portrait of a man in a red turban
Having already identified references to the Turin Shroud in some of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, notably the Arnolfini Portrait and the Ghent Altarpiece, it came as no surprise when I recently began to study Van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban to discover it was another work linked to what is claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus. The painting is dated 1433, a year after the unveiling of the Ghent Altarpiece, and the two works are connected.
The website of the National Gallery, London, where the portrait is housed, provides a high-res image, some key facts and a brief description. Wikipedia also houses a page with details, particularly about the inscription on the frame of the painting.
King David Receives the Water of Bethlehem, 1451-1475
Rogier van der Weyden workshop.
The most obvious focal point of the portrait is the sitter’s vivid red chaperon and its intricate folds, but there is a more subtle feature paired with the headwrap – the Christ-like face unveiled on the man’s left temple.
The modified chaperon is contoured in ways that refer to the passion and death of Jesus, particularly his denial by Peter, the disciple who had been entrusted earlier with the mission to build Christ’s church on earth and pasture his flock. After Jesus was arrested and taken into custody, Peter denied he knew him three times when questioned by a servant girl. It was then that Peter remembered the words Jesus had spoken to him earlier: “Before the cock crows, you will have disowned me three times.” (John 13:38)
Van Eyck has portrayed himself as a rooster staring out from the darkness. The red chaperon represents the bird’s comb, the black coat its body, the sharp nose its beak, while the piercing, hooded eyes keep careful watch on all who come near to its roost. So is Van Eyck issuing a wake-up call of some kind with this portrait, a possible warning or reminder of betrayal? The rooster is an iconic emblem of Christianity. Also, as a weathercock and a familiar sight on church towers, it indicates which way the wind is blowing.
Jan van Eyck was known to travel abroad on missions for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. It is possible that one such excursion brought the artist to England, possibly in 1426. Ducal records show that Van Eyck was paid for trips that year on assignment for Philip. One such payment was made in October, perhaps to cover his expenses for an upcoming journey. It is notable that Jan was absent when his brother Hubert died on December 18th that year.
In England Van Eyck’s turban or chaperon would be called a cocks-comb and presuming he did travel there on a secret mission for the Duke of Burgundy he would be familiar with the term. So what would be Jan’s reason for emphasising this feature in the portrait, apparently painted some seven years later? In the first instance the comb is meant to combine with the temple feature – TEMPLE and COMB. When the two words are cleaved or joined they form TEMPLECOMB(E), which identifies a small village in Somerset.
Van Eyck would often employ punning examples in his work. His name Eyck as signature motto on the frame of this painting is an example – AIC IXH XAN (AS I CAN). That he used Greek letters for this is not without reason and provides a further clue to unravelling the painting’s narratives and features disguised in the turban.
Three faces of Jan van Eyck in Rogier van der Weyden paintings.
left to right:
The Water of Bethlehem,
St Joseph (Magdalen Reading),
St Columba Altarpiece.
Jan’s motto is not only a pun on his name but can be also understood as “AN ICON”, or even “JAN ICON” – a religious work of art – its iconic features or themes to be found in the red chaperon. The icon theme also connects to the village of Templecombe and what is known as the Templecombe Head, a painting on wooden boards, discovered in the roof of an outhouse in the village in 1945. It is claimed by some to represent the head of Christ with a link to the Turin Shroud. Details of its discovery and further information is at this link.
Roger van der Weyden as St Luke:
The Water of Bethlehem,
St Luke Drawing the Virgin.
That the painting was discovered inside of a roof makes another connection to the rooster theme in Van Eyck’s portrait. The building is thought to have been part of the Templecombe Preceptory established in the village by the Knights Templar in 1185. After the suppression of the Knights Templar in 1307 the Preceptory was granted to the Knights of St John until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. The Templecome Head is considered to date to the 13th century and is now displayed in the village Church of St Mary. It is also referenced by Jan van Eyck in the Ghent Altarpiece and this way connects to his Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban.
Comment has been published elsewhere about the possible reason why the tail end of the red chaperon is not shown hanging but rolled up and encased in the folds, suggesting it was done to keep it out of the way while Van Eyck made his self-portrait. But this is not the reason. Van Eyck’s inspiration for the style of chaperon stems from an illuminated manuscript describing the events surrounding the deposition of Richard II. The chronicle is titled La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (Book of the Capture and Death of King Richard ll), and was commissioned by the duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, sometime between November 1402 and March 1402. The chronicler was Jean Creton, a valet-chambre to the French king Charles VI. The book’s miniatures are attributed to the “Virgil Master”. This particular copy, now housed at the British Museum, also belonged to Jean, duke of Berry, remembered particularly as an art patron and for his large collection of illuminated manuscripts.
The author’s name, Creton, also serves as a link to the painting’s Greek references and in particular the island of Crete when, under Venetian rule during the Middle Ages, its artists became highly skilled in icon painting and production.
One of the major works of Robert Campin (also identified by art historians as Master of the Flémalle) is the Mérode Altarpiece, painted between 1425 and 1428. The left panel of the triptych shows two kneeling donors and behind them a small figure of a man holding a staw hat and standing behind a gate that opens to a walled garden. The figure is considered to be a self portrait of Robert Campin. The facial features bear a strong resemblance to the King David portraits of Rogier van der Weyden.
Associating Campin with the biblical King David of Israel was probably not only because the artist had a long beard. There was another more personal comparison to be made. Both David and Robert were proven adulterers. In David’s case he seduced Bathsheba wife of one of his soldiers who he later had murdered. Campin’s deeds did not extend to murder but he was accused of political agitation and convicted of adultery for which he was sentenced to banishment from Tournai. However, his punishment was later reduced to a fine after Margaret of Burgundy, wife of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, intervened on Campin’s behalf.
In the Métrode Altarpiece Campin makes subtle references to his infidelity. Not only does he portray himself as a weak man of straw, by clutching a straw hat, he places himself behind the garden door, as if hiding or waiting for his opportunity to enter the sacred room of the Virgin. This also echoes the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders where two judges hid in a garden before attempting to seduce Susannah. The motif could also be interpreted as Campin making a sign of public repentance, perhaps, standing in humble fashion and confessing his fault, similar to the tax collector in the parable about the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18 : 9-14)
Joseph, betrothed to the Virgin Mary, must have been deeply troubled when he discovered she was pregnant before they came to live together, and was all for divorcing her until an angel appeared to him explaining that “she had conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1 : 20).
Joseph, a carpenter, is depicted in the right panel making window shutters and mousetraps; surely a reference to Campin’s adulterous adventure(s)!
Robert Campin (self portrait?)
The Met Museum, New York
Joseph the carpenter busy making shutters and mousetraps.
The Met Museum, New York
The three Flemish Primitives are grouped in another of Van der Weyden’s paintings, the Birth of Christ, sometimes referred to as the Bladelin Altar or Middelburg Altar. The left panel records the Tybur Sibyl showing the Emperor Augustus an apparition of the birth of Christ. The three men on the right of the scene are Jan van Eyck (in his Tower of David hat), Rogier van der Weyden depicted as St Luke, and Robert Campin, once again shown as King David.
King David is seen wearing red stockings, the same colour as the man behind the door in Campin’s Annunciation painting. Unusually, King David’s gown is pulled back to reveal his naked thigh and a jewelled garter, perhaps a rather direct reference to his “sin of the flesh” and so to Campin also.
The Sibyl’s green gown, her blue sleeves and white headwear is reminiscent of the style and colours worn by the woman featured in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.
Finally, there is another painting attributed to the workshop of Van der Weyden that connects with King David (Campin) and Van Eyck. Check the updates page for any further details on this.
The left wing of the Bladelin Altar
Rogier van der Weyden, 1450