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Not Niccolò Albergati but Henry Beaufort

The sitter for this portrait painted by Jan van Eyck was identified in 1904 by the art historian James Weale as Italian cardinal Niccolò Albergati (1375 - 1443). It is currently kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.


In more recent times there has been scholarly doubt cast on Weale’s identification, and in 1963 the Dutch art historian Josua Bruyn presented a case for identifying the portrait as Henry Beaufort (c1375-1447), Lord Chancellor of England, bishop of Winchester, and later a cardinal. In 1990 historian Malcolm Vale presented his analysis for consideration, adding further doubt on the Albergati identity but unable to conclude the portrait was Beaufort. Artist John Hunter decided in his 1991 essay that the sitter was neither Albergati or Beaufort as the red coat was not that of a cardinal.


Seemingly there is no documentary evidence that directly links to the painting except for the silverpoint study dated c1431, held in the collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. Or is there?


Left: Portrait of Niccolò Albergati ? by Jan van Eyck, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Below: The silverpoint preliminary drawing made for the Portrait of Niccolò Albergati ?,  Staatliche Kunstsmmlungen, Dresden, Germany


This presentation sets out demonstrate that there is contemporary evidence to support Josua Bryun’s claim of the portrait being Henry Beaufort. The evidence is recorded by the hand of Jan van Eyck himself.


It manifests in Jan van Eyck’s most famous work, the Ghent Altarpiece, originally commissioned to Hubert van Eyck but completed by Jan in 1432 following his brother’s death in 1426.


There is much information and comment on the internet about the altarpiece, particularly the lost panel known as the Just Judges. Hi-res images of the panels, incuding a copy painting (1947) of the original stolen section, are available at closer to van eyck. The Netherlands Institute for Art History, RKD, has images from photographs taken of the altarpiece before the panel was stolen in 1934.


Left: The replacement Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, St Bavo Catherdral, Ghent, Belgium.


There are some subtle differences in this Van de Walken copy compared with the original. The most noticeable is the extended wide brim hat of the second rider has been shortened from covering the mouth of the third rider. Unfortunately this has also removed some of the meaning originally intended intended by Jan van Eyck.

partial analysis

It is the Just Judges panel where, in a sense, Hubert has done the groundwork and ploughed the field, ready for Jan to do the planting, sow the seeds, so to speak, to result in a rich harvest. Other passages from the Sermon of the Parables in Matthew’s gospel are in there, too. Jan’s planting has yielded a harvest, a four-fold crop, a hidden treasure, a haul of all kinds, as yeast added to three measures of flour…


Four is a significant number present in other narratives in the painting but for this presentation it applies to the four identities Jan has given to each rider heading eastwards to a new Jerusalem and a heavenly banquet symbolized by the Lamb of God as the focus of the central panel. He also draws heavily on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – each pilgrim was requested by the Host to relate four tales, two on the journey to Canterbury and two more on the return to London. So, in essence, the riders are not all they appear to be (wheat and darnel?). This can be better understood if they are also considered as “figures of speech”.  Jan loved visual wordplay – for example, he demonstrates this by the way the title of the painting is written on the frame.


Compare the upright letter ‘S’ in the word JUST to the same but slanted letter in JUDGES. Upright, as in righteous… Slant, as to maliciously or dishonestly distort or falsify. So who is Van Eyck referring to in the painting when he points to injustice?


Left: The title edge of the frame of the Just Judges panel.

This partial analysis of the painting serves only as an example of its complexity, especially as it features 40 identities who each connect in some way with others and have their own tale to tell. To help with this Jan has grouped connections which aids identification.


The brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck from a 17th century illustrated book of artists, and modelled on the likeness of the two painters in the Just Judges panel.

Rijksmuseum, Netherlands.


mistaken identity

For centuries it has been generally presumed that the nearest rider on the white horse portrays Jan’s brother, Hubert van Eyck. Varied engravings are in circulation based on this likenes. Even the famous bronze statue of the Van Eyck brothers, sculpted by Geo Verbanck and erected on steps close to St Bavo’s Cathedral in 1913, is modelled on the features of the two men seen in the painting.

Jan, the fourth rider, doubles up as Philip the Good (as he does in the Arnolfini Portrait painted two years later). He served the Burgundy duke as court painter and diplomat. In a similar way Hubert is acknowledged as one of the four identities represented by the figure on the white horse. However, the face of the rider does not belong to Hubert but to Henry Beaufort. Jan intended it to be so by replicating the earlier portrait he made of the bishop of Winchester and providing other clues and references as confirmation. This suggests Van Eyck produced one or both of his portraits of Beaufort before the Ghent Altarpiece was unveiled in May 1432.


Matching the two faces of Henry Beaufort... from his painted portrait and from his portrayal in a photograph of the original  Just Judges panel stolen in 1933.

some questions

The fact that there are two versions of the Beaufort portrait prompts the question: were they still in the possession of Jan Van Eyck at the time he painted the Just Judges? It would seem reasonable to assume he had probably held onto the silverpoint drawing, perhaps even the finished painting. If so, could there an ‘underlying’ reason for this?

The silverpoint version is noted by Van Eyck with colour references, so he intended at the outset to produce a finished painting. Also, can it be certain that Beaufort commissioned the work, if so, when? If not, could it it have been commissioned by someone closer to Van Eyck, perhaps his patron Philip the Good? And where was Beaufort when he sat for Van Eyck to produce the preliminary drawing? Vale presents several dates of the Cardinal crossing the channel to France and Burgundy, but only those prior to 1432 can be considered if the portrait in the Just Judges is based on the silverpoint sketch or even the finished painting.


It is quite reasonable to consider Van Eyck may have made the crossing to England, perhaps on a diplomatic mission, and met with Beaufort, so providing an opportunity for the cardinal to sit for him. Iconography in the Just Judges indicates that Jan was familiar with Winchester Cathedral where Beaufort served as bishop from 1404 until his death in 1447.


Details of the spandrels that are part of the Choir Stalls in Winchster Cathedral.

photos courtesy of John Crook

corner creatures

Not only is Beaufort represented in the first rider, Van Eyck has also assigned the cardinal to the next figure in line. It’s this rider who Jan links to Winchester Cathedral, and its choir stalls in particular, to confirm the facial identity of the rider on the white horse as Beaufort.


I am indebted to Dr John Crook, historian and architechtural consultant to Winchester Cathedral , for use of his photographs to illustrate this point. Featured among the spandrels of the 14th century oak choir stalls are:


1. A claw-footed wyvern.
2. A falconer gazing at his hawk.
3. A depiction of a Green Man spewing foliage.
4. A humanised monkey perched in foliage and playing a harp.
5. A small bird – house martin – pecking at twyning leaves.


Van Eyck has incoporated all five features into the second rider. With knowledge of such collective and minute detail, this would suggest he may have visited the Cathedral at some time – perhaps even to produce his preliminary drawing of Beaufort?


twirling leaves

The wyvern and falconer link to two illuminated folios from the Très Riches Heures attributed to the Limbourg brothers, and which Van Eyck uses as part of another narrative in the painting. They are the calendar pages for the months of March and August. March shows a ploughman at work and a golden wyvern flying above the Château de Luisgnan. In this instance the ploughman is a reference to the first rider in the line of Just Judges. The wyvern serves as a link to Beaufort, more of which will be explained later. Notice also the pseudo ‘eclipse’ formed by the second oxen. Van Eyck has mirrored this concept when depicting the two figures of Beaufort, intimating there is a shadow cast over Beaufort in his role portrayed both as bishop on the white horse and cardinal on the second. He is portrayed as riding two horses, which was a charge brought against him by his opponents of the time: did he serve the King of England, or did he serve the Pope – or did he just serve himself, perhaps?


The August folio depicts a group of falconers. It is also a scene representing the balance of justice. The lead rider wears a wide-brimmed hat and is about to release a falcon from his left hand. In the Just Judges, Beaufort’s extended hat brim and the bird shape arrangement of his hands are adapted from this scene.


A close inspection of the falconer on the Winchester spandrel reveals other solid connections to the Beaufort figures. Van Eyck has replicated the extended peak of the falconer’s hat to portray the galero-style hat of a cardinal for Beaufort as the second rider. Then there is the wry smile on the lips of the rider on the white horse, deliberately matched to the smile on the falconer’s face – and the covered ear! Another match is the winged collar on the falconer’s tunic with the winged collar of the cardinal, and the falconer’s short sleeved top is echoed by the short-sleeved mantle worn by the front rider. Ringing the changes in this way is also a reference to ringing a falcon and to the ring the Cardinal is seen holding.

Such attention to detail presents a strong case that Jan Van Eyck did visit Winchester Cathedral and made accurate drawings of the the choir stall spandrels.


The Green Man also takes into account Beaufort’s extended hat brim. It spews across the mouth of the next rider, in this case, Charles the Mad, the French king. The Green man is also linked to the rider wearing the green coat, immediately behind Beaufort. In this scenario he represents Amadeus VI, Count of Savoy, known as the Green Count, il Conte Verde.


The monkey playing the harp is more cryptic. But again it refers to the man in the green jacket who ‘apes’ the figure where the two lines of riders meet at a point. The entwined ‘V’ shaped chain is the harp.


The chain also represents the roman numeral V. And that leads to the bird among the twyning leaves – again, another very cryptic clue. The bird theme runs throughout the painting and is based on another of Chaucer’s works: Parlement of Fowles. In this instance the small bird is a Martin. Linked to the Roman numeral we arrive at Martin V, the Pope who elevated Henry Beaufort to the rank of Cardinal.


The twyning leaves connect to the front figure on the white horse and two pseudo stories or ‘entwined leaves’ placed in The Canterbury Tales. The short sleeved blue mantle refers to the Virgin Mary and the tale which tells of a monk having to pray more to make the sleeves of the Virgin’s mantle grow. This ‘twins’ with another pseudo chapter ‘planted’ earlier – The Ploughman’s Tale – which relates a conversation between a pelican (bird entwined) and a griffin. The Ploughman’s tale completes the cycle back to the ploughman theme (seeds planted) depicted in the March calendar illumination and the harvest (final judgement) theme in the August calendar of the TRH book of hours.

reading between the lines

There is one other important link formed when the lines of reference stemming from the second rider are connected to all five spandrels – in poetic terms, a type of pentameter is created, but in musical terms and notation a set of five parallel lines is referred to as a staff or stave. Van Eyck may have had in mind Plutarch’s Parallel Lives when he constructed his line-up of riders and assigned multiple identities to demonstrate the complex personalities of human beings, whatever their social status.


Also, in the Just Judges Van Eyck makes references to mnemonic devices, a chessboard being one, and a musical scale being another. Even the riders are positioned as on a scale of hereditary connections, described earlier as “figures of speech”.


So using a figure of speech Van Eyck has invited the viewer to “read between the five lines” that make up the stave and recognise the established mnemonic for remembering the associated musical notes: F-A-C-E, further confirmation that Jan wanted to connect the face of the rider on the white horse to Winchester Cathedral and its bishop Henry Beaufort!


This planted seed bears fruit in another of the panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, the Choir of Angels, which I shall present later. They are not the angels they first appear to be! There is discord among them and pain is expressed on some of their faces.

update... henry beaufort, take two

There’s an update to the Beaufort connection at my blog:

It relates to Beaufort as the half-brother of the English king Henry IV and is presented as further evidence of the Van Eyck portrait being the bishop of Winchester and not cardinal Niccolò Albergati.

News about updates to this website can be accessed and followed via my blog:


Details of the Calendar months for the March and August leaves in the Très Riches Heures.


Wry smiles...


Lines of direction stemming from the ‘eclipsed’ figure of Henry Beaufort.

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