The two end frames of the St Vincent Panels – the Friars Panel (left) and the Relic Panel (right) are similar in composition. Their “end of the line” positioning is a pointer by the artist, be it Nuno Gonçalves or Hugo van der Goes, to another painting known as the Merode Altarpiece and attributed to Robert Campin. Art historians generally agree that its two end panels were painted at a later date, and possibly by a young Rogier van der Weyden.
In the two St Vincent Panels the bearded friar represents Robert Campin, while the pilgrim or hermit figure is portrayed as Jan van Eyck, aka Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary, (a carpenter’s saw hangs from his belt), as explained in a previous post.
In the Merode Altarpiece the so-called ‘messenger’ in the left panel, standing beside the garden door has never been identified, but I would suggest that he represents Robert Campin, the same bearded ‘messenger’ patting the wooden plank in the Friars Panel.
The other end panel in the Merode Altarpiece sees a busy St Joseph in his workshop drilling or ‘tapping’ holes into a plank of wood – a pointer to the holes seen in the plank alongside the beared friar (Campin).
Another Campin connection seen in the Relic Panel is the figure dressed in black supporting the holy book. He is the French prelate Jean Jouffroy. The likeness is based on a portrait by Robert Campin titled Portrait of a Stout Man, now housed at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.
• More on this in my next post which will identify the two men placed on the back row of the Relic Panel.
In my previous post I pointed out that Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘Joseph’ portrait was adapted from Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait – Man in a Red Turban.
Another Netherlandish artist went a step further and amalgamated features from both portraits to create his own version of Jan van Eyck and feature him as a pilgrim in the St Vincent Panels. Although the panels are currently attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, they also reveal iconographic evidence that Hugo van der Goes had a major role in the work.
In his portrait of Van Eyck as a pilgrim seen in the Panel of the Relic, Hugo has mirrored Van der Weyden’s ‘Joseph’. The hats are similar, so are the facial features. The muzzle of the ‘Lamb of God’ feature is outlined in the pilgrim’s hat.
A subtle ‘God the Father’ feature is applied to Jan’s temple, to mirror the Christ image which is seen on the temple of the man wearing the red turban. Just below the ‘Father’ feature is the suggestion of ‘Christ Crucified’, another detail which appears on the red turban in Jan’s self-portrait.
Hugo has also echoed the vacant aedicula in Rogier’s painting by placing an empty coffin behind Jan the pilgrim.
That the red turban worn by Jan van Eyck in his self portrait depicts the symbolic ‘Lamb of God’ is confirmed by two other 15th century painters – Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, albeit in a less flamboyant way.
A surviving fragment of a lost painting by Van der Weyden, known as the Virgin and Child with Saints, is a portrait generally assumed to represent Joseph the husband of Mary. The portrait is housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. The likeness of Joseph is modeled on the ageing Jan van Eyck, confirmed by references Van der Weyden makes to the Man in a Red Turban Portrait. The date of the St Joseph portrait is put at 1435-38, shortly after Van Eyck completed his own portrait and dated it, October 21, 1433.
St Joseph’s hat is not the winding chaperon as depicted in the Van Eyck self-portrait. Instead, its double tier is based on the style of the cap Van Eyck has added to the Crucifixion figure (see previous post).
Joseph’s blue mantle represents the curved segment of the Virgin Mary outlined in the self-portrait. Enclosed in the mantle are two other features that Jan depicted in the red turban: the Lamb of God and the Resurrection. However, the latter makes no reference to the rooster, symbolic of the Resurrection. Instead, Van der Weyden has taken another biblical pointer to the same event, the large fish or whale that swallowed the prophet Jonah for three days.
Rising from the tail end of the large fish is the shape of the ‘Lamb of God’ with its muzzle nestling in Joseph’s neck and its long ears merging into the form of the ‘whale’.
Van der Weyden has also repeated Van Eyck’s bloodshot eyes, the dark mark on his left temple, and his stubbled chin.
Note also the vacant aedicula on the building behind Joseph. The pedestal and canopy are there – but no statue – perhaps awaiting one of St Joseph in the guise of Jan van Eyck, a permanent roost assigned for guardians who keep watch and annunciate.
• My next post will explain how both these paintings connect to the work of another Netherlandish painter, Hugo van der Goes, and the St Vincent Panels housed at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, Portugal.
In my previous post I pointed out that the red turban in Jan van Eyck’s self-portrait was configured to represent aspects of the Passion of Christ.
When rotated 90º clockwise part of the turban takes on the appearance of a rooster, symbolic of Christ’s resurrection.
Another image to emerge at this angle is that of 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 that of 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 can be recognised as a ‘Pieta’, a subject in Christian art depicting Mary cradling her crucified Son.
Another Flemish artist,Hugo van der Goes, picked up on three of these features and incorporated them in the St Vincent Panels painted some forty years later.
A contemporary of Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, was also aware of what Jan had depicted in the red turban and made reference to it in two of his paintings, the Magdalen Reading, and the Seven Sacraments altarpiece.
There is also evidence that Rembrandt was aware of Van Eyck’s construction, even going as far to incorporate some of its features in his own ‘disguised’ style in the 1639 engraving referred to as The Death of the Virgin.
So what inspired Jan van Eyck to want to represent himself as a rooster and disguise elements of Christ’s passsion in his red turban? And what could possibly link this painting to the Somerset village of Templecombe and the discovery in 1945 of a painting on wooden boards known ast he Templecombe Head?
Here’s another take on Jan van Eyck’s red turban or chaperon, supporting my previous proposition that the painting is representative of a rooster and not just a mirror image of the artist. But for what reason should Van Eyck choose to portray himself in this way?
Art historians generally look on the portrait as it is presented in its frame and, in fact, it is the frame and what is written on it that often becomes the main focus of the painting.
In the previous post I stated that the chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus and so the rooster can be associated with Peter’s denial of Jesus after he was taken prisoner at Gethsemane. For Christians, it also symbolises Christ’s resurrection.
By turning the chaperon 90º clockwise we can see 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, which I will highlight in my next post.
Having already identified references to the Turin Shroud in some of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, notably the Arnolfini Portrait and the Ghent Altarpiece, it came as no surprise when I discovered that Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban is another work linked to what is claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus. The painting is dated 1433, a year after the unveiling of the Ghent Altarpiece, and the two works are connected.
The website of the National Gallery in London, where the portrait is housed, provides a high-res image, some key facts and a brief description. Wikipedia also publishes a page with details, particularly about the inscription on the frame of the painting.
The most obvious focal point of the portrait is the sitter’s vivid red chaperon and its intricate folds, but there is a more subtle feature paired with the headwrap – the Christ-like face unveiled on the sitter’s left temple.
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 the 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. So is Van Eyck issuing a wake-up call of some kind with this portrait, a possible warning or reminder of betrayal? The rooster is an iconic emblem of Christianity. Also, as a weathercock and a familiar sight on church towers, it indicates which way the wind is blowing.
Jan van Eyck was known to travel abroad on missions for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. It is possible that one such excursion brought the artist to England in 1426. Ducal records show that Van Eyck was paid for trips that year on assignment for Philip. One such payment was made in October, perhaps to cover his expenses for an upcoming journey. It is notable that Jan was absent when his brother Hubert died on December 18th that year.
In England, Van Eyck’s turban or chaperon would be called a cocks-comb and, presuming he did travel there on a secret mission for the Duke of Burgundy, he would be familiar with the term. So what would be Jan’s reason for emphasising this feature in the portrait, apparently painted some seven years later? In the first instance the comb is meant to combine with the temple feature – TEMPLE and COMB. When the two words are cleaved or joined they form TEMPLECOMB(E), which identifies a small village in Somerset.
Van Eyck would often employ punning examples in his work. His name Eyck as a signature motto on the frame of this painting is an example – AIC IXH XAN (AS I CAN). That he used Greek letters for this is not without reason and provides a further clue to unravelling the painting’s narratives and features disguised in the turban.
Jan’s motto is not only a pun on his name but can be also understood as “AN ICON”, or even “JAN ICON” – a religious work of art – its iconic features or themes to be found in the red chaperon. The icon theme also connects to the village of Templecombe and what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards, discovered in the roof of an outhouse in the village in 1945. It is claimed by some to represent the head of Christ with a link to the Turin Shroud. Details of its discovery and further information at this link.
That the painting was discovered beneath the roof of an outhouse makes another connection to the rooster theme in Van Eyck’s portrait. The building is thought to have been part of the Templecombe Preceptory established in the village by the Knights Templar in 1185. After the suppression of the Knights Templar in 1307 the Preceptory was granted to the Knights of St John until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. The Templecome Head is considered to date to the 13th century and is now displayed in the village Church of St Mary. It is also referenced by Jan van Eyck in the Ghent Altarpiece and in this way connects to his Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban.
Two panels from two altarpieces, both possibly by the same artist – Hugo van der Goes! On the left is the Panel of the Knights from the set of six frames known as the St Vincent Panels. On the right is the Donor Panel from a set of four known as the Trinity Altarpiece.
The right panel was probably produced c1477 while the left panel is undated but likely completed in the early 1470’s. The donor panel is attributed to Hugo van der Goes while the Portuguese painter Nuno Goçalves is credited with painting the St VIncent Panels. However, I would judge that both panels are by Hugo van der Goes.
The four principal figures in the Panel of the Knights are generally identified as four sons of King John l of Portugal: Henry the Navigator (kneeling), Peter Duke of Coimbra (in green), John Constable of Portugal (in red), and Ferdinand, wearing the steel helmet.
Certainly, the four knights have second identities, perhaps more. It’s a technique Jan van Eyck applied to the many figures in the Ghent Altarpiece and which Van de Goes tried to emulate, In fact, in the Just Judges panel Van Eyck gave each of the ten riders four identities! In the Arnolfini Portrait he morphed himself with the identity of the Duke of Burgundy.
Van Eyck’s influence is also seen in the donor panel of the Trinity Altarpiece and reminiscent of the Angel Musicians scene from the Ghent Altarpiece.
According to some researchers, Henry the Navigator pops up in two places in the St Vincent Panels: as the moustached man wearing the black bourrelet and standing alongside St Vincent in the Panel of the Prince, and secondly, as the foremost kneeling knight in the the Panel of the Knights, grey haired and without a moustache. The latter identification seems the most plausible, especially as he is grouped with three of his brothers.
The Panel of the Knights has a somewhat liturgical feel about it. Their coats of purple, green, red and blue could be said to represent the colours of liturgical vestments. The four men in surplices standing at the back resemble choristers, although in fact they are Flemish artists, identified left to right as Lambert van Eyck, Jaques Daret, Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts. They are likely to be lined up in order of their passing with Bouts being the last of the quartet to join the “celestial choir”. He died in May 1475. Could this feature provide an indication to dating the panel?
The four Portuguese princes or infantes were also dead prior to the painting, Henry (the Navigator) being the last of the brothers to survive. He died in 1460.
So what connection does this panel have with the Trinity Atarpiece panel? That the same artist was probably responsible for both works provides an important clue in discovering the second identity given to Henry the Navigator. The two kneeling figures are similar in features. We know the identity of the kneeling donor in the Trinity Panel. He is Edward Bonkil, the Provost of Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Bonkil coat of arms appears on the angel’s chair: three buckles surrounding a chevron.
The same motif is disguised within the kneeling figure said to represent Henry the Navigator, except that it refers to the second identitiy given to Henry – that of another member of the Bonkil family, and likely Edward’s elder brother, Alexander. Three buckles feature on the belt, while the shape of the chevron (a rafter) is formed by the hands joined at the fingertips.
Although similar in features to Edward, Alexander’s hair is grey. His nose is not as sharp as his sibling’s but we have to take into account that the portrait is also morphed with Henry whose nose is pointed.
This is another painting by Hugo van der Goes – The Trinity Altarpiece – that Rembrandt sourced for his etching Death of the Virgin.
He incorporated some of it features in the left corner of the etching, the section he later adapted for one of his final paintings, the Return of the Prodigal Son, details of which I presented in an earlier post, as seen below.
So that makes a total of five paintings by Hugo that Rembrandt utilised to pay tribute to Van der Goes – the figure depicted on his deathbed and not, as presumed, the Virgin Mary.
All the paintings were produced in the latter years of Hugo’s life: The Panel of the Relic from the St Vincent Panels; Adoration of the Shepherds; Death of the Virgin; The Vienna Diptych; and the Trinity Altarpiece.
Here’s how Rembrandt matched a third painting by Hugo van der Goes, the Vienna Diptych, to a section of his etching referred to as Death of the Virgin. Again, I’ve numbered the figures to make identification easier, but some of the match-ups need explanation.
The left panel of the Vienna Diptych – the Fall of Man – shows the serpent tempting Eve to take the fruit from the tree and share it with Adam. Eve reminded the serpent that God had said they must not eat the fruit, or touch it, under pain of death. But the serpent responded with a lie saying: “You will not die”. (Genesis 3 : 4)
Adam (1) is portrayed as Hugo van der Goes, and as the man on his deathbed (1) in Rembrandt’s etching. Rembrandt has also matched Hugo to the Redeemer (1) portrayed in the Lamentation panel.
Where Hugo has portrayed himself (6) as the man wearing the red cap, looking downcast, with his left arm raised and his right hand connected to Christ’s wrist, Rembrandt has placed himself in the role of the artist taking the pulse of the bed-ridden figure, his left arm raised, and looking downwards.
The figure of Eve, the first woman (3), is shown as the first in a group of three women In Rembrandt’s etching – all portrayed as temptresses. The woman next to Eve represents Mary Magdalen (4) in the Lamentation panel. Both heads are tilted and hands clasped. Completing the trio is the old woman (5), the serpent in disguise. The clue to recognition is the striped hat, meant to match the bold, combed lines depicted in the serpent’s hair. That the serpent is present at the time of Hugo’s death is a biblical reference to the time Jesus was tempted in the wilderness when “having exhausted all ways of tempting him, the devil left him to return at the appointed time” (Luke 4 : 11) – the appointed time being the Crucifixion when at the point of death Christ felt abandoned and forsaken by his Father.
The woman wiping her tears (7) is meant to represent Veronica who wiped the face of Jesus as he carried his cross to Calvary. In the Lamentation panel she is shown receiving two of the nails used to crucify Christ, those which pierced his hands. This is a subtle reference to the relic known as the Veil of Veronica or the Volto Santo(Holy Face), said to bear the likeness of the face of Jesus and not made by human hands. Close inspection of Veronica’s veil shows a wolf’s head meant to represent a sheep or the Lamb of God – and so a false representation – and probably the artist’s thoughts about the legitimacy of the relic.
Rembrandt has picked up on this and does show a representation of Christ’s face on the cloth his Veronica is using to wipe her tears. The nails or piercings are matched to the holes on the edge of her headdress.
Rembrandt has transferred the figure of John (8) supporting the VIrgin Mary seen in the Lamentation panel to the bearded man in the etching supporting himself at the side of Hugo’s bed.
Figures (9) and (10) in the etching are a combination of the same figures in the Lamentation panel. The male figure (10) looking up towards ‘Veronica’ and passing her the two nails, has been switched to represent a female figure in the etching, not kneeling, but standing, and still looking up. Notice also the extended finger representing one of the nails.
Hugo’s combination of these two figures is interesting as they are designed to point to a similar combination from another of Hugo’s painting – the Adoration of the Shepherds, which suggests that the Lamentation panel was painted after the Adoration of the Shepherds. Briefly, the sharp-nosed man in the friar’s brown habit is Hugo’s half-brother, Nicholas. The woman in the gold-colour robe is another gender switch, the friar and chronicler Gaspar Ofhuys. It is no coincidence that Hugo has linked the two figures to the legendary figure of Veronica, just as Rembrandt has placed them side by side with Veronica in his etching. More on the background to this particular group in a future post.
The heavily veiled woman in the Lamentation panel with her arms raised (11) is matched to the figure of John the Evangelist and his raised arms in the etching. The woman is another variation of Veronca, and a reference to the many veils said to be the cloth used to wipe the face of Jesus. This time the face of the wolf is depicted on the woman’s neck and breastbone. The veils of the two women are linked by the headdress of the women in the gold-colour robe. It represents a sudarium and one of several relics in circulation said to have covered the face of Jesus when he was entombed.
The connection to John is his Gospel report of himself and Peter seeing the linen cloths lying on the ground in Christ’s tomb and also “the cloth that had been over his head […] rolled up in a place by itself.” (John 20 : 3-10)
The bearded friar (2) supporting the dead weight of Jesus is the bearded man with his arm supporting Hugo’s head in the etching – Thomas Vessem, the prior who took Hugo under his wing and cared for him after his breakdown.
The kneeling woman, hands joined in prayer (12) and placed in front of John, both in the etching and the painting, is the Virgin Mary.
In my pevious post I showed that Rembrandt had mirrored one of the sections from the St Vincent Panels for his etching, Death of the Virgin.
Some 30 years later Rembrandt also used another area of the etching as a basis for one of his most famous paintings, the Return of the Prodigal Son. The match ups are easy to spot but I’ve numbered them for identification.
There is a third section of the etching that Rembrandt sourced or ‘matched’ to another painting (by Hugo van der Goes), the group of figures gathered at the far side of the bed. This will be the subject of my next post.
Could the ‘mirror’ effect shown below be evidence that points to the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves – the work considered one of Portugal’s national treasures – may have been produced in the Burgundian Netherlands?
On the left is detail from Rembrandt’s etching Death of the Virgin dated 1439. On the right is the section from the St Vincent Panels known as the Panel of the Relic and estimated to have been painted between 1450 and 1480, some 150 years before Rembrandt made his etching at the age of 33. The title of the etching, Death of the Virgin, is a misnomer. The bed-ridden person is not the Virgin Mary but the painter Hugo van der Goes. Rembrandt’s etching is about paying homage or tribute to Hugo – homage being one of the prominent themes of the St Vincent Panels.
Knowing this, it’s not difficult to match the figures and the iconography. The detail shown in the hand and arm of John the Evangelist extending in from the left represents the man holding the book of scripture in the Relic Panel. He is the French priest Jean Jouffroy and an ambassador of the Burgundian court at the time. Behind him are two clerical administrators matched to the two seated women in the etching. The figure in red is Henry Beaufort and Rembrandt has matched himself to the prelate as a kind of cameo appearance drawing back the curtain to symbolise an act of revelation in a similar way the cardinal is revealing the precious relic wrapped in a green cloth.
The man matched to the shadowy figure in the etching, is the man portrayed as a pilgrim in the Relic Panel. This is the painter Jan van Eyck, placed in front of the wooden box – some say, a coffin. This piece of furniture, cupboard or coffin, can be matched to the empty chair seen in the lower corner of the etching.
It is said that Rembrandt never left his native Holland, although there are myths suggesting he may have travelled to England and Italy, even Sweden! But the myths never mention Portugal.
So for Rembrandt to have recorded such detail from the Relic Panel and rearrange it, or rebuild the temple, so to speak, he must have had sight of the St Vincent Panels to be able to make notes and preparatory sketches for his engraving. This would suggest that circa 1439 the St Vincent Panels were located in the Burgundian Netherlands and possibly Amsterdam at the time when Rembrandt moved to the city late in 1431.
If the panels were commissioned and produced in Holland, and it certainly seems that Hugo van der Goes had a hand in painting them, then who could have commissioned the work and when did the panels make their way to Lisbon in Portugal?
Many art historians consider the six panels formed part of a twelve-panel retable in Lisbon Cathedral. Other researchers dispute this. What seems very probable is that the panels did not leave Holland before Rembrandt had sight of them to embed details from the Relic Panel in his engraving. This isn’t the only example of Hugo’s later work that features in the engraving. The Vienna Diptych (Kunsthistorisches Museum) gets a good showing, and there are references to Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), and his version of Death of a Virgin (Groeningmuseum, Ghent).
Three days ago I pointed out in the Panel of the Archbishop some of the ‘plagues’ associated with the biblical plagues inflicted on the Egyptians. Besides the plagues of (1) frogs; (2) gnats; (3) boils; and (4) death of the firstborn, there are others:
The thunderstorm of hail and fire (5) is matched to the round rivets embedded in two of the knight’s body armour, and the red tongue of fire on the duke of Braganza’s right shoulder. Notice his right arm and hand is raised in a ‘hailing’ or greeting gesture.
The plague of locusts (6) can also be found in Alfonso’s armour, his right leg and knee shaped to represent a locust and the folds in St Vincent’s alb its horns.
For the three days of consecutive darkness (7) look to the consecutive line of the three clergymen wearing black hats.
Pestilence of livestock (8): Pistil, instead of pestil, as in the female reproductive part of a flower – and lance instead of lence. No livestock appears in the scene but the three lances point to members of the clergy and infer that the aftermath of conflict, even among popes and bishops can result in the decimation of their flocks. This was a period when there was a schism in the Catholic Church and three popes claimed the chair of St Peter.
Another play on words is the Water to Blood plague (9) and refers to the legs of the two kneeling knights. The biblical passage from Exodus reads: “With the staff in my hands I wil strike the water of the Nile and it will be changed into blood…” The staff is the one held by Afonso, duke of Braganza. Notice its pointed end. The river of blood – the ‘Nile’ – is an anagram of ‘line’. Hence the lined red legs of the two knights.
Finally the remaining plague refers to one of wild animals or flies – the bible describes them as gadflies. I’m still trying to identify the iconography for this plague and will publish it when I locate it.
The biblical Book of Exodus describes a number of plagues inflicted on Egypt because of the stubborn heart shown by the Pharoh in not wanting to allow the Israelites their freedom from captivity.
A similar scenario is expressed in the Panel of the Archbishop, the fourth section of the polyptych known as the St VIncent Panels. The stubborn hearts belong to the young king of Portugal Afonso V and his uncle Afonso duke of Braganza. In the aftermath of the Battle of Alfarrobeira in May 1449, when their army defeated the forces of Peter, duke of Coimbra – also an uncle of the king and half-brother to the duke of Braganza – they refused to allow Peter’s body to be buried at Bathala Monastery alongside his father, the Portuguese king João 1 and founder of the House of Aviz. Peter’s son John was taken prisoner during the battle, so were his brothers James and Peter afterwards.
Isabella, duchess of Burgundy and sister to Peter of Coimbra, later petitioned for her brother’s body to be translated to Bathala, but to no avail. Eventually, in December 1449, her husband, Philip the Good, commissioned the French dean of Vergy, Jean Jouffroy, to personally travel to Portugal with instructions that Peter’s remains be given an honorable funeral and the properties and dignity of his children be reinstated. Jouffroy, shown right, is depicted in the Panel of the Relic.
Jouffroy made three presentations, the final audience being on January 16, 1450. Eventually Alphonso V agreed to release Peter’s two sons who afterwards went into exile and travelled to Burgundy with their entourage. Their properties and titles were later reinstated, but the young king refused to give into the demands for Peter’s body to be buried at Bathala. Fearing the corpse might stolen he had it transported to the Chateau d’Abrantès. It took another five years for Afonso V to have a change of heart – brought on by the birth of his son Juan – before the Duke of Coimbra’s remains were finally translated and buried in the Bathala monastery.
So why the references to the plague in this particular panel? Firstly the father of Afonso V king Edward of Portugal was a victim of the plague in September 1438, as his father and mother were before him. Edward stands behind the young king. His neck is blemished with a dark circular mark – a sign of the plague. Secondly the artist is comparing the stubborn heart of Afonso V, perhaps influenced by his mentor the duke of Braganza, with the stubborn heart of the Pharoh portrayed in the Book of Exodus.
Another pointer to the Egyptian plagues or curses, is that before the birth of Afonso’s son John in 1455, his wife Isabella of Coimbra, daughter to his uncle Peter, gave birth earlier to another son in January 1451. He was also named John and was heir to the throne. However he died within the same year. This also is a pointer to one of the plagues inflicted on Egypt when the Lord said: “About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of the Pharoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave who is at her handmill…” (Exodus 11:4-5)
Notice the couter on the kneeling knight’s elbow, depicted as a young child’s face! The lacing on the knight’s front represents he plague of frogs, while the knots, or gnats, on the young king’s hat is symbolic of another plague.
Are the ten churchmen standing in the back row meant to be synonomous with the ten plagues associated with Egypt, perhaps considered a plague on the people at the time, and guilty of the sin of simony (selling of church offices and relics) – the translation of relics being a major theme of the St Vincent panels?
This Portrait of a Carthusian Monk was painted by Petrus Christus in 1446 and is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
It was this painting, along with another work by Petrus, that was the inspiration for the bearded Carthusian figure in the Panel of the Friars, the first of six frames that make up the St Vincent Panels.
The long-bearded monk is holding an upright plank of wood – upright as in the sense of righteous (a righteous or just judge). This contrasts to the first figure on the back row, Pontius Pilate, who sentenced Jesus Christ to death by crucifixion after telling the Jews he could find no fault in the man.
It’s not just the beard and white robe that Gonçlaves adopted from the Carthusian painting. The orange, fiery background is echoed in the fiery cross on the monk’s black hat, while the box edge that runs top and right of the frame is represented by the box standing behind Jan van Eyck in the Panel of the Relic.
The plank of wood as representative of the Cross is forefront in another painting by Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, and forms the counter on which various items are displayed. This, too, was incorporated by Nuno Gonçalves into the Panel of the Friars.
Researcher Clemente Baeta has identified eleven holes in the plank featured in the Panel of the Friars. The eleven holes match the number of round items grouped on the shop counter, excluding the red ribbon and the mirror. In the Petrus painting they represent the positions of the English forces when it laid seige to Orleans in 1428. The seige was relieved the following year when French forces led by Joan of Arc attacked and overpowered the English positions.
Gonçalves has linked this to reference the siege and conquest of Ceuta by Portugal in 1415 and its successful defence when Moroccan forces counter-attacked in 1419.
Notice also how the right hand of both St Eligius and the monk rest on the panel of wood.
There is another detail in the St Vincent Panels that links to a third painting by Petrus Christus. More about this in a future post.
Several Flemish painters are shown in the St Vincent Panels. The long-bearded monk is meant to represent Roger Campin. Hugo van der Goes shows up in the Panel of the Prince, as does Petrus Christus (see below). Jan van Eyck is the pilgrim featured in the Panel of the Relic, while Dieric Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Jaques Daret line up in the Panel of the Knights.
According to the chronicle of Gaspar Ofhuys, he joined the Red Cloister monastery at the same time as Hugo Van der Goes, sometime in 1475. In later years he became prior of the monastery and wrote in The Chronicle of the Red Cloister about an event in Hugo’s life when the artist suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to take his own life.
Although Ofhuys states that this occurred “perhaps five or six years after his [Hugo’s] profession” (1480-81), historians date the actual recording in the chronicle between 1509-1513, possibly as much as three decades after Hugo’s traumatic experience. Ofhuys also wrote in the chronicle: “In the year of the Lord 1482, Brother Hugo the conversus, who made his profession in this house, died.”
Ofhuys didn’t elaborate on how Hugo attempted to self harm, but the artist has shown the method and weapon he used in at least four of his extant paintings. The St Vincent Panels also gives witness to the steps taken by Hugo to injure himself. This is located in the section known as the Panel of the Prince where Hugo van der Goes is placed in a very prominent position of honour, immediately behind King João 1 of Portugal.
Hugo uses a ‘jigsaw’ technique to build relationships with surrounding figures, so parts of the Hugo ‘piece’ will have a connection to parts of the figures around him. The cheek-to-cheek arrangement with the man on his right works in two ways: as a connection to his spiritual ‘father’ or director, Thomas Vessem, and also pointing to the source for the arrangement and narrative, the double-head relationship from the Monsaraz fresco of The Good and Bad Judge, where the devil and temptation lurk in the background.
For whatever reason, Hugo’s half-brother Nicholas may have been a thorn in Hugo’s side. He was also a brother at the Red Cloister, a donatus, and a step up from Hugo who was classed as a conversus. He was with Hugo and other fellow monks returning from a visit to Cologne when Hugo is said to have attempted to kill himself. Ironically, it was Nicholas who was the source for Gaspar Ofhuys’ report in the chronicle. Offhuys confirmed the this when he wrote: “As I learned from the account of brother Nicholas […] he [Hugo] even tried to do himself bodily harm and to kill himself had he not been forcibly restrained with the help of bystanders.”
So here’s how Hugo reveals his version of the incident– a kind of confession – and placing his account on record long before the Ofhuys chronicle report of what had happened.
Firstly, Hugo has confirmed he suffered with depression. The circled depression in his hat is an analogy of Hugo’s state of mind.
Hugo is also portrayed as a male falcon, a tercel (from the Latin tertius) a pointer to his “third order” status as a lay member of a religious order. There are also two other reasons why he is depicted as a falcon, one which links to the Dieric Bouts’ Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament, and the other to the genus term for birds of prey (including the falcon), Falco, derived from the Latin falcis, a sickle, and referring to the claws of the bird.
The claws reference is a pointer to the devil’s hand on the shoulder of the Good Judge in the mentioned fresco, while the sickle is the weapon Hugo used to self-harm.
The falcon portrayal is enhanced by the habit’s hood or cowl, just as a hood is used to cover the head of the bird to keep it in a calm state.
I’ve also colourised part of Hugo’s cowl to emphasis its curved shape as a sickle, the tool Hugo used to cut his neck. Although the necks of the other heads show wrinkles, the white line on the left side of Hugo’s neck is a sign of a healed scar.
The part of the hood resting on Hugo’s left shoulder, colourised orange, replaces the devil’s claw and represents a pelican at rest. “In medieval Euope, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood by wounding her own breast when no other food was available. As a result, the pelican became a symbol of the Passion [and atoning sacrfice] of Jesus since about the 12th century” (Wikipedia).
Did Hugo plan his own passion? If so, where did he keep the sickle hidden? Could it have been in the hood, symbolic of the pelican’s pouch?
Hugo’s pelican is positioned as resting, crouched facing the collar and chest of the man on his left. Close inspection of the white collar suggests it represents a shrouded figure in its tomb, and so the pelican now symbolises a sphinx-like tomb guard.
Could this piece of iconography refer to the man on Hugo’s left as being dead and buried, someone very close to Hugo? Another painter, perhaps?
Probably the most telling painting of Hugo’s attempt at self harm and recovery is the Adoration of the Shepherds dated at 1480. I shall post a presentation on the iconography in this painting at another time, but for now I show one significant feature in the painting that points to Hugo cutting his neck. The gangling shepherd arriving on the scene on one leg is Hugo. In his right hand he draws back the sickle-shaped cowl to reveal blood marks around his neck. The blood has also dripped onto the shepherd kneeling below him.
Unfortunately, during the process of the painting’s recent restoration, the blood marks have been completely removed from Hugo’s neck and the kneeling shepherd. Thankfully there is a digital copy of the painting published online before its recent restoration, and so preserving Hugo’s own ‘confession’ and account of his breakdown.
The man looking directly at the viewer in this detail from the Panel of the Prince, one of six sections that make up the St Vincent Panels, is the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes. He wear a habit because around 1477 he became a lay brother (third order) at the monastic community based at the Red Cloister (Rood Klooster) near Auderghem, and which was part of the Windesheim Congregation. As an established painter he was allowed to continue his work, accept commissions, and even receive eminent visitors.
A fellow monk and chronicler, Gaspar Ofhuys, recorded some decades later that Hugo suffered from a bout of depresion and made a suicide attempt in 1482 while returning from Cologne with some fellow monks, stating at the time that he was damned. The Ofhuys chronicle, supposedly produced between 1509 and 1513, is said to be the only written source for the claim that Hugo suffered with depression and had attempted suicide, although art historians point to a change of style in some of his paintings that indicate all was not well with the artist.
Ofhuys’ chronicle states that Hugo died soon after his breakdown and thefore the date is generally put at 1482 or 1483. But there is no official record of the painter’s death and the question that needs answering is just how many paintings did Hugo start and complete in the short period between his breakdown and time of his death, likely to be less than a year if the Ofhuy’s record is to be taken as gospel.
What historians haven’t taken into account is Hugo’s own version of his depression and attempt at self-harm, expressed in at least four of his extant paintings as well as the St Vincent Panels attributed to Nuno Gonçalves.
If the date of Hugo’s breakdown in 1482 is accepted as accurate then it follows that any work he produced after his recovery should not precede 1482, even the St Vincent Panels. In this painting and four others I know of, Hugo demonstrates the method he used to self-harm. Whether this could be considered a serious attempt at suicide or just a cry for help during a bout of depression, I cannot judge. What is known is that Hugo made a recovery, confirmed in the Ofhuys account and by Hugo himself. How long he lived after that is open to speculation.
• More on this and the method Hugo used to self-harm in my next post.
UPDATE: June 21, 2020
In a previous post I described how the three men to the left were probably related, Hugo’s father cheek-to-cheek with his son Hugo, and behind them Hugo’s half brother, Nicholas. I also suggested that Hugo’s father may have been in a spiritual sense, perhaps the prior of the Rood Klooster, Thomas Vessem, who took care of Hugo after his breakdown.
What I hadn’t picked up on at the time was the the connection between the St Vincent Panels and The Good and Bad Judge freso at Monsaraz which portrays one of the judges with two heads. The left head was the basis for the St Vincent figure while the the head in profile was applied to the so-called kneeling prince in the Panel of the Prince.
However, the motif is repeated for another group in the same panel, the one shown alongside. The two front men are joined at the cheekbone, the father figure being the good and compassionate judge, the profiled head being the judge tempted by the devil at his shoulder, except that instead of the head being shown in profile it is depicted face on – the face of Hugo. As for the tempting devil behind him, there’s a choice of two. My preference is for Nicholas (an apt name), Hugo’s half-brother! Notice also how the devil’s head in the fresco is cropped at the top, just as Nicholas is. It is also worth noting that Fr Thomas Vessem is placed immediately behind St Vincent, sharing in his light, and suggesting that Hugo considered the priest a saintly man, perhaps for the reason he was instrumental in the painter’s recovery.
I’m now beginning to consider that the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves may instead be by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes who had “been driven mad and melancholy” in his attempt to “equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work”, according to what the humanist Hieronymous Münzer wrote when he visited Ghent in 1495.
Be it Gonçalves or Van der Goes who had brush in hand, there is certainly a strong Flemish influence to be found in the St Vincent Panels. Not only are there portraits of at least seven Flemish artists, the panels also incorporate several references to the Ghent Altarpiece and other Flemish works.
A close associate of Hugo van der Goes was Dieric Bouts (pictured), one of the Flemish portraits in the SVP. Bouts was famous for his work known as the Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament, produced for and still housed in St Peter’s Church, Louvain. Hugo, or was it Nuno, adapted one of the triptych’s panels (shown below) as the basis for the Panel of the Friars in the St Vincent Panels.
The two men fitted out as friars are in fact two theologians associated with the original Louvain University, Johannes Varenacker and Egidius Bailluwell, who were assigned to assist Dieric Bouts on theology content in the painting.
The bearded friar was inspired by the biblical figure of Abram whose right hand is raised in blessing (as in the SVP). Even his cream-coloured cloak is matched. The cloak covers Abram’s left hand. This motif has been transferred to the central friar portrayed as Varenacker. The foremost friar is represented by Bailluwel.
The ‘twins’, the two lookalikes behind the bearded friar, are mirrored by the men guarding the armoured king of Sodom and his white horse – two Dieric’s, like father, like son – both artists!
The king of Sodom is also name-checked in another of the St Vincent Panels, the Panel of the Archbishop. He’s the kneeling knight to the right of St Vincent.
One of many questions asked about the St Vincent Panels is: Why are there so many figures crammed into the panels and who do the men standing in the back rows represent?
It’s as if each panel is divided into two sections – front stage and back stage. In all there are a total of 60 figures in the panels. The St Vincent figure is featured twice and central around which the other 58 figures are gathered, perhaps explaining why the painting is sometimes referred to as the Adoration of St Vincent.
A scene akin to this is the central panel in the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece – the Adoration of the Lamb. That an adoration scene is common to both works is not without coincidence. Both paintings drew inspiration from the Monzara fresco known as The Good and Bad Judge. Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert were the first to incorporate elements of the freso in their famous work. The painter of the St Vincent Panels knew this and followed the example of the Eyck brothers, except that he also drew further inspiration from the Ghent Altarpiece which had been completed in 1432.
There is little doubt that Jan van Eyck visited Monsaraz during one his diplomatic excurrsions to Portugal. The infamous stolen Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece points to the Good and Bad Judge fresco in Monsaraz. The Knights of Christ panel references Monsaraz castle and its Templar connections. The Hermits panel, is a pointer to the caves in the area adopted as hermitages. The Pilgrims panel is probably the most interesting. It depicts St Christopher leading pilgrims across the river, probably the Guadiana that borders Spain and Portugal and runs close to Monsaraz.
With his collared hair and flowing beard, St Christopher, reputed to stand over seven feet tall, has the appearance of a hairy dog. Van Eyck has even given the saint’s nose a shine. Closer inspection of others in the pack with their squinting eyes suggests they too have a-bit-of-the-dog about them.
The explanation is that in Eastern Orthodox iconography St Christopher is represented with the head of a dog. Apparently it came about from a mistranslation of the latin word Cananeus which means Canaanite (Cana in Galilee is where Christopher, who was originally named Reprobus, is said to have come from). Along the way Cananeus became misinterpreted as Canineus (canine). There was also a belief that a race of people with a head of a dog really did exist at one time!
The adjective describing someone as having the head of a dog, or jackal, is cynocephalic, and it is this term that Van Eyck has taken and linked to local landmarks near to Monsaraz – the megalithic stones of Herdade de Xerex (since relocated to a new site close to Monsaraz) and in particular the large phallic menhir that stands central among the square ring of stones. Van Eyck has referenced these stones in three of the Ghent Altarpiece panels, sculpting them into a form representing biblical scenes.
Some of the stones are inscribed with symbols and these too have been incorporated into both sets of panels by the painters.
Nuno Gonçalves has also taken the stones and reformed them to represent the figures in the St Vincent Panels, particularly the Saint himself portrayed as the tall menhir. Fifty-five stones form part of what is now known as the Xerex Cromlech. There may even have been 60 before the stones were relocated, which would have matched the number of the figures in the painting. A similar site known as the Almendres Cromlech is near to Évora, about halfway between Monsaraz and Lisbon. This megalith may also have inspired both artists, although there are almost 100 stones still standing.
While Gonçalves made some canine mentions in his painting he chose instead to generally refer to a race of people generally known as Beakers. He did this in two ways, first by alluding to the making of pottery and secondly by emphasising the noses of some of the figures to link to narratives in the painting about birds and beaks.
For instance: the brown earthy colours prominent among some of the men in the background are meant to suggest the earth in which the monoliths stood, but in in the Panel of the Knights the four men wearing cottas (or surplices) is linked with the word ‘terra’ (earth) to form terracotta, the brown colour of the earthenware produced by local potters. The range of ‘beaker’ styles are represented by some of the men’s hats.
Last week I published an article on my website revealing how The Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz in Portugal, partly inspired the famous St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves. I also stated that the SV Panels were also influenced by the Ghent Altarpiece.
What I didn’t know at the time is that Jan van Eyck had also sourced The Good and Bad Judge fresco for the Ghent Altarpiece. At sometime during one of his diplomatic visits to Portugal he must have travelled to Monsaraz and viewed the fresco.
Here’s an example of how Van Eyck recycled some of the fresco’s iconography for the Pilgrims panel in the Ghent Altarpiece. The youth in red is meant to portray a young Jan van Eyck. Just as his statement on the wall in the Arnolfini Portrait, Van Eyck was visually confirming: “I was there!”
My presentation on The Good and Bad Judge is at this link.