So far, I’ve named 15 of the figures out of 50 that make up the group described as Witnesses of the Resurrection: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote the four Gospels; Judas, Jude, Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathaniel (also identified as Batholomew), disciples of Jesus; Moses and his brother Aaron; Jesse the father of King David; Isaiah the Israelite prophet; and the statuesque figure of the Roman poet Virgil.
Here are some more: John the Baptist is tucked in behind Virgil and at the Baptist’s right side is King David. Immediately behind David is the half-hidden figure of Jesus. On the left of Jesus is King Saul wearing the crushed golden crown symbolic of his depression, and on the Saviour’s right in the blue peaked cap is Heli, the father of Mary’s husband Joseph. Joseph is the bald-headed figure looking down at his father’s peaked hat shaped to represent the Holy Spirit who Jesus was conceived by. Above and to the right of Joseph is Eli, the judge and high priest who raised Samuel as his successor, the half hidden face behind Eli.
To the left of Heli are Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac who is placed immediately behind and between the pair. Issac’s half-brother Ishmael stands behind Esau and his red chaperon. Abraham, the father of Issac and Ishmael is the figure wearing the green hat and positioned at the rear of his grandson Jacob.
That’s another 13 identities to add to the 15 revealed earlier, making a total of 28 from the 50 figures in the group. The remaining figures are not so clear cut, especially as some have been given double identities, but I will reveal more in a future post.
Today is St Andrew’s Day, so what better time than now to point out this early follower of Jesus in the line-up of Witnesses to the Old Testament. He’s the faired-haired figure wearing the blue-cushioned, crown-shaped hat.
Andrew was the brother of Simon Peter, hence his proximity to the figure wearing the blue-domed hat. Peter was renamed Cephas by Jesus, meaning Rock. The blue dome represents the colour of the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli, sometimes referred to as a ‘heavenly stone’.
To the right of Andrew is the disciple Philip and on his right, Nathaniel, “an Israelite incapable of deceit”.
Chapter six in John’s gospel records the event known as the Miracle of the Loaves. A large crowd had followed Jesus to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He asks Philip: “Where can we buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip answered: “Two hundred denari would only buy enough to give them a small piece each”. Andrew arrived on the scene and reported: “There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish, but what is that between so many?” Jesus then told the disciples to make the the people sit down on the grass in groups of about 50. There are 50 figures in the group of Witnesses to the Old Testament. After the people were fed and satisfied, the scraps that were left over and picked up filled twelve bastkets.
Andrew’s hat represents the boy’s basket of five loaves and two fish. Notice the two blue fish shapes and the five spots representing the five loaves. Behind Andrew and his group are what appear to be blue and white flowers. These represent the scraps left over from the meal.
Hubert and Jan van Eyck sourced two biblical passages as a basis for the composition of the Lamb of God panel in the Ghent Altarpiece. One is the prophecy by Isaiah when he spoke of the Coming of the Virtuous King and the Return of the Exiles (11:1-16, 12: 1-3); the other is the Feeding of the Multitude account recorded in all four gospels.
Isaiah stated that the Lord “will bring back the scattered people of Judah from the four corners of the earth (11:12), hence the four groups of people gathered around the altar and mirroring the four corners of the earth. They stand on ceremony waiting to be fed by the Lamb of God, to eat and drink from the Lord’s table, as did the apostles who shared the Passover meal with Jesus at the Last Supper.
In the section referred to as Witnesses to the Old Covenant the figures are pieced together with more biblical references, each figure dependent or related to another. In some instances the figures are grouped in threes, having a particular common connection.
Other figures in the group of ‘Witnesses’ have more that one identity. This pairing or doubling-up process can be understood in three ways – firstly as a pointer to the miracle of the multiplication of loaves (John 6:1); secondly in the way that Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs to proclaim the gospel (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1); and thirdly as both clean and unclean ‘saved’ creatures of the earth entering Noah’s ark two by two (Genesis 7:9). All three ways point to God’s saving grace and entry to the “Heavenly Jerusalem”.
The apostles are featured in a unique way and mirrored in two groups: as prophets linked to those from the Old Testament in the foreground group on the left side of the fountain, and in the facing group on the right side of the fountain.
There is also a distinct difference within the group of Witnesses to the Old Covenant, compared with the people represented in the other groups who are mostly focused on the Lamb of God present on the altar. In the Old Covenant group almost half the number have their heads raised, looking heavenwards and not at the altar. They are witnesses to some kind of celestial phenomenon which has caused their faces to light up. This cues another narrative expressing the “Heavenly Jerusalem”, a symbolic chart of constellations. Van Eyck, be it Hubert of Jan, takes the reference to constellations to pun with the word consolation and point to the opening words of chapter 40 from the Book of Isaiah: “Console my people, console them” says your God. “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for…”
Also embedded in the group of witnesses are several passages from both the Old and the New Testament, which helps to explain why the Van Eyck brothers have linked Old Testament prophets to the Apostles and followers of Jesus. For instance, the number of opened books is five, representing the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. The five books can also refer to the first five books of the New Testament, four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Viewed as the New Testament the books help identify four of the figures that the four gospels are attributed to, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Matthew is the disciple in the front row wearing the white turban. The bald-headed figure to his left is Luke. On Matthew’s right wearing the red hat is Mark, and behind him is John.
Matthew’s hat is shaped as a white pearl and refers to the parable told by Jesus known as the Pearl of Great Price. Only Matthew’s gospel (13:44-46) records this parable. This exclusion theme is linked and applied to the identity of Mark.
The gospels of Mark and Matthew both tell of the time the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign from heaven. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus responds saying the only sign the evil and unfaithful generation will be given is the sign of Jonah [when he was in the belly of the beast for three days and three nights]. In Mark’s gospel Jesus responds to the Pharisees by saying “no sign shall be given to this generation”(8:11-12) and makes no mention of Jonah.
Notice that Mark’s right hand is covered. It is shaped as a sea monster raising itself from the blue turban representing turbelent water. The sea monster’s jaws are open, symbolic of releasing Jonah the prophet, preacher of the word of God, from the depths of disaster and death, an event that forshadowed the saving death and resurrection of Jesus after three days in the tomb. So although Mark’s gospel excludes the mention of Jonah, the Van Eyck’s have emphasised the point by resurrecting the link to Jonah and binding it to Mark.
There are two other visual clues to identify Mark. His hair is shown as a lion’s mane and the sides of his hat are shaped as wings, for Mark is symbolised in art as the winged lion mentioned in the Book of Revelation (4:7). As to the shape of the hat’s crown, this represents the jar of nard oil that was used to anoint the head of Jesus in the house of Simon the leper (Mark4:1-9). The passage describing this event falls in the fifth and last section of Mark’s gospel which relates the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. It comes immediately before the short account of Judas approaching the chief priests and offering to betray Jesus. The colour of the jar represents the colour of the blood shed by Jesus. The hat’s wings also represent his rising from the dead, his resurrection.
The neck of the oil jar points to another figure in the scene, that of Judas, dressed in the same colour as the jar. His head is turned away from the altar and looking at the viewer. Judas was one of the people who complained that the anointing was a waste of expensive perfume which could have been sold and the money given to the poor (John 12:5). The aromatic nature of the perfume explains why another apostle, Jude – placed left of Mark – is portrayed with his nose close to the jar of anointing oil.
The Van Eycks add further links to the anointing theme. As Jude’s nose absorbed the scent of the nard oil, so also does the nose of Judas absorb the scent produced by the anointing of SimonPeter, christened by Jesus as Cephas, meaning rock. Peter was commissioned and therefore anointed as the first priest of Christ’s chuch on earth.
Mirrored on the opposite side of the group is Aaron, commissioned by God to be the High Priest of the Israelites and annointed by Moses his brother. Yaweh said to Moses: You must also anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them, so that they may be priests in my service. Then you are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘You must hold this chrism [oil] holy from generation to generation. It is not to be pured out on the bodies of common men, nor are you to make any other of the same mixture. It is a holy thing; you must consider it holy. Whoever copies the composition of it or uses it on a layman shall be outlawed from his people’”(Exodus 30:30-33).
Close inspection of Aaron’s face shows beads of oil running down his face after his anointing.
The seven column markings on the fur fringe of Aaron’s hat, represent the seven lamps of the Temple menorah kept lit continuously with olive oil. The menorah was also a symbol for the early Christians, hence the similar markings on Peter’s fur-rimmed hat. The blue dome represents the dome of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the colour blue being a symbol of heavenly holiness.
The Jonah reference, the leper’s house and the jar of oil all connect to two other figures in the group of Witnesses to the Old Testament. I shall describe more about this and the Judas connection in a future post.
The Ghent Altarpiece was in the art media spotlight recently. New research has revealed an elaborate under-painting in the The Adoration of the Lamb centre panel and scholars have attributed this to Hubert van Eyck. Their findings also suggest that some of the finished figures were painted by Hugo, some by his brother Jan, and others by the hand of both painters.
A diagram of a section of the panel was published by the research group at KIK-IRPA indicating some of the attributions made by the researchers. Shown below is the group painted in the bottom left corner of the panel. The red markers represent the hand of Jan, the yellow markers the hand of Hubert, and the orange markers indicate figures worked on by both artists.
I’m not aware of any extensive research available in the public domain Identifying the 50 figures in this group and any of its themes or underlying narratives, but art historian Bernhard Ridderbos states the gathered group are “witnesses of the Old Covenant, among them the Roman poet Virgil, holding wreath of a laurel, who was thought to have foretold the coming of the Messiah”. Ridderbos continues: “Beside him is Isaiah “who holds a twig, in token of his prophecy of Christ as a ‘rod out of the stem of Jesse’ (Isaiah 11 :1)”
What the historian didn’t mention is that the figure in green standing next to Isaiah is in fact the mentioned Jesse, hence his covered right hand depicted as a stump. Standing to the right of Jesse is the lawgiver Moses, and slightly behind the prophet’s right side is his brother Aaron.
If Hubert van Eyck (pictured right) was responsible for the concept then he must have made notes or shared his rationale at some time with his brother for Jan to have made sense of the carefully planned construction and placement of figures and go on to complete the painting which, unsurprisingly, is mirrored in parts with the group of figures in the botton right corner of the frame that Ridderbos described as “witnesses to the New Covenant”.
I’ve recently identified almost all of the figures in this scene, its preconceived concept, and embedded narratives. My next series of posts will deal with revealing the so-called “witnesses of the Old Covenant”.
In previous posts I’ve proposed that the St Vincent Panels were inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece and Hugo van der Goes was the artist, not the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves to whom the current attribution is given.
It’s very possible the St Vincent Panels could be be the painting the German humanist Hieronymous Münzer mentioned in his diary after visiting Ghent in 1495, and attributed to “another great painter” who was “driven mad and melancholy” attempting to emulate Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. He did not mention Hugo by name, but historians generally agree that Münzer was referring to Van der Goes who suffered a mental breakdown late in life.
Several references in the St Vincent Panels are made to the work of Jan van Eyck – and also to some of his contemporaries.
Jan van Eyck’s style of ‘mirroring’ and ‘translating’ motifs and themes from other works is emulated by Hugo van der Goes in the St Vincent Panels, not as an attempt to surpass Jan in greatness but to pay tribute to the painter, similar in the manner that Van Eyck paid tribute to his brother Hubert by incorporating references to some of his brother’s works in the Ghent Altarpiece. After all, it was Hubert who was commissioned to produce the altarpiece in the first place, but following his untimely death in 1426 Jan was invited to complete the work started by his brother.
Comparisons can be made between the four outer St Vincent panels with the four outer panels in the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece. Here, Van der Goes has applied a ‘mirror’ technique in the arrangement and content of the four outer St Vincent panels, and transferred or ‘translated’ some of the motifs and features from the Ghent Altarpiece.
The first panel on the left side of the opened register in the GA is titled: The Just Judges. This is mirrored and positioned as the panel on the far right of the SVPs and titled the Panel of the Relic. In reality, it features two judges who took part in the trial of St Joan of Arc, Cardinal Henry Beaufort and Pierre Cauchon. Both men can also be identified in the Just Judges panel, as can Jan and Hubert van Eyck who also feature in the Panel of the Relic.
The second panel in the GA is titled: Knights of Christ, and translated to the SVPs as the Panel of the Knights placed alongside the Panel of the Relic.
The third ‘mirrored’ panel from the GA is titled Hermits, and Panel of the Fishermen in the SVPs. The fishermen are those appointed by Jesus to be “fishers of men”, as are the hermits, some of whom can be identified as ‘desert fathers’ and preachers of the Gospel.
The fourth panel in the GA is titled Pilgrims and focused on the tall, bearded figure of St Christopher leading pilgrims across the river with Christ on his back. The motif of Christopher with Christ on his back is echoed in the Panel of the Friars, the first section of the SVPs. The tall bearded man is also translated as the bearded friar carrying a cross, a symbol of death and passage, or crossing over to a new life. He is a Christ-bearer.
On these comparisions alone it is enough to recognise that the Ghent Altarpiece was the main inspiration for the painter of the St Vincent Panels, be it Hugo van der Goes or Nuno Gonçalves, or even by both men, as in the GA being produced by the two brothers Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
Most of the figures in the six panels of the St VIncent Altarpiece are ‘mirrored’ in some way, a recurrent theme in some of Jan van Eyck’s paintings to stimulate self examination by both painter and viewer.
In January this year I posted an item titled “Telling tales about Chaucer”. It identified one of the figures in the January folio of the Très Riche Heure du Duc de Berry as the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The post also explained the relationship between Chaucer’s grey cap and the red chaperon worn by the figure in green, one of whose identities is the painter Jan van Eyck.
The headwear of both figures represent a bird, Chaucer’s cap a pelican, and Van Eyck’s chaperon a legendary griffin. This figure in blue with its arm resting on Van Eyck’s shoulder represents the French heroine Joan of Arc.
The three-figure combination is a hat-tip by Barthélémy d’Eyck to Jan van Eyck and a similar motif painted in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. The red-headed griffin is Joan of Arc, while the pelican-styled cap worn by the figure ahead of Joan is presented as Geoffrey Chaucer. Below them is the painter of the panel, Jan van Eyck.
By pairing the griffin with the pelican Van Eyck is referring to one of the pseudo-texts attributed to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which relates to a conversation overheard between a Pelican “without pride” and a Griffin of “grim stature”.
As for any link between Chaucer’s cowl and Van Eyck’s chaperon, this combination can be better understood as a reference to the Hook and Cod wars, “a series of wars and battles in the County of Holland between 1350 and 1490.” In Dutch the conflict is known as “Hoekse en Kabeljauwse twisten”. “Twisten” can also mean “dispute” or “quarrel” and even “twist”, which brings the connection back to the “twist” motif on top of the cushioned hat and its other links.
Chaucer’s hood is shaped as a trawl dragged behind a boat to catch fish – the bulging end is known as the “cod-end”. The tail of the Van Eyck’s chaperon is shaped to represent a hook. More on this here.
I explained in an earlier post that one of four identities Jan van Eyck applied to this figure in blue, featured in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, is the French heroine Joan of Arc.
And one of four identities applied to the rider beneath Joan is the prosecutor during her trial for witchcraft and heresy, the French bishop Pierre Cauchon.
Not only has Van Eyck rhymed the name Cauchon with ‘cushion’, the shape of the red hat, but also with the French word cochon, meaning pig. There is even a suggestion of a twisted pig’s tail – or tale – attached to the backside of the ‘cochon’ or cushion, suggesting the devious methods the prosecutor pursued to convict Joan of the charges against her.
The red cushion and its ‘tale’ or ‘tail’ is also portrayed as a bird nest, as is most of the headwear worn by the figures featured in the panel. This links to two literary works associated with Geoffrey Chaucer used as a source of reference in some areas of the altarpiece: The Canterbury Tales, and Parlement of Fowls.
The latter poem and the word Fowl is a ‘twist’ on the word ‘foul’. Here Van Eyck is intimating that a second identity given to the figure wearing the cushion-style hat, the French king Charles VI, had his nest fouled by an intruder, namely his brother Louis 1, duke of Orléans, who was rumoured to have conducted an affair with the queen consort Isabeau of Bavaria. Orleans is postioned behind Charles staring down at the twisted and salacious ‘Canterbury’ tail.
Having previously posted on Jan van Eyck’s self portrait, Man in a Red Turban, I recently discovered Van Eyck’s source of inspiration for the painting, a book authored in 1354 by Henri de Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster; its title: Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines (The Book of Holy Medicines). A translation of the text into modern English by Catherine Batt was published in 2014 by ACMRS (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies).
It’s very likely Van Eyck possessed or had access to a copy of this book that can be described as a literary form of confession and penitence.
Written in the first person, the text also serves as a mirror for self examination by the reader. It focuses on the narrator’s spiritual wounds in a physical sense. Body parts, particularly those associated with the five senses, are described as gateways for the seven cardinal sins: pride, greed, anger, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. Healing grace ministered by Christ the doctor, accompanied by his mother Mary, is compared allegorically with a variety of medicinal remedies used by the people in Henry’s time.
As a mirror of reflection, the book is echoed in Van Eyck’s self-portrait made with the aid of a mirror. The painter presents himself as both sinner and penitent.
The modified chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus, particularly his denial by Peter, the disciple who had been entrusted earlier with the mission to build Christ’s church on earth and pasture his flock. After Jesus was arrested and taken into custody, Peter denied he knew him three times when questioned. At the third denial Peter wept bitterly when he remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him earlier: “Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times” (John 13:38).
Van Eyck has portrayed himself as a rooster staring out from darkness. The red chaperon represents the bird’s comb, the black coat its body, the sharp nose its beak, while the piercing, hooded eyes keep careful watch on all who come near to its roost. For Christians, the cockerel also symbolises Christ’s resurrection.
By turning the chaperon 90 degrees clockwise it can be seen how Van Eyck has depicted the rooster’s head and beak, as well as it’s comb or ‘crown’. Other forms connected to the Passion can also be made out.
Another image to emerge at this angle is Christ crucified. It depicts his suspension from the cross, hanging by his left arm, and his bowed head capped or crowned. A third image is Mary, the mother of Jesus, resting her head against the rooster. When viewed at the normal angle the turban reveals the presentation of the ‘Lamb of God’. Also, when the images of the Lamb and Mary resting her head are united, the combination is recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.
Henry de Gosmont describes his heart as a whirlpool that swallows up all the sins of the world. Van Eyck has translated this as the passion and death of Christ whose self-sacrifice as the Lamb of God takes away or “swallows up” the sins of the world. Christ’s crucifixion and the Lamb of God are outlined in the “whirlpool” or “turbulent” presentation of the red turban. Jan was not slow to embed word-play in to his paintings. “Whirl and “world” is another example. Some observers may insist that Jan’s head-cover is actually a chaperon, but the artist’s intention was two-fold, both chaperon and turban.
Van Eyck also embedded the reference to chaperon as implied in “chaperone”, a person who accompanies and takes care of another individual or group, and in this instance the most obvious reference is the outline of the mother of Jesus who accompanied her Son on his way to Calvary, stood by him during his crucifixion, and was there to receive his body when it was taken down from the cross. The painting reflects Christ’s call for all to carry their cross and follow him. A similar message is mirrored in The Book of Holy Medicines In which Henry de Grosmont – “weak from his wounds and bodily sickness that he has lost his wits” – expresses his desire to be healed of his delirium, delusions and sinful thoughts in mind, body and spirit by meditating on the passion of Christ.
Grosmont’s remedy for healing his delirium is both practical and metaphorical. It was to place a cockerel on one’s head, “all split and dismembered and fully spread out, with the blood still hot […] the blessed cockerel who sang for us at dawn when we were in darkness and in shadows. […] I am the weak delirious wretch, and our precious Jesus Christ is the cockerel…” (translation by Catherine Batt, The Book of Holy Medicines, p217)
This remedy explains why Van Eyck has depicted the turban as the cockrel on his head. Batt also points to another treatise, Liber de Diversis Medicinis, which “recommends in cases of madness, a black cockerel, to be applied for three days”. This may also be the reason why Van Eyck is painted wearing a black coat.
Another description Grosmont applies to his heart is to liken it to a fox’s den of earth where the sinful creature of mischief retreats and hides during the day only to appear again at night under the cover of darkness to pursue its wicked vices. Grosmont relates how his eyes and ears, nose and mouth are all portals to the fox’s lair, his heart.
Apart from his portrayal as a cockerel, Van Eyck presents himself as an image of a fox. The entrance to his lair is the fox-trimmed collar; the small triangle shape depicts the white markings seen on a fox’s throat; his sharp nose points to the animal’s long snout, and his clamped thin lips to the long line of the fox’s mouth when closed. Van Eyck’s observant eyes depict those of a watchful fox eying its prey – the red cockrel disguised in the artist’s turban.
Already mentioned is that the cockerel represents Christ. In this portrait the fox represents the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas. The combination of cockerel and fox refers to the passage from Luke’s gospel (13 : 32). When warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day.
Grosmont also relates his sins and heart to “when a salmon wants to reproduce and have its young, it swims far from the sea, upstream towards the mountains and changes its nature completely.” In other words, the nature of sin is regarded as deadly, once it has entered and reached the heart via the senses.
In this instance Van Eyck depicts an observant eye as the spawning ground for salmon, the portal where sin enters his heart. His eyelid is shaped as a ‘leaping’ salmon. The eye and its pupil can be understood as the egg and food sac, and the small highlights the gravel that covers the egg. One corner of the eye is seemingly the point of entry for salmon to spawn; the other corner is bloodshot and represents the sinful wound.
One of the seven ‘deadly’ sins Grosmont warns about in detail is “Lady Sloth”, a creature of comfort and laziness who arrives at the gate of his ear pleading to enter and once inside is reluctant to leave the castle that is his body. Sloth encourages the body to rest and tend to the needs of the soul “some other day”. Grosmont confesses to the Lord he has badly conducted the defence of his castle and guarded his heart, the tower stronghold, even less so.
In Van Eyck’s self-portrait the sin of Sloth is expressed as the animal of the same name noted for its slowness and hanging upside down on trees. He depicts it as the shape in the turban showing Christ crucified, hanging on a tree. The feature covers Van Eyck’s ear, the gate where Grosmont allowed sloth to enter his castle. Christ is also considered as a gate to a heavenly kingdom and his Church on earth, his body, as a holy temple which the gates of Hell can never prevail against (Matthew 16 : 18). Unlike Sloth whose work is never completed, Christ hangs upright on the tree and confesses that his redemptive mission on earth is achieved. His final words before lowering his head and giving up his spirit were: “It is accomplished” (John 19 : 30).
Mary the mother of Jesus also has a role in Grosmont’s treatise. She is presented as a “most sweet Lady” who dresses and bandages the wounds of the sinner. The bandages of “Mary’s Joys” is portrayed as Van Eyck’s “bandaged” turban, and Mary as a chaperone accompanying Jesus, shown as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1 : 29).
Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait is not the only painting the artist is associated with that has embedded references from The Book of Holy Medicines. The Three Marys at the Tomb is another work that testifies to Grosmont’s confession, so also is the Agony in the Garden folio from Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.
• I shall present more on this in a future post.
• Previous posts about the Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban are at the following links:
Some months ago, in June, an interesting report appeared about the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck. A discovery in the Vatican archives by historian Hendrik Callewier, director of Bruges State Archives, Belgium, revealed Van Eyck had requested a “confessional letter” from Pope Eugenius IV for himself and his wife Margareta.
It stated: “May Your Holiness be deemed worthy to grant Jan van Eyck and Margareta, his wife, from the diocese of Liège, perpetual confessional letters”.
Normal practice at the time was for the penitent to confesss their sins at least once a year in their own diocese. A “confessional letter” would grant the person permission to confess outside of their diocese. In Van Eyck’s case it is thought he wanted to confess in Rome.
The letter to Pope Euginius IV was dated 26 March 1441. Van Eyck died less than four months later, 9 July 1441.
The original document is lodged at Vatican City’s Apostolic Penitentiary Archive, Reg. Matrim. ey Divers. 2,f. 165v
So what’s with the detail of Van Eyck’s eye taken from his iconic self-portrait Man in a Red Turban (1433)? Well, the painting in itself is a confessional type portrait, a form which requires self-analysis and was likely produced with the aid of a mirror. Another mirror, a puzzler for some observers, is the one that features in the famous so-called Arnolfini Portrait (1434). Both paintings are housed in the National Gallery, London. The Arnolfini Portrait also contains confessional or penitential themes. In fact, it could be said that Van Eyck had a fixation about embedding penetential subject matter as there are other paintings attributed to him which link to pilgrimage and confession.
I intend to expand on Van Eyck’s mirror and confession themes in a future post, but in the meantime here’s a reminder that man’s soul-searching and for peace within echoes through every generation.
In 1934, exactly five hundred years after the completition of the Arnolfini Portrait featuring its famous mirror, Peter ‘Dale’ Wimbrow wrote a poem titled The Guy in the Glass.
When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf, And the world makes you King for a day, Then go to the mirror and look at yourself, And see what that guy has to say. For it isn’t your Father, or Mother, or Wife, Who judgement upon you must pass. The feller whose verdict counts most in your life Is the guy staring back from the glass. He’s the feller to please, never mind all the rest, For he’s with you clear up to the end, And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test If the guy in the glass is your friend. You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum, And think you’re a wonderful guy, But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum If you can’t look him straight in the eye. You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years, And get pats on the back as you pass, But your final reward will be heartaches and tears If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.
This post deals with more connections to the story of Samson found in the Agony in the Garden folio from the Turin-Milan Hours.
In my previous post I mentioned that ‘foxes’ had a role in the lives of both Samson and Jesus.
On one occasion Samson took revenge on the Philistines by a most unusual method. “He went off and caught three hundred foxes, then took torches and turning the foxes tail to tail put a torch between each pair of tails. He lit the torches and set the foxes free in the Philistines’ cornfields. In this way he burned both sheaves and standing corn, and the vines and olive trees as well”(Judges 15 : 4-5).
And responding to a scribe who said, “Master I will follow you wherever you go”, Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8 : 19-20).
Here, the artist is pairing the response of Jesus to the instruction he gave to his three disciples seen sleeping in the Garden of Gethsemane to “stay awake and pray not to be put to the test” (Matthew 26 : 41).
In Luke’s gospel (13 : 31-33) Jesus refers to the Galilean ruler Herod Antipas as a fox. Warned by some Pharisees that Herod meant to kill him, Jesus responded, “You may go and tell that fox this message: Learn that today and tomorrow I cast out devils and on the third day attain my end…” He was speaking about his three days in the tomb and resurrection on the third day, an event that happened soon after his capture by the cohort sent by the chief priests and Pharisees.
The artist has also made two visual references to foxes which connect to the two passages from the New Testament and to the story of Samson from the Book of Judges.
The hands of Jesus are shaped as the head of a fox, so too is the head of Jesus. Not only are his long ringlets intended to depict him as a Nazarite but they also represent the foxes tails set on fire by Samson. The ringlets also connect to the time Delilah asked Samsom what would be needed to bind him. Samson replied: “If you wove the seven locks of my hair into the warp of the web and fixed the peg firmly, I should lose my strength and become like any other man” (Judges 16 : 13).
This corresponds to when the cohort “seized Jesus and bound him” (John 18 : 12). Jesus offered no resistance, the illustration shows him with his hands coming together in prayer and in a manner of surrender to his Father, knowing the self sacrifice he is soon to make.
On three occasions Delilah called out to the sleeping Samson, “The Philistines are on you Samson!” Similarly, before Jesus was arrested by the cohort he found his disciples sleeping on three occasions.
Many of the elements from the Agony in the Garden are reworked into The Three Marys at the Tomb painting attributed to Hubert or Jan van Eyck, or even both.
The figure of Jesus praying to his Father in Heaven was also translated into the figure of William VI, Count of Holland, in another folio from the Turin-Milan Hours known as the Prayer on the Shore. Like Jesus, William is portrayed with his hands joined in prayer and his head looking up to God and his angels in Heaven. The pleats in William’s fur coat echo the ringlets rolling down from the head of Jesus.
The Agony in the Garden folio, which forms part of the Turin-MIlan Hours, portrays the time after the Last Supper when Jesus led three of his disciples to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. While Jesus went away to pray alone, the disciples Peter and the brothers James and John, fell asleep. Jesus prayed and asked for the cup (of suffering) to be taken away if it was his Father’s will. Twice he returned to waken the disciples. Returning a third time he told them to get up as the time had come for him to be betrayed. The cohort sent to arrest Jesus is portrayed behind the fence.
There is an underlying narrative in the painting which connects to the rather indistinguishable figure in the blue hat. In a previous post I explained the figure is intended to represent a heifer and relates to the story of Samson, one of the last judges of ancient Israel featured in the Old Testament (Judges 13-16), parts of which are alluded to in the Agony in the Garden folio.
In some ways the story of Samson points to Jesus. An angel announced news of Samson’s birth to his infertile mother, as the angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary.
Samson was a Nazarite; Jesus was a Nazarene from Nazareth.
‘Foxes’ had a role in the lives of both Samson and Jesus.
Samson confessed he would lose his strength if his hair was cut and his head shaved; the power of Jesus came from being the natural ‘heir’ to God’s throne as “the only begotten Son”.
Both Samson and Jesus sacrificed their lives with arms wide open; the blinded Samson was led to stand and push between two pillars; Jesus was nailed to a cross.
Whereas Samson’s sacrifice destroyed a nation of Philistines, the saving sacrifice of Jesus conquered death and saved the world.
Samson’s brothers and family took his lifeless body away and buried him in the tomb of his father Manoah. Followers and relatives of Jesus removed his body from the cross and buried him in the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea.
The painting makes several other references to Scripture, most notably to verses from Proverbs 30. The artist has also taken verse 12 from Psalm 118 to describe the group sent to arrest Jesus: “They surrounded me like bees; they were extinguished as a fire of thorns. In the name of the Lord I will surely cut them off.”
This section and the verse from Psalm 118 is the starting point for translating the iconography that connects to Sansom.
The “extinguished fire of thorns” are the blackened spears, and the sharp pointed ends of the fence section where the group is “cut off” provides the clue for discovering the bees. Within the indents are four heads of men sent to arrest Jesus. The indented areas accommodate the “collars” of the men. “Collar” is a play on the word “colour” and the colours have a significance. Each “points” to the tail-end of a different type of colour of bee – hence a swarm of bees. In a similar way, the artist has coloured the gowns of Jesus and his three disciples to reference and name the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Mediterranean Sea, and the “waters under and above the vault (called heaven)” – see this link for details.
So what features portrayed in the cohort group relate to parts of the story of Sansom?
The roped head of Judas represents the new ropes Samson was bound with by Delilah. The long hair of the centre figure (Caiphas) represents the long hair of Samson grown in the tradition of a Nazarite, from which he claimed his strength. It also represents the mane of the young lion that Samson killed and tore to pieces with his bare hands. When Sansom later returned to the carcass he found it contained a swarm of bees and honey. And so we have the link back to the verse from Psalm 118 about the bees and the reference to honey (and the lion’s blood) to the colour on Caiphas’ chest or carcass area. Notice also the suggestion of part of the lion’s head on the man’s shoulder.
Another lion reference is disguised is the strands of hair of the centre figure. It represents the face of Jesus as the Lion of Judah. He is portrayed face to face with his betrayer, Judas, the figure with the roped hat, whose hair is shorn and beard cut short, just as Sansom was after he betrayed the secret of his strength to Delilah. The weakness in Judas became apparent when he betrayed Jesus to the Pharisees and led the cohort to him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Embedded behind these two profiles are two other images that relate to extracting information and betrayal. The purple hat of the faceless figure directly behind Judas represents an olive. The blue hat of the figure next to it is the jar to receive the olive oil. It’s face is that of a heifer and a reference to Samson’s wife who betrayed her husband by revealing the answer to a riddle he had set the Philistines: “Out of the eater came what is eaten, and out of the strong came what is sweet.” The answer the Philistines gave was: “What is sweeter than honey, and what stringer than a lion?” Samson retorted: “ If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have guessed the riddle.”
As oil is pressed from an olive, so the answer to the riddle was pressed or ploughed by the Philistine’s from Samson’s wife.
Notice also the figure with the blue hat is shown with only one eye, blind at that. It is ‘yoked’ or paired with the blind eye of Judas. The reference to blindness is also linked to when Samson was blinded by the Philistines shortly before his death and again to the earlier time he was blind-sided by Delilah in revealing the secret of his strength.
Another episode in the life of Samson was when he struck down a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. The reference to the donkey’s jawbone is shown under the chin of the soldier in armour. The donkey’s long ears are indicated either side of the man’s jaw, but the shape of the jawbone weapon is emphasised on the right side of the face and under the chin.
The Samson references are extended to the kneeling figure of Jesus and also link to the three sleeping disiciples, but more about this in a future post.
Shown below are features from five different paintings which relate to each other in a specific way, and not just because each painting has a connection to a member of the Van Eyck family.
(1) November folio, Très Riche Heures, by Jean Colombe; (2 & 3) January folio, Très Riche Heures, by Bathélemy d’Eyck; (4) St Francis Receives the Stigmata, by Jan van Eyck; (5)Agony in the Garden, Turin-Milan Hours, attributed to Hand G, and likely Hubert or Jan van Eyck; (6 & 7) The Three Marys at the Tomb, by Hubert or Jan van Eyck.
The clue is the crouching stance taken by one or more figure in each example. The posture is a pointer to Edmund Crouchback (1245-1296), a son of the English Plantagenet king, Henry III, and also to Edmund’s own son, Henry of Lancaster (1281-1345).
The inspiration for this repeating theme was the Agony in the Garden miniature from which elements have been taken and translated, or reinterpreted, in the later paintings.
This figure is another “butterfly” featured in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry. His name is Sir Thomas Blount, a supporter of Richard II. He served as a napier at Richard’s coronation banquet in 1377.
Thomas was a participant in the Epiphany Rising to restore Richard after the king was dethroned by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. But the rebellion was unsuccessful and Thomas was captured and put to death at a place known as the Green Ditch on the outskirts of Oxford. His execution was brutal and recorded later by a chronicler as follows:
Sir Thomas Blount was hanged; but the halter was soon cut, and he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, and the executioner came with a razor in his hand, and knelt before Sir Thomas, whose hands were tied, begging him to pardon him his death, as he must do his office. Sir Thomas asked, “Are you the person appointed to deliver me from this world?” The executioner answered, “Yes, Sir, I pray you pardon me.” And Sir Thomas kissed him, and pardoned him his death. The executioner then knelt down, and opened his belly, and cut out his bowels, and threw them into the fire. While Sir Thomas was dying, one Erpyngham, the king’s chamberlain, insulting Blount, said to him, in derision, “Go, seek a master that can cure you.” Blount only answered, “Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the day on which I was born, and blessed be this day, for I shall die in the service of my sovereign lord, the noble King Richard”. His head was soon after cut off and he was quartered.
Elements of the execution are indicated in Blount’s portrayal. The location is referenced by the figure in green standing immediately behind Blount. The green colour represents the Green Ditch. One of the figure’s identities is the painter Jan van Eyck. Ditch can be translated as dyke, a pun on the name d’Eyck or Van Eyck. Blount’s hanging is matched to the string of beads around his neck and his beheading to the black collar. Quartering of the body is when limbs are severed from the torso, hence the surcoat’s serrated design. Other references to quartering are the folded napkin and the four pieces of bread on the table. As for Blount’s disembowelment, this is indicated by what appears to be a belt but actually represents where Blount’s belly was opened. Notice also the demonic feature, formed by part of the serated edge, appearing to look into the opened wound. The markings on the front of the red section of the surcoat are best understood if the image is turned upside down. Now the jagged edges can be recognised as representing rising flames and the markings as the eyes seen of a peacock’s feathers. The peacock is symbolic of eternal life. The flames are also associated with the mythical phoenix but this relates to another narrative associated with the Van Eyck figure.
The account of Blount’s execution where its states he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, is mirrored in the group of men seemingly warming their hands “before a great fire” as they are commanded to approach by the marshall. In this scenario “the great fire” can be understood as the fire of Hell. The artist has also made sure that the prelate, in the guise of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, is portrayed seated on a bench with his hands raised. This, too, relates to another narrative that connects with the Epiphany Rising and recorded in the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers.
So how is Sir Thomas Blount portrayed as a butterfly by the artist Bathélemy d’Eyck? His wings are meant to represent a butterfly, wings that were torn from its body when he was tortured and executed after his capture.
Jean Colombe picks up on this in his painting of the November folio in the Très Riche Heures. The two men in the wooded represent Jan and Hubert van Eyck (Hubert is a second identity applied to the Blount figure). They are clothed in white tops and wear black caps and stand apart, separated. This is a reference to Blount’s white and black wing features in the January folio. The figure of Barthélemy d’Eyck looking up is depicted in the process of shedding his outer coat to morph into a butterfly as the Van Eyck brothers. Notice his black cap and white undergarment, its hem shaped as a wing. In reality the artist is expressing Barthélemy’s conversion after witnessing a vision of the Lamb of God depicted among the oak trees. This is also a reference to another Van Eyck painting, The Stigmata of St Francis who is portrayed levitating when he is presented with a vision of the Crucified Christ portrayed as a six-winged seraph.
It’s worth remembering that there is more than one narrative attached to the figures and groupings in the January folio. The reason for this was Barthélemy emulating the composition system used by Jan and Hubert van Eyck of embedding several underlying themes and identities in their paintings, notably in the Ghent Altarpiece and The Three Marys at the Tomb.
The “Field of the Lord” at Saint-Hippolyte-sur-le-Doubs attracted pilgrims for many years because the claimed burial cloth of Jesus, now known as the Shroud of Turin, was displayed there at Eastertime to commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus – a transformation to a new life.
Barthélemy may have likened visiting pilgrims to butterflies, flitting from one pilgrimage destination to another. There were many at that time to choose from, mostly associated with the display of a saintly relic of some sort. But butterflies are also the result of a kind of metamorphosis or transformation, forming their shape through egg, larva and pupa stages to finally become a colorful adult creature of wonder.
Gathered around “The Lord’s Table” set for celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi – pilgrims from the East – travelled to Bethlehem to bring gifts and pay homage to the new-born king, are guests of all all types and status, from servants to ‘kings’, all clothed in an array of colours. Even the armoured soldiers fighting in the battlefield tapestry are decked in colourful coats of arms.
Arms, representing wings, is the key to recognising the butterfly theme in the January folio, and there is more than one narrative attached to the theme. Arms and wings also link to another theme in the picture, that of warfare and the equipment and methods used for conducting sieges and conquering castles. Notice also some of the figures are placed shoulder to shoulder, i.e. paired or yoked, suggesting they share a fellowship of some kind, or of the same ilk. For instance, take the identical livery colours of two men in the corners or wings of the frame. At top level they represent the Duke of Berry’s servants. However, the kneeling figure also represents Richard II whose father was the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock. It was also rumoured that Richard was the illegitimate son of one of his mother’s servants. Hence the pairing of livery colours for the two figures.
So where are the butterfly depictions in the January folio? Apart from bearing in mind the colourful display of some of the men’s garments we can start with the man guzzling at the drinks table, and the man behind eating bread. A list of caterpillar behaviours published on Wikipedia states “Many caterpillars display feeding behaviors which allow the caterpillar to remain hidden from potential predators.” This explains why the faces of the two men are partially hidden. Predators include birds and the drinking man’s hat is meant to represent a pelican arguing with a griffin. An explanation of for this motif is at this link.
Further along the back line is the blue-collared figure with the floppy head cover. The hat combines with the ear-shaped legs of two soldiers in the tapestry to represent a hare, a play on the word hair and a clue to unravel the connection to the group of three men ahead in the line. The flat cap also represents a sow’s ear. Apart from defining a female pig, a sow is a name given to a slow-moving covered apparatus used in siege situations. This is also echoed in the bell shape collar decorated with musical notes and meant to represent a belfry or siege tower, another slow-moving structure. Notice the collar is fur-trimmed and here we have the first reference to the slow-moving caterpillar known to cause significant destruction to crops. Wikipedia states: “ The English word caterpillar derives from the old French catepelose (hairy cat) but merged with the word piller (pillager). The “Cat” was also a mobile shelter used to approach a castle under siege.
The next figure in line, and another hidden face, also has a caterpillar collar. The crown of the hat resembles the shape of a torte cake. Torte is a pun on both taught and torque (as in tension). The figure in this instance represents Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, who rebelled against Richard II and gathered a force against his cousin to usurp the throne. Torque applies to another medieval siege machine, that of a catapult or its larger version the trebuchet. The Old French word trebucher means “overthrow’. Torte also lends itself to the slow-moving tortoise and its tendency not to stick its neck out when danger threatens, hence Bolingbroke’s hidden face.
In this scenario the figure in front of Henry Bolingbroke is the Duke of Gloucester, Thomas of Woodstock. Dressed in silk garments, his fur-lined sleeves represent caterpillars dangling from a tree branch when in the process of creating a silk cocoon. The figure’s face is half covered, his mouth muffled. This motif echoes the muffling feature found in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece and also links to the tonsure feature of Henry’s hat, explained at this link.
The covering of the mouth is a visual pun on the word moth, a transformation of the silkworm. It is while the moth is in its larvae stage, before its cocoon and adult span that it damages and targets animal-based fabrics such as silk. It can also be understood as damage to the fabric and stability of society, In a sense, the artist has portrayed the Duke of Gloucester as his own worst enemy.
Thomas was an uncle to Richard II who made him Earl of Buckingham at his coronation in July 1377. Many of the figures portrayed in the January folio are taken from an extant list of nobles assigned to duties at Richard’s coronation. Thomas was also created Duke of Gloucester in 1485. However, Gloucester was opposed to the king’s royal advisors, namely Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford. In 1388 Thomas led a group of nobles known as the Lords Appellant to impeach and force the dismissal of some of the king’s royal advisers which included Suffolk and Oxford. Afterwards Richard’s authority as king was somewhat limited but in 1389 with the help of his uncle John of Gaunt he was able to rebuild his power base and exert his authority as king once more. But after further fall-outs with Thomas the king clipped his uncle’s flitting wings and had him arrested and imprisoned in Calais. It is speculated that Richard ordered Thomas’s murder some months later when he was strangled or smothered, or both, and so another reference to the muffled mouth feature in the January folio.
The Duke of Gloucester did much to undermine his nephew’s authority as the rightful king, prompted in the background by another appellant and claimant for the throne, Henry Bolingbroke. However, Gloucester too would have felt undermined when Richard II’s father, the Black Prince, returned to England to assist in regaining his son’s control over his opponents.
Gloucester’s blue headdress is a reference to undermining, and a siege tactic where attackers dig or mine beneath a castle wall to weaken its structure. In medieval times miners believed in underground spirits named Kobolds or Bluecaps. Several legends are associated with them. Miners claimed the Kobbolds lived in the rocks and they could hear the spirits drilling and hammering. This is also a reference to the occupants of a castle under siege hearing the mining attempts of their aggressors on the outside. The colour cobalt blue takes its name from the Kobald spirit, hence the colour of Gloucester’s headdress.
The mining theme is also reflected in Gloucester’s ‘tunnelled’ sleeves and the ‘castle ramparts’ design of the cape covering his shoulders.
That Gloucester may have felt undermined on both sides is expressed both in the sense of the chaperon covering his head and as the two men chaperoning him on either side, his brother the Black Prince, and Henry Bolingbroke. Notice two fiendish shapes outlined on either edge of Gloucester’s blue headdress.
The three men as a group also refer to the maxim “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. Bolinbroke has his eyes covered, Gloucester his mouth, and the Black Prince, his ears. This is another motif borrowed from Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent Altarpiece.
The figure wearing the light blue-grey chaperon and dressed in black silk with ‘caterpillar’ trims on the sleeves and collar, is Thomas’s elder brother, Edward of Woodstock, better known in history as the Black Prince. He was the eldest son of king Edward III and heir apparent to the English throne, hence the crown motifs on his black gown. The Black Prince died before his father and it was his son who succeeded to the throne as Richard II, bypassing any claim the duke of Gloucester or Henry Bolinbroke may have considered they had to become king.
The appearance of the trio warming themselves at the fire is not what it seems to be at first glance. There are other narratives embedded in the composition. Their arms are raised to reveal that there is nohing untoward is hidden in the sleeves of their garments. The marshall, in this instance depicted as Richard de Vere, Earl of Oxford, is inviting the three men to “Approach” but the trio appear hesitant. Hands are raised as if on guard. There are reasons for this: One is the fighting reputation of the marshall and another is the three figures behind him all died from the plague. Not only that the three guests represent English forces that fought on French soil in the Hundred Years War.
The royal heritage of the brothers Gloucester and the Black Prince is also depicted by their raised arms. The Black Prince strkes the pose of the heraldic Lion Passant Regardent. His head is turned as if looking over his shoulder, possibly wondering if his younger brother, the duke of Gloucester, may have ambitions to usurp his claim to the English throne. Gloucester strikes a similar pose except that both arms are raised to depict him as the heraldic Lion Rampant, while Henry Bolingbroke is shown with only one arm. Like his face, the other is hidden.
The Black Prince is heir apparent to his father’s throne, and here we have another pun incoporated by the artist – the word heir at the front of the sequence of the four-man group, and hare at the start of the line. In between there are several references to the word hair or hairy caterpillar. The pun is extended to the group of Appellants and the word apparent.
The identity of the figure at the start of the group is Jean Creton, a French knight and chronicler, who wrote The Metrical History of Richard II, hence the musical notes on his blue collar. The reference to his floppy hat being a sow – a siege apparatus – also points to the word creton as a French term for bacon fat.
Returning to the butterfly theme and the mention of riddles in an earlier post, here’s another:
First I was small, and round like a pearl; Then long and slender, as brave as an earl; Since, like an hermit, I lived in a cell, And now, like a rogue, in the wide world I dwell
The answer is butterfly, and I shall explain in my next post how this riddle is translated in the January folio.
New research into Hubert van Eyck’s contribution to the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) is helping a painter about whom little is known to emerge from obscurity and the shadow of his talented younger brother, Jan. More details at this link.
Another interesting feature of The Three Marys at the Tomb painting is the apparent absence of the burial cloths – the shroud and the sudarium – associated with the Resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. In John’s gospel Simon Peter “saw the linen cloths on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head but rolled up in a place by itself”(20 : 6).
However, the artist, likely Hubert van Eyck, has referenced the cloths in an unusual way.
At one time the Shroud came into the possession of Geoffroi de Charney a renowned French knight who died fighting against English forces at the battle Poitiers fought on September 19, 1356. His son, also named Geoffroi, inherited the Shroud, and when he died in 1498 the cloth passed to his wife Marguerite de Charny.
In an article published by the British Society of the Turin Shroud, researcher Hugh Duncan explains that in 1418 the Shroud was moved for safe-keeping from Lirey to Saint-Hippolye-sur-le-Doubs, a small town on the French-Swiss border. The cloth was housed in the Buessard Chapel and each year taken out and put on display for visiting pilgrims in a nearby field which became known as “The Lord’s Field”.
The golden strip of land seen in the background detail of The Three Mary’s painting is a reference to the Shroud and “The Lord’s Field”. Notice also the group of pilgrims riding towards the field.
As for the sudarium, the cloth that had been rolled up to cover the head of Jesus in the tomb, the artist has shown this “in a place by itself” as a golden triangular shape alongside the ‘sudarium’ worn by the figure in blue representing the sorrowful Virgin Mary.
The Shroud and the triangular Sudaium are echoed in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry, the tablecloth being the Shroud and the folded napkin representing the Sudarium.
The meat dish is a double representation of both the heads of Christ and John the Baptist. Like “The Lord’s Field” the representation is set against a gold background.
The Baptist feature relates to another narrative also present in both paintings which I shall comment on in a future post.
Following on from my previous post, here’s another take on the profile image of Joan of Arc featured as one of the Singing Angels in the Ghent Altarpiece.
Jan van Eyck has shown her head tilted down to imitate a charging ram, as in a battering ram used in the siege of Orléans. Notice also the ram-horns motif on Joan’s headband.
Jan’s brother Hubert died on September 18, 1426. Two years later Joan took up arms against the English and Burgundians, later claiming heavenly voices directed her to do so. These dates can be be presented as evidence that Jan painted the Singing Angels panel and not Hubert.
It’s probable also that Jan was in turn pointing to the list of charges against Joan, one of which that she dressed as a man (hence another reference to the male sheep). It was on this specific charge she was declared guilty during her trial which provided her prosecutors a reason for burning Joan at the stake.
Joan’s battering persistence in the campaign she led against the English invaders resulted in the Dauphin Charles, the legitimate heir to the French throne, being crowned Charles VII of France in Reims Cathedral on July 17, 1429.
In my previous post I explained how the woman in green featured in The Three Marys at the Tomb painting was Joanna, wife of Chuza, and not Mary Salome. I also described how the figure also related to St Peregrine and mentioned that Jan van Eyck had ‘translated’ the figure of Joanna to the Ghent Altarpiece.In similar fashion, Barthélemy d’Eyck translated Jan’s pointers to Joan to the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.
St Peregrine was known as the “Angel of Good Counsel” for the good advice he gave to so many people. Here we can relate the dual identity of Joanna and Peregrine to the angel figure kneeling on the cover of the tomb in The Three Marys painting. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the angel counsels the fearful women who came to the empty tomb to leave and report to the disciples that “Jesus has risen from the dead”.
Joanna, in her dual depiction as the Hebrew servant to the wife of Naaman the leper, also gave good counsel when she said to her mistress: “If only my master would approach the prophet of Samaria. He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5 : 3).
Joanna is also said to have retrieved the head of John the Baptist after he was decapitated on the orders of Herod Antipas, and there are embedded references to the Baptist’s head in the three linked paintings: The Three Mary’s at the Tomb, the Ghent Altarpiece and the January folio of the Très Riche Heures. The disguised pointers all refer to Templecombe in Somerset where, in 1945, a painting known as the Templecombe Head was discovered in the roof of an outbuilding. The panel has been dated to the 13th Century. Views differ as to who the painted head represents, Jesus or John the Baptist, but as the eyes and mouth are open, the Baptist is the more favoured opinion.
So how has Jan van Eyck translated Joanna to the Ghent Altarpiece? There are two panels where this transpires, the Just Judges, and the Singing Angels.
In the Just Judges panel, four identities are given to the ten riders. One of the riders is disguised to represent a woman – Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans. As Joan did not appear on the scene until after the death of Hubert van Eyck in 1426, it more than suggests that the panel was painted by his brother Jan. Joan was executed in May, 1431, just a year before the Ghent Altarpiece was officially celebrated in May 1432.
• Of the ten featured riders Joan is the only figure with her head uncovered. • Her hair is cut short. It was cropped in May 1428, at the same time when she was made to dress in men’s clothes to disguise her femininity before journeying to Chinon to meet with the dauphin Charles. • Her blue mantle is symbolic of heaven and holiness. Other figures in the frame wearing the colour blue also have a religious significance. • The figure of Joan is fashioned to represent her family’s coat of arms, “Azure, a bow or in fess, thereon three arrows crossed …, on a chief argent a lion passant gules.” • Azure is the blue coat, on which is a bow-or – the gold chain shaped as a bow. The three arrows are the three pointed segments of her collar, the fess. The chief is a charge that runs across the top edge of the shield, in this case the white, argent, fur trim of the blue mantle, while the lion passant gules refers to Joan’s shorn red mane. “En passant” (in passing) is also a pawn capture move in the game of chess and points to Joan’s capture at Compiègne on May 23, 1430. The pawn reference also connects to another figure elsewhere in the painting.
In the January folio Joan is the partially hidden figure behind the man in the red turban (representing Jan van Eyck and also the dauphin Charles, who Joan helped crown as the French king Charles VII). Joan claimed to have been guided in her mission by the voices of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The folio depicts Joan’s right arm on the shoulder of Charles. It’s a gesture of protection emphasised by the shape of his arm as a shield. As to any reference to an angel the shoulder on which Joan’s left hand rests can be understood as a wing. Like Joanna in the Tomb painting Joan’s right hand is hidden but her arm appears to point towards the rise in the back of the long seat. The ‘rise’ is known as a wing. The rise is also located next to the napier’s ‘feathered’ garment. His two arms represent the wings of a butterfly which relates to another narrative in the scene.
In the Just Judges panel. the dauphin Charles is shown riding behind Joan and positioned next to his father, Charles the Mad. Notice the shield-shaped arm of the dauphin. Jan van Eyck is the figure in black.
The Joan and/or Joanna connection to angels is also reflected in the Singing Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. The Maid of Orleans is shown in profile at the highest point of the arc at the top of the frame. Notice the end of her nose is clipped or missing, echoing the disfigured nose portrayal of the leper feature covering Joanna’s hand in the The Three Marys painting. It also symbolises Joan of Arc’s excommunicatuion from the Catholic Church, cast out from the Christian community and treated as a leper. It wasn’t until twenty-fours years after her death that the French heroine was declared by the Church to have been tried and executed unlawfully and her conviction reversed.
In the January folio the arm on the shoulder feature is also borrowed from the miniature featuring the lineup of knights belonging to the Order or Company of the Star. There are two instances in the scene showing a hand resting on someone’s shoulder.
That Joan is depicted with an arm around Jan van Eyck is also reflected in a painting by an artist said to have become the prinicpal painter in Brugge after Jan had died in 1441. He was Petrus Christus and his painting known as a Goldsmith in His Shop (1449) shows a mirror image of Van Eyck with his arm around a woman disguised as Joan of Arc. His hand rests on the point where Joan was wounded by an arrow during the Siege of Orléans. As in the January folio, Joan’s left arm stretches down at the ‘wing’ of the goldsmith. In fact there are several features in the Christus painting ‘translated’ from the January folio and, not surprisingly references to John the Baptist and Templecombe.
Joanna is also indicated in Jean Colombe’s November folio of the Très Riche Heures. The main figure is portrayed as Bathélemy d’Eyck who served as a painter and “valet de chambre” to René d’Anjou, a similar position that the biblical Chuza held in the service of the army commander Naaman the leper. Joanna was the maid to the wife of Chuza.
The name Chuza is interpreted as ‘seer’ or ‘visionary’, and in the November folio Barthélemy (or Chuza) is shown looking up at the trees above.
Close examination of the golden glow of a section of the leaves reveals the shape of the Lamb of God, and so another connection to John the Baptist whose head was recovered by Joanna.
The title of this painting by Hubert or Jan van Eyck is usually referred to as The Three Marys at the Tomb, that is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary Salome.
However, the artist has only portrayed two Mary’s, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. The other woman (in green) is Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza. She is mentioned twice in Luke’s gospel, and as one of the women who went to the tomb with spices and found it empty (Luke 24 : 9-11).
Joanna is also portrayed here in the role of the unnamed Hebrew girl and servant to the wife of the Naaman the Syrian leper, also mentioned by Luke (4 : 27), which explains the mystery of why the woman is depicted carrying what is described by researchers as a Syrian apothecary jar.
Notice also that the woman’s left hand is hidden, echoing the sentiment expressed by Jesus that when giving alms the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing (Matthew 6 : 3). The left hand is also hidden for another reason. Its cover forms the shape of a face disfigured by leprosy.
Joanna’s right hand is also distorted, but for another reason. It is meant to portray a falcon’s claw, a peregine in particular. The Latin version of peregrine is “peregrinus” meaning “coming from foreign parts” and so a reference to the unnamed servant girl captured from Israel and brought to Syria.
The story of Naman and his healing from leprosy appears in the Second Book of Kings (5 : 1-27). Mentioned are several servants and the services they undertake. It is in this role that Joanna is presented – as a servant – fulfilling the command of Christ to serve others, and as lady in waiting in line behind the Virgin Mary.
The falcon image is also extended to the woman’s white head covering. The head is shaped as that of a falcon, its beak and an eye facing out of the painting, its wings suggested by the pointed ends of the cloth. Notice there are no black markings on the woman’s head that are a familiar feature of the Egyptian falcon, signifying Naman’s healing from leprosy.
The artist, be it Jan or Hubert van Eyck, also puns on the word peregrine. Pere (French) as in Father, a title attached to a priest; and “grine” sounding like green, the colour of the woman’s gown. The connection is to the priest Peregrine Laziosi, an Italian saint of the Servite Order who died in 1345. The Servite Order, also known as the Order of Servants of Mary, strives among other objectives to propagate devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Late in life, at the age of 60, Peregrine developed an infection in his right leg which deteriorated to the extent that a doctor decided he would have to amputate. During the night before he was to have his leg amputated in the morning Peregrine had a vision of Jesus descending from his Cross and touching the infected limb. When the physician arrived the next day to perform the surgery, all signs of the cancerous wound had disappeared and a miraculous cure was proclaimed. Peregrine is now considered a patron saint of cancer.
This account is one of three delberate references to legs in the painting made by the artist. A second is associated with the guard lying down asleep on the floor, and the third connects to the guard sat with his legs crossed. I shall present an explanation about this in a future post other than to say than to state at this stage that the iconography relating to the three legs is echoed in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures, as are connections to the three guards and the three women.
Another connection to Joanna and the falcon motif is that the founderess of what is known as the Religious Sisters of the Third Order of Servites was a woman named Juliana Falconieri. Her uncle, Alex Falconieri, was one of the seven founders of the Servite Order. When Juliana was approaching death in June 1341, she was too sick to receive Holy Communion. Instead she requested the priest to lay the corporal on her chest and place the Eucharistic Host on it. Shortly after she died an image of a crucifix, as that impressed on the Host, was discovered on Juliana’s breast.
This explains why the artist has depicted Joanna’s headress extended to cover her chest.
The Syrian woman account is also translated in Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, suggesting that he may have done so to pay homage to his brother Hubert who died before the commission was completed.
At surface level, the January folio of the Très Riche Heures represents a banquet celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, but there are other scenarios within the scene that connect to the date of the event, January 6, and the meanining of the word epiphany.
For instance, one of the identities given to the kneeling figure in the right hand corner is King Richard II. January 6 is the date of his birthday.
Pol Limbourg, depicted leaning on the seat behind the Duke of Berry, is one of three brothers associated with illustrating many of the folios in the manuscript. He is named after St Paul the Apostle, who experienced his ‘epiphany’ moment on the Road to Damascus. St Paul’s conversion is celebrated on January 25.
Another reference which links to the Richard II figure is the Epiphany Rising, the failed rebellion against Henry IV of England in January 1400. Thomas Blount the knight at the table folding the napkin, was one of ‘rebels’ executed. Henry IV is the figure dressed in black placed immediately above him.
The ‘Rising’ theme is extended to the tablecloth. It represents the burial shroud of Jesus, and his resurrection or ‘Easter Rising’.
The Resurrection theme extends to the five five figures front of table. Each of them are linked to the three guards and three women featured in the Van Eyck painting titled Three Marys at the Tomb. In fact there are several other references to paintings by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.
From these examples we can see how Bathélemy d’Eyck has taken his lead from the Van Eyck brothers to build his composition very much in the ‘jig-saw’ style used by Jan and Hubert in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where four identities are applied to each rider. In the January folio the number of identities applied to each figure are usually two, but in the case of the napier in red and white, there are four. This likely a hat-tip to Jan and Hubert van Eyck as the figure behind the napier is Jan and one of the identities given to the napier is Hubert van Eyck (d.1426). The three others are Thomas Blount (d.1400), Amery of Pavy (d.1352), and Geoffroi II de Charny (d.1398) who was the son of the seated Geoffroi de Charny.
The biblical Epiphany story relates how three Wise Men from the East followed a star to Bethlehem to seek out a new-born king and “do him homage”. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Hence the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas and New Year. So is Bathélemy paying homage to Jan and Hubert va Eyck. Hubert died in 1426, Jan in 1441. The folio is likely to have been painted sometime in the 1440s and probably as a work of homage after Jan had died, hence several pointers to paintings by the Van Eycks.
The Wise Men of Magi rmade their journey on camels, led by the light of the Star of Bethlehem. The Star and camels are also referenced in the painting.
The star is introduced by way of Geoffroi de Charny (mentioned in the previous post), a French knight who, along with the French king Jean II, founded the chivalric Order of the Star, sometimes referred to as the Company of the Star, in 1351. Geoffroi de Charney is the bald-headed figure seated opposite the Duke of Berry who also doubles up as King Herod.
There is an interesting folio (394) which forms part of the Grandes Chroniques de France (14th century) that shows the inception of the Order and some of the knights feasting at table. There can be little doubt that both illustrations were used as a source by Barthélemy for the composition of the January folio. The similarity of the table scene speaks for itself, but the group of knights approaching the French king is echoed in the group of figures huddled together behind the seated Geoffroi de Charney who is dressed in the same colours and style adopted by the Order of the Star.
As well as being father and son the two Charny figures are connected in two other ways. Charney senior was the first recorded owner of the claimed burial shroud of Jesus, now known as the Turin Shroud. It later passed into the possession of his son, hence the representation of the shroud as the tablecloth. Charney senior also wrote three works on chivalry, the most acclaimed being the Book of Chivalry. However, recent scholarship suggests that this treatise may have instead been written by his son to commerorate his father’s death, in a similar way that Bathélemy d’Eyck has honoured Jan and Hubert van Eyck with his painting of the January folio.
• More revelations about the January folio in my next post.