Making straight highways…

Detail from the Knights of Christ panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

Last May, I posted an item titled “A case of déjà vu” which explained some of the iconography in the Panel of the Relic, the sixth section in a set known as the St Vincent Panels painted by Hugo van der Goes.

I pointed out the figure in black represented bishop Jean Jouffroy (among others) and the open book of Scripture referred to a passage from Isaiah (40:3-5), echoed in John’s gospel (1:23) by John the Baptist:

A voice cries, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for Yaweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low, let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken.”

Close inspection of the book’s pages reveals the straight highways between columns and verses, and the ridges and valleys on the turning pages.

More recently I discovered that the inspiration for this symbolism was based on iconography Jan van Eyck used in the Knights of Christ panel that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece. Van Eyck makes reference to the same passage but in a different way. Instead, it is the two curved shields which represent the curved pages – the mountains and hills. The straight highway – the straight lines and verse segments on the opposite page – is represented by the straight lines depicted as the cross of St George on the leading rider’s shield. Van Eyck also confirmed the passage with another representation – the three vertical flag poles and furled banners.

Revealing the Relic

It has never been established which saint or martyr the skull fragment depicted in the so-called Panel of the Relic belongs to. Is it St VIncent of Zaragossa or, as some historians have suggested, Ferdinand, known as the Holy Prince or the Saint Prince (but never canonised), who died as a captive in a Moroccan prison?

Hugo van der Goes, the Flemish artist who painted the St Vincent panels, has provided visible clues that point to another saint, possibly even two, which as far as I know have never been considered before by historians.

While the focus of the Altarpiece is on St Vincent, he is not the only saint or martyr represented in the panels. There are many. In fact, Van der Goes has made “uncovering saints” one of the main themes in the painting. This stems from a connection with the first figure of many representing a saint – in this instance St Ambrose of Milan, depicted in the top left corner of the Friars Panel. More on this connection at another time.

So it should not be assumed that the so-called ‘twin’ figures said to be of St Vincent simply represent that particular saint alone. We are invited to “uncover the saints and martyrs” represented in all of the six panels, as well as other idenities associated with the St Vincent figures.

Van der Goes links each clue to another, as a method of confirming identities and connections. He was influenced in this type of construction by Jan van Eyck who employed the same technique in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where the ten riders interlock as jigsaw pieces.

Let’s explore how Van der Goes leads the viewer to discovering the saint associated with the skull fragment. The artist was well versed in producing heraldic decorations for the Burgundian court and the city of Ghent. In 1468 he was commissioned to do so for the marriage of Charles the Bold to Margareta of York and later other works for important occasions.

Aspects of Hugo’s knowledge and experience of heraldic disciplines and terminology feature in the St Vincent Panels. One particular term Hugo has utilised from the language of heraldry is ‘erasure’ which, according to The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, is the tearing off a part of a charge, to leave a jagged edge, and mostly applied to heads depicted with a ragged edge as if forcibly torn from the body.

In another post I pointed out that one of the works of art which Hugo borrowed features from to include in the St Vincent Panels was the Monsaraz fresco known as the Good and Bad Judge, most notably the damaged or ‘erased’ section that formed part of the Good Judge’s right arm and hand. This ‘erased’ or ‘hidden’ motif is utilised in all of the St Vincent Panels in a variety of ways – for instance: men with arms, men without arms, in a literal and military sense. Very few of the figures standing in the back row of the panels are depicted with arms or hands, and if they are, then there is usually a significant meaning to why this is so.

The Panel of the Relic is a typical example. Only the figure of Jan van Eyck doubling up as John the Baptist shows both arms and hands, and even his arms are partly cut off or covered. His two brothers on the back row, Hubert and Lambert, both named after saints, are also armless. The figure of the French prelate and diplomat Jean Jouffroy, twinned with Pierre Cauchon, another French bishop and also a prosecutor in the trial of Joan of Arc, are depicted with their right arm on show and hand on a holy book. Jouffroy later attacked Joan’s ‘saintly’ reputation in a eulogy given in 1459 to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, which may explain the symbolism of the hidden arm and underhand motif.

As to any visual reference to St Joan of Arc – yet another French connection – it is found in the patterned surplice worn by Hubert. Notice the stake-shaped arch in the centre and what appears to be rising flames, a reminder of how Joan suffered martyrdom by being burnt at the stake. The flames can also be understood as symbolic of the Holy Spirit.

The kneeling figure in the bright red gown depicts the French king Charles VI, referred to as ‘Charles the Mad’, who was plagued throughout his life with bouts of mental illness. The figure is also representative of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, said to have had a a hidden hand in the prosecution of Joan of Arc, although the absent left hand seemingly supporting the skull fragment also has a connection to the relic itself. Both Beaufort and Charles VI are also presented in Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent altarpiece.

As to the skull fragment itself, close inspection shows a ragged edge on its top side. This makes the connection to the heraldic term ‘erasure’ and a reason why Charles VI is holding the relic.

With its spiked back, the ‘torn’ fragment is meant to depict a porcupine and links to the French king’s younger brother, Louis I Duke of Orleans, who was assassinated on November 23, 1407, on the orders of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy. He was lured to his death on a Paris street in broad daylight after being told his brother wished to meet with him. When he mounted his horse to start on his way a gang of fifteen masked men attacked and fatally stabbed him, cutting off one of his hands in the process, hence the image of his brother Charles depicted with one hand only.

As to the porpupine motif, this represents the chivalric Order of the Porcupine founded by Louis in 1394 to mark the occasion of the baptism of his son Charles of Orleans who was later held captive by the English as a prisoner of war for 25 years.

The Order’s insignia was represented by a gold porcupine standing on a green enamelled oval-shaped base, hence the green cloth base behind the skull fragment. The Order was sometimes referred to in France as the Ordre du Camail and here Hugo van der Goes makes another link to confirm his intended reference to the insignia. Depicted just above the king’s right shoulder is the coat of camel hair worn by John the Baptist. The word-play, camel and camail, is confirmed by the folds in the Baptist’s coat shaped to represent the legs of a camel.

But there is more to link to the Order of the Porcupine. Louis, duke of Orleans, did not enjoy the best of reputations with the people. He had many enemies and is said to have taken his brother’s wife as a mistress. It was also claimed that he dabbled in magic and the black arts, even necromancy. So when we look at the fuller figure in red, there are other clues that point to Louis, duke of Orleans. Saint he wasn’t, it seems.

To the right and slightly above the green cloth is the shape of demonic face with a sharp-pointed nose. It also has an open, laughing mouth with two teeth. The demonic face represents John the Fearless, noted for his long sharp nose, piercing the cameo, and the stabbing of Louis. This motif is also adapted by Hugo from the Monsaraz fresco, shown below.

But take a look at the green cloth to its full extent and we see portrayed another demonic feature, screaming on its way into the fires of hell. The folds in the red garment are angled and accentuated in a descending formation.

Some twelve years later John the Fearless was assassinated in similar fashion on the bridge at Montereau when an attempt to parley with the French dauphin and future Charles VII of France went amiss. One of the dauphin’s escorts panicked and attacked the duke of Burgundy with an axe to his face. The shape of the axe head can be made out in the demonic face of John the Fearless, cleaving his skull through to the socket of his eye.

So where is the saint feature in all of this? Van der Goes is pointing the way back to another Louis and another king, the only French king canonised by the Cathoic Church, Louis IX.

It was Louis who built a dedicated chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle, as a shrine to house the many relics associated with the life of Christ presented to him by Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. These included the Crown of Thorns and a fragment fo the True Cross, so the skull fragment held by king Charles VI can also be understood as a relic of St Louis and the porcupine’s thorns as the Crown of Thorns placed on the head of Christ during his Passion.

In all of this there is another connection to Jan van Eyck and a folio attributed to him in the Turin-Milan Hours depicting the Birth of John the Baptist. The minature refers to many of the items Louis IX received from Baldwin II and were kept in the Sainte-Chapelle. More recently, the Crown of Thorns was rescued from its sanctuary when the Paris cathedral of Notre Dame caught fire in April 2019.

The Order of the Porcupine is not the only chivalric company represented in the St Vincent panels. There are several, and at least three others in the Panel of the Relic.

More on this and other connections to be discovered in the Panel of the Relic in my next post.

Translating the Portinari Altarpiece

In my two pevious posts I mentioned how a painting attributed to two Spanish artists, Bartolomé Berrmejo and Martin Bernat, connected to to the Archbishop section of the St Vincent Panels. I also pointed out that Bermejo featured in the painting known as the Portinari Altarpiece produced by Hugo van der Goes.

The Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes (c1475), Uffizi, Florence

It is said that the Portinari Altarpiece is the most studied of all the late 15th century artworks, but I wonder if anyone has ever picked up on the fact that Hugo’s famous painting inspired the panel painting known as King Ferdinand l of Castile welcoming St Dominic of Silos, produced jointly by Bermejo and Bernat? It was contracted for completion in 1479.

Detail from King Ferdinand I welcomes St Domini of Silos, by Bartolomé Bermejo and Martin Bernat (c1479), Museo del Prado, Madrid.

There is a subtle reference in this painting to Van der Goes, depicted as St James (the Greater) the bearded Jew in the left panel of the Portinari Altarpiece. However, the depiction can also be understood as referring to Bartolomé Bermejo.

Van der Goes must have been aware of the similarity between the figures in the two paintings and created another ‘translation’ when he incorporated the St Dominic figures as part the Archbishop section of the St Vincent Panels – at the same tme showing Bermejo without a beard.

Left: Bartolomé Bermejo… Centre: St James, Hugo van der Goes, Bartolomé Bermejo… Right: St James, Hugo van der Goes

Here, for example, is how the shepherd with the protruding teeth was ‘translated’ across the three paintings. Other figures in the Portinari Altarpiece can be matched in the same way.

Detail from (left) the Portinari Altarpiece; (centre) the King Ferdinand I / St Dominic panel and (right) the St Vincent Panels.

The painting of the St Vincent Panels is currently attributed to the Portuguese artist Nuno Gonçalves, but the ‘translation’ of the Portinari Altarpiece in this way is further evidence that the panels were painted by Hugo van der Goes in his attempt to “emulate” or even “translate’ the Ghent Altarpiece produced by the Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert.

Spanish eyes

Here are two more artists that Hugo van der Goes has portrayed in the St Vincent Panels to join the several already mentioned in previous posts. They are both Spanish contemporaries of Hugo who frequently worked together on commissions: Martin Bernat (left) and Bartolomé Bermejo.

So what’s the connection or link between Van der Goes and Bartolomé Bermejo. Seemingly the two painters were known to each other and had met at sometime on their travels.

Bermejo, said to have been from Córdoba in Spain, features in another painting by Hugo van der Goes, the more famous Portinari Altarpiece. He’s depicted as the shepherd showing up as a late arrival for the the Nativity, carrying bagpipes (a blow-in?) and wearing a traditional black, flat-top hat associated with Córdoba and the region of Andalusia.

The figure seen behind Bermejo’s right hand, looking suspiciously at the artist is likely the same person – a priest – depicted adopting a similar stance in the St Dominic of Silos altarpiece. A similar motif is carried through by Van der Goes in the Archbishop section of the St Vincent Panels.

St Vincent Panels… a Spanish link

The back row lineup in the Panel of the Archbishop (with the exception of the figure of the French chronicler Jean Wauquelin) is sourced from two paintings by the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo (c1440 – c1501) and his altarpiece dedicated to St Dominic of Silos:

The central panel shows St Dominic enthroned as a bishop. His likeness is utilised by Van der Goes for the Archbishop in the St Vincent Panels.

The lilkeness of the surrounding prelates can all be matched with the figures featured in Bermejo’s other painting: King Ferdinand I of Castile welcoming St Dominic of Silos.

A second painter, Martin Bernat, was also contracted to assist with this work. He and Bermejo are featured in this wing panel and also the Archbishop section of the St Vincent Panels.

The King Ferdinand panel was contracted to be delivered by May 1479. This date provides an indication that the Panel of the Archbishop was not painted until after then.

My thanks to Pam Bishop for directing me to the likeness of the St Dominic portrait with the Archbishop figure in the St Vincent Panels.

More on this in a future post.

Four Knights and a Marriage

In my previous post I pointed out the connection in the Panel of the Friars to the Three Kings who travelled to Bethlehem with gifts for the new-born Saviour. The Magi motif is repeated in different ways in all of the six sections of the St Vincent Panels. It is why each panel is structured with groups of three figures in the forefront.

However, there appears to be an exception to this format in the Panel of the Knights where four knights are shown, and not three. The knights represent four sons of King John l of Portugal. Kneeling at the front is Henry (the Navigator). Behind him is Peter, Duke of Coimbra. Next in line is John, Constable of Portugal, backed by the ‘Holy Prince’ Ferdinand wearing the steel helmet.

I’ve mentioned in past posts that the St Vincent Panels is an altarpiece inspired by the Ghent Altarpiece produced by the Van Eyck brothers, Jan and Hubert, and probably the work of Hugo van der Goes and not the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves it is currently attributed to.

The Panel of the Knights is a section inspired by another famous painting by Jan van Eyck – The Arnolfini Portrait, now displayed in London’s National Gallery. It is from this painting that Van der Goes makes the connection to the Three Kings, or Magi.

The Arnolfini Portrait has no link with an Italian merchant named Giovanni Arnolfini who had business connections in Flanders – but it does relate to Portugal and the House of Aviz. Philip the Good, duke of Burgndy is depicted alongside his third wife, Isabella, daughter of King John l of Portugal and sister to the four brotherly knights.

The Arnolfini Portrait is noted for its large mirror, centrally placed. It shows a mysterious reflection. The backs of the man and woman are clearly identifiable, but the other figures – there are three – are not. Some people speculate that the figure in red may represent Jan van Eyck painting the portrait.

Certainly, other artists of the time understood the composition of the reflection in the mirror, notably Rogier van der Weyden, but some 80 years later Joos van Cleeve revealed the mystery in his panel painting of The Annunciation which also depicted a scene of the Three Wise Men behind the open door of a tabernacle. So Van Eyck’s three figures represent in this sense the Magi arriving to pay homage to the infant-king and Philip and Isabella arere portrayed as a type of Joseph and Mary.

Van Eyck’s tabernacle is housed behind the mirror. It probably contained the miraculous ‘bleeding Host of Dijon’ given to the couple as a gift by Pope Eugenious IV, and therefore considered the Real Presence of Christ by the Catholic Church.

In another sense, Isabella was about to or had recently given birth to her third son, Charles Martin, later nicknamed The Bold, and so the Wise Men or Three Kings had come to pay homage to the new-born heir.

The Panel of the Knights is primarily intended to depict the reflection seen in Van Eyck’s mirror. The first three knights represent the Magi who followed the Star of Bethlehem. The bearded fourth knight, the Holy Prince Ferdinand, is depicted as an image of Christ, his steel cap representing the tomb in which he was laid to rest. Its highlight is matched to the beam of light above the head of one of the kings in Van Eyck’s mirror reflection. The red hat and jacket worn by John can also picked up in the refelection, as can the blue and black colours in the sleeve of Henry’s undercoat.

That the wise men were guided by a star is echoed in the celestial symbols attached to the garments of the knights. The most notable is the quadrant for measuring angles worn on Henry the Navigator’s elbow.

This brief presentation is simply to reveal the connection to The Arnolfini Portrait. There is much, much more to ‘break open’ but at another time.

Meanwhile, there is a detailed analysis of the Arnolfini Portrait at my other website arnolfinimystery.com

Through this sign you will conquer

Detail from the Adoration of the Lamb section of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

This detail is from the Ghent Altarpiece – produced by Jan and Hubert van Eyck – and forms part of the centre panel known as the Adoration of the Lamb. The young man looking up represents the Roman Emperor Constantine experiencing a vision he had prior to a battle with another Roman Emperor, Maxentius. His vision entailed seeing a Christian cross appearing out of the sun along with the words: “Through this sign you will conquer”. Constantine adopted the symbol and ordered it to be marked on the shields of his soldiers. The next day Constantine proved victorious against Maxentius at what is known as the Battle of the MIivian Bridge.

A younger version of Constantine is also included in the Pilgrims panel of the altarpiece.

Hugo van der Goes paid tribute to Jan van Eyck by incoporating many features from the Ghent Altarpiece into the St Vincent Panels. Although this work is attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves, there is evidence to argue that Van der Goes instead was the artist.

Constantine’s appearance in the two panels of the Ghent Altarpiece is referenced by Van der Goes in the Friars section of the St Vincent Panels, though not apparent at surface level because the clues are intentionally cryptic, as is most of the iconography used to assist identificaton of the six figures.

Like Van Eyck’s Just Judges panel, four identities are given to each figure in the Friars panel. To add to the mix and assist with identification of figures and themes, Hugo also made references to other painters and their work.

Detail from the Friars section of the St Vincent Panels.

After visiting Ghent in 1495 the humanist Hieronymous Münzer wrote of a famous Flemish painter who had “been driven mad and melancholy” in his attempt to “equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work”. It’s likely that painter was Hugo van der Goes. Münzer’s claim is supported by a report recorded in the Chronicle of the Red Cloister stating Hugo had suffered a breakdown and made an attempt to take his own life.

Historians date Gaspar Ofhuys’ entry in the monastery’s chronicle between 1509-1513. However, Van der Goes, who is said to have died in 1482, was still alive when Ofhuys likely recorded Hugo’s setback because the artist refers to the chronicler and the event in several of his later paintings after his recovery.

In fact, Gasper Ofhuys is one of the identities given to the kneeling man in the forefront of the Friars panel (pictured above).

His black cap identifies with a missing section from a painting at Monsaraz in Portugal titled The Good and Bad Judge (see below). The fresco was sourced by both Van der Goes and Van Eyck for their respective altarpieces. The cap applies to two of the other identities the figure represents. But what is its significance when applied to Ofhuys? Could it point to the blackcap bird known to perch and repeatedly twitter. A gossip, and perhaps even a complainer?

Detail from the Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz, Portugal

There are other ‘buried’ clues to confirm the identity of Gaspar Ofhuys, one of them relates to the numeral 3, as in Trinitarian or, as mentioned in a previous post, to the Three Crowns – the group of three figures standing at the back – Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio. The three friars are also positioned to represent three ‘wise men’ travelling from the East to pay homage and bring gifts.

For Caspar, read Gaspar. The friar to his left can be understood as Melchior and the bearded friar as Balthazar. The subtle reference to the Magi is part of a ‘confession’ theme in the panel and links to the time of Hugo’s attempt at self-harm on his return with a group of other friars to the Red Cloister monastery after making a pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral.

Gaspar Ofhuys was not part of the group. He claims the account of Hugo’s breakdown was related to him by another friar, named Nicholas, Hugo’s half-brother.

It can now be understood that the Three Crowns reference was a pointer to the Three Kings or Magi. Constantine’s vision, the Sign of the Cross, represents the self-blessing action made by Christians to confess their belief in the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

More on this in my next post: Four Knights and a Marriage

Botticelli’s Siena roundel… part 2

The centre section of the roundel – the area containing the image of the saint, not the frame – is said to be an earlier work attributed to the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini and which was later recessed into the main panel by Botticelli. But there is no definite proof of this and the saint has never been identified.

Taking into account that the figure of the young man is Piero de Lorenzo di’ Medici and modelled on Donatello’s Marzocco lion, the roundel therefore represents a shield, a symbol of both protection and identity. However, in this instance the roundel seemingly has no connection to the style of shield or the red lily emblem associated with Florence. Instead Botticelli has subsituted references to Siena, a rival neighbour south of Florence, noted for its saints and preachers.

The most obvious reference is the colour of the frame – burnt sienna – derived from an earth pigment known as terra di Siena and sourced from the region during the Renaissance. Yellowish-brown in its raw state, it turns to reddish-brown when heated and is then referred to as burnt sienna. The heating or conversion process is implied by the fiery colours used as the base for the saintly portrait.

This section of the painting represents two of the classic four elements in Greek philosophy – Earth and Fire. The two other elements are Air (the heavenly sky background) and Water (the colour of Piero’s deep blue tunic).

Sotheby’s auction catalogue states “the saint lacks any identifiable attributes, and only his right hand is visible, raised as an apparent gesture of blessing”. However the ‘sign of the horns’ is an attribute which can be identified with two particular saints – Moses, and his assistant Hoshea whose name was later changed to Joshua. So is the saint in the roundel, Moses or Joshua? Perhaps the figure is meant to represent both, as well as other biblical prophets and preachers.

There are other themes incorporated in the roundel to suggest it was produced by Botticelli during Piero’s time and is not the work of the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini. This is borne out by several references to the roundel, Siena, and Botticelli in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna.

An earlier Sienese painter most likely to have inspired the style of roundel replicated by Botticelli was Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319). One of his most famous works is the Maestà commissioned by the city of Siena in 1308. The front of the the altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary and Child enthroned, surrounded by numerous angels and saints. The predella is a series of panels depicting the Childhood of Christ, interspersed with images of six prophets.

It is a section of this predella that was the lkely source for Botticelli and his portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel. The scene illustrates the Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. Left of the scene stands the ‘weeping prophet’ Jeremiah (B), and on the right is the prophet Hosea (D) showing the ‘sign of the horns’.

Another work partly attributed to Duccio is an altarpiece referred to as Polyptych No. 47, again featuring the Virgin with Child accompanied by angels and prophets. Above the Virgin is a panel depicting Moses (C), his left hand displaying the “sign of the horns”.

Was this portrait of Moses (C) the basis for the saint (A) shown in the roundel? If so, what connection was Botticelli making to want to link Moses, or any other ‘prophet’ it represented, with Piero?

More on this in a future post

Botticelli’s Siena roundel

Sotheby’s online magazine describes the roundel featured in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Roundel as follows:

The [….] painting differs from any other portrait of the time in the fascinating way in which Botticelli has shown his sitter holding a small roundel in his hand depicting a saint. This roundel is an original 14th-century work attributed to the Sienese painter Bartolommeo Bulgarini, which was inserted into the panel on which Botticelli painted his portrait. The significance of this striking visual device remains to be decoded, but must relate in some way to the identity of the handsome young nobleman who shows it off so proudly.

Further information is included in Sotheby’s auction catalogue:

The grain of the wood and the truncated punchwork of the background confirm it as a fragment—one not always round in shape, but rather cut out of a larger, vertical panel. While some of the gilding around the curved edges has been repaired, the figure of the saint has survived, like the rest of this painting, in very good condition. He is depicted half-length with a long grey beard, balding head and wearing a grey mantle atop an orange robe. Set against a gilded background, he is surrounded by a network of geometric punchwork that serves to frame his figure in a manner not unlike the painted architectural setting behind the young man. The saint lacks any identiable iconographic attributes, and only his right hand is visible, raised in an apparent gesture of blessing.

Detail from the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna and housed in the Louvre Museum. Some of the detail takes its inspiration from the roundel featured in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man.

Botticelli’s portrait of the Young Man Holding a Roundel is referred to by the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna in his painting known as Parnassus, and identifies the sitter as Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici. Mantegna also makes reference to the roundel and links its inclusion to Siena, as Bottcelli intended.

More on this in my next post

In search of Piero… part 3

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that the original Marzocco probably depicted a wolf pinned down by the lion, indicating Florence’s historic rivalry with Siena. Evidence of this is shown in at least three paintings: Mantegna’s Parnassus, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi version), and also the portrait being auctioned today at Sotheby’s, New York – Young Man Holding a Roundel.

Mantegna took his lead on representing the original and replacement version of the Marzocco from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli depicts the orginal version as the backdrop to the Mary and Joseph figures, while the new version is shaped from the brick wall to the right of the Virgin.

Beneath the chin of the old lion is a carpet of earth covering a “rock face” (Leonardo da Vinci). This also represents the flat cap associated with Leonardo. The peak of the cap is shaped as a wolf’s head, a wolf being the symbol of Sienna. Siena earth is produces a pigment known as raw sienna which is yellowish-brown in its natural state. It turns to a reddish-brown when heated and then called burnt sienna.

In the Parnassus painting Mantegna’s fox head is indicated by the joined hands of the two dancers at the end of the line of nine muses pointing towards the crumbling Marzocco (another depiction of Leonardo).

A similar motif is formed by Botticelli in the Young Man Holding a Roundel. Three fingers on Piero’s left hand form the wolf’s open mouth and ear underneath the roundel, symbolic of submission under the weight of the “Medici ball” and Piero’s right hand shaped to resemble the paw or claws of the Marzocco lion (Piero himself).

Notice also the dark colour of the roundel frame – burnt sienna! Another border and another colour Botticelli has connected with the Marzocco is the window frame. This is the colour of the stone known as pietra serena used by Donatello to sculpt his version of the Marzocco. It comes out of the ground as a blue-grey colour and was widely used in Renaissance Florence.

The final part of this analysis – my next post – will focus on the mystery of the roundel and who its saintly figure represents.

UPDATE… The Young Man Holding a Roundel painting was sold at Sotheby’s this afternoon (15:40) for eight million US dollars.

In search of Piero… part 2

Continuing the connection between Piero di Lorenzo de Medici, Lord of Florence from 1492 until he was exiled in 1494, and the portrait known as A Young Man Holding a Roundel, attributed to Sandro Botticelli…

From Wikipedia: “The Marzocco is the heraldic lion that is a symbol of Florence, and was apparently the first piece of public secular sculpture commissioned by the Republic of Florence, in the late 14th century. It stood at the heart of the city in the Piazza della Signoria at the end of the platform attached to the Palazzo Vecchio called the ringhiera, from which speakers traditionally harangued the crowd. This is now lost, having weathered with time to an unrecognizable mass of stone.”

The “unreconizable mass of stone” features in the Parnassus painting by Andrea Mantegna. It is the “lion” embedded into the left side of the platform that supports Mars and Venus. The name ‘Marzocco’ is derived from Mars, the Roman god of war.

Before the Lion was adopted as the Florentine symbol, the people looked to a statue of Mars as protector of the people and the State. That was until the sculpture was swept into the Arno river and lost forever during the great flood which devastated Florence in 1333.

The Marzocco Lion later became its replacement. There is evidence to suggest that a wolf was pinned underneath the lion, suggesting that Florence had supremacy over its rival Siena, the wolf being its symbol as well as that of Rome. The reference to Siena points to the Battle of Montaperti in September, 1260, between Florence and Siena as part of the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. An act of betrayal resulted in the Florentines being routed and suffering thousands of casualties.

A replacement for the crumbling heraldic Marzocco was sculpted by Donatello between 1418-20 without any reference to the Siena wolf. Instead, the lion cradles a shield bearing the “stemma”, the Florentine coat of arms.

This new version is also shown in Mantegna’s Parnassus painting, embedded into the right side of the platform support. It’s appearance is in profile, whereas the old Marzocco is face on. There is a reason why Mantegna has done this – to reflect Donatello’s skill at humanizing the creature. Michelangelo is reported to have said that he had never seen anyone who looked more like an honest man than Donatello’s Marzocco.

By contrasting the two lions supporting the platform in the Parnassus, Mantegna is pointing to Leonardo da Vinci as being past his sell-by date and that there is a new kid in town wowing the Florentine people – Michelangelo. The two men became bitter rivals.

But the real point Mantegna was making was in reference to Botticelli being considered ‘old-school’ or past his best by Isabella d’Este in her efforts to commission the most fashionable artists of the time to contribute to her studiola. Her demanding pursuit of Leonardo came to nothing in the end but for a profile sketch he made of Isabella when he visited Mantua. The drawing was later given away by her husband Francesco.

Mantegna’s humanizing of the two lions is also in recognition of two similar achievements intended by Botticelli when he painted the Young Man Holding a Roundel and the earlier portrait of Piero’s uncle Giuliano de Medici who was assassinated in April 1478. Both men are profiled specifically to represent the Marzocco lion.

More on this in my next post.

In search of Piero… part 1

So just who is the young man holding a roundel in the Sandro Botticelli painting set to be auctioned at Sotheby’s New York on January 28 and expected to sell for around £60 million?

The Sotheby’s auction catalogue suggests his identity is lost to history but likely to be a member of the Medici banking family and Florentine political dynasty. True on the second assumption but his identity is not lost to history. He is Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici, nicknamed “Piero the Unfortunate”, and Lord of Florence for a short time, from 1492 until he was exiled in November 1494.

There are extant works of art that feature Piero, notably another portrait – attributed to Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (1445-1497) – and a terracotta bust sculpted by Andrea Verocchio (1435-1488).

Although these two works are an aid to recognising Piero as the young man holding the roundel, there is another painting that I would suggest is the “clincher” when it comes to identification as well as providing the underlying narrative to the portrait, and that is the Parnassus by the Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna (c1431-1506), now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The date attribution for the Parnassus is 1497, but this is open to question as there is an historical reference in the painting (echoed from Botticelli’s roundel) to suggest the work was not completed until at least the latter quarter of 1498.

The two figures standing on the bridge represent Mars and Venus. In reality they portray Isabella d’Este, marchioness of Mantua, and Piero di Lorenzo de Medici (not Isabella’s husband Francesco II Gonzaga, as some art historians suggest).

Piero is portrayed as a Roman soldier, similar to the prominent soldier that appears in Mantegna’s Bearers of Trophies and Bullion, one of a series of nine paintings based on the Triumphs of Caesar and part of the Royal Collection at Hampton Court, England.

Mantegna has made the connection for a reason. The helmet worn by Piero is a pointer to the Battle of Fornovo between French forces that had invaded Italy and a coalition of armies gathered in support of the Republic of Venice. The battle took place southwest of Parma on July 6, 1495. The outcome was never really decided. Both sides claimed victory, although the Leaague of Venice forces suffered tremendous losses compared with those of the French.

However, the French king Charles VIII did manage to lose the spoils of war, treasures of all kinds collected during his invasion of Italy, hence Mantegna’s reference to his Trophies and Bullion painting. One special trophy that had been in possession of the French king was said to be his personal, jewelled helmet and a gilded sword. Another was a book illustrating the French ruler’s amourous conquests during the invasion of Italy. Both were eventually returned to Charles by Francesco II Gonzaga.

It’s one of the reasons why Mantegna has portrayed Isabella as a companion to Piero de Medici, who sided with the French and had earlier caved in to the French king’s demands when his soldiers threatened Florence. The outcome was Piero’s expulsion from the city and exile for the rest of his life. The naked Isabella is a reference to Charles’ album of Italian conquests. The golden rod in Isabella’s right hand refers to the gilded sword. It also represents the stemma that appears between the lily leaves featured on the Florentine coat of arms.

Another reference to the love-life of Isabella are the French colours of red and blue worn by Piero and draped over the wooden seat. The wooden seat is portrayed as a horse and a reference to the Trojan Horse used by the Greeks to penetrate the city of Troy. Close inspection reveals the knotted outline of Leonardo da Vinci hitched to the bedpost!

These references are symbolic of betrayal, and one of the narratives disguised in Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel. In fact Botticelli is featured as the humerous winged protector on Piero’s breastplate, echoing his own painting of Mars and Venus where he portrays himself as a mischievous chubby satyr. The depiction of the sleeping figure of Mars for the earlier Botticelli version is matched to the likeness of Leonardo da Vinci, hence the reason why Mantegna has indicated that Piero was not the first in line for Venus’ favours!

The topiary hedge screen is shaped to represent Rubino (Ruby), Isabella’s treasured lapdog, symbolic of protecting the Medici hedge fund seen growing on the bush.

These are just a few of the pointers to Piero the Unfortunate that Mantegna has made in the Parnassus painting. I will explain more in my next post and how they specifically relate to Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel.

Mantegna also pastiched the work of other Renaissance artists in the Parnussus painting, notably by Leonardo da Vinci. Whether Isabella d’Este, who commissioned the work, was ever truly aware of what Mantuan court painter was up to “is lost to history”. If she did, then her good humour is to be applauded.

Young Man Holding a Roundel

Young Man Holding a Roundel by Sandro Botticelli, to be auctioned at Sotheby’s New York

I’m looking foward with interest to the outcome of the auction of the Botticelli painting titled: Young Man Holding a Roundel. The auction is part of Sotheby’s Old Master sales series scheduled for January 28 in New York, and the painting is expected to sell for around £60 million. It was previously auctioned at Christie’s London in 1982 and bought for £810,000.

There’s a mystery about the subject. No one knows who the young man is or the name of the saint featured in the roundel. I have my own ideas and intend to post on this before the Sotheby’s auction sale at the end of the month.

Portrait of a Boy, 1475, Giovanni Bellini
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

The image alongside is by Giovanni Bellini. Titled Portrait of a Boy, it is dated at 1475 and housed at the Barber Institute in Birmingham.

The subject is said to be a son of Angelo Probi who died in 1474 and was ambassador to Venice for the KIng of Naples. Like the Botticelli portrait, the boy’s name is unknown.

There are similarities between the two paintings, perhaps enough to suggest that the Bellini portrait could be viewed as a younger version of the youth painted by Botticelli.

Sotheby’s has published an interesting online catalogue to accompany the sale which can be viewed at its website.

The ‘Three Crowns’

Detail from the Panel of the Friars, with references to Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio.

Here’s more information about the Panel of the Friars, the first of six sections that make up the polyptych known as the St Vincent Panels and now housed at the National Museum of Antique Art in Lisbon Portugal.

As explained in earlier posts, each of the six figures have been given mutliple identities, seemingly four. This is a clue to the artist Hugo van der Goes’ emulating a similar method of construction used by Jan van Eyck when he applied four indentities to each of the ten riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpice.

Aside from any other suggested identities provided previously, the three men standing on the back row can be identified as the group known as the Three Crowns, major writers associated with the early Italian Renaissance: Francesco Petrarch, Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio. The latter is probably best known for his collection of tales known as The Decameron, and subtitled Prince Galehaut.

Boccaccio is ‘twinned’ or paired with Dante Alighieri for the reason that it was Boccaccio who dubbed Dante’s Comedy “Divine”, so prompting The Decameron to be nicknamed “the Human Comedy”.

Another clue to Boccaccio’s identity is the translation of his name as “big mouth”, depicted by the rim of the hat worn by the man placed in front of him, on which is a fiery sun symbol. In this instance the symbol refers to the location where The Decameron tales take place – Fiesole (fire sun) –“twin hills” that overlook Florence in Italy.

The sun motif also connects to Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Fourth Sphere of Paradise, the so-called sphere of the sun where Dante and Beatrice meet the teachers of Wisdom, Saint Thomas Aquinas being one of them, and who is another identity shared with the figure of Dante.

In my previous post I mentioned that the likeness of Aquinas was sourced from a painting by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli. Hugo van der Goes makes another connection to Botticelli through the Dante figure. The Florentine artist also produced a series of illustrations – 92 still survive – to be included in a manuscript of the Divine Comedy. Another connection is the vast influence the work of Aquinas had on Dante.

More on this in my next post.

More on the Panel of the Friars

In my previous post I stated that a section of Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi was the inspiraton behind the composition Hugo van der Goes applied to the Panel of the Friars in the St Vincent polyptych.

For example, the figure in the top left corner and the figure of the friar beneath it are based on two-heads in the Botticelli painting that depict Bernardo Bandini Baronelli, one of the assassins in the Pazzi Conspiracy who cleaved the head of Giulianio de’ Medici, and the Italian poet and scholar Angelo Ambrogini, better known as Poliziano, who later wrote a commentary about the dramatic event. He is seen with his head turned looking directly at the viewer in a similar fashion to the friar in the Panel of the Friars.

Detail from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, and the Panel of the Friars (St Vincent Panels).

The friar with the full head of wavy hair has multiple identities, one being João Álvares, a Portuguese chronicler held captive for several years alongside the royal prince Ferdinand who died in captivity at Fez. Five years after Ferdinand’s death, Álvares was succesfully ransomed, returned to Portugal and then commissioned by Ferdinand’s brother Henry (the Navigator) to chronicle his younger sibling’s life and deeds. This account was a source Hugo likely utilised for producing one of the themes in the St Vincent Panels, just as Botticelli used Poliziano’s account as a basis for his painting.

Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, hanged for the asassination of Giuliano de Medici.

There are two references in Botticelli’s painting to Bernardo Bandini – eventually captured in Constantinople after his flight from Florence and brought back in chains by Antonio de Medici. He was hanged on December 29, 1479. Present at the time of Bandini’s execution was Leonardo da VInci who made a drawing of the hanged man. Part of this drawing is represented by the head of Bandini tucked behind Poliziano. This is to make clear that the account of Baldini’s execution was not part of Poiliziano’s report written soon after the attack on the Medici brothers. But Leonardo was still in town and recorded the event in one of his notebooks. Observe the reference to the rope, a vertical line which has been emphasised as part of the column in the background.

So how does this hanging man image connect to Pontius Pilate. There is a visual likeness – the red skull cap – and so a pointer to Golgotha, the place of the skull where Jesus was crucified or hung from a tree. The bark on the lower part of the tree behind the head of Bandini has been stripped, as Christ was stripped of his clothes, and above this area are the dangling legs of a man depicting the Crucifixion. Hugo van der Goes has matched this by depicting Pilate’s right ear as the lower half of Christ crucified.

There is another component that links to Baldini, the line that joins the two halves of Pilate’s tunic and falls in behind the head of Àlveres. This echoes the line that represents the rope seen behind the head of the assassin in the Botticeli painting. It’s a device applied by Hugo van der Goes to introduce another identity given to the friar and which, in turn, will eventualy lead back again to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi. The new identity appears in one of the cycle of frescoes known as the Legend of the True Cross, attributed to Piero della Francesca, and located in the San Francesco church in Arezzo, Italy.

The Torture of Judas the Jew, part of the the fresco cycle known as the Legend of the True Cross, attributed to Piero della Francesco and Giovanni da Piamonte. Church of San Francesco, Arezzo.

The particular fresco, attributed to Piero’s assistant Giovanni da Piamonte, is the sixth in a series of thirteen and referred to as The Torture of Judas the Jew. Judas is seen being lowered into a well with a rope tied around his waist, although at first glance it appears the rope is attached to his neck. This is done in an effort make Judas reveal the location of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified. After seven days of torture Judas relents and reveals the location in Jerusalem where the True Cross is buried.

Judas’ curled hair is similar in style to the curls applied to Álvarez. To make any further connections between the two men, we now have to focus on one of the identities given to the second figure in the back row, Thomas Aquinas, and his portrait painted by Sandro Botticelli which I pointed out in a previous post.

St Thomas Aquinas, Botticelli, c1481-82, Riggisberg.

After Aquinas had died on March 7, 1274, an Enquiry into Canonisation was held at Naples between July and September 1319. One of the witnesses, an elderly priest known as Peter of Montesangiovanni, was asked if he knew of any miracles worked by Thomas in life or death or after death.

He replied that during his stay at Maenza, Thomas’s health declined and his socius (comrade), seeing his weaakness, begged him to take some food: whereupon Thomas said, ‘Do you think you could get some fresh herrings?’ The socius repied, ‘Oh, yes, across the Alps, in France or in England!’ But just then a fishmonger called Bordonario arrived at the castle from Terracina with his usual delivery of sardines; and the socius (Reginald of Priverno) asked him what fish he had and was told (sardines). But on opening the baskets, the man found one full of fresh herrings. Everyone was delighted, but astonished too, because fresh herrings were unknown in Italy. And while the fishmonger was swearing that he had brought sardines, not herrings, brother Reginald ran off to tell Thomas, crying, ‘God has given you what you wanted – herrings!’ And Thomas said, ‘Where have they come from and who brought them?’ And Reginald said, ‘God has brought them!’

This incident later became known as the “Miracle of the Sardines”. Close inspection of Botticelli’s painting of Thomas Aquinas reveals the cuffs of the saint’s tunic and his collar depicted as herrings. The hood of the Cistercian friar below is also meant to match the herring form.

Detail fro the Panel of Friars, St Vincent Panels, National Museum of Antique Art, Lisbon.

As for any reference to sardines, look no further than the shape and cut of the friar’s hair seemingly presented seemingly on a head-plate, the latter also a reference to John the Baptist whose head was presented on a plate to Salome. This alludes to the mirror Panel of the Relic where the kneeling cardinal is shown presenting part of a skull shaped as a dish.

Detail from the Panel of the Relic (St Vincent Panels), National Museum of Antique Art, Lisbon.

Another connection Hugo van der Goes makes is to Botticeli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Botticelli is depicted standing on the extreme right edge of the panel with his hands covered. To his right stands the bearded Hugo van der Goes. This combination of the two artists is matched in the Panel of the Friars to the bearded friar and the friar crowned with sardines, the latter being another identity given to the figure – Botticelli – a nickname meaning “Little Barrel”. Hugo has playfully returned the jibe directed at him in Sandro’s painting, which inferred he worked at a snail’s pace. Hugo has presented Botticeli as a “little barrel” of sardines.

More about the Panel of the Friars and its connections in my next post.

Panel of the Friars – a link to Botticelli, Leonardo and Florence

In my previous post I presented two paintings which connected to the Panel of the Friars. One was the portrait of St Thomas Aquinas painted by Sandro Botticelli which Hugo van der Goes utilised for his figure of Aquinas (back row, centre). However, Hugo had given Aquinas the eyes of Botticelli. It was his way of directing the viewer to another painting by the Florentine artist – the Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi and, in particular, to the group of figures on the left side of the frame as shown below.

Hugo was also inspired by two other artworks in creating his compostion – two frescoes – The Good and the Bad Judge, still to be seen in the old town hall of Monsaraz, Portugal; and a section of the cycle depicting the Legend of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy.

More about the connecting details in the Panel of the Friars in my next post

Detail from the Good and Bad Judge fresco at Monsaraz, Portugal.
Details frrom the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross, Arezzo, Italy.

Dissecting the Panel of the Friars

One of the challenges for anyone attempting to identify the 60 persons contained in the six sections representing the St Vincent Panels, is realising the artist has applied more than one identity to many of them. Very rarely is any figure a stand-alone representation of who they appear to be at surface level.

The artist – and my preference is Hugo van der Goes, not Nuno Gonçalves – took his lead from Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, particularly the Just Judges panel in which four identities are applied to each rider.

Perhaps in this way Hugo not only intended to pay homage to Van Eyck but also echo the emergence of Portugal’s “Age of Discoveries” which began at the start of the 15th century, and so invite the viewer to explore and navigate their way around the altarpiece, panel by panel, increasing their knowledge and understanding of the artist’s mapping and connectivity techniques as they do so.

I have commented about the Panel of the Friars in previous posts and mentioned that one of the identities given to the figure standing extreme left in the back row is Pontius PIlate, the Roman governor who gave up Jesus to the Jews to be crucified.

The figure also represents Pope Boniface VIII. Alongside him is Saint Thomas Aquinas. Not only can these two figures be identified from other paintings but also by the iconography Van der Goes has embedded and connected to the group.

I can’t date the painting of Pope Boniface VIII shown below; neither do I know the name of the artist. But excluding the papal tiara there is a distinct resemblance to the first man on the back row.

Another person who can be added to the mix is St Ambrose of Milan. He is the third identity applied to the first figure in the back row. Like Pilate, Ambrose was also a Roman Governor. To complete the set of Roman governors – all men of authority – is Pope Boniface VIII, consecrated bishop of Rome in 1295.

The second figure in the back row can be matched to the Thomas Aquinas portrait by Sandro Botticelli dated 1481-1482. Of course, date attributions are not always accurate, but if this is close to the mark then it also helps to date the Panel of the Friars to a period after Botticelli’s painting and probably before a time Hugo is thought to have died around 1482. There is no record of Hugo’s death except a vague mention without a date in a chronicler’s journal said to have been written between 1509 and 1523.

There is a noticeable difference in the eyes of the two portraits. Hugo’s version has embedded the eyes of Botticelli from another painting – the Monforte Altarpiece. He did this not only to make a connection to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi because it portrays Van der Goes, but for two other reasons which link the work to the Panel of the Friars.

The identity of the Aquinas figure can be confirmed by iconography that forms part of the white-haired Cistercian friar who, in this instance, is another saintly figure, Bernard of Clairvaux. The same applies to the portrayal of Boniface VIII. He too is connected to the Cistercian figure, not only portrayed as Bernard of Clairvaux but also as Bartolomeo Platina , the Vatican librarian who compiled and wrote a book on the Lives of the Popes (1479).

I shall explain more about these group of figures and how they connect to each other in my next post.