews Island. It was named for the number of executions of Jews that took place on it during the Middle Ages. The Island is also known as Île des TempliersTemplars Island – after several members of the Order of Templars were executed by being burnt at the stake on March 18, 1314.

The Burning of the Templars at Paris (British Library). Notice the Isle in the River Seine.

One notable Templar was Geoffroi de Charney, Preceptor of Normandy for the Knights Templar  – the name Geoffroi connecting to the name Jouffroi.

Also known as Guy d’Auvergne, Geoffroi de Charney and the Knights Templar reference is disguised as a third identity for the figure already revealed as representing Hubert van Eyck and St Hubert. The white surplice, the red colour and the black background to the figure are a combination of colours that make up the Templar beauceant; the cross-bow shape of the collar is substituted for the conventional red cross.

The Templar flag, the Beauceant, matched to the colour arrangement seen in the figure of Hubert.

Another Geoffroi de Charny (not Charney) came to prominence as a French knight and author after the death of Guy d’Auvergne. He wrote books on chivalry and along with the French king John II was a founding member of the Company of the Star. De Charney was also the carrier of the Oriflamme (Golden Flame), the standard of the crown of France, and died at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 defending the French king. 

The Battle of Poitiers shows the fallen figure of Geoffroi de Charny, bearer of the Oriflamme.
Illustration by Graham Turner, from the book: Poitiers1356, The Capture of a King, by David Nicolle.

Observe that the ‘flamed’ centre section of the surplice is crowned, and the transparency of the fabric allows for “see through” to the red cassock underneath, a subtle pointer to the garment representing the Oriflamme. This provides a link to the ‘pilgrim’ figure of Jan van Eyck in the guise of John the Baptist, depicted wearing a white garment under his camel-skin coat. 

The Company of the Star was an order of chivalry and its insignia was a white star on red enamel inscribed with the motto: The star show the way to kings, a reference to the star that led the three kings or magi to Bethlehem. So here we have a link to the star featured on the breast of Jouffroy representing the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem. The star also unites with the two saints in the back row, Hubert and Lambert. Both served as bishops of Maastricht, and the city’s coat or arms features a white star on a red shield. As a group, the three red-shield references, link to the coat of arms of the de Charny family: three white shields or escutcheons emblazoned on a red shield.

Left to right: The Order of the Star, the Star of Maastricht, the star depicteed on Jean Jouffroy and associated with the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem, and the coat of arms of Geoffroi de Charny.

Geoffroi de Charny and his wife Jeanne de Vergy were once owners of what was known as the Holy Shroud – the Shroud of Turin – said to have been the cloth that covered the body of Jesus when he was entombed after his crucifixion. Jan van Eyck referred to the Shroud in at least two of his famous paintings: The Arnolfini Portrait and his self portrait of a Man in a Red Turban. The Shroud is also featured in the illuminated manuscript The Turin-Milan Hours on one of the leaves attributed to Jan van Eyck, The Birth of John the Baptist.

The manuscript once belonged to John, Duke of Berry, third son of King John II of France, founder of the Company, or Order, of the Star. The Duke, a collector of books (as Jouffroy was) also owned another famous manuscript: Les Très Riches Heures (The Very Rich Hours), magnificently illustrated by the three Limbourg brothers, Paul, Herman and Johan but incomplete when all three brothers and the Duke of Berry died in 1416, probably of the plague. It is suggested that the calendar miniatures were worked on as late as the 1440s, possibly by Barthélemy van Eyck, thought to be related to the three Van Eyck brothers. Barthélemy was in the service of Duke René of Anjou who became the owner of Les Très Riche Heures following the death of John of Berry who is the third identity that Hugo van der Goes has given to the figure in red.

Detail from the March folio of the Calendar series featured in Les Très Riches Heures.

Barthélemy van Eyck is also identified with being the “Master of René of Anjou” and the alias “Master of the Shadows”, the latter associated with the shadow features depicted in Les Très Riche Heures. Van der Goes points to this style by showing the right elbow of the man in black ‘eclipsing’ the right arm of the pilgrim, except in this scenario the composition is points to a shadow or eclipse feature in the March calendar folio of the Très Riche Heures. Here we see a field being ploughed by two oxen. The one in the forefront is brown; the other black, seemingly eclipsed or a shadow of the brown ox.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic suggesting a partial Lunar eclipse.

The ‘elbow’ eclipse also refers to a solar eclipse where a segment of the Earth is immersed in shadow cast by the Moon partially blocking out sunlight. The brown colouring of the pilgrim’s coat represents the earth, while the crescent-shaped, white hair of the kneeling man in red represents the moon. Notice, too, the sun flare extending from the elbow, and another reference to the Oriflamme. More on this theme in a future post.

This eclipse motif leads to another identity given to the pilgrim figure, and is one of a “series of pointers’ Hugo van der Goes has embedded in the panel… pointing stars, pointed weapons, porcupine needles, pointing fingers and hands, pointed ears – hare and donkey and the left ear of Jouffroy, pointed stake,  pointed saw teeth, cutting instruments, hence the reference to the plough (and symbolic of another heavenly navigator. All these pointed motifs can be summed up by the word ‘pierce’ – even the fingers and hand, a reference to Christ’s invitation to Thomas to examine the piercing he suffered on the Cross. And this brings us to connect the piercing action of the plough to the medieval poem: William’s Vision of Piers the Plowman, attributed to William Langland.

More on this in a future post.