order of the golden fleece

Van Eyck’s placement of gold-coloured prayer beads hanging from a nail in the wall is symbolic of two descriptions found in the Gideon narrative prior to the assault against the Midianites (Judges 6 : 36-40) – dew drops and the fleece. They serve as references to the institution of the Order of the Golden Fleece proclaimed by Philip the Good during the week-long celebrations in January 1430 of his marriage to Isabella (Philip issued another updated proclamation at the Order’s first gathering held in Lille the following year). The Catholic order of chivalry became one of the most prestigious in Europe and still exists.

The Chapter meetings were held annually on November 30, St Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Burgundy and one of two adopted saints of the Order, the other being the Virgin Mary. In 1431 Philip designated the ‘Holy Chapel’ attached to the ducal palace in Dijon as “irrevocably and forever, the place, chapter, and college” of the Order.

However, only one Chapter meeting was ever held at Dijon and that was on November 30, 1433, three weeks after the birth of Charles the Bold on November 10, the third son born to Philip and Isabella. It was at this gathering that Charles was installed as a knight in the Order of the Golden Fleece. Whether Charles was physically present during the inauguration or his father Philip acted as proxy, it is not known.

The string of golden beads is suspended like the sheep pendant on the collar worn by the members of the Order of the Golden Fleece. There are 29 beads, an unusual number to be associated with this type of prayer aid. The total is divided into two groups of 13 and 16 beads which point to a verse from Scripture – Judges 13 : 16. 

 

Chapter 13 describes the appearance of an angel to the barren wife of Manoah. The angel announced that the woman would conceive and bear a son who was to be consecrated to the service of God. The child was named Samson. Manoah invited the angel to stay with them and partake of a meal – a lamb, but the angel responded (verse 16), “Even if I did stay with you, I would not eat your food; but if you wish to prepare a holocaust, offer it to God.” 

The Golden Fleece collar presented to all members of the Order.

Apart from the connection to the Order of the Golden Fleece, Van Eyck is also revealing with this depiction of the prayer beads and its Scripture reference that the scene is one of consecration. As Samson was consecrated as God’s Nazirite, so the new-born Charles was consecrated to God by his parents Philip and Isabella.

In her book Isabel of Burgundy, Aline S. Taylor states: “In terror that she would lose yet another child, Isabel consecrated him [Charles] to the Blessed Sacrament within days of his birth.” (chapter 3, page 68)

The numeral 29 may also refer to the particular day Charles was consecrated by his mother to the Real Presence in the Eucharist, or to the day of his enrolment in the Order of the Golden Fleece, perhaps in a private ceremony prior to the Chapter meeting. Multiple references are not uncommon in Van Eyck’s iconography. Shown immediately adjacent to the mirror, the 29-bead prayer aid and the ten tinted roundels may also be Van Eyck spelling out two significant dates in the early life of Charles: November 10 and 29.

 

The ten roundels also have a connection to the Order of the Golden Fleece and may indicate that Charles was sworn into the Order by his father as proxy. They resemble the eyes on a peacock’s tail and the so-called Oath on the Peacock was one associated with the activities of Chapter gatherings. The peacock is also a Christian symbol of the Resurrection.

The original motto of the Order was that of Philip the Good: Autre n’aurayI will have no other. It is thought that this may also have been a pledge to his wife Isabella as it was proclaimed at the same time of their wedding festivities. More probably it is Philip’s response to  the commandment given by God to Moses: “You shall have no other gods except me.” (Exodus 20 : 3)

The collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece portrays the double-B motif of Burgundy, two back-to-back firesteels which, when rubbed against a flintstone, produce sparks to light a fire. The open B shape is where two fingers are placed to grip the firesteel. This motif is incorporated in the underside of the candle chandelier – representing a crown – featured in the Arnolfini Portrait.​ In the illustration above the motif is shown as a ducal crown rubbing against a flintstone to generate sparks.

Eyes of love... a knight’s helmet is crowned with peacock feathers.

Firesteel and flinstone form a ducal crown above the motto of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.

Proclamation made at the first chapter meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece held at Lille on November 30, 1431.

 

We Philippe, by the grace of God Duke of Burgundy… make known to all present and to come, that for the very great and perfect love that we have for the noble estate and order of knighthood, of which from very ardent and singular affection, we desire the honour and increase, by which the true Catholic Faith, the faith of our mother, the Holy Church, and the tranquility and prosperity of the public may be, as far as possible, defended, guarded and maintained; we, to the glory and praise of the Almighty, our Creator and Redeemer, in reverence of his glorious mother the Virgin Mary, and to the honour of my lord Saint Andrew, Apostle and Martyr; to the exaltation of virtues and good habits; on the tenth day of January in the year of Our Lord 1424 [O.S.], which was the day of solemnization of the marriage between us and our most dear and beloved companion, Elisabeth, in our city of Bruges, we did undertake, create, and ordain, and by these presents do undertake, create,  and ordain an order and fraternity of knighthood, or amiable company of a certain number of knights, which we wish to be called the Order of the Golden Fleece, under the form, condition, statutes, manner, and articles which follow….

Exposition of the Arnolfini Portrait

Text © bernard gallagher, 2016/17/18/19

CONTACT

  • Grey Twitter Icon