shrouded in mystery
In 2016, when I first posted about the iconography in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, I proposed the scene be viewed as a sanctuary or temple. Several features correspond with the passage from Exodus (25) in which God gives Moses instructions on how to build a temporary sanctuary for the people he was leading out of captivity.
I explained how the prominent mirror is also a sanctuary, and a tabernacle to house the ‘Sacred Bleeding Host of Dijon’. Its reflection represents a group of ‘three wise men’ serving the Duke of Burgundy Philip III and his consort Isabella of Portugal.
Now I am able to reveal another significant aspect of the Arnolfini Portrait, lost in time for at least a century, which correlates with the temple and tabernacle themes in Van Eyck’s ‘double portrait’.
The discovery relates to the linen burial cloth known as the Turin Shroud, and two illustrations depicting the deposition and resurrection of Jesus that appear in the Pray Codex, a Hungarian manuscript produced between 1192 and 1195.
The Turin Shroud bears the image of a crucified man believed by many to be Jesus Christ. Some claim the burial cloth seen in the Pray Codex bears similar features to that of the Turin Shroud.
This presentation is not intended to challenge or verify any claims about the Turin Shroud’s authenticity, but to demonstrate the method and sources used by Van Eyck to incorporate the Shroud as part of his painting’s narrative.
We heard him say, “I am going to destroy this temple made by human hands, and in three days build another, not made by human hands.” Mark 14 : 58
The passage from Mark’s Gospel, along with the two images from the Pray Codex, is the foundation Van Eyck builds on to create his Arnolfini Portrait. “Not made by human hands” is a translation of the Greek word Acheiropoieta, used to describe ‘miraculous’ icons and religious images.
Van Eyck rebuilds his ‘Arnolfini temple’ from the ruins or fragments of other paintings, particularly his own. He sources images made by human hands, takes components from each (as contributions were made by the people to Moses to construct the temporary temple in the desert, Exodus 35) and starts to rebuild – at the same time retaining the essence of the image not made by human hands – the ‘miraculous’ impression associated with the Shroud.
It is interesting to note that Van Eyck is building upon two previously destroyed temples in Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple extensively built by King Herod I. He refers to the Third Temple as the Risen Body of Christ, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and placed in the tabernacle as the central focus of the painting.
The Pray Codex is an important document often referred to by Shroud researchers because it shows an L-shaped group of holes in the depiction of the shroud that can be matched to a similar group on the Turin Shroud. As the manuscript is dated prior to the result of the radiocarbon testing on the Turin Shroud (1260-1390), it is used to challenge the 1988 scientific finding.
The Arnolfini Portrait is dated 1438 on the painting. Nevertheless, it too is an important record in the history of the Shroud. For Van Eyck to have meticulously mirrored many of the features from the page in the Pray Codex, he must have had ample access and time to do this. Did he travel to Hungary, or was the Pray Codex located nearer to home at the time?
THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT
by Jan van Eyck
housed at The National Gallery
Oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm
Left: the page from the Hungarian Pray Manuscript showing the burial and resurrection of Jesus.
Above: the full-length image of the Turin Shroud located at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Turin.
Below: A negative image of the face on the shroud, produced by amateur photographer Secondo Pia in 1898.
The page is divided into two sections. The top half depicts the burial of Jesus in his tomb. Those assisting are Joseph of Arimathea who supplied the shroud, Nicodemus who came with myrrh and aloes to anoint the body, and John the youngest of the apostles. The bottom illustration shows three women, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Mary Salome returning to the tomb with spices and ointments for the body, only to be told by an angel that Jesus is risen.
The group of four holes in the Shroud is seen in the bottom frame. Historians are uncertain as to exactly what these holes signify. They are usually referred to as ‘poker holes’ because there is a general opinion they were made by a hot poker in a ‘trial by fire’ to test the authenticity of the Shroud.
Another take is they represent the three nails used in the crucifixion and the wound made in the side of Jesus by a soldier’s lance. The possible trial by fire ritual may have been based on these wounds with the expectation of some miracle being the outcome.
There is also the reference in the Book of Daniel when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were cast into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar. An angel of the Lord joined the three men and fanned a cool breeze to keep the flames from burning them. Nebuchadnezzar said, “I can see four men walking about freely in the heart of the fire without coming to any harm. And a fourth looks like a son of the gods.” (Daniel 3 : 25). This may have been the criteria for the test on the shroud by a hot poker. If it burns, then the Shroud is fake. If it survives, then the Shroud is genuine.
Jan van Eyck’ opinion, it seems, was that the holes were made by a hot poker. He shows this in the Arnolfini Portrait on the left side of the frame next to the man’s right hip.
Notice the group of four oranges, three together on the table, one on the window sill and strategically placed under the baluster, the piercing instrument. Was it hot? The colour of the oranges provides the answer and fits with the test theory. Not only that, the heavy shadow under each orange represents the scorch marks where the Shroud was pierced. The connection to oranges also points to the passage from Matthew’s gospel (7 : 15-16) and the warning given by Jesus about false prophets and being able to discern them by their fruits. Note also the devilish horned head of the baluster, and the impish face in the man’s elbow observing the damage.
a hat and a halo
Ever wondered about the size of extra-large hat Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, is wearing? There are two reasons. First is that Van Eyck has portrayed the duke as a humble penitent before God’s presence in the tabernacle. He is clean-shaven and head-shorn. He stands on holy ground and so removes his shoes. “He must grow greater, I must grow smaller.” (John 3 : 30) which also explains why Philip is portrayed as a meek and mild repentant, a ‘black sheep’, perhaps, with a reputation of having fathered 50 children outside of the three within his marriage to the lamb-like Isabella of Portugal standing alongside him. Van Eyck probably also had in mind the passage from Acts (8 : 26-40), describing the eunuch’s baptism by the apostle Philip on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
The Shroud’s four ‘poker’ holes
Christ’s halo and a curved line, the inspiration for Philip’s hat.
Van Eyck has also matched the brim of the hat to the size of the nimbus around the head of Jesus illustrated in the burial frame of the Pray Codex, and picked up on the sweeping curved line behind the halo to form the shape of the hat’s crown. Notice also how Van Eyck has matched Philip’s extended left nostril with that of Jesus. Philip ‘the Good’, made in the image of God.
The hem of the angel’s red garment and his foot are the inspiration for the two pairs of shoes in Van Eyck’s picture. In the Pray Codex the foot points to the red zig-zag flow of blood that follows the pattern of the Shroud, an obvious pointer to the Red Sea crossing recorded in Exodus (14), the book Van Eyck has referenced with the pattens pointing out of the frame. Van Eyck has also arranged both pairs of shoes at zig-zag angles to mirror the herringbone pattern of the Shroud and painted one set in red, perhaps another pointer to the Red Sea crossing, symbolic of the passage from slavery to freedom, and the crossing from death to eternal life.
See how the patten shoes or clogs in the bottom corner of the painting conform to the shape of a ‘shrouded’ body, as if wooden dolls or even idols, the straps and buckle representing folded arms and pierced hands. A closer inspection of the clog’s heel nearest the corner of the frame reveals an image depicting the face of the crucified Christ. It is a biblical reference pointing to the verse found in the Book of Genesis (3 :15) where Yahweh told the serpent that the woman’s offspring (Jesus) would crush its head and the serpent would strike (bruise) the offspring’s heel, a prophecy foretelling the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The red shoes belong to the woman in green (Isabella, Duchess of Burgundy) and a type of Virgin Mary, the woman whose offspring would overcome evil through the death and resurrection of her Son. Van Eyck has painted shadows on the heels of the red shoes to represent bruising, and in the left shoe has utilised the shadow falling from the strap to form a serpent’s head facing the heel and sporting a rather large black eye!
The studs seen on the left strap of one of the red shoes also convey a sense of piercing, probably referring to the scourging wounds found on the dorsal side of the Shroud. Notice how the overlapping strap extending through the buckle is shaped to represent the lance thrust into the side of Jesus when he was on the cross.
Even at this stage of analysis it can be seen how meticulous Van Eyck was in creating microscopic and meaningful detail in his painting. He is highly observant and creative in interpreting all he sees. The next section is another example of this.
Lion of Judah
On the ventral side of the Shroud there is a large lozenge-shaped stain in the solar plexus region of the body. It’s a mirror image made when the cloth was folded and came in contact with water at some time in its history. When split down the fold the flowery shape forms a lion’s head either side, as if a pair of guards posted to keep watch. As a composite the two side elevations of the head form a frontal view of a lion’s face that may be considered as representing the Lion of Judah.
The feature is alluded to in the top half of the page from the Pray Codex – in two ways. First by the ruffled sleeve of John’s right arm which points to the side of his head which rested on the heart of Jesus at the Last Supper. In recognising and accepting he is ‘the disciple loved by Jesus’ (John 20 : 2) synchronised to the heart of his Master, he is able to mirror Jesus as a Lion of Judah.
The second pointer is the action of Nicodemus pouring water and cleansing the body of Jesus, a purification process, on the area where the water stain became a lion image. The reference to the solar plexus is not without coincidence. Solar relates to the Sun, in this instance the Son of Man. It is a reference to the blessing God gave to Moses to pass on to the sons of Israel: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace.” (Numbers 6 : 23-26). Plexus is named to describe because the nerve fibres that radiate from this area.
Lion images are also repeated vertically on the cloth, front and back, again due to the way the cloth was folded when it came into contact with water. The most spectacular image is that on the dorsal side where the water stain has amalgamated with the scourging wounds on Jesus’ back. This mark was likely the inspiration for the ‘dorsal’ image of the lion tucked in behind the Moses figure on the arm of the chair in the Arnolfini Portrait.
Sets of shoes point direction.
Body guards and a watermark
So via the images on the Shroud, the lion and the face of Jesus, the final part of the blessing given to Moses – “May the Lord uncover his face to you and bring you peace” – resonates throughout history, even after two thousand years.
The Lion of Judah represents the promise of the Old Testament Covenant. The face of Jesus represents the promise of the New Testament Covenant.
Because of its complex network of nerves located in the abdomen, a blow to the solar plexus region can bring on severe breathlessness and pain. It is said that the weight of his own body suspended on the cross brought on the death of Jesus. Abnormal breathing caused by severe pressure on the solar plexus may have been a contributing factor to lack of oxygen and possible death by asphyxia.
Having made mention of Moses and God’s blessing for his people here’s how it translates to the Arnolfini Portrait. Moses is the smiling sentry resembling a lion and placed on the arm of the chair. Behind him another sentry lion is posted. The two lions are those which appear back-to-back in the water stain ether side of the Shroud’s centre fold, keeping watch. They are strategically placed next to the red seat and its red cushion. Rotate the cushion 90 degrees to the right and the lion image can be seen, its narrow set eyes, nose and jowls. The red drape over the seat represents the Shroud. To the left of the diagonal fold is a facial feature. Van Eyck has morphed the face of a lion with the face of Jesus. It’s very faint, but there.
Back to the Moses figure and its connection to water. The apron is a veil and the ‘horns of Moses’ the beams of light that shone from his face after meeting with God on the mountain (May the Lord let his face shine on you). So bright was the light that Moses wore a veil over his face when speaking with the people.
Switching to the Pray Codex and the burial of Jesus in the tomb, the anointed plexus area is shaped as a cloth or veil pointing to the head of Jesus. The radials in the nimbus represent the glory and shining light of Jesus, as the face of Moses did. Notice also the wavy hair of Jesus on the left side of his head (coloured yellow) and then see how Van Eyck has adapted this feature to illustrate the position of the lion behind the horned Moses.
blessing the tribes
The anointing of Jesus is akin to the blessing Moses handed down to the people. The horned Moses in the Arnolfini Portrait also refers to the location known as Puits de Moïse or the Well of Moses situated at Chartreuse de Champmol at Dijon, a former Carthusian monastery and burial place for the Valois Dukes of Burgundy.
The hands of Philip and Isabella are crossed, mirroring the crossed hands of Jesus in the burial illustration. The couple is about to be blessed which will be sealed by a priest in the name of God. To do this a priestly stole, fringed at each end, is crossed over as a sign that the promise and blessing is bound. And that is one reason why the wrists and hands of Jesus are crossed in a way to represent a priestly stole, his wavy fingers depicting the fringes. Similarly, the fringe and eight fingers also refer to the tassles (tzitzis) found on the Jewish tallit garment.
There is one other significant pointer to Moses in the Pray Codex that links to the horned Moses in the Arnolfini Portrait and that is the head which appears to hang from the arm of side of Mary Magdalen. As the horned figure looks down on the cupped hands of Philip and Isabella, likewise the head of Moses looks down on the bindings and sudarium used to cover the head of Jesus during his burial. The sudarium is generally referred to as a sweat-cloth, but it is also used when administering the last rites to a person to seal in the anointing of the body.
The sudarium is positioned on the shroud over the place where the water mark appears. It points to the passage from Deuteronomy (33, 34) and the blessing given by Moses to the tribes of Israel (the wellspring of Jacob). Afterwards he was taken up Mt Nebo where he was shown all the land of Judah before he died. The raised hand is Moses giving his blessing. It also represents the “horns of Moses”
The Lion of Judah made visible in the scourging pattern on the dorsal side of the Shroud.
Moses at the well with a blessing.
Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.
“not made by human hands”
Returning to the group of three women, Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James, and Salome: none of them show their hands. They are out of sight. As explained earlier, the hand that appears to belong to Mary Magdalen is the hand of Moses.
The covered left hand of the Magdalen carries a jar of oil. The hand and arm is shaped as a fish, perhaps a dolphin or even a whale, and so a reference to the passage from Matthew’s gospel (12 : 38-42) where Jesus tells some of the scribes and pharisees who ask him for a sign that only the sign of Jonah (in the belly of the beast for three days) would be given, (symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus). He also added that on judgement day the men of Nineveh would stand up with the current generation and condemn it. The upright jar of oil represents the upright men of the Nineveh Plains known for its vast oil fields (not made by human hands).
The hands of the mother of James are also hidden, the left and the right, a reference to her request of Jesus to promise seats for her two sons either side of him in his kingdom, “one at your right hand and the other at your left…” (Matthew 20 : 20-23).
The figure of Salome is not so clear and is damaged on the outside edge. There is a small hand depicted at the base of the red crest but it does not belong to Salome. The faded image may be a representation of King Abgar wearing a crown and holding the Mandylion, known as the Image of Edessa, sent to him by Jesus via the apostle Thaddeus. If this is the case then the hand belongs to King Abgar. The narrow vertical shape suggests the cloth may be rolled into a reliquary with the lid representing the king’s crown.
Van Eyck includes the group of women in the Arnolfini Portrait by portraying them as the three figures reflected in the mirror arriving before the tomb (the tabernacle). In another sense the figures represent the Three Wise Men arriving to give homage to Jesus. The duality of roles is another theme that is part of the Pray Codex and which Van Eyck embraces in his rebuild of the temple.
The mirror tabernacle also serves as a reminder that the image on the Shroud is mirror image of the figure it enshrined.
The jar of oil is replicated in the sconce of the chandelier. The single burning candle could also represent the upright men of Nineveh, as witnessing to the light of God.
Three wise men serving Duke Philip the Good and his consort the Duchess Isabella of Portugal.
The cross formation echoes the stepped twill weave of the Shroud’s herringbone pattern.
King of Kings
The tomb is covered in a cloth patterned with red crosses. They call to mind the multi-cross heraldic arms known as the Jerusalem Cross, made up of five Greek crosses representing the five wounds of Jesus on his cross caused by the nails driven in each hand and foot, the fifth in his side pierced by a lance. However, the tomb in the Pray Codex is covered by a blanket of crosses.
Could the reason for this be that the illustration represents a ‘shared’ death based on the Christian belief that those who die in Christ through baptism will rise and live in Christ through his death and resurrection?
Is there another person sharing the sepulchre the ‘King of the Jews’ was laid in after his crucifixion? Could the other person also be a ‘King of Jerusalem’, a king who died around the time the Pray Codex was produced (1192-1195), a king who could relate to Christ as an outcast that loves sinners and lepers who call out to him for healing, just as King Abgar V is reputed to have done and was cured of his leprosy after coming in contact with a cloth bearing the image of Jesus?
There are five holes or circles grouped around the centre of the blanket of crosses. The shroud has four, shaped as the letter ‘L’. Although these four holes are considered ‘poker’ holes, the artist has shown Nicodemus in the top picture pressing down on Christ’s abdomen with three fingers and the thumb of his right hand. This may point to any burning sensation Jesus may have felt from acid that flowed from his stomach upwards into his chest and throat as he hung dying on the cross.
An early form of the Jerusalem Cross
William of Tyre discovers Baldwin's first symptoms of leprosy (MS of L'Estoire d'Eracles (French translation of William of Tyre's Historia), painted in France, 1250s. British Library, London)
the leper kings
The other king referred to is Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, who died in 1185 and was known as the ‘Leper King’. His leprosy was first noticed by Baldwin’s tutor and historian William of Tyre. As a youth Baldwin was playing with friends and they were piercing and bleeding each other’s arms with their fingernails, but the young prince felt no pain. Although William identified this as a sign of a serious illness, Baldwin’s leprosy was only recognised some years later.
The piercing by fingernails is represented in the red shroud by the five holes (five fingers). The red crosses are symbolic of the leprosy wounds that covered Baldwin’s body when he died at the early age of 24. He is buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in which the sites of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are said to be located.
Connecting the five holes and the wounds of the leper to Van Eyck’s painting is straightforward. The mirror frame has 10 crenellations; the risings represent the lower part of the finger (the proximal phalanx), one for each finger of two hands, and is feature of leprosy when the fingers are unable to open to full extent and instead form a claw hand (as a hand would when digging all of its finger nails into something). A picture representing the passion of Christ and eventual resurrection is located at each raised section and as signs of the cross he carried. Each is covered with a circular and discoloured membrane as if ulcerated. The convex mirror also appears as a large, shiny blister.
Another feature in the Arnolfini Portrait that can be taken as a reference to the ‘carpet’ of red crosses covering the tomb in the Pray Codex is the carpet which Isabella is stood on. It extends under the red shroud covering the kneeler, as it does in the Hungarian illustration, and is patterned with red spots and flowers, some of which are cross-shaped.
The fact that Van Eyck has portrayed Isabella (Mary) standing on a carpet that alludes to leprosy may be the artist hinting at a sense of abandonment felt by the Duchess because of her husband’s selfish behaviour. Likewise, Mary, too would have been considered somewhat of an outcast by the community because she was with child before her marriage.
It may be that the ‘leper’ crosses refer instead to King Abgar and his healing from leprosy. They may refer to both kings, Abgar V and Baldwin IV or, instead, are simply symbolic of the wounds suffered by Jesus during his passion. If the latter, then this would mirror the special gift given to Philip in 1433 from the Vatican treasures by Pope Eugene IV – a consecrated communion wafer said to have been “perforated in many places by some madman with the ferocity of several sword’s blows, and stained with blood in several places.” It is this gift, known as the Sacred Bleeding Host of Dijon, that Van Eyck alludes to in the tabernacle depicted as a mirror.
Crosses and carpets – the famous Van Eyck mirror feature and the patterned carpet
ligatures and letters
The blood flow seen above the right eye of the face on the shroud, is usually described as a reverse numeral three or the Greek epsilon. This is also indicated next to the sudarium in the Pray Codex scene of the resurrection, albeit in a more elaborate and cursive form and attached to a vertical stroke. This ligature or binding of two forms points to the binding seen in the sudarium, the cloth that had been placed over the head of Jesus and now “rolled up in a place by itself” (John 20 : 7).
Close inspection shows profiles of two faces looking downwards, one on the left side, the other on the right. The face on the left is Jesus, and on the right, King David. The interwoven strips form David’s name and his crown, fulfilling the prophecy made by the angel Gabriel: “the Lord God will give him [Jesus] the throne of his ancestor David.” (Luke 1 : 32)
The chandelier in the Arnolfini Portrait represents the crown of David and shows several epsilon motifs. The main branches are attached to a vertical trunk that forms the sconce. The epsilon motifs also allude to the Burgundian double ‘B’ motif, introduced by Philip the Good when he founded the Order of the Golden Fleece. The Order’s collar is made up of back-to-back fire-steels which, when rubbed against a flint-stone, produce sparks to light a fire. The open B shape is where two fingers are placed to grip the fire-steel.
The flint references and the sudarium’s back-to-back profiles also recall the passage from Isaiah (50 : 7), “The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by the insults. So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.”
Another representation the back-to-back heads alludes to is the two-headed Roman deity, Janus, not only a god of transitions, but also of beginnings and ends, and so a pointer to the passage from Revelation (22 : 13) – “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and Last, the Beginning and the End.”
Notice how the artist responsible for the illustrations in the Pray Codex has placed the epsilon ligature central in the picture, just above the sudarium and the group of four holes. Notice also the angel’s forefinger pointing directly to the epsilon.
The ligature is made up of the letters ‘e’ and ‘l’. The two letters also appear as wounds on the forehead of the face in the shroud, but not together. The Greek epsilon (e) is positioned above the right eye while the Greek lambda (l) (λ) is placed further to the right. The artist has combined the two letters (the two small cursive C’s that make the epsilon, with the vertical stroke that is the lambda. In other words he has merged a ‘beginning’ and an ‘end’ to form the word ‘el’.
Reading the two blood marks in this way, the epsilon and the lambada, produces the same result. The word ‘el’ is formed, and we discover the Word meaning God, “EL”.
This may also explain why the group of poker holes are made in a ‘L’ formation, not just to correspond with the EL reference of the two bloodstains, but that the trial by fire was made in the name of God – EL.
The shape of the lambda λ can also be visualised as a covering or tent, and explains why it is positioned where it is – on the man’s temple – and so symbolic of Jesus as the Temple!
Another consideration is by adding the numerical value of the lambda (30) to the epsilon representing three, a total of 33 gives the age of Jesus at his death.
While these observations could seem somewhat contrived, and perhaps give voice to those who believe the Shroud image to be a fake, they may also present an aspect of the Shroud that will be seen and understood with eyes of faith.
Van Eyck certainly connected to the epsilon and lambda references, even before he painted the Arnolfini Portrait. A year earlier, 1433, he completed the portrait of what is known as Man in a Red Turban, believed to be a self-portrait. The red turban is another take on the Shroud by Van Eyck (more on this later), while a close inspection of the shadow mark on Van Eyck’s left temple reveals the face of Jesus.
As for transferring the epsilon and lambda ligature to the Arnolfini Portrait, Philip (a type of Joseph) becomes the epsilon (bare and nothing else) while Isabella (a type of Virgin Mary) becomes the lambda or temple of God. The two become one ‘glyph’ by the joining of hands.
Compare the angel’s right hand with the left hand of Isabella (Mary). The three middle digits on the angel’s hand are folded in. Isabella folds in two. This draws attention to the length of her thumb, just as the angel’s thumb is accentuated and appears instead to be a pointed index finger. The angel’s pointing digit is directed towards the area showing the EL glyph, the sudarium representing David’s crown, and also to Moses looking down on the well-spring.
The finger formation of both hands index verses from Scripture. The angel indexes the resurrection prophecy in the John’s gospel (1 : 5) “… a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower.”
Isabella’s is from the same chapter but verse 45, when Philip proclaims to Nathaniel: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, the one about whom the prophets wrote: he is Jesus, son of Joseph from Nazareth.” – a probable reference to her penitent husband alongside her.
Van Eyck has depicted the sudarium gathered under Isabella’s hand, the binding is represented by her girdle, the crown as the radiating pleats, which can also be interpreted as the strings of the harp – or her heart. (Sandro Botticelli used a similar motif fifty years later in his painting of the Virgin and Child Enthroned (Bardi Altarpiece). The glyph (two hands joined) and horned Moses are also adjacent.
As the angel’s long thumb points to the wellspring, so also Philip’s long thumb on his left hand to the ‘horned Moses’ representing the Well of Moses at Champmol. Isabella’s right hand is turned in an open gesture of receiving, and also presentation, as she points to the red cushion that represents the sudarium.
The space under Isabella’s gold bracelet forms a trapezium, similar to the shape under the angel’s pointing finger in the Pray Codex illustration. Both spaces refer to the trapezium shaped area on which Solomon’s Temple was built. The trapezium (where two sides of a quadrilateral are parallel) is also outlined in the Shroud and the tomb seen in the Pray Codex, and the red ‘Shroud’ covering the kneeler in Van Eyck’s painting.
foundations for life
The room is presented as a temple, a holy place, while the dome shaped mirror above the kneeler represents the tabernacle, the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies where God dwells.
The smaller trapezium under Isabella’s arm is also the base of the chair above it representing the Church. Its carved back depicts heaven as trefoil ramparts above the line of celestial planet symbols, while below is the fruit-bearing Church on earth.
The carved praying figure is said to be St Margaret of Antioch who, according to an account in the Golden Legend, was once swallowed by a dragon. The cross she held in her hand irritated the dragon’s innards and when it opened its mouth she managed to escape. The winged creature sits at her feet. Similarly, but in an opposite sense, Mary Magdalen, the woman represented by the whisk brush, had seven devils cast out of her.
St Margaret is a patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women and so the amalgam of the woman and the creature takes on an alternative meaning sourced from Revelation (12 : 1-6), that of the pregnant woman adorned with the sun and the red dragon waiting for her to give birth so he might eat the child. Close inspection of the woman’s belly reveals a likeness to the Image of Edessa, the Mandylion.
Another view can be taken of the dragon figure as representing the tetramorph cherubims, the winged creatures described in Ezekiel’s vision of the Chariot of Yahweh (Ezekiel 1 : 4). Each creature had four faces: human, lion, ox and eagle, interpreted artistically as the four evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
On this basis the saintly women – Margaret and/or Mary, along with the four evangelists and saints, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, can all be viewed as celestial or heavenly wonders, watching over the Church, the Body of Christ. Van Eyck has assembled this group using elements from the Pray Codex.
celestial cherubim, saints and signs
The obvious reference to St Matthew is the winged man, one of two angels who watched over the Body of Christ while he lay in the tomb. It was this particular cherub, as described in Matthew’s gospel (28 : 1-8), who rolled away the sealed stone to the entrance and sat on it. We can see the cross held by the cherub is pointing into the entombment illustration and towards the double swell under Jesus, shaped as wings. This is a reference to the second angel and to the Resurrection: “Those who hope in God renew their strength, they put out wings like eagles” (Isaiah 41 : 31). A second Scripture reference to the cherubs as guardians over the tomb is Psalm 91, particularly verse 11: “He will put you in his angel’s charge to guard you wherever you go.”
The cross held by the angel becomes a royal sceptre and the key that unlocks the binding knot of the shroud: “On this mountain he will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the shroud enwrapping all nations, he will destroy death forever” (Isaiah 25 : 7).
Two more of the four evangelists are portrayed side by side in the lower half of the cherub. John as the eagle is represented by the red wing shape, with the beak and head of the bird turned into the wings. To the right is St Mark, the lion’s face projecting from the angel’s knee. The fourth evangelist is St Luke (the ox). He is depicted as a horn extending from the left shoulder of the angel. Notice the horn is ringed, unlike the feathered stem of the other wing. The artist has placed an evangelist at each corner of the cherub, the “Chariot of Yahweh”. The angel’s head leans back towards the left wing; the horn is at the right wing; the eagle and lion are at the left and right feet respectively.
Here’s how Van Eyck has transferred the Mary Magdalen figure in the Pray Codex to the Arnolfini Portrait. She is the whisk brush hanging by a nail on the chair post. She is positioned above the horned Moses figure. In the Pray Codex the roles are somewhat reversed. Instead, it is the Moses figure which is depicted hanging by a nail. It is also a representation of the crucifixion of Jesus.
When the Amalekites attacked Israel, Moses went with Aaron and Hur and watched the battle from the top of the hill. As long as Moses kept his arms raised, Israel had the advantage, when he let his arms fall, the advantage went to the Amalekites. But the Moses’ arms grew heavy and he sat and rested on a stone while Aaron and Hur held up his arms until sunset and Israel gained victory over its enemy (Exodus 17 : 6-16). The arms of Jesus were held up by nails until he was taken down from the cross at sunset. He had achieved victory over death through his sacrifice.
The Pray Codex illustration is more than a scene showing the laying of Jesus in his tomb. It also reveals his crucifixion and resurrection as well.
And so where does Margaret of Antioch fit into this scenario, remembering that Van Eyck also depicted the figure as the woman in Revelation (12 : 1) adorned with the sun?
St Margaret was regarded as one of the 14 Holy Helpers in the Western Church and was therefore widely venerated. However, she was known as St Marina in the East. The aquatic reference is the link, symbolised by the red zig-zag water sign pointed out by the angel’s foot. Already understood as the blood of Christ on his shroud and a reference to the Red Sea crossing, the double zig-zag symbol is also used to represent the constellation Aquarius, a Latin name for water-carrier or cup-carrier. This is the constellation associated with the Virgin Mary, the “woman adorned with the sun”, the woman who was told by the angel Gabriel she is “full of grace” – water being a Christian symbol of God’s grace (Luke 1 : 26-38).
The celestial references continue. Aquarius is located in an area of the sky often referred to as the Sea because of its many other water-related constellations. Notable are Capricornus (Sea-goat), Cetus (the Whale), Delphinus (the Dolphin), Eridanus (the Great River), Hydra (the Water-serpent), and Pisces (the Fishes).
Eridanus as the Great River is shown as the rivulet pattern flowing through the Shroud which also doubles up as Pisces, the Fishes being the herringbone weave. Two other constellations double up, Cetus and Delphinus, the Whale and the Dolphin, mentioned earlier in reference to Jonah and the Resurrection and illustrated by the covered hand and arm of Mary Magdalen balancing the jar of oil. Capricornus (Latin for ‘horned goat’) can only be the ‘horned Moses’ feature attached to the Magdalen. In the sense that the Water-serpent represents evil, only its tail-end is visible (coloured yellow), seen sliding beneath the stone slab on which Jesus is laid.
Van Eyck shows the constellations on the chair-back.
The water flow (coloured light blue) now takes on the semblance of the Shroud, winding its way around and beneath Jesus (the Temple). It descends from its source, the frothy head of John the Evangelist, the head that rested on the heart Jesus at the Last Supper and believed in him. This recalls the chapter from John’s gospel when Jesus went up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles and began preaching.
On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out: “If a man is thirsty let him come to me! Let the man come and drink who believes in me! As scripture says: From his breast shall flow living water.” He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive... (John 7 : 37-39).
A close look at John’s face reveals the outline of a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. John’s left shoulder also takes on the shape of a dove drinking from the fountain of life, the Word, as proclaimed in the prologue of John’s Gospel. Notice also the dove motif is repeated within the shape of the Shroud underneath the body of Jesus. There are other dove motifs.
The body of Jesus as a tabernacle (a temple) is expressed with the reference to the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot). During the week of celebrations it was a daily requirement for the people to participate in a waving ceremony of the ‘four species’ (plants mentioned in the Torah) as acknowledging God’s mastery over all creation.
The ‘waving’ in the entombment scene is shown in the waved hairstyles of the three men, and also with the rise and fall of the shroud, particularly on the front edge and the waved wings. In the Van Eyck painting the waves are depicted by the folds in Isabella’s green dress falling onto the floor, and the waves of dagged leaves descending from the sleeve that represents a waterfall.
A new perspective is necessary to discover probably one of the most important features that Van Eyck has adapted from the Pray Codex for his Arnolfini Portrait painting. The deeper blue area of the shroud represents the Sea and location of the constellation of Aquarius, the Water Carrier (Mary). When rotated 90 degrees (shown right) the graphic forms the basis for the figure of Isabella (a type of Virgin Mary) and her blue undergarment (representing water).
The shape of the winged dove coming in from the left refers to the passage from Luke’s gospel (1 : 35) when the angel said to Mary: “THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL COME UPON YOU, and the power of the Most High will cover you WITH ITS SHADOW”.
The blue-shaded area is the shadow of Jesus, the Most High, alongside; the winged dove represents the overshadowing by the Holy Spirit. The cross motif on the wing represents the blessing of the fruit of Mary’s womb.
Double crowns for dukes and kings
Double heads and tails
The marks of man and God
Marking out the temple foundation
Saints in Heaven
The tomb’s guardian angel
Symbols for St John and St Mark, an eagle and a lion.
A chair of constellations
A visage of peace... St John’s face takes on the form of a dove.
Above: Descending waves in Isabella’s gown. Below: the area of the Shroud that Van Eyck has utilised as the garment under Isabella’s gown, a ‘Sea’ of blue and a reference to the constellation Aquarius, meaning ‘water-bearer’
Van Eyck has repeated the theme for the green dress by adapting the shroud form from the other Pray Codex illustration. Compare the lean-back stances of both. The white sudarium and its bands – suggesting Isabella’s pregnancy – are also echoed in the white sleeve trim of her dress and headdress. The flowing weave pattern points to the dagging hanging from the sleeve. This dagging attachment also mirrors the head feature attached to the Magdalen figure, a representation of both Moses and Jesus. It is with this foreshadowing feature, coupled with the shadow reference of the Most High, that Van Eyck reveals another disguised feature of the mysterious mirror.
curls, curtains and corners
The extensive decorative dagging on both sides of Isabella’s dress represent Payot, the sidecurls worn by some men and boys of the Orthodox Jewish community. The dagging also curves lower down around the back of the dress. This is the beard. Above the beard forming the edge of the dress is a side view of a slender nose that points to the red bed.
Adjacent, in the folds of the red bed-cover is a distorted visage of Christ representing his descent into Hell. Notice the corner of the bed is highlighted and has a pronounced red mark. This is the blood spot seen on the forehead of Jesus in the manuscript illustration, and the epsilon feature that appears on the Turin Shroud. It’s placing at the corner of the bed is not without significance, the corner, a right-angle feature, forms the shape of the letter ‘L’, and another reference to EL as the name of God formed by the two prominent blood marks on Jesus’ forehead seen on the Shroud.
The curtain bag above is styled on the angel’s fiery wing seen in the Pray Codex. It can be understood in two ways: emphasising Christ’s descent and also the raising of souls from Hell.
However, Van Eyck is also drawing attention to another feature in the Pray Codex and the presence of Nicodemus in the entombment scene, the Pharisee came to Jesus one night a said to him, “Unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus replied: “How can a grown man be born? Can he go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus answered, “Unless a man is born through water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God [...] The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. This is how it will be with all who are born of the Spirit.” (John 3 : 1-8)
Already pointed out is the dove outline in John’s face and the wings under Jesus. The faces of Nicodemus and Joseph are also shaped to represent wings, and the right arm of John forms the shape of a dove. These are all references to the dove representing the Holy Spirit, the wind that blows where it chooses.
The part of the Shroud referred to earlier as the “Sea” and representing Mary stretched beneath Jesus, is also symbolic of the question put by Nicodemus to Jesus: “How can a grown man go back into the mother’s womb and be born again?” The womb is the tomb and the Shroud the covering of the Holy Spirit signified through the water.
Van Eyck has applied the wings theme to the Arnolfini Portrait and has placed a set in each corner. Top right and already mentioned, the shape of the curtain bag to match the angel’s fiery wing; top left, the two shutters of the upper window; bottom left, the pair of shoes; bottom right, the hem of the green dress with its white ‘water’ trim.
These placings symbolise the wind blowing to the four corners of the Earth, where it pleases. Van Eyck may also have had the four evangelists in mind as representing the tetramorph, with God in central place in the tabernacle feature represented by the mirror.
But can God be seen in the central mirror? Jesus is represented on the frame but his visage also appears in the mirror as well. It relates to the payot mentioned earlier, the side curls on Isabella’s dress. A close inspection of the dress reflected in the mirror reveals an image of Jesus, the face representing the Mandylion. In fact, there are three. Philip’s tabard also depicts the Shroud visage and Isabella’s headdress the Sudarium. Unfortunately, even the best images of the Arnolfini Portrait that are available via the internet are not of a high enough resolution to show these details clearly.
I have already made mention of some celestial features in the Pray Codex, but there’s more. The angel figure represents the constellation Orion, twice mentioned in the Book of Job and also in the Book of Amos. I intend to expand on this feature at another time.
Van Eyck’s interest in the Shroud was not confined to the Arnolfini Portrait. Features appertaining to the Shroud appear in all of his paintings that have survived, even the famous Ghent Altarpiece. But he was not unique in including the feature in his work. Other artists did so. But Van Eyck made the Shroud his signature and his contemporaries recognised this. More on this at a later date as well as any necessary updates to this page.
• text © bernard gallagher, Easter Sunday 2018
Above: Side curls and a beard decorate alongside the haunting feature of Christ’s descent into Hell.
Below: The fiery angel’s wing matched by the curtain bag.