the Columba Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden
On a previous page I proposed that the ‘St Joseph’ portrait linked to the Magdalen Reading painted by Rogier van der Weyden was possibly a depiction of Jan van Eyck. I have since discovered that a ‘likeness’ of the St Joseph portrait has also been utilised by Van der Weyden in his painting known as the St Columba altarpiece, in the centre panel depicting the visit of the Magi or Three Kings to the Virgin Mary and her new-born Child.
Once again it raises the question why Van der Weyden would want to include his contemporary in yet another of his works, the others being the Seven Sacraments and the already mentioned Magdalen Reading. Perhaps, simply, it was just another opportunity to confirm his respect and the status of the man known as the King of Painters.
St Columba Altarpiece, 1451
Rogier van der Weyden
The St Columba altarpiece is an oil-on-wood-panel painting said to have been completed by Rogier van der Weyden about the year 1451. It derives the title from its time located in Cologne’s Cathedral dedicated to St Columba before being bought in 1806 and then passed on to the Alte Pinakothek in 1836 where it has been located ever since.
Cologne Cathedral has a long association with the tradition of the Magi. A reliquary behind the main altar is said to contain the bones of the ‘three kings’ recorded in Matthew’s Gospel as having traveled from the East to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem in search of ‘the infant king of the Jews’.
Also housed in the Cologne Cathedral is the painting by the German artist Stefan Lochner (c 1410–1451), referred to as the Dombild Altarpiece, or Adoration of the Magi, or Altarpiece of the City Patrons. It is thought to have been completed around 1440 and so precedes Van der Weyden’s painting of the Three Kings (1551). However, Rogier’s work does include motifs from Lochner’s earlier painting, notably the depiction of the youngest king, the second king, and the bearded man holding his hat in front of him.
Apart from the association of the Three Kings with the Cathedral what else connects the two painters? It is said that Lochner may have served his apprenticship in the Low Countries as he painted in the style of the Flemish Primitives pioneered by Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck. So there is reason to believe that both Lochner and Van der Weyden were known to each other.
It is assumed that Lochner (and his wife) died during an outbreak of the plague in 1551, the same year attributed to the completition of Van der Weyden’s painting of the Three Kings.
Jan van Eyck died in the early part of the year 1441, so just ten years later another outstanding painter known to Van der Weyden passed on at a very early age, probably around 41.
The reliquary in Cologne Cathedral, said to contain the bones of the Magi.
Pictured right are the two similar portraits attributed to Van der Weyden. The first is associated with the Magdalen Reading (before 1438), the second is the face of the kneeling king in the St Columba altarpiece (c 1551). That’s a thirteen-year span between the two paintings, but there is no change in the facial features. They appear to be almost identical, frozen in time. Perhaps the last portrait of Jan van Eyck before his death in 1441?
Junping to the third and youngest of the three kings in the St Columba altarpiece; the richly dressed man doffing his hat in a respectful gesture to the new-born King shows a remarkable likeness to another Van der Weyden portrait, that of Charles the Bold, Count of Charolais and future Duke of Burgundy (1433-1477). His age for the year attributed to the painting (1451) would be 18. The portrait alongside is dated circa 1454. Charles was a noted patron of artists.
The identity of the second king is uncertain. I suspect it may be the artist Stefan Lochner and have matched him with a similar likeness from Lochner’s City’s Patron Saints, the younger of the three kings. If this were to be the case, then Van der Weyden has portrayed two deceased painters and a major patron as his Three Kings. If by any chance he has taken his lead from Lochner’s Cathderal painting, might this suggest that Lochner’s City Patrons are in fact patrons of the Cologne group of painters and their workshops that operated during the 15th century?
Jan van Eyck? portrayed as St Joseph and the Kneeling King.
Charles, Count of Charolais, painted by Rogier van der Weyden.
Two paintings, the same king? Possibly the artist Stefan Lochner?
Having pointed to the similarity in facial features of the ‘second’ kings in both Van der Weyden’s Columba Altarpiece and Lochner’s Dombild Altarpiece, there is a further connection which could help identify the ‘second’ king, the link being provided by the figure of Charles the Bold.
The manuscript image above is of Charles the Bold being presented by St George. It was produced by the illuminator Lieven van Lathem about 1471 for inclusion in the Burgundy duke’s prayer book (now kept at the J. Paul Getty Museum).
The gold statue is a similar motif – again featuring Charles the Bold and St George. It was made by the Flemish goldsmith Gérard Loyet and referred to as the St Lambert Reliquary. Dated between 1467-71, it is housed at St Paul’s Cathedral, Liege. Loyet served Charles as a valet de chambre and was reputed to be his favourite choice of artist because of his exceptional skills as a goldsmith.
The third image is a section of Jan van Eyck’s painting titled Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. Pictured presenting the kneeling patron is St George. The painting is dated 1434-36 and housed at the Groeningemuseum, Bruges.
The repeat figure in the three images is St George – and action in doffing his headwear as a sign of respect to whoever he is presenting the kneeling patron to.
In Van der Weyden’s painting (below centre) it appears at first glance that Charles the Bold is represented as one of the Three Kings and about to be handed one of the gifts by the youth in white to be presented to Mary and Jesus. However, closer inspection reveals that this is not the case. Charles is, in fact, presenting the person identified as the Second King. The stance and position taken by Charles echoes the turbaned figure standing on the extreme right in Lochner’s painting, sword at side and a ribboned flag draping onto his headwear. The second king is also remarkably similar to the young king painted by Lochner, holding his gift and his hat in front of him.
The first painting in the row of three is a section from another work attributed to a follower of Rogier van der Weyden. Dated at 1451-1475 the panel painting is referred as the Joseph and Mary Marriage and is on display in Antwerp Cathedral.
I intend to present more about this particular painting on another page of the website but for now it is suffice to say that the figure on the extreme left is Charles the Bold. Once again he is portrayed adopting a presentation stance. As in the Columba Altarpiece, the man in front of Charles wears a flowing red cloak, has a moustache, and is similar in facial features.
It is clear that Van der Weyden and his follower have intentionally reversed the role of Charles depicted in the manuscript illustration by Van Lathem and the gold reliquary produced by his favourite artist Gérard Loyet. Is Van der Weyden and follower revealing to observers of their paintings that the moustached man is actually Gérard Loyet?
There are a couple of other considerations which support this premise. One I shall leave until presenting more details about the Joseph and Mary Marriage; the other is to consider that Loyet was primarily a highly skilled and admired goldsmith. So it is not surprising that he is cast as the second king in the Columba Altarpiece, the king who presented the gift of gold to Mary and her Child. The kneeling king – Van Eyck – brought the precious oil of myrrh. The third king, Roger Campin portrayed as King David (both adulterers), arrived smelling sweet with his gift of incense to mask any bad odour!
If the moustached figure is Gérard Loyet and the same figure who appears in Lochner’s Dombild Altarpiece, then what possible connection would Loyet have had with Lochner or the Cologne group of artists and patrons?
left to right:
Lieven van Lathem (about 1430-93)
Charles the Bold presented by St George (about 1471). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
St Lambert Reliquary (1467-71)
St Philip’s Cathedral, Liège.
Jan van Eyck (before 1390-1442)
Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (1434-36)
Apart from Charles the Bold, another patron who features in the Three Kings painting is St Luke, patron saint of artists. One of his attributes is an ox, another is a white beard, similar to the man pointing with his left hand in the direction of the ox, while the animal seems to turn its head as if in recognition. The white-bearded man may also represent a second Evangelist, St Matthew, and can be linked to the the donkey in the stable. Although the donkey is not considered an attribute of Matthew it is the animal’s ears that Van der Weyden utilises to refer to a biblical passage from Matthew’s Gospel which describes the painting. It’s ears are placed as hands on a clock to the numeric digits two and eleven, chapter 2, verse 11, which reads: “The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.”
A further Bible reference connects the two-in-one depiction of the evangelists Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s gospel opens with the account of the birth and infancy of Jesus, and outlines his ancestry with this introduction: “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” (1 : 1). Christ’s ancestry is also recorded in the third chapter of Luke’s Gospel and Van der Weyden has indicated the verse where David is mentioned by the arrangement of Luke’s fingers on his left hand, three and one – verse 31. Also, the thumb of his left hand placed before the four fingers of his right hand may serve to indicate that Matthew was traditionally the first of the four Gospel writers.
One of Matthew’s attributes is an angel and there are many works of art depicting this. It is said that an angel provided Matthew with inspiration to write his Gospel account. The picture by Rembrandt of St Matthew and the Angel, painted c 1661, shows the angel with his hand on Matthew’s shoulder and whispering into his ear. It is not unlike the composition of Matthew in Van der Weyden’s painting showing the writer’s hand on the arm of the bearded man in front of him and seemingly speaking to him.
The turbaned man represents King David, from whom Jesus is legally descended and referred to frequently in Matthew’s Gospel as Son of David. Like Luke, David also had a vision of an angel (2 Samuel 24). Perhaps the angelic-looking youth in front of David is a reminder of the angel carrying a sword who was sent by God to punish King David and Jerusalem. However, when King David repented and offered sacrifice to the Lord, Jerusalem was spared. In the painting the ‘angel’ is not carrying a sword but a gift to be presented to the new-born King, seemingly on behalf of Charles the Bold whose reputation for slaughter and cruel revenge on his enemies is well documented. He himself eventually died at the Battle of Nancy in 1477. Charles is depicted wearing his sword and the attached chain forms the Burgundian Cross adapted from the St Andrew Cross. Is Van der Weyden suggesting that he views Charles as somewhat of an avenging angel acting in the name of God?
Another connection to the figures of Matthew and the donkey is they are both portrayed face on. They are not looking at the Nativity scene but at whoever views the painting. Both the donkey and Matthew can be recognised as bearers and preachers of the Word of God, the Word made flesh. The donkey, a humble beast of burden, was chosen to bear Jesus entering Jerusalem and Matthew, a despised tax collector, chosen to bear and proclaim the Gospel. Both the donkey and Matthew can be viewed as proclaiming the Gospel by pointing to particular verses in their portrayal.
The inclusion of King David in this scene depicting the visit of the Magi corresponds to a passage in the Second book of Samuel, 23 : 15, when David sighed: “Oh, if someone would fetch me a drink of water from the well that stands by the gate of Bethlehem!” The well is placed in Van der Weyden’s painting at the feet of Joseph and Mary, but David’s request also relates to the passage in John’s Gospel (4 : 14) when Jesus rested at Jacob’s Well and told the Samaritan woman that whoever drinks the water he gives (his Holy Spirit) will never thirst again.
As to the identity of Joseph (who also appears in the right panel showing the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple), could this be the artist himself? The year of the painting would put Van der Weyden at an age of about 51. Having portrayed Van Eyck as Joseph in an earlier painting it would not be unreasonable to suppose Van der Weyden may have taken the opportunity to place himself in the same role. As his reputation and wealth grew he was known to be a generous benefactor of the poor as well as a patron of a hospital and convent. It is also interesting to note that the gift presented by the kneeling king (Van Eyck?) has been placed next to Joseph – a jar of oil (myrrh), perhaps, representing the offering to the Christ Child of the two artists’ talent as painters.
As to Jan van Eyck being the kneeling king, no longer is he portrayed the humble ‘Joseph’ dressed in simple clothes as in the Magdalen Reading. The ‘King of Painters’ is now depicted as a rich man in his glory, clothed in red and gold and wearing a yellow shirt with long sleeves, a colour symbolising resurrection and eternal life. The red hat can also be considered an attribute of the painter. The horn is a reminder of the red chaperon associated with Van Eyck, while the brim of the hat is shaped as the wings of a dove, representative of the Holy Spirit, and bearing a heavenly crown of righteousness. This is Van Eyck’s ‘helmet of salvation’ (Ephesians 6 :17).
Another possible portrayal of Jan Van Eyck is the figure of Simeon being presented with the Child Jesus in the Temple, as seen in the right panel of the St Columba Altarpiece. The familiar red chaperon is present, as is its other meaning in that Simeon is present as chaperon to the Holy Family. The inscription is from Luke’s Gospel (2:29) when Simeon took the child in his arms and said: “Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace” and so echoing Jonathan’s final words to David, “Go in peace”, as explained on the previous page in Van der Weyden’s Magdalen Reading.
Roger van der Weyden’s St Joseph? A self-portrait, perhaps?
Dombild Altarpiece c 1440
The soldier with sword on extreme right, the bearded man holding his hat, and the second king, are features echoed in Rogier van der Weyden’s St Columba altarpiece produced in 1451.
Simeon wearing the familiar red chaperon associated with Van Eyck.
The kneeling king‘s heavenly crown of righteousness.
The donkey’s pointing ears
King David with the ‘angel’ Matthew at his shoulder.
Rembrandt’s ‘Matthew and the Angel’, 1661. Louvre, Paris