Royal positions

Shown below are features from five different paintings which relate to each other in a specific way, and not just because each painting has a connection to a member of the Van Eyck family.

(1) November folio, Très Riche Heures, by Jean Colombe; (2 & 3) January folio, Très Riche Heures, by Bathélemy d’Eyck; (4) St Francis Receives the Stigmata, by Jan van Eyck; (5) Agony in the Garden, Turin-Milan Hours, attributed to Hand G, and likely Hubert or Jan van Eyck; (6 & 7) The Three Marys at the Tomb, by Hubert or Jan van Eyck.

The clue is the crouching stance taken by one or more figure in each example. The posture is a pointer to Edmund Crouchback (1245-1296), a son of the English Plantagenet king, Henry III, and also to Edmund’s own son, Henry of Lancaster (1281-1345).

The inspiration for this repeating theme was the Agony in the Garden miniature from which elements have been taken and translated, or reinterpreted, in the later paintings.

More on this in a future post.

More on the butterfly effect

This figure is another “butterfly” featured in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry. His name is Sir Thomas Blount, a supporter of Richard II. He served as a napier at Richard’s coronation banquet in 1377.

Thomas was a participant in the Epiphany Rising to restore Richard after the king was dethroned by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399. But the rebellion was unsuccessful and Thomas was captured and put to death at a place known as the Green Ditch on the outskirts of Oxford. His execution was brutal and recorded later by a chronicler as follows:

Sir Thomas Blount was hanged; but the halter was soon cut, and he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, and the executioner came with a razor in his hand, and knelt before Sir Thomas, whose hands were tied, begging him to pardon him his death, as he must do his office. Sir Thomas asked, “Are you the person appointed to deliver me from this world?” The executioner answered, “Yes, Sir, I pray you pardon me.” And Sir Thomas kissed him, and pardoned him his death. The executioner then knelt down, and opened his belly, and cut out his bowels, and threw them into the fire. While Sir Thomas was dying, one Erpyngham, the king’s chamberlain, insulting Blount, said to him, in derision, “Go, seek a master that can cure you.” Blount only answered, “Te Deum laudamus! Blessed be the day on which I was born, and blessed be this day, for I shall die in the service of my sovereign lord, the noble King Richard”. His head was soon after cut off and he was quartered.

Elements of the execution are indicated in Blount’s portrayal. The location is referenced by the figure in green standing immediately behind Blount. The green colour represents the Green Ditch. One of the figure’s identities is the painter Jan van Eyck. Ditch can be translated as dyke, a pun on the name d’Eyck or Van Eyck. Blount’s hanging is matched to the string of beads around his neck and his beheading to the black collar. Quartering of the body is when limbs are severed from the torso, hence the surcoat’s serrated design. Other references to quartering are the folded napkin and the four pieces of bread on the table. As for Blount’s disembowelment, this is indicated by what appears to be a belt but actually represents where Blount’s belly was opened. Notice also the demonic feature, formed by part of the serated edge, appearing to look into the opened wound. The markings on the front of the red section of the surcoat are best understood if the image is turned upside down. Now the jagged edges can be recognised as representing rising flames and the markings as the eyes seen of a peacock’s feathers. The peacock is symbolic of eternal life. The flames are also associated with the mythical phoenix but this relates to another narrative associated with the Van Eyck figure.

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The account of Blount’s execution where its states he was made to sit on a bench before a great fire, is mirrored in the group of men seemingly warming their hands “before a great fire” as they are commanded to approach by the marshall. In this scenario “the great fire” can be understood as the fire of Hell. The artist has also made sure that the prelate, in the guise of Cardinal Henry Beaufort, is portrayed seated on a bench with his hands raised. This, too, relates to another narrative that connects with the Epiphany Rising and recorded in the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers.

So how is Sir Thomas Blount portrayed as a butterfly by the artist Bathélemy d’Eyck? His wings are meant to represent a butterfly, wings that were torn from its body when he was tortured and executed after his capture.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry attributed to Jean Colombe

Jean Colombe picks up on this in his painting of the November folio in the Très Riche Heures. The two men in the wooded represent Jan and Hubert van Eyck (Hubert is a second identity applied to the Blount figure). They are clothed in white tops and wear black caps and stand apart, separated. This is a reference to Blount’s white and black wing features in the January folio. The figure of Barthélemy d’Eyck looking up is depicted in the process of shedding his outer coat to morph into a butterfly as the Van Eyck brothers. Notice his black cap and white undergarment, its hem shaped as a wing. In reality the artist is expressing Barthélemy’s conversion after witnessing a vision of the Lamb of God depicted among the oak trees. This is also a reference to another Van Eyck painting, The Stigmata of St Francis who is portrayed levitating when he is presented with a vision of the Crucified Christ portrayed as a six-winged seraph.

Detail from the November folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The butterfly effect

Barthélemy d’Eyck adapted several features from The Three Marys at the Tomb painting for his composition of the January folio in the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry. The field of gold representing the burial shroud of Jesus is one instance. In Barthélemy’s painting the Shroud is the cloth covering the banquet table. Like the field, it glitters with its gold plate and tableware.

Detail from the January folio in the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

It’s worth remembering that there is more than one narrative attached to the figures and groupings in the January folio. The reason for this was Barthélemy emulating the composition system used by Jan and Hubert van Eyck of embedding several underlying themes and identities in their paintings, notably in the Ghent Altarpiece and The Three Marys at the Tomb.

The “Field of the Lord” at Saint-Hippolyte-sur-le-Doubs attracted pilgrims for many years because the claimed burial cloth of Jesus, now known as the Shroud of Turin, was displayed there at Eastertime to commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus – a transformation to a new life.

Barthélemy may have likened visiting pilgrims to butterflies, flitting from one pilgrimage destination to another. There were many at that time to choose from, mostly associated with the display of a saintly relic of some sort. But butterflies are also the result of a kind of metamorphosis or transformation, forming their shape through egg, larva and pupa stages to finally become a colorful adult creature of wonder.

Gathered around “The Lord’s Table” set for celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi – pilgrims from the East – travelled to Bethlehem to bring gifts and pay homage to the new-born king, are guests of all all types and status, from servants to ‘kings’, all clothed in an array of colours. Even the armoured soldiers fighting in the battlefield tapestry are decked in colourful coats of arms.

Arms, representing wings, is the key to recognising the butterfly theme in the January folio, and there is more than one narrative attached to the theme. Arms and wings also link to another theme in the picture, that of warfare and the equipment and methods used for conducting sieges and conquering castles. Notice also some of the figures are placed shoulder to shoulder, i.e. paired or yoked, suggesting they share a fellowship of some kind, or of the same ilk. For instance, take the identical livery colours of two men in the corners or wings of the frame. At top level they represent the Duke of Berry’s servants. However, the kneeling figure also represents Richard II whose father was the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock. It was also rumoured that Richard was the illegitimate son of one of his mother’s servants. Hence the pairing of livery colours for the two figures.

So where are the butterfly depictions in the January folio? Apart from bearing in mind the colourful display of some of the men’s garments we can start with the man guzzling at the drinks table, and the man behind eating bread. A list of caterpillar behaviours published on Wikipedia states “Many caterpillars display feeding behaviors which allow the caterpillar to remain hidden from potential predators.” This explains why the faces of the two men are partially hidden. Predators include birds and the drinking man’s hat is meant to represent a pelican arguing with a griffin. An explanation of for this motif is at this link.

Further along the back line is the blue-collared figure with the floppy head cover. The hat combines with the ear-shaped legs of two soldiers in the tapestry to represent a hare, a play on the word hair and a clue to unravel the connection to the group of three men ahead in the line. The flat cap also represents a sow’s ear. Apart from defining a female pig, a sow is a name given to a slow-moving covered apparatus used in siege situations. This is also echoed in the bell shape collar decorated with musical notes and meant to represent a belfry or siege tower, another slow-moving structure. Notice the collar is fur-trimmed and here we have the first reference to the slow-moving caterpillar known to cause significant destruction to crops. Wikipedia states: “ The English word caterpillar derives from the old French catepelose (hairy cat) but merged with the word piller (pillager). The “Cat” was also a mobile shelter used to approach a castle under siege.

The next figure in line, and another hidden face, also has a caterpillar collar. The crown of the hat resembles the shape of a torte cake. Torte is a pun on both taught and torque (as in tension). The figure in this instance represents Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, who rebelled against Richard II and gathered a force against his cousin to usurp the throne. Torque applies to another medieval siege machine, that of a catapult or its larger version the trebuchet. The Old French word trebucher means “overthrow’. Torte also lends itself to the slow-moving tortoise and its tendency not to stick its neck out when danger threatens, hence Bolingbroke’s hidden face.

In this scenario the figure in front of Henry Bolingbroke is the Duke of Gloucester, Thomas of Woodstock. Dressed in silk garments, his fur-lined sleeves represent caterpillars dangling from a tree branch when in the process of creating a silk cocoon. The figure’s face is half covered, his mouth muffled. This motif echoes the muffling feature found in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece and also links to the tonsure feature of Henry’s hat, explained at this link.

The covering of the mouth is a visual pun on the word moth, a transformation of the silkworm. It is while the moth is in its larvae stage, before its cocoon and adult span that it damages and targets animal-based fabrics such as silk. It can also be understood as damage to the fabric and stability of society, In a sense, the artist has portrayed the Duke of Gloucester as his own worst enemy.

Thomas was an uncle to Richard II who made him Earl of Buckingham at his coronation in July 1377. Many of the figures portrayed in the January folio are taken from an extant list of nobles assigned to duties at Richard’s coronation. Thomas was also created Duke of Gloucester in 1485. However, Gloucester was opposed to the king’s royal advisors, namely Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford. In 1388 Thomas led a group of nobles known as the Lords Appellant to impeach and force the dismissal of some of the king’s royal advisers which included Suffolk and Oxford. Afterwards Richard’s authority as king was somewhat limited but in 1389 with the help of his uncle John of Gaunt he was able to rebuild his power base and exert his authority as king once more. But after further fall-outs with Thomas the king clipped his uncle’s flitting wings and had him arrested and imprisoned in Calais. It is speculated that Richard ordered Thomas’s murder some months later when he was strangled or smothered, or both, and so another reference to the muffled mouth feature in the January folio.

The murder of Thomas, duke of Gloucester. Jean Froissart, Chronicles

The Duke of Gloucester did much to undermine his nephew’s authority as the rightful king, prompted in the background by another appellant and claimant for the throne, Henry Bolingbroke. However, Gloucester too would have felt undermined when Richard II’s father, the Black Prince, returned to England to assist in regaining his son’s control over his opponents.

Gloucester’s blue headdress is a reference to undermining, and a siege tactic where attackers dig or mine beneath a castle wall to weaken its structure. In medieval times miners believed in underground spirits named Kobolds or Bluecaps. Several legends are associated with them. Miners claimed the Kobbolds lived in the rocks and they could hear the spirits drilling and hammering. This is also a reference to the occupants of a castle under siege hearing the mining attempts of their aggressors on the outside. The colour cobalt blue takes its name from the Kobald spirit, hence the colour of Gloucester’s headdress.

The mining theme is also reflected in Gloucester’s ‘tunnelled’ sleeves and the ‘castle ramparts’ design of the cape covering his shoulders.

That Gloucester may have felt undermined on both sides is expressed both in the sense of the chaperon covering his head and as the two men chaperoning him on either side, his brother the Black Prince, and Henry Bolingbroke. Notice two fiendish shapes outlined on either edge of Gloucester’s blue headdress.

The three men as a group also refer to the maxim “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil. Bolinbroke has his eyes covered, Gloucester his mouth, and the Black Prince, his ears. This is another motif borrowed from Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel in the Ghent Altarpiece.

The figure wearing the light blue-grey chaperon and dressed in black silk with ‘caterpillar’ trims on the sleeves and collar, is Thomas’s elder brother, Edward of Woodstock, better known in history as the Black Prince. He was the eldest son of king Edward III and heir apparent to the English throne, hence the crown motifs on his black gown. The Black Prince died before his father and it was his son who succeeded to the throne as Richard II, bypassing any claim the duke of Gloucester or Henry Bolinbroke may have considered they had to become king.

The appearance of the trio warming themselves at the fire is not what it seems to be at first glance. There are other narratives embedded in the composition. Their arms are raised to reveal that there is nohing untoward is hidden in the sleeves of their garments. The marshall, in this instance depicted as Richard de Vere, Earl of Oxford, is inviting the three men to “Approach” but the trio appear hesitant. Hands are raised as if on guard. There are reasons for this: One is the fighting reputation of the marshall and another is the three figures behind him all died from the plague. Not only that the three guests represent English forces that fought on French soil in the Hundred Years War.

Royal arms of England

The royal heritage of the brothers Gloucester and the Black Prince is also depicted by their raised arms. The Black Prince strkes the pose of the heraldic Lion Passant Regardent. His head is turned as if looking over his shoulder, possibly wondering if his younger brother, the duke of Gloucester, may have ambitions to usurp his claim to the English throne. Gloucester strikes a similar pose except that both arms are raised to depict him as the heraldic Lion Rampant, while Henry Bolingbroke is shown with only one arm. Like his face, the other is hidden.

The Black Prince is heir apparent to his father’s throne, and here we have another pun incoporated by the artist – the word heir at the front of the sequence of the four-man group, and hare at the start of the line. In between there are several references to the word hair or hairy caterpillar. The pun is extended to the group of Appellants and the word apparent.

The identity of the figure at the start of the group is Jean Creton, a French knight and chronicler, who wrote The Metrical History of Richard II, hence the musical notes on his blue collar. The reference to his floppy hat being a sow – a siege apparatus – also points to the word creton as a French term for bacon fat.

Returning to the butterfly theme and the mention of riddles in an earlier post, here’s another:

First I was small, and round like a pearl;
Then long and slender, as brave as an earl;
Since, like an hermit, I lived in a cell,
And now, like a rogue, in the wide world I dwell

The answer is butterfly, and I shall explain in my next post how this riddle is translated in the January folio.

Fields of gold

Another interesting feature of The Three Marys at the Tomb painting is the apparent absence of the burial cloths – the shroud and the sudarium – associated with the Resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. In John’s gospel Simon Peter “saw the linen cloths on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head but rolled up in a place by itself” (20 : 6).

However, the artist, likely Hubert van Eyck, has referenced the cloths in an unusual way.

At one time the Shroud came into the possession of Geoffroi de Charney a renowned French knight who died fighting against English forces at the battle Poitiers fought on September 19, 1356. His son, also named Geoffroi, inherited the Shroud, and when he died in 1498 the cloth passed to his wife Marguerite de Charny.

In an article published by the British Society of the Turin Shroud, researcher Hugh Duncan explains that in 1418 the Shroud was moved for safe-keeping from Lirey to Saint-Hippolye-sur-le-Doubs, a small town on the French-Swiss border. The cloth was housed in the Buessard Chapel and each year taken out and put on display for visiting pilgrims in a nearby field which became known as “The Lord’s Field”.

The golden strip of land seen in the background detail of The Three Mary’s painting is a reference to the Shroud and “The Lord’s Field”. Notice also the group of pilgrims riding towards the field.

As for the sudarium, the cloth that had been rolled up to cover the head of Jesus in the tomb, the artist has shown this “in a place by itself” as a golden triangular shape alongside the ‘sudarium’ worn by the figure in blue representing the sorrowful Virgin Mary.

The Shroud and the triangular Sudaium are echoed in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry, the tablecloth being the Shroud and the folded napkin representing the Sudarium.

The meat dish is a double representation of both the heads of Christ and John the Baptist. Like “The Lord’s Field” the representation is set against a gold background.

The Baptist feature relates to another narrative also present in both paintings which I shall comment on in a future post.

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

Joan of Arc, battering ram

Following on from my previous post, here’s another take on the profile image of Joan of Arc featured as one of the Singing Angels in the Ghent Altarpiece.

Detail from the Singing Angels panel in the Ghent Altarpiece

Jan van Eyck has shown her head tilted down to imitate a charging ram, as in a battering ram used in the siege of Orléans. Notice also the ram-horns motif on Joan’s headband.

Jan’s brother Hubert died on September 18, 1426. Two years later Joan took up arms against the English and Burgundians, later claiming heavenly voices directed her to do so. These dates can be be presented as evidence that Jan painted the Singing Angels panel and not Hubert.

It’s probable also that Jan was in turn pointing to the list of charges against Joan, one of which that she dressed as a man (hence another reference to the male sheep). It was on this specific charge she was declared guilty during her trial which provided her prosecutors a reason for burning Joan at the stake.

Joan’s battering persistence in the campaign she led against the English invaders resulted in the Dauphin Charles, the legitimate heir to the French throne, being crowned Charles VII of France in Reims Cathedral on July 17, 1429.

What’s in a name… Joanna or Joan, John or Jan?

In my previous post I explained how the woman in green featured in The Three Marys at the Tomb painting was Joanna, wife of Chuza, and not Mary Salome. I also described how the figure also related to St Peregrine and mentioned that Jan van Eyck had ‘translated’ the figure of Joanna to the Ghent Altarpiece. In similar fashion, Barthélemy d’Eyck translated Jan’s pointers to Joan to the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.

St Peregrine was known as the “Angel of Good Counsel” for the good advice he gave to so many people. Here we can relate the dual identity of Joanna and Peregrine to the angel figure kneeling on the cover of the tomb in The Three Marys painting. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the angel counsels the fearful women who came to the empty tomb to leave and report to the disciples that “Jesus has risen from the dead”.

Joanna, in her dual depiction as the Hebrew servant to the wife of Naaman the leper, also gave good counsel when she said to her mistress: “If only my master would approach the prophet of Samaria. He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5 : 3).

Joanna is also said to have retrieved the head of John the Baptist after he was decapitated on the orders of Herod Antipas, and there are embedded references to the Baptist’s head in the three linked paintings: The Three Mary’s at the Tomb, the Ghent Altarpiece and the January folio of the Très Riche Heures. The disguised pointers all refer to Templecombe in Somerset where, in 1945, a painting known as the Templecombe Head was discovered in the roof of an outbuilding. The panel has been dated to the 13th Century. Views differ as to who the painted head represents, Jesus or John the Baptist, but as the eyes and mouth are open, the Baptist is the more favoured opinion.

So how has Jan van Eyck translated Joanna to the Ghent Altarpiece? There are two panels where this transpires, the Just Judges, and the Singing Angels.

Detail from the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece

In the Just Judges panel, four identities are given to the ten riders. One of the riders is disguised to represent a woman – Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans. As Joan did not appear on the scene until after the death of Hubert van Eyck in 1426, it more than suggests that the panel was painted by his brother Jan. Joan was executed in May, 1431, just a year before the Ghent Altarpiece was officially celebrated in May 1432.

• Of the ten featured riders Joan is the only figure with her head uncovered.
• Her hair is cut short. It was cropped in May 1428, at the same time when she was made to dress in men’s clothes to disguise her femininity before journeying to Chinon to meet with the dauphin Charles.
• Her blue mantle is symbolic of heaven and holiness. Other figures in the frame wearing the colour blue also have a religious significance.
• The figure of Joan is fashioned to represent her family’s coat of arms, “Azure, a bow or in fess, thereon three arrows crossed …, on a chief argent a lion passant gules.”
• Azure is the blue coat, on which is a bow-or – the gold chain shaped as a bow. The three arrows are the three pointed segments of her collar, the fess. The chief is a charge that runs across the top edge of the shield, in this case the white, argent, fur trim of the blue mantle, while the lion passant gules refers to Joan’s shorn red mane. “En passant” (in passing) is also a pawn capture move in the game of chess and points to Joan’s capture at Compiègne on May 23, 1430. The pawn reference also connects to another figure elsewhere in the painting.

Detail from the January folio

In the January folio Joan is the partially hidden figure behind the man in the red turban (representing Jan van Eyck and also the dauphin Charles, who Joan helped crown as the French king Charles VII). Joan claimed to have been guided in her mission by the voices of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The folio depicts Joan’s right arm on the shoulder of Charles. It’s a gesture of protection emphasised by the shape of his arm as a shield. As to any reference to an angel the shoulder on which Joan’s left hand rests can be understood as a wing. Like Joanna in the Tomb painting Joan’s right hand is hidden but her arm appears to point towards the rise in the back of the long seat. The ‘rise’ is known as a wing. The rise is also located next to the napier’s ‘feathered’ garment. His two arms represent the wings of a butterfly which relates to another narrative in the scene.

In the Just Judges panel. the dauphin Charles is shown riding behind Joan and positioned next to his father, Charles the Mad. Notice the shield-shaped arm of the dauphin. Jan van Eyck is the figure in black.

Detail from the Singing Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece
Detail from The Three Marys at the Tomb

The Joan and/or Joanna connection to angels is also reflected in the Singing Angels panel of the Ghent Altarpiece. The Maid of Orleans is shown in profile at the highest point of the arc at the top of the frame. Notice the end of her nose is clipped or missing, echoing the disfigured nose portrayal of the leper feature covering Joanna’s hand in the The Three Marys painting. It also symbolises Joan of Arc’s excommunicatuion from the Catholic Church, cast out from the Christian community and treated as a leper. It wasn’t until twenty-fours years after her death that the French heroine was declared by the Church to have been tried and executed unlawfully and her conviction reversed.

Detail from folio 394 Grand Chroniques de France

In the January folio the arm on the shoulder feature is also borrowed from the miniature featuring the lineup of knights belonging to the Order or Company of the Star. There are two instances in the scene showing a hand resting on someone’s shoulder.

That Joan is depicted with an arm around Jan van Eyck is also reflected in a painting by an artist said to have become the prinicpal painter in Brugge after Jan had died in 1441. He was Petrus Christus and his painting known as a Goldsmith in His Shop (1449) shows a mirror image of Van Eyck with his arm around a woman disguised as Joan of Arc. His hand rests on the point where Joan was wounded by an arrow during the Siege of Orléans. As in the January folio, Joan’s left arm stretches down at the ‘wing’ of the goldsmith. In fact there are several features in the Christus painting ‘translated’ from the January folio and, not surprisingly references to John the Baptist and Templecombe.

A Goldsmith in his Shop, Petrus Christus 1449, Robert Lehman Collection, Met Museum

Joanna is also indicated in Jean Colombe’s November folio of the Très Riche Heures. The main figure is portrayed as Bathélemy d’Eyck who served as a painter and “valet de chambre” to René d’Anjou, a similar position that the biblical Chuza held in the service of the army commander Naaman the leper. Joanna was the maid to the wife of Chuza.

The name Chuza is interpreted as ‘seer’ or ‘visionary’, and in the November folio Barthélemy (or Chuza) is shown looking up at the trees above.

Close examination of the golden glow of a section of the leaves reveals the shape of the Lamb of God, and so another connection to John the Baptist whose head was recovered by Joanna.

Not Three but Two Mary’s at the Tomb

The title of this painting by Hubert or Jan van Eyck is usually referred to as The Three Marys at the Tomb, that is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Mary Salome.

However, the artist has only portrayed two Mary’s, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. The other woman (in green) is Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza. She is mentioned twice in Luke’s gospel, and as one of the women who went to the tomb with spices and found it empty (Luke 24 : 9-11).

Joanna is also portrayed here in the role of the unnamed Hebrew girl and servant to the wife of the Naaman the Syrian leper, also mentioned by Luke (4 : 27), which explains the mystery of why the woman is depicted carrying what is described by researchers as a Syrian apothecary jar.

Notice also that the woman’s left hand is hidden, echoing the sentiment expressed by Jesus that when giving alms the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing (Matthew 6 : 3). The left hand is also hidden for another reason. Its cover forms the shape of a face disfigured by leprosy.

Joanna’s right hand is also distorted, but for another reason. It is meant to portray a falcon’s claw, a peregine in particular. The Latin version of peregrine is “peregrinus” meaning “coming from foreign parts” and so a reference to the unnamed servant girl captured from Israel and brought to Syria.

The story of Naman and his healing from leprosy appears in the Second Book of Kings (5 : 1-27). Mentioned are several servants and the services they undertake. It is in this role that Joanna is presented – as a servant – fulfilling the command of Christ to serve others, and as lady in waiting in line behind the Virgin Mary.

The falcon image is also extended to the woman’s white head covering. The head is shaped as that of a falcon, its beak and an eye facing out of the painting, its wings suggested by the pointed ends of the cloth. Notice there are no black markings on the woman’s head that are a familiar feature of the Egyptian falcon, signifying Naman’s healing from leprosy.

The artist, be it Jan or Hubert van Eyck, also puns on the word peregrine. Pere (French) as in Father, a title attached to a priest; and “grine” sounding like green, the colour of the woman’s gown. The connection is to the priest Peregrine Laziosi, an Italian saint of the Servite Order who died in 1345. The Servite Order, also known as the Order of Servants of Mary, strives among other objectives to propagate devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

Late in life, at the age of 60, Peregrine developed an infection in his right leg which deteriorated to the extent that a doctor decided he would have to amputate. During the night before he was to have his leg amputated in the morning Peregrine had a vision of Jesus descending from his Cross and touching the infected limb. When the physician arrived the next day to perform the surgery, all signs of the cancerous wound had disappeared and a miraculous cure was proclaimed. Peregrine is now considered a patron saint of cancer.

This account is one of three delberate references to legs in the painting made by the artist. A second is associated with the guard lying down asleep on the floor, and the third connects to the guard sat with his legs crossed. I shall present an explanation about this in a future post other than to say than to state at this stage that the iconography relating to the three legs is echoed in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures, as are connections to the three guards and the three women.

Another connection to Joanna and the falcon motif is that the founderess of what is known as the Religious Sisters of the Third Order of Servites was a woman named Juliana Falconieri. Her uncle, Alex Falconieri, was one of the seven founders of the Servite Order. When Juliana was approaching death in June 1341, she was too sick to receive Holy Communion. Instead she requested the priest to lay the corporal on her chest and place the Eucharistic Host on it. Shortly after she died an image of a crucifix, as that impressed on the Host, was discovered on Juliana’s breast.

This explains why the artist has depicted Joanna’s headress extended to cover her chest.

The Syrian woman account is also translated in Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, suggesting that he may have done so to pay homage to his brother Hubert who died before the commission was completed.

The Order of Things

At surface level, the January folio of the Très Riche Heures represents a banquet celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, but there are other scenarios within the scene that connect to the date of the event, January 6, and the meanining of the word epiphany.

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

For instance, one of the identities given to the kneeling figure in the right hand corner is King Richard II. January 6 is the date of his birthday.

Pol Limbourg, depicted leaning on the seat behind the Duke of Berry, is one of three brothers associated with illustrating many of the folios in the manuscript. He is named after St Paul the Apostle, who experienced his ‘epiphany’ moment on the Road to Damascus. St Paul’s conversion is celebrated on January 25.

Another reference which links to the Richard II figure is the Epiphany Rising, the failed rebellion against Henry IV of England in January 1400. Thomas Blount the knight at the table folding the napkin, was one of ‘rebels’ executed. Henry IV is the figure dressed in black placed immediately above him.

The ‘Rising’ theme is extended to the tablecloth. It represents the burial shroud of Jesus, and his resurrection or ‘Easter Rising’.

The Resurrection theme extends to the five five figures front of table. Each of them are linked to the three guards and three women featured in the Van Eyck painting titled Three Marys at the Tomb. In fact there are several other references to paintings by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

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

From these examples we can see how Bathélemy d’Eyck has taken his lead from the Van Eyck brothers to build his composition very much in the ‘jig-saw’ style used by Jan and Hubert in the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly in the Just Judges panel where four identities are applied to each rider. In the January folio the number of identities applied to each figure are usually two, but in the case of the napier in red and white, there are four. This likely a hat-tip to Jan and Hubert van Eyck as the figure behind the napier is Jan and one of the identities given to the napier is Hubert van Eyck (d.1426). The three others are Thomas Blount (d.1400), Amery of Pavy (d.1352), and Geoffroi II de Charny (d.1398) who was the son of the seated Geoffroi de Charny.

The biblical Epiphany story relates how three Wise Men from the East followed a star to Bethlehem to seek out a new-born king and “do him homage”. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Hence the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas and New Year. So is Bathélemy paying homage to Jan and Hubert va Eyck. Hubert died in 1426, Jan in 1441. The folio is likely to have been painted sometime in the 1440s and probably as a work of homage after Jan had died, hence several pointers to paintings by the Van Eycks.

The Wise Men of Magi rmade their journey on camels, led by the light of the Star of Bethlehem. The Star and camels are also referenced in the painting.

The star is introduced by way of Geoffroi de Charny (mentioned in the previous post), a French knight who, along with the French king Jean II, founded the chivalric Order of the Star, sometimes referred to as the Company of the Star, in 1351. Geoffroi de Charney is the bald-headed figure seated opposite the Duke of Berry who also doubles up as King Herod.

Detail from folio 394 of Grand Chroniques de France showing the inception of the Order of the Star.

There is an interesting folio (394) which forms part of the Grandes Chroniques de France (14th century) that shows the inception of the Order and some of the knights feasting at table. There can be little doubt that both illustrations were used as a source by Barthélemy for the composition of the January folio. The similarity of the table scene speaks for itself, but the group of knights approaching the French king is echoed in the group of figures huddled together behind the seated Geoffroi de Charney who is dressed in the same colours and style adopted by the Order of the Star.

A banquet reception for members of the Order of the Star, (Grand Chroniques de France).

As well as being father and son the two Charny figures are connected in two other ways. Charney senior was the first recorded owner of the claimed burial shroud of Jesus, now known as the Turin Shroud. It later passed into the possession of his son, hence the representation of the shroud as the tablecloth. Charney senior also wrote three works on chivalry, the most acclaimed being the Book of Chivalry. However, recent scholarship suggests that this treatise may have instead been written by his son to commerorate his father’s death, in a similar way that Bathélemy d’Eyck has honoured Jan and Hubert van Eyck with his painting of the January folio.

More revelations about the January folio in my next post.

Riddle of the cats

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

A prominent theme in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures is water, necessary for life in both a physical and spiritual sense – no water, no life.

A pointer to the water theme is the gold, ship-shaped ‘nef’ placed at the end of the table. The two ginger cats on the table next to the ‘nef’ represent the ships cats, whose role was to catch and kill rats that found their way on board. Rat fleas were considered a source of disease and carriers of the plague. Hence the proximity of the Duke of Berry and two of the Limbourg brothers who are assumed to have died from the plague, all in the same year, 1416. Observe also the noticeable gap between Duke of Berry and the seated guest in red, and also the hesitancy of the three men behind to advance further, despite the usher’s order to “Approach! Approach!” 

That the deaths of the Limbourg brothers are referred to is further evidence that they were not responsible for painting the January folio. This miniature was completed at a later period by another artist, Bartélemy d’Eyck, as explained in my previous post.

The two cats link to another theme in the folio, that of riddles. In this instance the two cats are given names: One-two-three, and Un-deux-trois. The riddle states that the two cats had a swimming race from England to France and asks which cat won the race.  The answer is the cat named One-two-three because Un-deux-trois quatre cinq (a pun on words and sounds… Un-deux-trois cat sank).

The riddle also connects to the five table plates around the two cats. They represent the historic Confederation of Cinque Ports, five English coastal towns granted privileges for providing the Crown with ships. The dish plated with portions of meat represent the seven ‘Limb’ ports that were members of the Confederation because of their connection to the other towns.

Crossing the English Channel at that time ships could harbour at Calais in France. It was a port owned and controlled by England. So the other end of the table represents Calais – a safe and protected haven from French forces. The Calais reference derives from one of four identities given to the knight at the table folding a napkin. In this scheme he is Amery of Pavy, made captain of Calais by King Edward III in 1347. His identity connects to one of two given to the seated figure next to him, the French knight Geoffroi de Charny who attempted to ‘bribe’ Amery to betray the faith placed in him by the English king and ‘sell’ control of Calais.

More revelations about the January folio in my next post.

A list of all posts about the Très Riche Heures made at this blog.

From little acorns…

Following on from my previous post here are more details about Barthélemy d’Eyck’s connection to the Très Riche Heures, as revealed in the November calendar folio painted by Jean Colombe

The November folio from the calendar section of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The scene depicts an acorn harvest. The main figure is about to hurl his stick at the branches of the oak trees to bring down acorns for his swine herd to feed on. His dog sits and stares at the swine feasting. Two other men watch over some of the herd that has strayed into the edge of the woods. A castle is nestled at the foot of the hill. Built into the side of the hill is seemingly a collection of caves. Distant hills rise above a lake fronted by pasture land and more wooded areas.

The acorns are not difficult to spot in the foreground. The golden glow of the man’s tunic also catches the eye. Its radiance adds charisma to the figure, as does his bold stance. He is the most prominent feature in the scene, towering above the boars. There’s no doubt Jean Colombe is presenting the man as the main attraction in the frame. But for what reason?

Was he known to Colombe in some way – another artist, perhaps, and not a simple peasant working with pigs as portrayed? Could he portray Colombe’s version of the Prodigal Son who would have been happy to eat the food of pigs in his hungry state, except this particular son appears to be more that well-nourished with his rotund abdomen shaped like a pig’s back.

The iconography provides more than enough evidence about the man appearing to tilt at windmills. He is Barthélemy d’Eyck. 

The calendar months of October and December from the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

The November folio is inserted between the calendar months of October and December, both painted by Barthélemy. The October scene shows two men tilling the soil and sowing seed for a new crop. 

In Colombe’s November painting we see the man ‘raked’ in light, a ‘crop’ or whip in his hand, formed by the stick coupled with some dead branches. The acorns are not always snaffled by the pigs. From little acorns grow great oaks as evidenced by the forest of trees, but especially the sign of new life appearing beneath the man’s right arm.

The December folio shows one of the fattened swine speared by a hunter and savaged by a pack of dogs, most likely to serve as food for feasting at Christmas and New Year. This completes the calendar cycle to start again with the month of January and provide the link back to Barthélemy d’Eyck.

So what could be the reason why Barthélemy stepped out of sequence and not produce the November folio? Whatever the cause, Jean Colombe has cleverly made a point of painting the insert to refer back to a piece of iconography in the January folio. In fact, most of the disguised iconography in the November miniature is a translation of hidden devices used by Barthélemy to create several themes within the January banquet scene. Just as the pigs search for acorns on the ground to feed on, so Colombe invites the viewer to his version of the banquet to unearth and savour the the buried delights and treasure he has translated from the January folio. . 

As to the two figures in the background, they represent Hugo and Jan van Eyck. This will be explained in another post along with details of a feast of other iconography in the November folio.

Finally, there is a portrait painting housed at the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig, that bears more than a passing resemblance to the version of Barthélemy d’Eyck in the November miniature. It’s attributed to Jan van Eyck, or a follower. Could it be Barthélemy? 

Left: Portrait of a Man Praying, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig.
Right: detail from the November folio, Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

Revisiting the Très Riche Heures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about the January folio in my next post.

Themes of Threes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Trinitarian theme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By wisdom a house is built…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All about brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No water, no life; no blue, no green*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lamb and the Ram

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

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

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

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

Ringing the changes, part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on this in a future post.

Ringing the changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sleeping guard at the tomb of Jesus.

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

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

Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus

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

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

More on this in a future post.