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The Good and Bad Judge
There’s no certainty as to when this fresco was painted. It is generally dated as sometime in the 15th century. Even the painter is unknown. Titled The Good and the Bad Judge, the panel was rediscovered in 1958 hidden behind a wall in the old town hall of Monsaraz, Portugal.
While considered a “unique and rare artwork”, the fresco’s real significance has been overlooked by authorities and historians for these past 60 years. For what is certain is that this artwork was the “mortar” and inspiration on which another, more famous Portuguese national treasure was built – the St Vincent Panels.
The purpose of this presentation is to bring to light the parts of the fresco which Nuno Gonçalves translated to the St Vincent Panels, incorporating the allegory of the good and the bad judge as one of his painting’s narratives.


by the Master of Monsaraz-Beja

Location, Reguengos de Monsaraz

Fresco, 337 cm x 306 cm

the saint vincent panels


The St Vincent Panels is another somewhat recent discovery, found amongst scaffolding in a Portuguese monastery around 1882. The six-panel polyptych attributed to the painter Nuno Gonçalves is now housed at the National Museum of Antique Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

The panels are thought to date between 1450-70 and feature sixty figures, mostly unidentified. According to Francisco Filipe Cruz, since their discovery “the St. Vincent panels have become among the most contested pieces of 15th C. European art, and been subjected to repeated polemics over practically everything about them. The arrangement of the panels, their completeness, the date of composition, their intended location and where they have been over the past few centuries, the author, his nationality, the motives for the execution, the identity of the saint (or saints, or if saintly at all) depicted in the two central panels, the identities of the other people around him, the scene portrayed and its spiritual and/or secular significance, have all been vigorously disputed and remain uncertain.”


by Nuno Gonçalves

Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

Oil and Tempera on Oak

Another influential source for the St Vincent Panels was Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece (1432), especially four of its outer panels in the opened lower register. In fact, Jan van Eyck and at least five other Flemish painters are portrayed in the St Vincent Panels.
Gonçalves adaptation of a more elementary fresco presentation was also a method adopted by Jan van Eyck when he painted the Arnolfini Portrait (1434). His composition was based on an illustration from a late 12th century manuscript known as the Pray Codex. Was Gonçalves attempting to emulate Jan’s example of “creative reuse”?
Here’s one example of how Van Eyck has matched the Arnolfini Portrait to the Pray Codex. Compare the brim of the Duke of Burgundy’s hat to the size of the nimbus around the portrait of Christ. See also how Van Eyck has picked up on the sweeping curved line behind the halo to form the shape of the hat’s crown and has also matched the the Duke’s nostril with that of Jesus. Philip ‘the Good’ made in the image of God.

Christ’s halo and a curved line, Jan van Eyck’s inspiration for the Duke of Burgundy’s hat.

There are several features in the Judges fresco which can be matched in the St Vincent Panels. The most obvious is the face of St Vincent when compared to one of the two faces applied to the judge on the right of the fresco.
It can be seen that the extension of Vincent’s hair in Nuno’s version is deliberate so as to displace the second head of the judge shown in profile, but without breaking the connection to the fresco. Gonçalves has instead matched the head seen in profile with another figure, one that appears in the Panel of Prince – the figure kneeling before St Vincent: Afonso 1st Duke of Braganza.
The two-face feature also hints at a reason why St Vincent is portrayed so prominently in both centre panels, as if to show the saint functioning in two different roles – one as a prophet, the other as a judge. This can also be linked to the portrayal of the two prophets in the upper register of the fresco and the seated figure of Christ as judge of all.

Afonso, 1st Duke of Braganza, and a son of King João 1 of Portugal, seemingly portrayed in a negative light in the St Vincent Panels by the painter Nuno Gonçalves.

see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil...


The Bad Judge is portrayed as being tempted by a devil to accept bribes from two defendents, a pair of birds and the offer of gold coins. The tempter is portrayed as seeing no evil, hearing no evil and speaking no evil of those on trial. Notice also the devil’s claw gripping the judge’s right shoulder.

This motif is also replicated on the left arm and shoulder of Afonso of Braganza. The finger impressions show on his purple sleeve, while a claw-shape, or even an ear (replacing the one covered by his hair), rests on his shoulder. As the shape of an ear it symbolises betrayal, recalling the occasion when the apostle Peter used his sword to slice off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest Caiaphas. This narrative is seemingly extended to the next panel and probably explains why the priest in the black hat standing next to the Archbishop is shown in profile.


The shoulder motif is also meant to echo the crab handle on the sword held by his young nephew standing behind him – a king in waiting, Afonso V of Portugal. The young prince taps the shoulder of his uncle. It’s a signal of confirmation or choice – an act of dubbing – whereas the artist has also signalled that Afonso is the devil’s choice by depicting his finger marks and sword grip in a similar fashion as seen on the shoulder of the judge in the fresco.

an elephant in the castle


Gonçalves has also made use of the parapet feature that decorates the back of the judge’s chair, and the devil’s long reach over it. He does this by adding a crenalated pattern to Afonso’s hat and behind the parapet a symbolic elephant. The combination implies a number of meanings but probably best summed up as representing the thoughts of Afonso and his plans for the future. In heraldic terms the parapet’s pattern is known as “embattled”. The elephant’s trunk mirrors the long reach of the devil’s arm as seen in the fresco. The combination of tower and trunk can also symbolise a call to arms – the trunk representing an oliphant or trumpet.

There is another small piece of iconography that links to the elephant feature, the  bible’s fastening clip strategically placed in front of Afonso’s eyes. The elongated hole represents the “narrow gate” or the “eye of a needle” (Matthew 19 : 23-26) that allows entry into God’s kingdom, a gateway which is easier for a camel (or elephant) to pass through than for a rich man. Surely a reference to Afonso’s probable desire for riches and the reason why the artist has depicted golden threads suspended from the duke’s hat.


Above: the marked sleeve and shoulder of Afonso of Braganza.

Below: The painter Hugo van der Goes  (right) alongside his father and half-brother Nicholas, portrayed as group in the Panel of the Prince that see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. There are at least two similar motifs in the rest of the St Vincent Panels.


Above: Afonso of Braganza and his elephant-and-castle hat with its golden threads.


Left: The Bad Judge, tempted from all sides, left right and back.

spoilt for choice...


It’s uncertain who is the plaintiff and who is the accused standing before the Bad Judge. Either way, there is a deal on offer, a pair of patridges in one hand and gold coins in another. The corrupt judge, it seems, doesn’t know which way to turn, although his right hand, palm turned upwards and ready to receive, is extended towards favouring the man on his right

His judgment rod is set aside and being steered instead by the devil behind him, a kind of helmsman.

This is another section of iconography that Gonçalves has utilised for the St Vincent panels, and again applied to Afonso, Duke of Braganza.

Afonso turns up again in the Panel of the Archbishop; he backs on to his other image in the Panel of the Prince. He is equipped for battle. His armour is studded with gold, so is his cap. The studs represent the gold coins offered to the Bad Judge. The two birds are symbolised by his “feathered” cap, which is also reminiscent of the devil’s fingerprint on his sleeve in the Panel of the Prince. Behind him is the more mature young prince, now King Afonso V, who was guided in his young and inexperienced years by two of his uncles, the kneeling Afonso and, standing behind him, Infante D. Pedro, Duke of Coimbra.

In this panel it is St Vincent who is depicted with the Rod of Judgement and it doesn’t point to the three men on his right but to the Archbishop in the background. Instead, it is Vincent’s open right hand that points in the direction of the kneeling Duke. Is the Saint making a choice or a judgement? His first two fingers are seemingly about to cut or even perhaps tighten the lacing that binds his armour. Could this be a reference to the passage from Matthew’s gospel (16-19): “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have already been loosed in heaven.”?

and there’s more...


Other features in this section of the fresco include the golden gate or narrow door behind the man on the judge’s right hand side. This translates as the upright, narrow coffin in the Panel of the Relic in which Gonçalves has placed Jan van Eyck in front of as a poor pilgrim.

The man in black to the left of the judge, offering gold coins from his large purse is also depicted in the Panel of the Relic and portrayed as Jean Jouffroy, almoner to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.

From this the two men before the judge may be seen in a new context. One is poor, the other rich. The poor man has only two birds to sacrifice, while the rich man is content to offer gold to buy his way to freedom and into heaven, hence the poor man placed before the golden, narrow gate and the rich man portrayed in dark clothes and close to the dark side of the fresco, both men’s deeds being accounted for by the court scribe at his desk.


Above: Afonso of Braganza and his feathered cap studded with gold.

Below: The Panel of the Relic showing Jan van Eyck as a poor pilgrim, Jean Jouffroy (in black) and Cardinal Henry Beaufort with a relic in hand.

The scribe also has a role in the St Vincent Panels. There are two who appear in the Panel of the Friars. But this particular notary with his red hat and his right hand ‘scribing’  or ‘translating’ refers to the main figure in the Panel of the Relic, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, and so hence the red hat connection. His right hand resting on the desk and his position at the edge of the fresco’s frame is also represented in the Panel of the Friars. The friar with the long hair and beard is shown with his right hand resting on a plank of wood that has several holes. In one of the narratives the plank represents the lid of the coffin seen in the Panel of the Relic. The fresco’s frame and its intertwined pattern with its many holes, was the inspiration for the placement of the plank.
the shape shifters


Long gowns and their folds are always a temptation for artists to disguise iconography and Gonçalves has not missed the opportunity to reinterpret the shapes seen in gowns worn by the judges in the fresco. The earlier mention of an elephant is sourced from the shape of the Bad Judge’s gown covering his left knee and leg. The simple lines of the folds form the elephant’s dome, tusks and trunk.

To the right of this piece of iconography is a pentagonal shape with facial features showing a rather sharp-pointed nose. Gonçalves has replicated this form in the Cardinal’s red gown and as having unpleasant connotations. Was Gonçalves making a point about Beaufort’s wealth and the commandment about not coveting anything belonging to a neighbour? Notice also the shape of the cardinal’s galero.

Gonçalves also translated the shape of the pair of knees as two hills. These refer in a rather oblique way to a narrative in the Panel of the Friars about the founding of Rome and its connection to the House of Aviz. Romulus and Remus, nurtured by a she-wolf and brought food by a woodpecker, reached a stage where they disputed on which hill in Rome to build on. Romulus preferred the Palatine Hill while Remus wanted the Aventine Hill (the Hill of Birds). Two of the men standing in the back row represent the twins, Romulus and Remus (they look alike). The man on the right, with his long “beak” drumming on the fez hat on the friar, represents the woodpecker that fed the twins. The woodpecker comparison also connects to the plank of wood and its holes.
a clever compromise


There are obvious comparisons between these two images: three men in white, two wearing black hats, and one with a beard. The panel in the fresco above is referred to as the Good Judge, while the image alongside is known as the Panel of the Friars, the first of six sections of the St Vincent Panels.

Gonçalves made some adjustment in his painting with the positioning of two of the friars, moving the notary to the front of the frame and the fairhead friar into the centre of the trio.

Although the fresco is thought to have been painted sometime in the 15th century, I sense that the work was completed earlier and shortly after the original courthouse-cum-town-hall was built in the second half of the 14th century, and so placing a gap of a century between the two works of art. I point this out because there is a significant piece of iconography in the Panel of the Friars that suggests the fresco was damaged before Gonçalves set out to emulate the work in his painting.


Above: The Panel of the Friars, sourced from a medieval fresco.


Left: A damaged section of the fresco is reinterpreted as a friar’s hat in the Panel of the Friars!

The damaged area I refer to is the missing section over the right breast and hand of the seated judge. Gonçalves reinterpreted this feature in the Panel of the Friars and which probably explains why he transposed the positions of two of the friars. The black hat of the front friar covers the hands of the friar behind him. There is another narrative to why this was done, but in this instance the black hat represents the shape of missing section over the judge’s right hand!
double standards


There is a suggestion of pretense about the scribe seated at his desk. He possesses two pairs of hands, and there’s no pen in his writing hand resting on a sheet of paper. The pen is held in another hand kept close to his chest. Behind him is a grey and rather strange patterned screen. Did this convey an netful of fish to Gonçalves which he translated to his Panel of the Fishermen.

The two principal figures caught in the net are meant to portray a leading pharisee and a scribe. Was the fresco’s ‘sleight of hand’ feature interpreted by Gonçalves as the duplicity and double standards of the scribes and pharisees cursed by Christ? And could the screen be translated as a sepulchre, or even a coffin, “full of dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23 : 21)?
double symbols


The knee and the legs of the white-robed judge also provided inspiration for Gonçalves. The double-lozenge shape is applied to the head-dress of Isabella of Burgundy in the Panel of the Prince to form a double saltire, the saltire being a symbol of both the House of Aviz and the House of Valois-Burgundy.


Left: the folds of the judge’s gown become a double saltire for Isabella, Duchess of Burgundy.

Isabella married Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy who died in June 1467. Could Isabella have commissioned the St Vincent Panels following the death of her husband? She is only one of two women visible in the panels, the other being her mother standing behind her, Philippa of Lancaster.
heavenly realms


The upper register of the fresco shows Christ Pantocrator seated between two angels with trumpets, his feet resting on the world that is arched by a bow with a prophet placed at each end holding a banderole. Unfortunately the head of Christ is missing, as is one of his hands, and most of the angel at his left side. It is quite likely that this damage was visible when Nuno Gonçalves, studied and made notes of the fresco before producing the St Vincent Panels.


Left: he upper section of The Good and Bad Judges fresco, and another source of inspiration for Nuno Gonçalves when he painted the St Vincent Panels.

The two prophets are Isaiah (left) and Jonah (right). Both are referenced  and combined in an innovative way in the Panel of the Fishermen to form the kneeling figure of St Peter. The figure also has other guises but for this explanation a repentant Peter is appropriate.
The Isaiah figure is linked to one of his prophecies: By my own self I swear it; what comes from my mouth is truth, a word irrevocable: before me every knee shall bend, by me every tongue shall swear, saying: ‘From Yaweh alone come victory and strength’ (Isaiah 45 : 23-24).

Left: Detail of the two prophets and how Gonçalves translated them into a new creation.

Close inspection of Isaiah’s banderole shows it is formed to represent the shape of a kneeling figure before Christ, similar to St Peter’s posture. The flap extending from Isaiah’s headdress represents a tongue. The back and side of the kneeling Peter also represents a tongue. It is scalloped, or crenated, a condition likely considered a sign of a diseased tongue in the 15th century.
The Jonah figure is represents Christ’s resurrection, the sign Jesus pointed out to some scribes and Pharisees when they said they would like to see a sign from him. He replied: “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12 : 38-41).
The sea-monster, sometimes referred to as a whale, is formed in the hem of Christ’s red robe alongside Jonah. The prophet’s hat is a sailboat with upright sails. The boat being the one Jonah was thrown into the sea from; the sails representing the upright men from Nineveh mentioned in same passage.
In the Panel of the Fishermen, the figure of Peter now translates as “Jonah”. The hooded cowl represents the head and open mouth of the sea-monster vomiting the praying prophet onto land.
the men of nineveh


The reference to upright sails and the men of Nineveh also comes into play in the Panel of the Knights and refers to the four men wearing white cottas or surplices standing upright immediately behind the bearded knight. He is Ferdinand the ‘Holy Prince’ and a son of  John l, King of Portugal. Ferdinand was given as a hostage after the Siege of Tangier. Negotiations for his release continued on and off for some years until he eventually died in captivity in a Morroccan prison, seven years later. Gonçalves likened this to Jonah being abandoned and thrown overboard by sailors wanting to lighten the load on the ship during a storm.


Left: The men upright men of Nineveh and Flanders.

The four upright men – not from Nineveh but the Netherlands – are four Flemish painters in oil. Their surplices represent sails or canvasses. Nineveh is noted for its oil fields. In another sense the four painters are anointing with oil, or confirming judgement, on Ferdinand for his saintly virtues, edurance in suffering and ransomed life. But for his three brothers in front of him, perhaps condemnation for allowing Ferdinand to die in captivity.

Three of the painters are (right to left), Dieric Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden, and Jacques Daret. The fourth painter is still to be identified.


Left: A pack of wolves, just three of many embedded in the St Vincent Panels.

the wolfpack


Here’s another instance where Gonçalves made use of a damaged section of the fresco – the remnant of the angel’s gown. He visualised it as the open mouth of a hungry wolf, and repeated a similar motif on the lower part of the back of the kneeling friar’s gown in the Panel of the Friars.


In fact, there are several wolf references in the St Vincent Panels, one is even woven into the side of Isabella’s red gown, although you have to rotate the image 90 degrees clockwise to see the wolf’s four legs. Even Isabella’s lace collar has a wolf motif that depicts its eyes and pointed ears.


Above, the wolf lace pattern on Isabella’s gown.

Left: Two Arks, Noah’s and the Ark of the Covenant.

an arc and two arks


The arc or rainbow that encircles Christ Pantocrator is a reminder of the promise God made to Noah that a flood would never destroy all creatures on earth again (Genesis 9). This makes the connection to Noah’s Ark, its shape outlined in the hem of Christ’s red robe. In fact it represents two arks, not only the one made by Noah but also the Ark of the Covenant. The centre section is shaped to represent a covered tabernacle, the inner sanctum, the front of which has a face feature which can be visualised as a bearded Noah, or even Moses who commissioned the Ark of the Covenant under God’s instructions. The hooded face also represents Mary the mother of Jesus, one of her titles being the Ark of the Covenant.

Both Arks are represented as themes in the St Vincent Panels. In fact, there are several maritime references in the painting. As for the tabernacle, this is represented in the Panel of the Relic as part of the surplice design worn by the man on the back row standing next to the coffin. The centre panel of the surplice is filled with smoke, symbolic of God’s glory,  and connects to the biblical passage recording the call of Isaiah: “I saw the Lord Yaweh seated on a high throne; his train filled the sanctuary; above him stood seraphs [...] and they cried out to one another [praising God]. The foundations of the threshold shook with the voice of the one who cried out and the Temple was filled with smoke...” (Isaiah 6 : 1-5).


Above: A tabernacle curtain showing the smoke of God’s glory.



This presentation set out to provide evidence that The Good and Bad Judges was a primary source of inspiration for Nuno Gonçalves’s painting of the St Vincent Panels. It is by no means the only source. The influence of Jan van Eyck and particularly the Ghent Altarpiece is also recognisable in the six panels. Neither do all the fresco connections I have pointed out represent the full set. There are others, but hopefully what I have revealed is enough, perhaps, for others to approach both the St Vincent Panels and the Judges fresco from a new perspective.

My interest in the St Vincent Panels is quite recent and I have to thank Clemente Baeta for sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge which encouraged me to delve deeper into its mysteries and discover the link to the fresco on display at the Museo do Fresco in Monsaraz, Portugal. The St Vincent Panels are housed at the Museo Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.

Feedback and comments are welcomed.

Bernard Gallagher, June 9, 2020

• This presentation is a ‘work in progress’ and subject to changes and updates as new evidence comes to light. Updates can be found at


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