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.
While studying the St Vincent Panels just recently, I discovered an important link to another work of art, the Monsaraz fresco of The Good and Bad Judge. The fresco was a primary source of inspiration for the SVP attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.
Full details of the discovery are published on my website at this LINK.
Some months ago I discovered that Jan van Eyck had embedded in the Ghent Altarpiece the identity of the Pearl Poet, author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Jan wasn’t the first artist to do so. Pol Limbourg included him as one of the figures in the January folio from the book of hours known as the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry.
Recently I came across another painting that features the Pearl Poet – the St Vincent Panels attributed to the Portuguese artist Nuno Gonçalves.
The St Vincent Panels was an attempt to emulate the lower register of the Ghent Altarpiece, It includes several references to the work of the Van Eyck brothers and even a portrat of Jan in one of the panels, as there are of other Netherlandish artists.
The Pearl Poet appears in the first frame titled the Panel of the Friars. He is the figure with long hair and a straggling beard. His right hand is placed on a plank of wood. He wears a similar habit to the other two friars but a darker shade. On his head is a fez-type hat marked on the front with a cross amid what appear to be flames of fire.
Like Van Eyck in the Ghent Altarpiece, the artist has applied more than one identity to each figure – in this instance, three. The iconography that points to the name of the Pearl Poet is less detailed than that created by Van Eyck but, like Jan, the artist has split the name into three syllables: Hugh-Staf-ford.
Why the darker shade of the man’s habit? For this, read HUE. The staff is the STAVE or plank of wood he his holding. The FORD is the crossover he is about to make to the water reference in the panel alongside and also the mirror panel on the far side, referred to as the Panel of the Relic. In this scenario the plank is seen as the lid of the coffin placed behind the figure of Jan van Eyck who is presented as a poor pilgrim.
Sir Hugh died at Rhodes while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His bones were translated back to England by his squire and entombed at Stone Priory alongside his wife Philippa Beauchamp who had died a few months earlier. The translation of bones and relics supports the painting’s subject of St Vincent’s bones being recovered from what is now known as Cape St Vincent and taken by boat to Lisbon.
Van Eyck also pointed to Sir Hugh by referencing text from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. So has Gonçlaves, and from the same passage: “Face fell as the fire, and free of his speech.” The fire reference is the symbolic flames at the end of his beard – a kind of singeing of the beard which also refers to another narrative in the painting.
The second identity given to the figure is the artist Robert Campin, considered the first great master of Flemish painting. He is one of several Flemish artists featured in the St Vincent Panels.He can be identified in three ways.
Firstly, In other Flemish paintings he is generally portrayed with a beard and as the third king or wise man that followed a star to Bethlehem to pay homage to Jesus, the new-born king of the Jews, hence the celestial motif on his hat.
The second connection to Campin is the ‘mirror’ image in the far-right frame – the Panel of the Relic. The man wearing the black habit is Jean Jouffroy, almoner to Philip the Good duke of Burgundy. The image is adapated from Roger Campin’s painting, Portrait of a Stout Man. The motif on the front of the habit represents the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem.
A third connection to Campin is his placement alongside the plank. In this scenario it represents a door to to a sanctuary and is borrowed from a feature in Campin’s painting of the Merode Altarpiece where he has portrayed himself standing next to an open door that leads into a garden and the scene of the Annunciation.
I shall reveal the figure’s third identity in a future post.
In my previous post I explained how the iconography relating to the pages of the mysterious script in the Panel of the Relic translated into a passage from Isaiah (40 : 3-5), and is echoed in John’s gospel(1 : 23) by John the Baptist. But the artist also used another source to translate from: a section of the Knights of Christ panel that forms part of the Ghent Altarpiece.
The translation is focused on the central knight leading two other knights and a group of kings and princes. In this particular narrative the knight is a depiction of two people of a young age, Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort. Both men are also placed in the Panel of the Relic. Beaufort, as a Cardinal in later life, is on his knees holding the relic.
In the Knights of Christ panel the group is making a “straight way” to the Holy Land or the “New Jerusalem”.
So how is the passage from the Book of Isaiah, referenced by John the Baptist in John’s Gospel, identified in the iconography surrounding the knight? At this stage it is worth repeating Isaiah’s words:
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.”
The “straight way” is the red cross on the knight’s shield, similar to the vertical and horizontal spaces between the written words on the pages displayed by Jean Jouffroy in the Panel of the Relic. The valleys, mountains, hills and cliffs are the various shapes formed from the shields. The ridges are the highlight’s on the knight’s breastplate but “made plain” on the front of the knight to his right.
Another “straight way” is the straight strap across the knight’s breastplate. It’s stems from a descending, scrolling pattern of light, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and ends in shadow at the point of the cross on the shield, and also at the elbow of the knight alongside the central knight. “Elbow” translates as EL-BOW, God’s bow (a rainbow) symbolising his Covenant promise (Genesis 9 : 12-13).
Amidst the shadow area is a red triangular shape intended to represent the head of Christ as he hangs on his Cross. The upward sweep of the strap represents one of his arms, while his back is connected to another arm, that of the red cross on the shield. This represents God’s New Testament or New Covenant fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection.
Below this motif is a galaxy of “stars’ on a blue background. However, one star has risen to appear in the groove of the shield. Not only is symbolic of the Resurrection but it also represents the rising star the wise men saw and followed and which led them to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant king. So the three knights can also be viewed as “wise men” making a straight way to Bethlehem. A similar motif is seen in the composition of the Panel of the Relic (and other panels) – the three front men are arranged as three wise men bearing gifts and paying homage.
The straight strap is also present in the Panel of the Relic. It falls across the chest of Van Eyck the pilgrim and ends at the elbow of Jean Jouffroy. While the prelate’s hand turns the pages in the book, the star is settled above another passage from Isaiah that prophesied “the coming of the virtuous king” (Isaiah 11 : 1-2).
In the previous post I mentioned what appears to be a head under the camel coat of Van Eyck, portrayed also as John the Baptist in the Panel of the Relic. The shape represents the head of the Baptist who while imprisoned was beheaded on the orders of Herod because the king had promised Salome anything she wanted after dancing for him. She requested the head of John on a dish.
The bloody head of John appears on the right arm of the knight from the Ghent Altarpiece, mounted on a green cushion. The curved piece of armour supporting his head is the dish.
This piece of iconography relates to the latter part of Isaiah’s prophecy: “… then the glory of Yaweh will be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of Yaweh has spoken” – the mouth of Yaweh being both Isaiah and John the Baptist.
Unfortunately, since the recent restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece the face depicted on the arm is now hardly noticeable. The version shown here is before the altarpiece was “restored”.
The fact that the knight is a double image – Jan van Eyck and Henry Beaufort – is interesting. A connection is being made between the two men and the head of John the Baptist. Nuno Gonçlaves also connects the two men and the head in the Panel of the Relic, the relic beign a part of John’s skull. Both paintings also point to a location in England – Templecombe in Somerset – where a painting of John the Baptist was discovered in the roof of an outhouse that had a connection with a Templar priory and later the Knights Hospitaller (Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem), John being John the Baptist.
This section of the St Vincent Panels is known as the Panel of the Relic, so called because of the kneeling prelate holding the fragment of a skull. Some say the relic belongs to St Vincent of Zaragoza, the saint who is the focus of the two panels in the centre of the altarpiece, while others suggest it belongs to Ferdinand the Holy Prince, the youngest son of John l of Portugal who was taken as a hostage following the Siege of Tangier and eventually died in captivity.
The panels are attributed to the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves and one of the main narratives is the translation to Lisbon of the relics belonging to St Vincent and Ferdinand. But what makes the Panel of the Relic notably different from the rest is that there are no Portuguese representatives. The kneeling prelate is English whose father was Flemish, and the four other men represent the House of Valois-Burgundy. So why should any of them be associated with a relic of St Vincent or Ferdinand the Holy Prince?
If the relic belonged to neither of these two saintly men then what relic could link the Portuguese House of Aviz with Cardinal Henry Beaufort, son of John of Gaunt, and the rest of the group of Flemings? The clue lies is in ‘translating’ the open pages of the book held by the prelate dressed in black. He is Jean Jouffroy, one time almoner of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The two men standing in the back row are assistants to Jouffroy, but unnamed. The figure portrayed as a humble pilgrim is Jan van Eyck.
Gonçlaves has sourced two of Van Eyck’s paintings and the work of another Flemish painter, Rogier van der Weyden, to build on the ‘translate’ narrative found in the altarpiece. Van der Weyden is portrayed as one of four artists featured in the Panel of the Knights.
The two works of Van Eyck are the Knights of Christ panel in the Ghent Altarpiece, and the portrait of Henry Beaufort, currently mistitled, Portrait of Cardinal Niccolò Albergati. The Van der Weyden paintings are: The Seven Sacraments, the Altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints (now fragmented with some parts lost) and the Exhumation of St Hubert.
By using some of the iconography created by other artists in their paintings and translating it to a new location, Gonçlaves is, in a sense, paying homage to the particular artist and their work. This echoes the foremost theme of the St Vincent panels – paying homage and celebrating the translation of St Vincent’s lost relics to Lisbon, and so establishing a new creation and a spiritual rebirth for the city, commemorated annually.
The translation of Jan van Eyck
There is a reference by the art historian James Weale in his book on the life and works of Hubert and John van Eyck, that in March 1442, at the request of Lambert van Eyck, the Chapter of St Donatian, Bruges, “grants permission for the body of his brother John, buried in the precincts, to be, with the bishop’s licence, translated into the church and buried near the font, on condition of the foundation of an anniversary and of compliance with the rights of fabric.”
In his Seven Sacraments painting, Van der Weyden depicts this translation of Van Eyck’s remains as the raised stone covering the grave and supporting the baptismal font. Hence the ‘raised’ coffin also signifying the upright baptismal font. The child in the baptism scene is Van Eyck’s own, and the Sacrament signifies being raised to new life in Christ. And so in death Van Eyck is resurrected to new life through the Sacrament. Close inspection of the priest performing the baptism reveals the same priest that stands next to the coffin Van Eyck is placed in front of in the Panel of the Relic.
But there is another reason why Jan is portrayed standing in front of the coffin, and it connects to another painting by Rogier van der Weyden. It’s part of the cut-down altarpiece referred to as the Virgin and Child with Saints. The figure of Joseph is represented by Jan van Eyck, frail and seemingly approaching the end of life. The head and upper part of his body is now a portrait presentation housed at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.
The building in the background shows an empty tabernacle or aedicula. The pedestal and canopy are there but the statue is missing. This may be seen as Van der Weyden preparing to elevate his humble friend Jan to kingly or even saintly status. “King of Painters” was an epithet awarded to Jan.
So the empty coffin is also symbolic of the empty tabernacle. However the surplice worn by the priest alongside the coffin also depicts a tabernacle, but not vacant. It contains the presence of the Holy spirit, symbolised by the flames shown within the veil.
The Holy Flame is reflected in the Panel of the Friars, under the figure with the long beard. The figure also has his right hand placed on what is said to be the lid of the coffin behind Van Eyck. But the plank has other meanings as well.
The figure of Jean Jouffroy, who later became an influential ‘Prince of the Church’ – a Cardinal – is shown holding open a book of Scripture. The text is unreadable (although it has been claimed that some Hebrew words can be identified) but its message can be understood when read as a piece of iconography. It relates to the 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. The wise men who came from the East to pay homage to the new-born King had to travel across the desert, and were led straight to Bethlehem by following a star. That’s the red star seen on the front of Jouffroy. It also represents a military order of that time known as the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem.
A second connection to John the Baptist is the Jan van Eyck figure dressed in a camelskin coat. The hind legs of the camel are shaped in the folds below his belt. His coat is opened at the front and beneath the belt is a suggestion of a head in profile. The profile is facing the head of Henry Beaufort, and in his hands he holds part of the skull of John the Baptist. How the relic came into the possession of Van Eyck and eventually Beaufort is another story, but for the artist to link this feature to a painting that is primarily about St Vincent and the Portuguese House of Aviz is a pointer to where the skull relic was translated from to arrive in England.
The connection also links to what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards of a head discovered in 1945 in the roof of an outhouse in Templecombe. The painting is of the beheaded John the Baptist.
• More on the Panel of the Relic in a future post.
In October 2018 I posted an item titled Brim of Extinction, pointing out that the repainted verson of the Just Judges panel in the Ghent Altarpiece was missing an important detail that was present in the stolen original.
Recently, I discovered that the missing detail represents part of the maxim: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, an appropriate expression for the Just Judges.
The detail is a hat brim which coverered the mouth of one of the central riders, the French king Charles Vl who, at times, was inclined to shout his mouth off, so to speak, during his frequent bouts of psychosis. It’s there on the original version but missing on the copy painted in 1945 by the Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken.
“Hear no evil” is depicted by the front rider’s hat covering his ears, and “see no evil” is the self portrait of Jan van Eyck looking out from the picture directly at the viewer. Was Van Eyck saying he saw no evil in anyone, or was this just another “mirror” technique like that in his famous Arnolfini Portrait?
A painter very much influenced by the work of Jan van Eyck was Hugo van der Goes. He lived in Ghent and would no doubt have studied the Ghent Altarpiece in detail. Both Van Eck and Van der Goes are featured in a six-panel altarpiece known as the St Vincent Panels. Like the Ghent Altarpiece there is mystery about some of the detail in the painting and who the sixty figures are or represent.
The St Vincent panels are attributed to the Portugues artist Nuno Gonçalves but there is also some speculation that Van der Goes may have had a hand in the work or contributed to it in some way. It so happens that the “hear, see, speak no evil” maxim also appears in the first frame of the St Vincent Panels (referred to as he Friars Panel), as it does in the first panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.
The three men standing at the top of the panel, depict the maxim in the order of: “hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil”. The latter is easy to recognise, his mouth, like the French king, is covered by a hat. Next to him is the man who sees no evil, because he does not see the plank held by the the bearded man. The plank also represents part of a crucifixion analogy.
The third man is Pontius Pilate who does not want to hear the cries of the crowd chanting for Christ’s crucifixion. Close inspection of his ear reveals it is shaped as the lower half of Christ’s body on the cross and the overlap of white hair represents his Spirit he offered to the Father. And the reason for Pilate being placed in the corner is that he cannot escape the crowd’s will to have Jesus crucified because of their threat to report him to Ceasar.
This three-part maxim can be applied as an attribute of Pilate’s judgement. He didn’t want to HEAR the demands of the people; he didn’t SEE anything wrong in what Jesus had done; and he didn’t SPEAK evil of him.
This three-man motif is mirrored on the far right panel of the altarpiece, except that only two men appear in the back row lineup. The third place is occupied by an empty coffin.
Like Pilate, the man in the corner has no choice. His windswept hair is symbolic of the Holy Spirit coming down and resting on him – “Do not be surprised when I say you must be born from above. The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from of where it is going” (John 3 : 7-8). This is the man who hears the good and not evil.
Next to him is the man who sees no evil. Like the Van Eyck self portrait he is staring out directly to the viewer. Is he blind?
Finally, the third place ocupied by the coffin represents the maxim of not speaking evil of the dead. Simple as that!
Here’s another Flemish artist to add to the three I pointed out last month who appear in the painting known as the St Vincent Panels, produced by the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves.
Jan van Eyck appears in the section referred to as the Relic Panel. Gonçalves has intentionally ‘mirrored’ the ‘Joseph’ profile which formed part of an altarpiece painted by Rogier van der Weyden that depicted the Virgin and Child with saints.
Three sections of Rogier’s altarpiece are known to survive: the portraits of Joseph (Jan Van Eyck) and a female saint (St Catherine?) are housed at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, while a third piece, The Magdalen Reading, is kept at the National Gallery, London. The Magdalen figure is a portrait of Jan van Eyck’s daughter Livina.
Below are two examples of Van Eyck’s profile painted by Van der Weyden. Left, the profile which Gonçalves has mirrored and, right, a similar profile from Van der Weyden’s Saint Columba Altarpiece (Alte Pinakothek).
• More on this and the Flemish connection to the St Vincent Panels in a future post.
Staying with Hugo van der Goes and his self portrait in the Adoration of the Shepherds.
On visiting Ghent in 1495, some years after Hugo’s death in 1482(?), the humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote that the Ghent Altarpiece had no rivals and “another great painter” who had attempted to equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work had been “driven mad and melancholy”. Art historians assume that Münzer was writing about Hugo van der Goes.
Whatever pressures Hugo put himself under which may have affected his mental state, it appears that he came through his crisis and all was well at the end. So well that he was able to recognise and accept the reasons for his affliction and record his ordeal and recovery in his latter paintings – the Adoration of the Shepherds being one of them.
It would be surprising that living in Ghent and able to admire the Ghent Altarpiece at any time, Hugo would not be influenced by the exceptional creativity of Jan van Eyck and, like oter artists of the time, he incorporated and acknowledged Jan’s influence in his own work – a hat-tip, so to speak. He did so in the Adoration of the Shepherds. The Joseph figure represents Jan van Eyck, but the motif is borrowed from the work of Rogier van der Weyden, another admirer of Van Eyck.
The self-portrait of the well-again Hugo looking upwards to heaven is borrowed from Van Eyck’s self portrait of himself as a young man that appears in the centre panel (Adoration of the Lamb) of the Ghent Altarpiece. Jan is also looking up. As Augustine heard the voice of a child saying “Take and read” (the bible), so Hugo is listening to the voice of the young Van Eyck to take and read his paintings. And that’s why, like Van Eyck, Hugo’s paintings encompass so many Scripture references.
Another self-portratit of Hugo is found the Vienna Diptych – The Fall and Rise of Man, mournful and repentant as the crucified Christ is taken down form his cross. Hugo has matched this pose with the so-called Mr Arnolfini from Van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait. In fact the man has a dual personality (notice the cleft chin): Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, as a repentant sinner, combined with the features of Jan van Eyck who sometimes acted as the duke’s proxy, especially when making pilgrimage. Notice also how Hugo has featured the fur trim and the hand that seems to be making a blessing.
Finally, Hugo’s red skull cap, is a match for the ‘skull’ portrait of Philip the Good, a traditional symbol usually featured at the foot of the cross to remind the viewer that life is short, but the red strap of Hugo’s cap also indicates his despair when he declared himself unworthy and damned while returning from visiting Cologne – a pilgrimage – with members of his community. The hand sign is the action of a cut across his throat. Such is Hugo’s self-loathing and lack of peace that he looks down towards the place he is convinced he is heading for.
Fortunately for Hugo he was brought through his crisis of faith and self-doubt, as witnessed by his transformation depicted in the Adoration of the Shepherds.
• More on Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds in a future post.
In an item posted here in January about Fra Angelico’s painting, Conversion of St Augustine, I mentioned that Hugo van der Goes had referenced the work in his Monforte Altarpiece. At that time I wasn’t aware that Hugo had done the same in two other paintings he produced following his ‘breakdown’, thought to have been after 1480.
In yesterday’s post I pointed out the crib connection to St Augustine in Hugo’s painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds and the link to Fra Angelico’s painting of Augustine’s conversion. But there’s more. Hugo’s composition is actually based on the scene painted by Fra Angelico – a conversion process in itself.
Sometimes described as Old Testament prophets, the two men either side of the frame pulling back the green curtain are Hugo van der Goes (left) and Thomas Vessem, Prior of the Rood Klooster, who helped care for Hugo following his breakdown.
Hugo has depicted himself as the peacock, a symbol of pride, while Thomas Vessem represents the humble ‘desert father’, standing at the entrance of his cave – a ‘“little nook” – in Fra Angelico’s scene. Augustine and his friend Alipius (two converts) are matched by the two shepherds entering the cave where Jesus is born, symbolising two conversos entering the Rood Klooster monastery.
As for Hugo being seen as a figure of pride, he can also be viewed at the Prodigal Son whose father welcomed him and instructed his servants to bring out the best robe and put it on his son.
Notice also that Hugo and Thomas Vessem are each embedded in the lower corners of the picture – another example of Hugo’s fascination for the words of Thomas à Kempis: ““I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.”