UPDATE… December 20, 2018
Further investigation leads me to advocate a new scenario for this painting by Petrus Christus and which relates to Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. It introduces three new identities not mentioned in my earlier presentation.
The first is Jan van Eyck, the gentleman central in the frame; the second is Joan/Jean Beaufort, illegitimate daughter of Henry Beaufort; the third is Edward Stradling, the man chosen by Henry Beaufort (represented by the goldsmith) as a marriage partner for his daughter. Stradling is represented in the guise of Jan van Eyck who referred to the marriage in the Ghent Altarpiece, while Joan or Jean Beaufort is presented as the bride.
Just as van Eyck used several identies for each rider in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, so Petrus has done likewise.
UPDATE… October 30, 2018
Following further research on A Goldsmith in his Shop I have determined that the Petrus Christus painting originates from some of the panels belonging to the Ghent Altarpiece, in particular the Just Judges section. The altarpiece was completed by Jan van Eyck 17 years earlier in 1432.
A Goldsmith in his Shop is a remarkable creative tribute by Petrus to Jan van Eyck. It’s disguised iconography and layout is on par with Jan’s own imaginative talent in this area.
Petrus Christus is said to have been born between 1415 and 1420, so at the time the Ghent Altarpiece was presented in 1432, Petrus may have been as young as 12 or, at most, 17 years of age. So just how did Petrus acquire detailed knowledge of the iconography hidden in the Just Judges panel to translate it to his goldsmith painting? Was it before Jan had died in 1441, and from the master himself?
I intend to publish on this website in the future details of the iconography and identities of the riders featured in the Just Judges panel, and follow this up the connections made by Petrus in his tribute work.
In the meantime, I am occasionally posting information on the Just Judges at my catchlight.blog
resurrecting saint eligius
It was when attempting to identify a feature in another Netherlandish painting (Marriage of Joseph and Mary, Antwerp Cathedral) that I became interested in the iconography in the Petrus Christus painting shown below – A Goldsmith in his Shop – from the Lehman Collection at the MetMuseum in New York.
A Goldsmith in his Shop
Petrus Christus 1449
Oil on oak panel
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue
The MetMuseum describes the painting thus:
A celebrated masterpiece of Northern Renaissance Art, this painting was signed and dated 1449 by Petrus Christus, the leading painter in Bruges (Flanders) after the death of Jan van Eyck. The panel attests to Netherlandish artists’ keen interest in pictorial illusionism and meticulous attention to detail, especially in the luminous jeweled, glass, and metallic objects, secular and ecclesiastic trade wares that are examples of the goldsmith's virtuosity. The main figure in this enigmatic painting was long identified as Saint Eligius (the patron saint of goldsmiths) due to the presence of a halo, which was recognized as a later addition and subsequently removed. The panel is likely a vocational painting, which portrays the profession of goldsmithing and perhaps a specific goldsmith. Technical analysis reveals the underdrawing of the goldsmith's face to be very carefully modeled—more so than the faces of the couple—indicating the possibility of a portrait. It has been suggested that he is Willem van Vleuten, a Bruges goldsmith who worked for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. In 1449, the date of this painting, the duke commissioned from van Vlueten a gift for Mary of Guelders on the occasion of her marriage to James II, King of Scots. That couple may well be depicted in this painting, portrayed buying a wedding ring that is being weighed on a scale. The girdle that extends over the ledge of the shop into the viewer’s space is a further allusion to matrimony. The convex mirror, which links the pictorial space to the street outside, reflects two young men with a falcon (a symbol of pride and greed) and establishes a moral comparison between the imperfect world of the viewer and the world of virtue and balance depicted here.
The goldsmith’s halo was removed from the painting in 1993.
As the museum’s description states, the man in the red gown had been previously identified as St Eligius, patron saint of goldsmiths (and many other trades besides). But in 1998 a study by art historian Hugo van der Velden challenged the claim of the figure being St Eligius (Eloy). Instead, the historian proposed that the seated man was “probably the Bruge goldsmith Willem van Vluten”.
In his paper, Defrocking St Eloy: Petrus Christus’s Vocational portrait of a goldsmith, Van der Velden wrote:
Petrus Christus’s goldsmith used to be haloed, but in 1993, his aura was removed as a later addition at the museum’s conservation department, its authenticity had been doubted for decades. With his halo, the main protagonist of the painting was robbed of the only attribute that characterised him as a saint. Despite this desanctafication, the traditional identification of St Eloy has been challenged in only one of the publications that have since appeared. Lorne Campbell, in his review of the New York Petrus Christus exhibition, concluded that “there is no compelling reason to believe that the goldsmith is Eligius.”
The Met Museum’s mention that the painting attests to pictorial illusionism strikes the right note, rings true, so to speak. It’s a cautionary reminder that dressing the shop window is simply a presentation to the world that is not always as it appears.
The five people featured in the painting, three inside the shop and two placed outside and seen through the mirror, are like mannequins whose identities are determined by the roles assigned by Petrus. The scene doesn’t change, neither does the attire worn by the mannequins, or the many props placed precisely on stage. Everything appears static and the immediate impression is of a young couple purchasing a ring from the goldsmith and a possible suggestion that a marriage is on the horizon.
The only real clues to any identity is the once held belief that the goldsmith was St Eligius and the woman possibly St Godeberta, because a ring supposed to have been given to her by St Eligius is said to be housed at Noyen Cathedral, the diocese where Eligius was bishop. Eligius is also the patron saint of goldsmiths (and various other trades).
But as Van der Velden points out, since the removal of the halo which circled the goldsmith’s head, the figure has been “robbed of the only attribute that characterised him as a saint”. And so also, by association, the belief that the woman is St Godeberta.
But rest assured, the seated man IS St Eligius; but is the woman St Godeberta? There ARE attributes in the painting linked to written accounts describing episodes in the life of St Eligius which spanned two centuries (588–660). Can these be connected in a way to identify St Goldeberta?
The ring placed on the scales is a scene shifter which links the coupling of Eligius and Godeberta(?) to other historic ‘pairings’, particularly in the period prior to the date Petrus completed his painting in 1449. Marriage is most certainly on the horizon and is a theme that weaves through three scenarios to bind with the biblical narrative of God’s eternal promise and covenant with his people.
Various identities are assigned to each of the three main figures as well as the couple reflected in the convex mirror.
The two principal characters in the mirror reflection is the painting’s patron René d’Anjou (1409-80) and his first wife Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine (1400-53). Second identities are also assigned to both.
What connects the two principal female identities (and a third still to be named) is the ring placed on the scales and its significance as a binding symbol of union and covenant, in mind, body and spirit.
The scene is seperated into two distinct areas, left and right, brought together by the role of the ‘goldsmith’ as an intermediary or ‘broker’ between the affairs of heaven and those on earth. The worktop also serves as a surface to present the ever-challenging conflict in life between two realms, and at each end there are symbols of peace and unification.
revealing joan of arc
Joan of Arc was born in 1412 in Domrémy, Bar, France. A national heroine of France, at age 18 she led the French army to victory over the English at Orléans. Captured a year later, Joan was burned at the stake as a heretic by the English and their French collaborators.
There are two areas in the Petrus painting that focus on iconography which reveals Joan, nicknamed “The Maid of Orleans”: The counter displaying the goldsmith’s weights alongside the groups of gold coins, and the woman’s gold gown. Other items in the painting also refer to Joan but these will be explained later.
The scale and its pans, the weights and stacks of coins are placed to map out the strategic positions the english army adopted for its siege against Orléans.
The thick-walled cup represents the town of Orléans, the lid is the drawbridge into the town and points to two stacks of coins that represent outposts guarding access to the bridge that crosses the Loire river. The three coins nearer to the mirror is an outpost named St Loup which was attacked and captured by Joan and her French forces.
To the left of Orléans are seven positions taken up by the English forces, as circled above, set up under the command of William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk.
The ‘Troy’ weights are also a reference to the Treaty of Troyes (1420) and the English crown’s determination to claim kingship over France. Hence it siege of Orléans.
The collapsed stack of four coins represents Les Tourelles, the four-towered outpost which stood in the Loire River. Joan and her French forces undermined the fortress with burning barges, as depicted by the coin underneath the four other coins representing the four collapsed towers.
The other stack of coins represents the Boulevart. The coin propped on its side against the stack shows a horse and its rider The rider is Joan who was about to attempt to scale the wall of the Boulevart with ladders when she was struck in a shoulder by an arrow, a fact which also identifies other iconography elsewhere in the painting, notably in the figure of the lady.
After the seige at Orléans was lifted the French troops engaged with the English again at the battle of Jargeau. Joan was injured a second time when she started to climb a scaling ladder laid against defensive banks (faggot bundles or fascines were used to fill the trenches). A stone hurled from above “shattered upon impact against her light steel helmet and she fell stunned to the ground…The helmet she wore looked like a skull-cap, without visor or gorget.” (Virginia Frohlick)
In the painting, the skull-shaped helmet is depicted on the woman’s head, overlaid with lace in a faggot-stitch pattern.
Another pointer to Joan’s wounds is the man’s hand on the woman’s shoulder, a reference to the wound received at Orléans.
A third wound was sustained when Joan and the French forces attacked Paris. A crossbow bolt pierced through Joan’s thigh. This wound is also shown on the dress below the little finger of her right hand. The grouping of her fingers is not a natural formation, but in archery represents a three-fingered draw-back technique, hence Joan’s hand receeding into her sleeve.
The pronounced spine (the wound) on the green leaf is similar to the groove on the blade of a weapon known as the fuller. This makes the connection to “fuller’s earth” – clay used for filtering and purifying, and possibly used on Joan’s wound as an antidote to infection or poisoning.
There are other references to Joan in this area of the gown. The three fingers point to a group of flames rising from below as well as to a rising/setting sun, a symbol of resurrection and also the scripture reference, Psalm 113:3 – “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised.” Joan’s final words at the stake were: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…”
A map of Oléans showing the English positions during the siege.
Two stacks of coins depict Les Tourelles and the Boulevart. I shall reveal more information about the particular coins later in this presentation series.
Joan’s skull cap and hand-sign pointing to other iconography that identifies the Maid of Orléans.
give it back to me!
A third identity Petrus Christus has assigned to the standing male figure is the Greek mythology god Hermes – or Mercury, his equivalent in Roman mythology.
Hermes has a number of attributes but it is his portrayal as a messenger of the gods, an emissary and an intercessor between mortals and the divine that links him to Joan of Arc who claimed that she received messages, “voices from heaven”, paticularly from St Michael, St Margaret of Antioch, and St Catherine of Alexandria.
The standing figure is also William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, a counsellor and emmisary of the boy king, Henry VI of England and titular king of France who was 12 years old when Joan died on May 30, 1431. Suffolk’s link to Joan was as commander of the English siege of Orléans. After Joan lifted the siege Suffolk retreated to Jargeau and surrendered to French troops in June,1429. He was kept prisoner until ransomed two years later, probably after Joan’s death.
After his return to England from captivity, Suffolk, along with Cardinal Henry Beaufort, became a principal power behind Henry VI, who was considered a weak and ineffective ruler of the English throne. It is Suffolk’s link to Beaufort that identifies one of the guises of the seated man wearing his cardinal-red gown – Henry Beaufort.
Beaufort was present at the trial of Joan of Arc and her burning. It is reported that before her death Joan was dispossessed of two rings (it was felt by some that the rings were the source of her visions and associated powers). One of the rings is said to have been passed on to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, a ‘collector of treasures’ and a regular source of financial loans to the English crown.
During her trial Joan was questioned about her rings. This excerpt was translated from the original Latin and French documents by W. P. Barrett:
Asked if she herself did not have some rings, she replied to us, bishop [Pierre Cauchon]: “You have one of mine; give it back to me.” She said the Burgundians have another ring; and she asked us, if we had her ring, to show it to her.
Asked who gave her the ring which the Burgundians had, she answered her father or her mother; and she thought the names Jhesus Maria were written thereon; she did not know who had them written; she did not think there was any stone in it; and she was given the ring at Domrémy. She said that her brother gave her the other ring which we had and she charged us to give it to the Church. She said she never cured any one with any of her rings.
Asked of what substance one of her rings was, on which the words Jhesus Maria were written, she answered that she did not properly know; and if it was of gold, it was not of fine gold; and she did not know whether it was of gold or brass; she thought there were three crosses, and to her knowledge no other signs save the words Jhesus Maria.
Asked why she gladly looked at this ring when she was going to battle, she answered that it was out of pleasure, and in honor of her father and mother; and having her ring in her hand and on her finger she touched St. Catherine who appeared before her.
The ring given to Joan by her parents is said to be of the kind traditionally given to chldren when they make their “First Holy Communion”. It is a token of a “spiritual marriage” between the child and the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
It is believed Joan wore her communion ring on the index finger of her left hand – and in the painting we see Joan extending the index finger of her left hand towards Cardinal Henry Beaufort as if to repeat the words she spoke at her trial: “You have one of my rings. Give it back to me!”
The ancient Greek god Hermes, sculpted by Augustin Pajou.
Musée du Louvre
the ring returns home
In February 2016, a ring claimed to have belonged to Joan of Arc was sold at auction in London for £300,000. The buyer was a company that operates an amusement park in France called Le Puy du Fou which is structured on historic themes.
The ring, pictured alongside, fits the description given by Joan during her trial. It was a gift from her parents to celebrate the occasion of Joan’s First Holy Communion. However, there is an ongoing legal dispute. Although the ring is now back in France, the British Government has demanded its return because under European regulations an export license was never applied for or issued. The new owners have rejected the request for the return of the ring. Details HERE.
photo: Timeline Auctions
devil in the detail
Twenty-one years after Joan’s death a posthumous retrial was ordered by Pope Callixtus III. Investigations began in 1452 and a formal appeal was made in 1445. In June 1456 the inquisitor described Joan as a martyr and found bishop Pierre Cauchon guilty of heresy for having convicted the innocent Joan in pursuit of his own agenda. The court declared Joan innocent on July 7, 1456.
Petrus, but more probably at the instigation of the patron René d’Anjou, has included references in the painting that suggest evidence at Joan’s trial may have been suspect and even tampered with.
The gold-patterened gown is of a style and richness worn by women of royalty and high rank, and therefore would not be associated with a person from the peasant ranks such as Joan. She has been carefully hidden in the painting completed in 1449, just 18 years after Joan’s death and fall from grace. I will speculate on the possible reason for this later in the presentation, but it is clear that the patron and the painter had some understanding that Joan had been undermined by those in charge of her trial and condemnation, perhaps even extending to Cardinal Henry Beaufort, the man who took possession of Joan’s rings to add to his collection of riches, hinted at by the display of precious jewels and metals revealed behind the green curtain.
However it was Couchon who took the blame for the deceit discovered in the retrial and not Beaufort. The cardinal died in 1447 and so was unable to give evidence or testify in the “nullification trial”. It is also interesting that the painting which points a finger at Beaufort was completed two years after his death, possibly suggesting that the patron René d’Anjou, an ally of Joan and who had fought alongside her, had known the original trial was rigged, that darnel had been sown amongst the wheat by the enemy.
Back to the gold gown and its plant pattern of leafy stems and ripening pods, symbolising a rich harvest. But all is not as it seems. The kingdom of heaven has had its field of good seed contaminated by the enemy. Darnel does indeed grow among the wheat and is difficult to recognise the difference between the two. But there is trail that leads to the root of the problem and this is depicted on the left arm of the woman, descending from the flowering pod next to the man’s hand on Joan’s shoulder down to the horned features of the ‘face’ seeking to hide beneath the cuff of the sleeve.
Above the cuff of Joan’s left sleeve and her hand pointing in the cardinal’s direction is another subtle reference to a lying tongue and a black heart, about to be cut out with a pike resembling the French fleur de lys symbol – a pun on lys and lies.
Another ‘poison’ motif bordering various edges of the gown is the alchemy symbol for cinnabar, a source of Mercury-sulfide that produces a red pigment sometimes used by painters in preparing a base for overlaying a gold colour. It can be highly toxic to human beings. It is also associated with the red plant pigment referred to as “dragon’s blood”. The cinnabar symbol resembles the numeral 3 as shown in the image alongside.
A more positive symbol is the bird, possibly a goldfinch, bursting from one of the pods alongside a bright golden beam of light reflected on the gold fabric. The goldfinch (amongst thorns) is a sign of resurrection.
As for the cardinal who appear oblivious to any charge of consipracy, the artist/patron depicts Beaufort holding the scales of justice and the balance weighing in favour of the ring, perhaps even indicating that there is ‘blood’ on the gold ring with the hint of a reflection from his cardinal-red robe.
But the charge against the cardinal doesn’t end there. It is claimed his penchant for rings went as far as coveting the Ring of the Fisherman, the ring worn by Popes. A close inspection of the knot resting on the index finger of his left hand on which the scales of justice are balanced, show the tie to be a fisherman’s knot.
The alchemy symbol for Cinnabar, shown as an edging motif on the gold gown.
Finally, the hook-shape end in one sense represents the call for priests to be fishers of men; in another it may imply the role played by the cardinal in Joan’s trial, that her life was hanging by a thread in Beaufort’s hand. The hook-shape and its descender is a reverse of the style of the letter J used by Joan in signing her name.
disguise led to death
It should be remembered that at the time the Goldsmith in his Shop was completed in 1449, the nullification trial of Joan of Arc was still some years off. Her innocence had still not been declared by the Church and was unlikely to be even considered by her opponents who had and still supported the English crown. So it is doubtful that the woman in the room was meant to be recognisable as Joan in her features. If anyone, more probably René’s daughter Margaret.
Petrus and his patron lived in dangerous times when allegiances could switch as often as day turns to night. Three of the portrayed characters came to bloody ends, the Duke of Suffolk just months after the painting was completed. Henry VI died in mysterious circumstances when he was held captive in the Tower of London, and Joan was martyred at the stake.
Little wonder that Petrus and René have heavily disguised the symbolism that identifies Joan. But perhaps there was another reason – to emphasise the ‘disguised’ role adopted by Joan on her mission, especially her male attire, a ‘crime’ for which she was eventually convicted by Church authorities.
The Met Museum’s description of the painting refers to the figures in the mirror as “two young men with a falcon”. Van der Welden descibes the reflection as “a gentleman and his falconer”. Art historian Maryann Wynn Ainsworth also assumes the two figures are both men. However, the figure on the right is a woman – Joan of Arc – disguised as a man! She is paired with Robert de Baudricourt, who escorted Joan from Vaucouleurs to Chinon to meet with the Dauphin and future French king, Charles VII.
Sat in the corner... a mirror that reflects light on a major narrative in the painting.
It was before setting out on her journey from Vaucouleurs that Joan switched to wearing men’s clothes to replace the red dress she wore when she arrived. Bertrand de Poulegny, who served as one of her escorts explains: “...I and Jean de Metz, with the help of the other people of Vaucouleurs, arranged that she give up her female clothes, which were red in colour, and we had them make for her a tunic and male clothing, spurs, greaves, a sword, and the like, and also a horse...”
Allen Williamson notes that it was dangerous for women to travel through disputed territory without a disguise and standard practice to dress women in male clothing if done out of necessity, for which the medieval Church granted exemption.
Vita Sackville-West (St Joan of Arc) says Joan “arrived at Chinon dressed in a black doublet, a short black tunic...”
In the mirror image above Petrus has indicated Joan’s red dress, underneath the black doublet. To further the disguise Jean also had her hair cropped to resemble the style of a soldier. In the painting this is represented as headwear with a decoy bird attached. All this was done so as not to draw undue attention to Joan’s femininity. Even for anyone observing the painting in present times it appears that the disguise is good enough for many to assume that the ‘falconer’ is a male.
Robert de Baudricourt’s role was to protect Joan on the dangerous six-day journey to Chinon to meet with the Dauphin – hence his protective arm extending in front of Joan as a shield or armour plate, and also suggesting she is ‘harnessed’ to him (as the falcon is harnessed to the protective sleeve worn by Joan on her left arm). The word ‘harness’ is a description given to medieval armour. It serves as a ‘membrane’ for attaching armour plate. The French translation for harness is ‘baudrier’. It can also mean ‘sling’ and usually refers to a strip of fabric that acts as a shoulder strap. From this we can recognise the link from ‘baudrier’ to the name of Baudricourt and pick up on the iconography used by Petrus to make the connection.
The chin-strap, chain collar and black belt are all forms of harnesses. That the man is assigned three is not without significance. Not only do they refer to Baudricourt (and the three requests made to him by Joan) but also serve as links to René d’Anjou who commissioned the painting and whose daughter is depicted as one of the identities represented by the woman in the shop.
Baudricourt also supplied Joan with a horse and a sword. The horse is referenced by the stable building with it’s half door and arc above. The sword is depicted in the cross window frame above Bauldricourt. The arched doorway may also be considered as a reference to the Porte de France, the town gate of Vaucouleurs which Joan and her escort passed through on February 13, 1429, to start their journey to Chinon.
So why should Petrus and his patron include such minute detail about Joan’s disguise? It can only be to highlight the hypocrisy of the court that set out to find her guilty on a charge of cross-dressing after she had been entrapped into wearing male clothes when her dress was removed from her prison cell following her trial. For this she was executed.
While Church authorities set about warning the people about the dangers of the works of the devil and all that he offers the world, it was the determination of Joan’s accusers, bishops of the Church, who failed to heed their own preaching, “like looking at your own features in the mirror and then, after a quick look, gong off and immediately forgetting what you looked like” (James 1 : 23-24).
This is the principle narrative presented in the painting – entrapment by false claims and attachments disguised as ‘truth’. More about this later in the presentation.
The ‘Porte de France’ still stands at Vaucouleurs.
An enlarged version of the woman in the mirror portrayed in the Petrus Christus painting: A Goldsmith in his Shop.
Could this be a mirror image of Joan of Arc, painted less that two decades after her death under the patronage of René d’Anjou, a person she was acquainted with?
The depiction of Joan reflects a pose similar to St Eligius at his workbench.
face to face with joan?
René d’Anjou was known to Joan. He rode with the Maid in the attack on Paris in September 1429. When Joan was injured by a crossbow bolt, René sheltered her at one of his houses in a Paris suburb. It is probable that as a commander in the French army there would be other occasions for René to share the company of Joan. Known for his creative talents in both writing and painting, could the likeness above be a ‘mirror image’ of Joan as visualised by René, albeit some two decades later?
The mirror is also symbolic of prophecy. What is the vision implied by the artist as Joan appears to look through the mirror, striking a similar pose as the man with his scales gazing to heaven? Her proximity to Baudricourt provides the answer.
Joan had made two previous visits to Robert de Baudricourt to try and convince the captain of Vaucouleurs to take her to meet the Dauphin. He refused on each occasion. However, when Joan made her third visit she revealed knowledge of an incident that happened on the same day – a French attack on an English supply convoy. The ambush took place near Rouvray, north of Orléans. Although heavily outnumbered the English inflicted defeat on the French. As the supplies consisted mainly of fish to be eaten during the approaching season of Lent, the incident became known as the Battle of the Herrings.
It was on the same day, February 12, 1429, that Joan informed Baudricourt, without going into any detail, that the King had suffered a great loss near Orléans. A few days later a messenger arrived at Vaucoulers with confirmation of the defeat. It is claimed that Joan’s prophecy prompted Baudricourt to respond to her wishes for him to provide an escort to Chinon.
The osprey perched on Joan’s arm is also a reference to the Battle of the Herrings. It is a bird of prey which survives mainly on a diet of fish and is sometimes referred to as a fish-hawk. The herringbone pattern around the frame of the mirror is another reference.
Late 15th century depiction of Joan wearing armour, from a manuscript of Charles, Duke of Orléans.
A sculpted head recovered in 1827 from the ruins of St Elijah church in Orléans. There is belief that it was modelled on the likeness of Joan of Arc.
An artist’s decpiction of the Battle of the Herrings which took place near Orléans
the father of the bride
I already made mention of René d’Anjou as having commissioned the painting by Petrus Christus, and his input into the various narratives. The most obvious connection is his relationship as “father of the bride” to Margaret d’Anjou, the woman in the goldsmith’s shop standing next to the man depicted as both King Henry VI, Margaret’s husband, and in another guise as William de le Pole who, as Earl of Suffolk and Henry’s proxy, stood beside Margaret when she was betrothed to the English king at Tours on May 14, 1444. That was five years before the painting was signed and dated by Petrus. The arranged marriage was a move designed to bring peace between England and France.
order of the crescent
The presence of René is also found in references to the Order of the Crescent, a chivalric fraternity he founded in 1448. Its crescent emblem was normally attached to a collar of three chains. The three ‘harness’ features on the man in the mirror is a reference to René, as it the chain itself around his neck. There are ‘crescent’ shapes in the mirror itself: the reflection from the seated man’s sleeve and the three prominent crescent highlights and shapes of the mirror’s frame. Crescent shapes feature on the group of three coins and its composition. The group of five coins also refer to the Order. There is a very subtle reference in the rim of the lid of the cup that contained the troy weights. As to the reason for the choice of three chains and a crescent for the Order’s symbol, I shall speculate on this elsewhere in presentation.
the crucified heart
Associated with other works of René is the Crucified Heart of Jesus. It is a devotion sometimes represented in art as the five wounds suffered by Christ on the Cross, culminating in his side being pierced. So it is no surprise to find symbolic piecings in some of the iconography, be they pins and nails, birds’ beaks and shark teeth, flame and lightening symbols, cut marks on the table, and a pierced gem stone.
Perhaps the most significant symbol is the pierced heart alongside the Petrus Christus signature. This is likely to be the mark of René d’Anjou confirming his input into the work. As some have rightly observed the heart is attached to a clock escapement. The cross-bar or balance-arm has weights, the stem is fitted with paddles. The heart is finely balanced. It beats out time as a clock does. But it also signifies how the heart’s length of days is subject to the rhythm of the pendulum or swing action set by the Divine Creator of time.
Coat of Arms of René d’Anjou showing the symbol of the Order of the Crescent.
The mark of the Crucified Heart associated with René d’Anjou
Another prominent reference to the Crucified Heart – a devotion more than likely practised by both René and Petrus – is the ‘open wound’ or knot in the wood grain seen in the table surface which, in this sense, represents the cross on which Christ was sacrificed – an altar, in fact. The red girdle, unknotted, is the flow of blood shed from the Crucified Heart. Its pattern of three stripes and twelve diamonds (apostles) are also religious motifs offered for reflection.
The shadow cast by the girdle on the artist’s name Petrus is a reference to a passage from the Acts of the Apostles: “So many signs and wonders were worked among the people at the hands of the apostles that the sick were even taken out into the street and laid on beds and sleeping mats in the hope that at least the shadow of Peter might fall across some of them as he went past.” (Acts 5 : 15); the ‘shadow of Peter’ is a reference to being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.” (Luke 1 : 35).
The red girdle also portrays the blood from sheep and goats prepared for the Passover meal that Yaweh instructed Moses and Aaron have the Jewish people daub on the doorposts and lintel of their houses as a sign to escape the destroying plague he was to inflict on Egypt. (Exodus 12 : 1-14). The Passover is also seen as a foreshadowing of Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross, an eternal ‘marriage’ covenant with God’s people.
Both Petrus and René have signed up for this marriage. Although not written in blood, nevertheless their names are sealed in the blood-red lintel, that supports both cross and altar. They have contracted to serve and sacrifice their lives to Christ and his Crucified Heart.
The positioning of their names also recalls the tradition of marriage stones or lintels, whereby newly-wed couples would have their initials and date of marriage inscribed in a door or window lintel of their new home.
aye, he spoke greek
Hidden in the left sleeve of the man in the red gown is another reference to René, his intials. RDLA (René de l’Anjou). The letters are formed from Greek: rho (R), delta (d), lambada (l) alpha (A). The elbow also points to the mirror. The ‘point’ of the reflected sleeve is directed at the man in the mirror – René. As ‘father of the bride’ he is weighing up the consequences of his daughter’s marriage to Henry VI. It was primarily an arrangement meant to ensure peace between England and France, a sacrifice not just on René’s part but especially for his young daughter who was just 16 years of age when she married Henry at Titchfield Abbey on April 23, 1445.
the bride and the best man
Margaret (meaning pearl) is identified simply by the pearls in her head-dress, but more significantly by the ‘crown’ shown on her left shoulder. Because of Henry’s mental capacity and weakness, it was noticeable after just four years of marriage that the burden of kingship fell on Margaret’s shoulders with the support of Suffolk, hence his arm supporting Margaret on her other shoulder. It is said that Margaret depended heavily on Suffolk and another noticeable indication of this is depicted on her gown. William de le Pole’s coat of arms featured a fess (band) between three leopard’s faces. On Margaret’s gown two leopard’s faces, one on each arm, are placed above her waistband, and a third face below.
A shadow falls across the name of Peter (Petrus).
An 18th century marriage stone.
Hidden in his sleeve, René’s initials in Greek letters.
The crown on the gown...
Coats of Arms, both depicting those of William de le Pole.
henry vi, king of england
Henry VI is depicted in an unassuming, background role in the painting, somewhat as a prop in support of the principal characters. He inherited the throne when only nine months old after his father Henry V had died suddenly at the age of 36, and it seems he was content to allow his cocooned early years extend well into his adult life. As a king he was ineffective and dominated by family and close advisors. He experienced mental health issues which his wife Margaret soon became aware of; so much so that as Queen and consort she became the power behind the English throne with the aid of the likes of the Duke of Suffolk and other close advisors.
Already, by 1449 – the date of the painting, Henry was being weighed down by competing claims on his crown which eventually led to the War of the Roses. It appears that Henry VI had no interest in war games. He preferred a peaceful life of religious pursuits and founding educational institutions.
As to some of the iconography depicting Henry VI, his often troubled state of mind is shown by his hat brooch. The group of precious stones represent the five inner wits associated with medieval thought: will, mind, imagination, understanding and reason. It can be clearly seen that the main red stone has become detached from the four supporting pearls of wisdom, suggesting that all is not as it should be with Henry’s state of mind.
The brooch may also be a ‘displacement’ symbol suggesting that Henry VI, the centre of power, does not have the full support of those closest to him.
The top half of Henry’s blouse forms the shape of a shield. It is white and a symbol of a pure heart. The shield both depicts and protects the heart of Henry. The gold collar is linked in a way to represent chain mail so that the shape of the shield forms a gorget, a protective collar that forms part of a suit of armour. The ‘V’ shape is the roman numeral 5, representing Henry V. Attached to the V collar is another link and a descending chain representing Henry VI as the sole descendant of Henry V; and linked to this is a motif of seemingly two lions rampant. One of them is winged but it is difficult to clearly define define the animal on the right side. It could be that both ‘lions’ represent the Houses of York and Lancaster, challenging each other for the English throne. This part of the pendant is portrayed against a dark background, and is an indication of the upcoming descent into chaos and conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster. It also fits with the man being depicted as Hermes, the Greek god who carried souls into the underworld.
There is another interpretation that can be given to the V chain and white blouse. A royal badge adopted by Henry VI was that of a chained swan, This heraldic motif was also used by his father Henry V and grandfather Henry VI. A close examination of the white blouse underneath the chain reveals three impressions of a feather, perhaps alluding to the lineage of Henry VI.
Below this we see Henry’s left hand gripping the hilt of his sword. The ‘coronet’ signifies the canopy under which Henry was crowned King Henry II of France at Notre Dame, Paris, on December 16, 1431. The protruding screw suggests that the sword’s pommel, a jewel of some kind is missing. This alludes to two scenarios, both involving Cardinal Henry Beaufort who crowned Henry in Paris and witnessed his marriage to Margaret at Titchfield Abbey in April 1445. At Henry’s coronation in Paris, the Cardinal presented the king with a gold ring crowned with a red jewel – the jewel missing from the canopy or the sword’s pommel.
For his marriage to Margaret at Titchfield Abbey, Henry issued this directive; “A ring of gold, garnished with a fair ruby, sometime given to us by our beloved uncle the Cardinal of England, with which we were sacred in the day of our Coronation at Paris, delivered unto Matthew Philip, to break and thereof to make another ring for the Queen’s wedding ring.”
The ring being weighed on the goldsmith’s scales is the jewel removed from the canopy (the Mount) and represents The Crucified Heart on the Cross (the sword), pierced by groups of three nails depicted as fleur de lys. (This motif is repeated on a group jewels mounted between the two shelves.) It is also symbolic of Salvation and Resurrection. The coronation ring has been ‘broken’ and sacrificed, made anew, given new life to become the bond and new covenant between God and mankind – an eternal marriage to the everlasting Bridegroom. Christ as the Bridegroom is the major narrative of the painting.
The Crucified Heart appears to be a favourite devotion of René d’Anjou as it also present in some form in other works he is associated with. There are more examples ‘disguised’ in this particular painting.
Hugo van der Velden has suggested that the identity of the goldsmith in the Petrus painting may be William van Vlueten of Bruges. A more suitable candidate would be Matthew Philip who later became Lord Mayor of London in 1463. However, in this instance, the ‘jeweller’ portrayed is more likely to be Cardinal Henry Beaufort. Close inspection of the gold ring on the weighing pan reveals a red reflection from the cardinal-red gown of the jeweller as if the artists is acknowledging the Beaufort connection to the ring in both scenarios.
in the beginning was the Word
Before pointing to some of the iconography identifying St Eligius, a more appropriate point for starting out on the discovery trail is to take on board the message Petrus presents by having drawn back the green curtain to reveal a curious mix of metals and precious stones displayed for the world to see. The display is varied but arranged in a precise manner, suggesting each object is placed not just simply to showcase the goldsmith’s talent (or even that of the painter) but to serve also as visual aids in comprehending the painting’s theme.
It is said that most answers in life can be discovered through prayer; the obvious visual sign of prayer in this section of the painting is the string of crystal beads stretched and suspended from the top shelf.
There are 18 in total. A nail seperates four beads. The numbers provide a Scripture reference – the first 18 verses in chapter 4 of Luke’s Gospel, which describe the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness and later his saving mission proclaimed from the scroll he was handed to read in the synagogue, summed up in the words of Isaiah in verse 18:
The spirit of the Lord has been given to me,
for he has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to captives
and to the blind new sight,
to set the downtrodden free,
to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.
The string of beads also refers to the unrollling of the scroll (and therefore his mission) – and can be likened also to a mission statement by the artist (and patron).
The synagogue or temple is indicated by the proximity of the reliquary and its pelican symbol on the roof of the dome portrayed as the Temple in Jerusalem – a possible pointer to its custodians of the time. The symbol is not only a Christian reference to the saving sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, but is also a Jewish symbol associated with the mourning of Zion and referred to in the ‘prayer of the downtrodden’ found in Psalm 102, 6-8.
I live in the desert [wilderness] like the pelican,
in a ruin like the screech owl,
I stay awake lamenting
like a lone bird on the roof;
my enemies insult me all day long,
those who used to praise me now use my name as a curse.
The first section of chapter 4 in Luke’s gospel (1-13) describes when Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days and put to the test three times by the devil.
The first temptation placed before Jesus is when the devil says to him: “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf.” Jesus replies, “Scripture says that man cannot live by bread alone.”
The second temptation is when Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. The devil claims them as his own and all their power and the glory is his to give. “Worship me, then, and it shall all be yours.” But Jesus responds: “Scripture says, ‘You must worship the Lord your God, and him alone.’”
The Temple is referred to in the third temptation when the devil uses Scripture (the word of God) to challenge Jesus and prove he is the Son of God by throwing himself from the Temple parapet. Jesus responds: “You must not put the Lord God to the test.”
The themes presented in Luke’s gospel passage: temptation, false belief and misplaced faith, the power and glory of kingship, and the proclamation of the Good News that offers freedom to those enslaved by evil, are echoed throughout the painting.
It is also interesting to note that when the devil attempts to disguise his deceit by quoting scripture (placing the word of God in a false context and light), Jesus, as the Word, responds with Scripture in a true light. And so with the objects displayed on the bottom shelf. While on the surface some are perceived and presented as possessing powers beyond their intended purpose and so become articles of superstion and false belief, Petrus, in turn, also presents them in the light of the Christian message. The bottom shelf itself is also well lit and has a light backdrop in contrast to the background behind the objects on the top shelf. However, even the background on the bottom shelf can be considered as a somewhat false light designed to draw attention only to the ‘charms’ and precious array of pearls, jewels and rings, while the top-shelf items merge into the dark background. So what’s on the bottom shelf that could be considered paganistic?
Maryan Ainsworth, in her book, Petrus Christus (Metropolitan Museum of New York), describes the scene:
“...the diversity of finely crafted objects at the right in the painting serves as a kind of advertisement for the goldsmith’s guild. Included are raw materials of the trade – coral, crystal, porphyry, open sacks of seed pearls, precious stones, and a string of bead – and finished products made from them – brooches, rings, and a belt buckle. Of special note are the pair of ‘serpent’s tongues’ (actually fossilized shark’s teeth) hanging on the wall, which were supposed to change colour when dropped into liquids or foods containing poison. They were combined with coral in decorative pieces that had an apotropaic function. The cup partially hidden by the curtain is made out of coconut which was also used as an antidote to poison.”
In pagan cricles strings of crystal beads were placed on hedges and trees and hung across windows to ward off evil; pebbles, crystal wands and coral branch were also part of the pagan’s amoury for protection. Various supernatural powers were also attributed to gemstones.
It’s at this stage that we can resurrect St Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths, and start to identify some of the painting’s features associated with him
St Eligius served as chief counsellor to Dagobert 1, Merovingian king of France. After his appointment as bishop of Noyen-Tornai in 645 Eligius had to contend with pagan practices and superstions in his diocese and beyond, and so over many years undertook the conversion of the Flemings and Frisians and other Germanic tribes to Christianity.
His biblical namesake, the prophet Elijah, also confronted pagan practices, notably the challenge from the priests and followers of Baal. The confrontation continued until eventually Elijah questioned the people and priests: “How long will you go on limping with two opinions? If the Lord is God, then follow him, but if Baal, follow him.” (1 Kings 18 : 21)
Elijah then proposed a test of power between Baal and Yaweh and ordered two altars to be built and sacrifices made on Mount Carmel. The test was that the priests who worshipped Baal had to call on their god to light the fire for the sacrifice made on their altar. The priest of Baal prayed and danced all day, cutting themselves in the process and adding their blood to the sacrifice. But the sacrifice was not lit. In turn Elijah called for water to be poured out on his altar until the sacrifice was completely drenched. He then prayed to God to accept the sacrifice. Fire fell from the sky and the sacrifice and the stones of the altar were consumed by the fire.
This is the scene depicted in the painting behind the left shoulder of Eligius. The two shelves represent the two altars. The bottom altar bathed in light is the altar dedicated to Baal represented by the items associated with pagan belief. The top shelf with its fiery red backdrop represents the altar built by Elijah. Notice not one, but two water pitchers, symbolic of a drenched altar. The top shelf also shows a ciborium for storing communion wafers and a half-hidden bowl to hold communion wine.
The latter had special significance for the painting’s patron René d’Anjou who was said to have collected ‘Grail’ cups. One particular grail cup that René possessed was made of red porphyry. It was reputed to have been used at the Cana Wedding, attended by the mother of Jesus and where her Son gave the first of his ‘signs’ by changing water in wine. Unfortunately I am not able to closely examine the detail of the cup half-hidden behind the green curtain, but it does have a reflective surface and there appears to be an inscription or pattern of some kind at its base. It is also incised at five levels around its circumference.
So why are the perceived pagan objects bathed in the light of God? Is it a false light? Only when the objects are seen and applied for pagan and superstitious practices. Scripture teaches that God created the world and in his sight “it was good”. It is not the objects that are evil, only the intention when applied to false worship and belief, thereby setting aside God’s purpose of good for his creation.
That there are two altars depicted on the wall coincides with a third ‘altar’ reference, that of the shop counter on which objects are also placed. The three altars recall the Gospel account of when Jesus was transfigured on a mountain and conversed with the prophets Elijah and Moses in the presence three of his disciples, Peter, James and John, . It was Peter (Petrus) who said to Jesus: “Master, it is wonderful to be here; so let us make three tents (shrines/altars), one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Luke 9 : 33)
With the mention of Moses this connection introduces a third sacrificial scene into the painting – the Passover meal – when Yaweh gave instructions to Moses (and Aaron) as to what the Israelites must do to escape the destroying plague he would inflict by striking down all the first-born in the land of Egypt.
They were told that on the day of the Passover each family, each household, must slaughter either a male sheep or goat not more than one year old, the blood of which must be daubed on the doorposts and lintel of their houses. This is portrayed by the red flowing girdle laid on the counter.
The flesh of the animal was to be eaten, roasted over a fire, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The roasted fire is represented by the string of crystal ‘firestones’.
Below this are the bitter herbs, the selection of jewels placed on the unleavened bread. And it can be understood from this just why Petrus placed the shark’s tooth, an antidote to the bitter taste of some poisons, next to the ‘bitter herbs’.
Above the string of firestones is what some have described as a buckle. It may even be a purse. This is the meat of the sheep or lamb being roasted over the fire.
The two ‘wands’ form the numeral 11 – a possible reference to chapter 11 in the Book of Exodus where Yaweh explains to Moses his intention to pass through Egypt and implement the tenth plague. The wands lean on the back wall and their shadows give the appearance of gable ends of a roof or tent. If superimposed the double-triangles would form a six-pointed star. This would also correspond to the six items arranged on the seder plate presented at the Jewish Passover meal.
However, a more likely meaning is that the two triangles represent the ‘Shield of David’, for alongside are seemingly two pebbles (groats), and beside them the coral ‘catapult’ or sling. Combined they refer to David’s slaying of Goliath and victory against the Philistines (1 Samuel 17).
The Passover Seder theme also extends to some of the objects laid out of the counter.
An egg is also part of the ceremonial meal. This is represented by the egg-shaped mirror. It is sometimes decorated and painted red, hence the red refelection of the seated man’s sleeve and also the hatch pattern on the mirror frame. The Easter egg is also symbolic of the empty tomb and Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and so the patron’s belief that Joan of Arc would ascend to heaven despite being condemned to death as a heretic by the Church.
In the course of the Passover Seder four cups of wine are taken. A fifth cup is also placed on the table and filled with wine, but not drunk. It is poured in honour of the prophet Elijah waiting for his return as herald of final redemption. The four cups are represented by the four small brass weights. Elijah’s Cup is the container that the four cups are placed in after use, it’s lid open in expectation of the prophet’s return.
Directly central on a vertical line above the weights’ container, and immediately to the right of Eligius’ head is the ‘coconut’ cup. This may also be a reference to Elijah’s Cup.
Finally, the rings on display in the box in the context of the Passover refers to the time God spoke to Moses about the Passover and said: “Instruct the people that every man is to ask his neighbour, every woman hers, for silver ornaments and gold.” (Exodus 11 :2).
‘Serpent’s tongues’ displayed on a coral branch
The ‘Grail’ cup behind the green curtain.
signs of the life of st eligius
Much of what is known about St Eligius is recorded in manuscripts by his friend St Audion, who was archbishop of Rouen. It is these texts that are the source for most of the iconography in the Petrus painting appertaining to the seventh century metal-worker, bishop, confessor and saint in the Petrus painting. An english translation of Vita St Eligius is provided by Jo Ann McNamara at Fordham Universtity’s Medieval Sourcebook under the title: The Life of St Eligius, 588-660. Another source used by Petrus is the First Book of the Kings that records the life and deeds of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. St Eligius is also known by the name Eloy or Eloi.
Here I will quote from The Life of St Eligius to references that point to some of the iconography introduced by Petrus in the painting .
1 Seats of Gold… “After a while, a certain cause brought him to the notice of King Clothar of the Franks. For that king wanted a seat urbanely made with gold and gems but no one could be found in his palace who could do the work as he conceived it. But when the aforesaid royal treasurer had satisfied himself of Eligius's skill of Eligius, he began to investigate whether he might complete the work as it was planned. When he was sure that [Eligius] could easily undertake it, [Bobo] went to the prince and indicated to him that he had found an industrious artisan who was at his disposal for the work without delay. Then the king most readily gave him a great weight of gold which he in turn gave to Eligius. Having taken it, he began the work immediately and with diligence speedily completed it. And from that which he had taken for a single piece of work, he was able to make two. Incredibly, he could do it all from the same weight for he had accomplished the work commissioned from him without any fraud or mixture of siliquae, or any other fraudulence. Not claiming fragments bitten off by the file or using the devouring flame of the furnace for an excuse, but filling all faithfully with gems, he happily earned his happy reward. For having brought the completed piece to the palace he gave one seat to the king and kept the other back. The king began to marvel and praise such elegant work and ordered that the craftsman be paid in a manner worthy of his labor. Then Eligius produced the other in their midst: "I have made this piece," he said, "from the gold which I might have lost through negligence." The king was thunderstruck with even greater admiration and questioned the other workmen whether any of them could do the same from the original weight and accepted the answer he got from them acknowledging the sublime favor of his skill: "From this, you will believe in the utmost." And indeed this was the origin in the royal palace of honoring and believing the testimony of Eligius. From this of course, the goldsmith rose and his work was always most wonderfully done with the most learned skill, and he began to find increased favor in the king's eyes and the presence of his optimates. By the Lord's will, his faith was strengthened and, stimulated by the king, he grew to the better every day.”
• In the Petrus painting the two chairs of gold are presented as ecclesiatical seats – cathedrals – seats of wisdom and majesty, mounted on top of the two water pitchers. They also refer to the coverings Eligius crafted in particular for the sepulchres of St Martin of Tours and St Briccio “where the body of of St Martin had formerly lain.”
And to the left of the pitchers is a crested ciborium, a reference to the mauseleum “for the holy martyr St Denis in the city of Paris with a wonderful marble ciborium over it marvelously decorated with gold and gems. He composed a crest (at the top of the tomb) and a magnificent frontal and surrounded the throne of the altar with golden axes in a circle. He placed golden apples there, round and jeweled.”
2 An angel with a prudent look... “He was tall with a rosy face […] the face of an angel and a prudent look.”
• The goldsmith is depicted having a particular rosy right cheek as he contemplates his actions.
3 A book before his eyes... “Sitting at the work, he propped open a book before his eyes so that even while laboring he might receive divine mandates. Thus he performed double offices, his hands to the uses of man and his mind bound to divine use.”
• Not a book in sight, but instead a mirror to provide a reflective view and thoughts.
4 Looking up... “And when he was struck by some sacred words, you would see him suddenly raise his eyes to the sky.”
• The goldsmith looks upwards to the heavens as if distracted by some inner locution.
5 Finding holy martyrs... “Among other miracles of his virtue it was conceded to that most holy man from the Lord that the bodies of holy martyrs, which had until then been hidden from the people through many ages, were brought to light when he investigated and searched with the great ardour of his faith... Among them first and foremost the holy martyr Quentin was sought with great urgency in the beginning of his episcopate... Having found the holy body, Eligius kissed it with tears of joy and raising it from the depths of the ground he divided the desired relics into eleven parts. As he extracted the teeth from the jaws, a drop of blood flowed out from the root of each tooth.”
• St Quentin is sometimes depicted as being attached to two vertical beams, and so forming the numeral 11, the same numeral made by the two crystal wands on the lower shelf which are surrounded by eleven groups of ‘relics’.
6 Righting a wrong... “Eligius with unruffled spirit, scolded his servants more harshly for what they had done and ordered them to give the man three gold pieces for the substance he had lost.”
• The ‘three gold pieces’ are placed next to the mirror.
7 Gold and Sacred Scripture... “Often he entered into the meetings of the church giving gold to whomever was there reciting the sacred scripture which he longed eagerly to bury within the memory of his heart so that even when he was absent he might ruminate with intense meditations on what he had heard.”
• There are several biblical references in the painting but one in particular, lends itself to this text – the box of rings. Its roof-shaped angle is supported inside by three colums representing the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. The thirteen gold rings give added strength to the three everlasting virtues and mark the passage from the Book of Proverbs, 3 : 13, an exhortation on the joys of Wisdom.
Happy the man who discovers wisdom, the man who gains discernment: gaining her is more rewarding than silver, more profitable than gold. She is beyond the price of pearls, nothing you could covet is her equal. In her right hand is length of days; in her left hand riches and honour.
The mention of a ‘right hand’ and ‘length of days’ may be another reference to Joan of Arc and her short life shown by the length of the fingers of her right hand.
The crested ciborium, composed of axes and golden apples.
“He would suddenly raise his eyes to the sky...
more on hermes
Earlier in the presentation I mentioned one of the identities assigned to the standing male is the Greek mythology god Hermes.
Some of his atributes link him to other characters and situations in the painting. He is known as a messenger of the gods and in this guise can be identified with Henry VI’s emissary William de la Pole and also Joan of Arc who claimed she received messages, “voices from heaven”.
Linked to Hermes is the fact that the artist Petrus has presented the characters in his painting as half-figures, in the style of a Greek statue known as a ‘herm’ which generally features the bust or head of the subject, usually a deity, mounted on a pedestal. The Roman equivalent is known as a terminal, derived from the god Terminus, protector of boundaries.
The significant difference between the two types is that the Herm usually includes a phallus at the appropriate place. Hermes was a phallic god and this is depicted in the Petrus painting by the man’s hand grasping the hilt of his sword. As a god associated with fertility this feature may also allude to the union of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou, still childless after four years of marriage when the painting was completed in 1449. It wasn’t until 1453 when a son was born to the couple – Edward Prince of Wales – their only child.
The boundaries reference also connects in another way to William de la Pole who negotiated the marriage contract of Henry and Margaret. In this he secretly agreed that the lands of Maine and Anjou should be returned by the English Crown to France. The two windows above the couple represent the two provinces. The lozenge pattern is symbolic of sown fields. The pattern also symbolises fertility, and perhaps a hint by the painter that the union between Henry and Margaret (England and France) had yet to produce fruit or the peace hoped for between the two countries.
It is said that Hermes was born at the dawning of the day, hence the rooster as one of his attributes. This is depcited in the Petrus painting by the twisted cover and comb features of the reliquary placed above the box of rings. It is also representative of the dawn call to prayer in Islamic faith as well as the betrayal of Christ by Peter when the cock crowed three times.
The main symbol associated with Hermes is the winged caduceus, usually in the form of two snakes wrapped around a winged staff. This association is presented in two forms in the Petrus painting. The twisted snakes feature is shown as an extention of the requliary cover – a double headed snake with open mouth ready to consume the young pelicans in their nest. The second depiction is the pendant worn by the standing man, but instead of snakes, two winged creatures, likely a lion and a gryphon, are attached to the descending gold chain (a staff).
The descent of the chain and pendant from a light background to one of darkness is a reference to Hermes as a guide of souls into the Underworld.
In some myths Hermes is depicted as a trickster and even a patron of thieves. This is also illustrated in the painting and I shall discuss this in my next post as it explains the principle reason why Petrus and the painting’s sponsor René d’Anjou have included the Greek god in the scene as a key to revealing another surprising subject.
cards on the table
Sometime in 1449, the year Petrus dated his painting, Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine and wife of René d’Anjou, received a set of playing cards from Jacopo Antonio Marcello, a Venetian emissary. Whatever the motive or incentive may have been for presenting the gift it intimates that Isabella probably had an interest in playing cards.
Card playing was enjoyed by all social classes during this period, but its popularity also encouraged gambling, opportunity for cheating and other unsociable behaviour; so much so that at times prohibitions were imposed by authorities and some aspects of the pastime were regarded as sinful by the Church.
A variety of decks and games existed but the set given to Isabella was devised around 1425 by Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and known as Trionfi (Triumph) – said to be the forerunner of the tarot card decks.
The deck consisted of 60 cards – four kings, forty number cards and sixteen trumps. The forty-four suited cards featured birds – an eagle, dove, turtle dove and phoenix – and each of the sixteen trump cards was faced with a Greco-Roman ‘celestial hero’.
It’s likely that this particular deck, as well as Spanish and French versions of Triomphe, not only inspired some of the iconography in the Petrus painting, but also its structure and composition.
This explains the painting’s pointers to one of the identities of the standing male as Hermes and why the other figures and their guises are portrayed in the style of Greek herms but in a Christian sense as ruling by Divine authority, or as saints and holy people placed on pedestals.
Variations of coins, cups, swords and wands were common motifs for illustrating number cards in other decks, along with court cards of kings, queens, pages and/or knights, and a separate card showing a fool or conjuror (joker).
As further evidence that the Petrus painting references the Visconti deck I quote a translation in English made in 2003 by historian Ross Caldwell from an abstraction in Italian by Franco Pratesi in 1990 about the Jupiter card, the most senior in the Visconti deck. The original text was written by Martianus de Sankto Alosio around the time the deck was produced under the title: Tractatus De Deificatione Sexdecim Heroum.
“Jupiter: Sitting on a throne, surrounded and provided with 4 heavenly signs in the corners. Above right is the splendour of wisdom and above left the light, with which laws are given, at the right bottom is a bright star like Mars, which shines in those who preserve the state; in the left bottom the thunderbolt.”
Petrus and René combine to illustrate this description in a Christian sense by adopting the same composition and placing their own four signs, some perhaps even similar to those on the Jupiter card, in each corner of the painting as the Martianus description states, and the ‘throned’ man as the central focus.
Jupiter, the seated man in the red gown, is Elijah – St Eligius. His heavenly provision – the four signs – are (1) the grace of Wisdom (water changing into wine) that pours forth from Mother Church and the Gospel message decanted from the two silver vessels, above right on the top shelf; (2) the light of God which transmits through the two windows above left, representing God’s law given to Moses on two tablets; (3) the convex mirror, bottom right, a reflection of René and Joan of Arc, “warriors” who set out to preserve the state or kingdom, be it of France or of God; (4) not the thunderbolt sign of retribution and destruction but one of merciful redemption (the red girdle, below left), an Alpha and Omega symbol placed on the altar (the Cross) and a reference to Revelation 1 : 4-8
The mentioned four birds are also present in the painting, and others besides. Their inclusion relates to the pagan practice of augury – interpreting omens from the flight of birds – and in some instances as Christian symbols.
As with most iconography, meaning can be applied and interpreted differently according to the viewer’s perception and understanding, and even their needs or beliefs. For certain René and Petrus have packed the painting with several narratives.
The four cardinal virtues are represented – prudence, justice, temperance and courage (fortitude) and the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love are there as well. So are the alchemical symbols representing air, earth, fire and water, as is the “philosopher’s stone”.
Filippo Maria Visconti
The Roman god Jupiter
augury and alchemy
A close inspection of the painting reveals several bird references. There is the woman’s divided henin, representative of a dove, and her hair cone is shaped as a bird wing. In the folds of her dress a small bird’s head is seen rising from a cluster of ‘flames’, probably a goldfinch (a bird symbolising resurrection).
The man standing beside her wears a black head cover, winged in appearance, which has a black tail formed by the underside edge of the window shutter. His white blouse is also ‘feathered’ and the left arm of his jacket is wing-shaped and coloured deep blue. A magpie perhaps, and therefore a reference to the predatory and coveting nature of the bird and the claim of Henry VI over French territory. It may also refer to the fact that a percentage of magpies are non-breeders, alluding to the yet childless union of Henry and Isabella.
Two birds are attached to the woman in the mirror: a green parrot on her head and an osprey on her left arm.
The reliquiary is topped with a pelican and above that the handles of the two silver vessels are formed in the shape of a bird’s head and long beak.
René’s interest in alchemy was indicated earlier in the presenation with mention of the cinnabar symbol that formed part of the pattern in the woman’s fold dress. The four basic elements of air, earth, fire and water are shown in the four cylindrical weights.
The basic elements are also represented in another format: Air, as in birds of the air; Earth, as in the minerals and precious stones dug from the ground; Fire, as in the symbols in the gold dress representing the burning of Joan of Arc; Water as contained in one of the vessels on the top shelf.
Another alchemy reference is to the ‘philosopher’s stone’ for changing base metals into gold, and also associated with rejuvenation and immortality. This is the domed mirror in the corner and its hermetic egg symbolism. When cracked, as the mirror is, the egg supposedly releases an elixir of mystical power.
The mirror also represents Prudence, one of the four cardinal virtues. Justice is the seated man with his scales; Courage (fortitude) is represented by the guise of the woman as Joan of Arc, martyred by burning; Temperance is depicted by the two vessels, mixing water with wine.
Already mentioned are the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity represented by the three pillars that form and support the ‘church roof’ as jewels in a jewel box.
The cracked mirror or egg.
the big reveal... the man portrayed as st eligius
One of the more distinct attributes associated with Eligius, often featured in paintings of the saint, is the legend of shoeing a reluctant horse said to have been possessed by demons. To solve the problem Eligius cut off one of the horse’s forelegs and left the animal standing on three. After Eligius had re-shod the hoof on the amputated leg he proceeded to miraculously re-attach it back on the horse!
There are no obvious signs of this ‘miracle’ in the Petrus painting. However, a sign pointing to this legend is mentioned in the Met Museum’s description of the painting:
“The main figure in this enigmatic painting was long identified as Saint Eligius (the patron saint of goldsmiths) due to the presence of a halo, which was recognised as a later addition and subsequently removed. The panel is likely a vocational painting, which portrays the profession of goldsmithing and perhaps a specific goldsmith. Technical analysis reveals the underdrawing of the goldsmith's face to be very carefully modelled—more so than the faces of the couple—indicating the possibility of a portrait. It has been suggested that he is Willem van Vleuten, a Bruges goldsmith who worked for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy.”
It’s not Van Vleuten, but very likely to be someone much closer to the painting’s patron René d’ Anjou and his wife Isabella who are pictured in the mirror: a person who sits at the right hand side of King René, a close confidant, a man of wisdom, a man to be trusted, a councillor and emissary, a knight of the Order of the Crescent, lieutenant-general and seneschal of Provence… Jean (Giovanni) Cossa.
This would explain why “the underdrawing of the goldsmith’s face to be very carefully modelled – more so than the faces of the couple – indicating a possible portrait.” Jean Cossa was on site, so to speak, unlike any of the people identified in the other two figures.
But how does Cossa connect to St Eligius, and particularly to the legend of the severed leg?
Cossa was a baron of Neapolitan origin who served Isabella from 1433, Queen Consort of Naples during Rene’s period of detention by the Burgundian Duke Philip II. He continued to serve the family from thereon until his death in 1476. As seneschal of Provence he was in control of justice and administration affairs.
It is in Cossa’s family’s coat of arms that we discover the answer and the connection to Eligius. It features a severed golden leg which in itself is a reference to the Golden Thigh associated with Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician.
There is much documented evidence that René had a thirst for academic knowledge and the arts and was a collector of books and rare manuscripts. He also painted and produced his own books. It is these interests that sparked a literary friendship with the Venetian diplomat, nobleman and senator Jacopo Antonio Marcello, the person who despatched the set of Trionfini playing cards to René’s wife in November 1449.
Marcello was first recommended to René in a letter despatched in February 1449 from Francesco Sforza, who was married to the Duke of Milan’s daughter Bianca Maria. Sforza and Marcello commanded mercenary forces and had sided together in campaigns. They also combined to support René in his efforts to regain his kingdom of Naples. For this service and diplomatic reasons René enrolled both men into the Order of the Crescent in August 1449.
However, the tripartite friendship of René, Sforza and Marcello came under threat in 1453 when a French armed force under the leadership of René crossed the Alps to join Sforza’s Milanese forces to attack Venice. Marcello’s allegiance to his sovereign state of Venice prompted a last-ditch attempt at diplomacy to prevent René from siding with Sforza, and the Venetian despatched a document to the acting senator of the Crescent Order, Jean Cossa.
Included in the illuminated manuscript titled The Passion of Saint Maurice and his Companions are four full-page illustrations: A scene depicting a meeting of the Order; St Maurice, patron saint of the Order; a cryptic portrait of Marcello; and an elephant carrying a Venetian tower on its back.
Two paintings that portray the legend associated with St Eligius of shoeing the reluctant horse.
The Cossa family shield showing the golden thigh.
All four of these illustrations have features that can be identified in the Petrus painting, including that of Cossa.
In the first illustration, the senator of the Croissant Order is shown on a raised platform. It is no coincidence that the artist has deliberately made a point of depicting the man also raising his eyes heavenward – just as in the Petrus painting. The senator in the illustration is Jean Cossa.
On the back wall of the room, above the gate is an image of the Order’s patron saint, St Maurice, who is shown in detail as the second full-page illustration in the document. He is depicted wearing a winged helmet that also has a sharp comb to echo the Hermes/Apollo figure and the rooster reference featured on the reliquary in the Petrus painting. Then there is the association of religious martyrdom, that of St Maurice and his legion on the order of their emperor Maximiam, with the execution of Joan of Arc, abandoned to her enemies by the king she helped put on the throne. This is a most subtle hint by Marcello to René and Cossa not to turn against him in similar fashion. And this leads on to the third illustration, that of Marcello himself.
It was considered at one time that the profile of the Venetian diplomat with the cryptic message underneath may have indeed been Cossa. There is a copy of the original illustration kept at Bibliothèque nationale de France which belonged to the French collector Roger de Gaignières (1642-1715) and is captioned as Jean Cossa. Although I lean towards Cossa the general consensus now is that the portrait is of Marcello. This uncertainty may have arisen because Marcello does set out to parallel himself with Cossa and has matched some of the symbolism in the Petrus painting. Marcello’s emphasis on parallelism is probably because Petrus and René have combined to construct this theme into their own presentation, most likely influenced by the Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch (c. AD 46 – AD 120) and his best-known work, Parallel Lives.
This also explains the multiplication of identities and the focus on emissaries and messenger roles, for example: St Eligius was counsellor and emissary for Merovingian rulers as well bringing the Gospel message to pagans; Elijah’s role was as a prophet in the biblical sense and an emissary sent by God; Cossa was an emissary for king René and his first wife Isabella; William de la Pole for Henry VI and his wife Margaret; Joan of Arc brought a Divine message to the Dauphin; Hermes was an emissary of the Greek gods; and Marcello an emissary and messenger for the Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia.
The profile mirrors Cossa in the Petrus painting. It is from the waist up. His hair is swept back tight to fit like a skull cap. He wears a red top. His head and eyes look up. The bridge of his nose is emphasised, so is his ear lobe, and he has thin lips. The blue halo is a reminder of the blue jacket behind Cossa. The halo effect is interesting. Art historian Hugo van der Velden wrote: “Petrus Christus’s goldsmith used to be haloed, but in 1993, his aura was removed as a later addition at the museum’s conservation department, its authenticity had been doubted for decades.” More about this at a later date.
Then we come to what has been described as a rampart and its cryptic message underneath the portrait. Both the ‘rampart’ and the message confirm that Marcello was aware of and understood the hidden iconography referring to Joan of Arc and her success at lifting the siege of Orleans. It is a direct message to Cossa and René who were preparing to join forces with Milan and Florence in their war against the Venetians. Was Marcello, loyal to La Serenissima, anticipating a siege against Venice as English forces had laid siege against Orleans for eight months until the intervention of Joan of Arc and “Divine power” freed the town and its citizens.
The rampart is represented in the Petrus painting by the counter, the landscape on which the siege of Orleans is depicted. It also represents Christ’s cross; the red girdle, his flowing blood, (hence the emphasis on the red shoulder ribbons in the Marcello/Cossa portrait); the knot in the wood grain, his heart; echoed by the knot in the ribbon that ties the Croissant Order’s shield to protect the part of the body where the spear is said to have penetrated Christ’s crucified body.
The cryptic message later deciphered by Henry Martin is understood to read: “If my hopes do not deceive me you, Cossa, will not make my country ungrateful to you.”
This is a direct reference to Joan of Arc lifting the siege at Orleans and assisting the French Dauphin to claim his throne as King of France. Joan was later captured by Burgundian forces, ransomed to the English, put on trial and burned at the stake for the perceived ‘crime’ of dressing in men’s clothes. Charles VII, failed to help Joan who, assisted by Divine intervention, secured his crown and had been at the king’s side for his triumphant entry into Rheims. Joan had indeed found her country ungrateful to her.
Marcello continues to make further references to the Petrus painting in the illustration of the elephant and ‘castle’. The ‘castle’ is an accurate representation of Venice’s ducal palace. Venetia, in the role of Lady Justice, is seated on a throne with two lions depicted either side. At her feet are two furies and scales of justice. The is placed above a water feature representing the Venetian Lagoon. These are placed and carried on the back of an elephant. The inference is that not only is Venice just in all its affairs of state, but also triumphant. The illustration depicts the start of a triumphant march, and perhaps a warning to Cossa and René that any declaration of war against Venice will end in defeat. As it was, a peace treaty was eventually established between Milan and Venice.
Perched either side of the roof of the ducal palace building are two shrines that echo the gold shrines seen on the dome lids of the two vessels that appear on the top shelf in the Petrus painting.
The seated Eligius (alias Jean Cossa, seneschal of Provence), scales in hand, and representing Justice, is replicated by the figure of Lady Justice with scales at her feet. Lady Justice is also reflected in the Petrus figure of the standing woman. The face of a lion on each shoulder of her gold garment and the two furies are featured above the cuff of each sleeve (the black-hearted tongue and horned face). Similarly to Venetia, both hands point to signs.
The two main windows either side of the balcony refer to the two windows in the Petrus painting. The brickwork and colonnades are accurate renderings of the ducal palace structure.
The pool or Lagoon represents the Petrus mirror feature, and the two contented ducks are René and his wife Isabella. The two fish in the pool represent the Duchy of Bar which has two fish as its emblem, and formed part of Rene’s territories. The dolphin is a reference to the French Dauphin.
The heron, almost attached to the elephant’s trunk, refers to the handle on the vessels on the top shelf mentioned earlier. The trunk’s shape echoes the shape of the handle on the water vessel with its bird-shaped head and long beak feature.
A blue band ties the structure to the elephant’s back around the front and back legs. This is a reference to the red band or girdle, a symbol of marriage and unification in the Petrus painting. There is also a belt and clasp around the elephant’s middle and its resemblance to a scroll points to the many scripture references in the Petrus painting, but possibly one in particular (John 21 : 8) that hints at the potential war ahead between the three comrades in arms of the same chivalric Order of the Croissant. It may also refer to Psalm 18 and king David’s song of triumph that includes the line: “You have girt me with your strength” (the word of God).
The elephant’s head is turned in conversation with Venetia from above, similar in the way Eligius looks up as if hearing words from heaven. Notice the large lobe of the saint’s ear, mirrored by the large drooping ear of the elephant – signs of listening: As for the banner’s latin inscription (translated by Henry Martin) Venice says to the beast: “I acknowledge that you sustained me when I was falling,” to which the elephant replies: “I deny this for it is by divine power that you escaped.”
This unfurled scroll with its biblical reference points to the unfurled string of beads (and its words from Scripture) stretched across the goldsmith’s display shelf, and is yet another reference to the siege of Orleans and Joan of Arc’s claim that the town escaped by Divine intervention. Orleans was falling, its outposts had been captured, the siege was in its eighth month, supplies were running out, surrender seemed inevitable until Joan arrived on the scene and led the French forces to an unexpected triumph – just as in the Petrus painting and the battle scene on the counter. A plank of wood represents Christ’s cross and the “Divine power” of his triumph over death, celebrated by the Church with an annual feast day known as the Triumph of the Cross.
And here’s another connection to the elephant’s response, found in the motto of Orleans: It is by this heart that lilies flourish. Surely the same sentiment expressed by the elephant: It is by Divine power that you escaped, and a pointer to its biblical origin (Ephesians 2 : 5): It is through grace that you have been saved.
So just how did Marcello acquire such intimate knowledge of some of the hidden iconography in the Petrus painting, especially as it is believed that he never met with René? Perhaps he met with Petrus, known to have visited Italy? Or could it have been Jean Cossa who gave details of the painting to Marcello? It may have been both men. But for a fuller understanding it can only be that Marcello had access to view the painting. And if this was the case, where was the painting displayed after completion? Was the painting a diplomatic gift of some kind made by René in the same way that Marcello sent gifts to René?
I can’t provide an answer to these questions and I must leave this for others to investigate if the Petrus painting found a home in Italy at sometime during its 568 year history.
But I can point out one other feature in the painting that connects it to yet another gift sent by Marcello to René ten years after Petrus had signed and dated his work.
The two hands of René and the left hand of the woman are composed to form an equilateral triangle. The triangle is a reference to Sicily of which René was an absent king, and the island’s Roman name Trinacrium (a star with three points). The triangle also connects back to the mention of Pythagoras and the golden leg symbol associated with Jean Cossa. So the three hands (the star with three points) are there to point to other links.
Marcello understood this and so incorporated the motif in another gift he sent to René in 1459. He also made at least a dozen other references to the Petrus painting, one of them confirming he knew the Petrus goldsmith was intended to represent St Eligius!
I’ve started a new page to explain this in more detail at: PARALLEL LIVES
Marcello also included another image of Cossa in one of the illustrations. He is depicted as a ‘figurehead’, a man behind the power of the throne on which René is seated. Certainly looking ten years older than he was in the Petrus painting, Cossa is painted with his familiar ‘rosy’ face and in far greater detail than René’s son John standing in front of him.
Jean Cossa featured on a medallion made by the Italian artist Francesco Laurana.
St Maurice and his winged helmet
A copy of the cryptic message sent to Cossa by Marcello.
The three-handed triangle that refers to Sicily
The flag of Sicily with the Triskelion symbol showing the head of Medusa and three wheat ears.
Albi, Médiathèque Pierre-Amalric, MS 77, fol. 4r. © Réseau des Médiathèques de l’Albigeois
UPDATE... March 3, 2018 and *August 10, 2019
Compelling reasons to believe that the goldsmith is Eligius… and Petrus Christus
This is an update section to the presentation above, and provides another biblical reference to confirm the goldsmith is Elijah (Kings 19 : 1-8).
* The passage refers to the time Elijah took himself into the wilderness and lay down to sleep. Twice he he woken up by an angel’s touch and fed. “At his head was a scone baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.” (1 Kings 19:6)
The woman in the painting is depicted as an angel with her ‘wings’ headdress. Her left hand touches the shoulder of Elijah. ‘Elijah’s Cup’ is at his head. Alongside the cup is a slice of unleavened bread baked by the string of ‘firestones’. *
The three figures are also depicted a birds… Elijah a night owl, the woman a dove… and the man clutching the woman’s shoulder, a hawk.
These are reflected in the mirror… man, woman and hawk. But the roles, positions and clothes are altered. Now it is the woman behind the man, supporting him at his shoulder and carrying the hawk. Renée d’Anjou and his first wife Isabella.
Another identity Petrus Christus has applied to the goldsmith is that of himself – placed in the shop window, so to speak, and not for the first time.
He is in the forefront of the frame in two other works attributed to the artist: The Lamentation c 1450 (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the Lamentation of Christ 1455-60 (Brussels). Both paintings depict him wearing a red gown and skull hat, as in his goldsmith’s role.
Petrus Christus (Peter Christ) often signs his work with a Chi-Rho monogram, Greek letters for X and P, that represent the first two letters of the word Christ. This symbol is formed in the folds of the goldsmith’s left arm.
The Chi-Rho symbol formed part of the Labarum, a military standard first associated with Constantine the Great. A flag was usually draped below the symbol.
Petrus has depicted a similar symbol below the counter top, using the shape of a heart to represent the flag.