The Van Eyck Cryptogram

According to the Dutch scholar and artist Peter Voorn, the famous Ghent Altarpiece - also known as the Mystic Lamb - painted by Flemish Primitives Jan and Hubert Van Eyck is filled with crypto-iconography. Instead of a portion Catholic mysticism, the panels of the Ghent Altarpiece give us an idea of what was going on at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Peter Voorn's theory dates from 1999 and was partly published in the Jahrbuch der Oswald von Wolkenstein Gesellschaft (Germany). He works on a book on the subject, but here are some significant aspects of this new interpretation.

The Ghent Altarpiece, back and front

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Ghent Altarpiece - FrontThe Ghent Altarpiece - Back
The Ghent Altarpiece - Front
The Ghent Altarpiece - Front
The Ghent Altarpiece - Back
The Ghent Altarpiece - Back

The Enigma of the Van Eyck brothers who maybe were no brothers at all...

In the 15th century, St Bavo's Cathedral of Ghent (Belgium) was in fact a smaller parochial church named after its patron St John the Baptist. In the pentagonal Vyd Chapel of this church, the Altarpiece was placed on May 6, 1432, shortly after it was finished, on the feast-day of St John the Evangelist. It consisted of 24 or 25 panels. One panel was a "predella", supporting the altar, that probably was destroyed somewhere in the 15th century, because it showed a picture of hell. Paintings of the underworld were frequently damaged in those days.

The small chapel got its name from Joos Vyd, a wealthy citizen and even a major of Ghent for a while, who gave the order to built the chapel for the very huge painting. After the death of Hubert Van Eyck in 1426, Joos Vyd and his wife Elisabeth Borluut sponsored Hubert's brother Jan - also a painter, and a diplomat too - to finish the work. Some time later Vyd established a foundation to protect the Mystic Lamb in the years to come. This was confirmed by a quatrain found in the 19th century, confirming the names of painters and sponsors and the day it was finished:

(P)ictor Hubertus E Eyck - maior que nemo repertus

The painter Hubertus (E) Eyck greater than whom no one was found

Incepit - Pondus - q(ue) Johannes Arte Secundus

Started the work and Johannes the second in the arts completed it

??? ??? - Judoci Vyd Prece Fretus

At the request of Judocus Vyd to protect what has been done

VersU seXta MaI ¨ Vos CoLLoCat aCta tUerI

What was placed together (or invites you) by this verse on Friday, 6 May 1432.

We clearly read here that Hubertus is called "the greatest" and Johannes "the second" in arts. This is very strange, because with the exception of the Ghent Altarpiece, we don't know virtually nothing about Hubert, but we do know that his brother Jan in his days already was regarded as a great painter. Only four archive documents bear the name of a painter called Hubrecht or Lubrecht, who supposedly died in 1426 and was buried in front of his work. A brass tablet stolen by the Calvinists had a poem engraved whose 7th line read: "Hubrecht Van Eyck was ick ghenant". This means: "I was named Hubrecht Van Eyck" - but it doesn't have to mean Hubert was really born under this name. It could simply signify that the citizens of Ghent called him so.

At the beginning of the third line there is a blank space, followed by the name of Joos Vyd and the words "Prece Fretus" (to look at/to protect what has been done). It was proposed the words "Frater perfectus" filled the blank space, from which it was concluded that Hubert was Jan's brother - but this makes no real sense. There is, in other words, no definite proof that Hubert was the brother of Jan and it is not even certain that his name was also Van Eyck.

"The strange thing was that the experts always wondered why two noble citizens of Ghent ordered such a huge altarpiece with a surface of more than 25 square meters," Peter Voorn says. "Consequently, I am not the first to raise the question whether there was not another, higher placed person who originally ordered this work."

The Antipope of Avignon

The Three Popes & the Great Schism of the West

There was a date found in the hat of a Jewish man on the middle section of the Mystic Lamb: June 6, 1417. Peter Voorn started to look at the Popes on the painting and drew a timeline showing the pontiffs who reigned between 1414 and 1432. There were five of them: Antipope of Avignon Benedict XIII; Roman Pope Gregory XII; the new Pope elected at the council of Pisa to put an end to the Schism: Alexander V; John XXIII who took the place of Alexander after his sudden death... and Otto Colonna, who was elected as sole pontiff of the West Martin V, at the council of Constance. With his election the Great Schism that divided Western christianity since 1378 finally came to an end.

The council of Constance - a city that was a part of the German Empire - was an idea of John XXIII, who wanted to solve the problem of the Popes for once and for all. However, when the council started in November 1414, of the three Popes only John himself was present in Constance: Gregory gave up his rights and the Antipope refused to come and was excommunicated during the council. John first declared he would resign, but then changed his mind and fled from Constance. He was captured and now the time had come for a brand new Pope, Otto Colonna was elected on St Martin's Day (November 11) of 1417 and took the name of Martin V.

The council not only had to bring back unity in the Church, it also wanted to stop the heresy that was a result of the writings of the Englishman John Wycliffe who died in 1384, or the teachings of "reformist" Jan Huss, burned at the stake in 1415. "Bearing these historical facts in mind," says Voorn, "I began to ask myself whether we are not looking at an altarpiece about the Council of Constance. 'Colonna' means column or pillar, and does not one of the outer panels show explicitly a pillar with a view onto a street? The St. Martin's tower of Utrecht in the central panel also had St Martin of Tours as patron, just like Pope Martin V. Beneath the tower we see that the Holy Lance is pointing towards it. This relic was once kept in that same church by the German Emperor Conrad II, whose heart still is buried there. During the Council, the Holy Lance belonged to Sigismund!"

Angels with the Arma Christi; the Holy Lance or Spear of Destiny is pointing to the St Martin's Cathedral of Utrecht

The Arma Christi or Weapons of Christ is another name for the Instruments of the Passion: nails, scourge, spear (holy lance, also known as Lance of Longinus), dice, robe, reed, crown of thorns,...
The Arma Christi or Weapons of Christ is another name for the Instruments of the Passion: nails, scourge, spear (holy lance, also known as Lance of Longinus), dice, robe, reed, crown of thorns,...

Master Jan Huss goes to Paradise...

The German king Sigismund of Luxembourg was a famous fighter against heathens and heretics. Het was regarded as the worldly leader of Western christianity and had the authority to summon a council in order to elect a new Pope, to unify the divided Church and to overcome her inner and outer enemies. Sigismund had ordered a safe-conduct for every one attending the council, but when the Bohemian Master Jan Huss arrived, his enemies made a list of all his heresies and blasphemies and put him in prison. Sigismund was furious, but if he protected a heretic, he himself would not be free of sin... and so, Jan Huss was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415, on a meadow outside Constance called "Paradise".

Peter Voorn: "His bones were broken and thrown into the Rhine, together with his ashes. His 'judges' intended to eliminate every single trace of Huss that could testify to his martyrdom and that could create a place of worship and pilgrimage. What an irony if we look at the monument the altar is, and at history itself!"

The Church historian Peter Schmidt mentions that we see here a fully grown sheep and not a young lamb, and he asks himself if the artist may have had Christ during the crucifixion in mind. Looking at the radiant sun and the flowers blossoming in the paradise-like meadow, we can wonder too...

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb shows specific parallels to the words from the prophet Jeremiah (11, 19), describing his suffering which has been interpreted as an anticipation of Christ's passion: "But I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me, saying: Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be no more remembered."

We recognise four groups around the Lamb: Virgins (upper right), a group in red with the French symbol fleur de lis above their head (lower right), Burgundians and an Italian/Spanish group with a palm tree (symbol of the south) and the phoenix on the lower left. Several people are walking away. With the help of other paintings, Peter Voorn succeeded in identify the heretics John Wycliff and Jan Huss, the latter wearing a "heretic's cap" - but with precious stones on it.

The scene also reflects Easter, with angels bearing the Instruments of the Passion (the Arma Christi: nails, scourge, spear, crown of thorns,...), saints who are approaching the Lamb as in a procession and a few people kneeling in adoration before the Lamb. Peter Schmidt notes a parallel between the Mystic Lamb and the Jewish Paschal lamb, which is eaten during the ritual of Passover: "The Gospels report that Jesus was crucified during the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, and according to a long tradition his last supper was a Passover meal."

"Yet another question is how to understand the function of Adam and Eve on this altarpiece," states Peter Voorn. "With Adam and Eva mankind became sinful and was banned from paradise. The early Church fathers interpreted Adam as the first Christ, whereas Eve was understood as the first Mary. On the altarpiece, both are standing a bit lost on the outermost edges of the wings, but when both side wings are closed, they come together in Christ, just above Paradise!"

Some popes and bishops on the Ghent Altarpiece. The guy on the right was identified by Peter Voorn as Pierre Cauchon, one of the judges of Joan of Arc. He believes the man above Pierre Cauchon, wearing an ermine hat, is the painter known as Hubert Va
Some popes and bishops on the Ghent Altarpiece. The guy on the right was identified by Peter Voorn as Pierre Cauchon, one of the judges of Joan of Arc. He believes the man above Pierre Cauchon, wearing an ermine hat, is the painter known as Hubert Va

The Just Judges and the Assassination of Louis of Orleans

On the day that Huss was burned, another infamous trial came to an end. In 1390, Charles VI finally took over the rulership of France from his uncles. Two years later, he began to suffer from mental illness and in the struggle for the succession to the semi-vacant throne, Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy hatched a plot to assassinate Duke Louis of Orleans, brother of the French King. John hired some men and in November 1407 they caught Louis in the streets of Paris and stabbed him to death. John said that he had only done what had to be done, because Louis had been a tyrant. The case provoked a series of debates and consequently the pressure on John the Fearless began to mount and he had to defend himself in public.

John the Fearless chose a theologian of the Sorbonne university to defend his case, but Master Jean Petit, turning every argument in a ruthless way in his client's favour, provoked another scandal. The university reacted strongly and a chancellor, the theologian Jean Gerson, condemned the thesis of Jean Petit. A few months later the case was reopened at the Council of Constance, but the Duke of Burgundy didn't appear and sent two bishops, Pierre Cauchon en Martin Porée, to defend him. Pierre Cauchon succeeded in arguing that Jean Gerson was not right when he condemned the thesis of Jean Petit; he declared "that Jean Gerson should forever be sentenced to shut his mouth, so that he can never again make malicious remarks about Burgundy with his false words". Gerson lost the case, John the Fearless was judged not guilty and got away with murder. The debates belonged to the most controversial issues of the Council. Later, Pierre Cauchon would act as one of the judges of Joan of Arc, what makes it likely to interpret the name of the panel "the Just Judges" in an ironical way.

Thus, the "occult" themes of the Ghent Altarpiece were - for obvious reasons - hidden in a cryptogram. Peter Voorn believes that some "crypto-portraits" reflect the debates on the assassination of Louis of Orleans: in the scene with some bishops on the Adoration of the Lamb (see above), Jean Gerson is depicted as St Stephanus, dressed with the regalia of his martyrdom. Similar to Huss, Stephanus/Gerson is portrayed with precious stones on his collar. And St Lieven is in fact Pierre Cauchon, symbolic holding the tongue of Jean Gerson in a pair of pincers. On the(original) panel of the Just Judges, the fur hat of Jean Petit covers the mouth of John the Fearless.

Peter Voorn believes that all the themes reflected in the altarpiece, whether they are related to an artistic, religious, worldly, historical, spiritual or astronomical dimension, are meant by the artists to serve one central and overlapping theme or idea: oneness. But I don't agree on that: I think the artists have made a stand, disguised - for reasons of safety - as a cryptogram telling you who has their sympathy and who don't.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The panel of the Just Judges was stolen in 1934 and most of the photo's we have now are made of the copy painted during WO II by Jozef Vanderveken. Look closely at the fur hat of Jean Petit near the mouth of John the Fearless (judges in the centre ofThis is a photo of the original Just Judges: the mouth of John the Fearless is covered here by the fur hat of Jean Petit!The "Milites Christi" is the official name of the Templars. Some scholars say their appearance makes the Mystic Lamb truly "heretical". The second knight from the left carries the banner of the Temple, but others say it is in fact St George and Peter
The panel of the Just Judges was stolen in 1934 and most of the photo's we have now are made of the copy painted during WO II by Jozef Vanderveken. Look closely at the fur hat of Jean Petit near the mouth of John the Fearless (judges in the centre of
The panel of the Just Judges was stolen in 1934 and most of the photo's we have now are made of the copy painted during WO II by Jozef Vanderveken. Look closely at the fur hat of Jean Petit near the mouth of John the Fearless (judges in the centre of
This is a photo of the original Just Judges: the mouth of John the Fearless is covered here by the fur hat of Jean Petit!
This is a photo of the original Just Judges: the mouth of John the Fearless is covered here by the fur hat of Jean Petit!
The "Milites Christi" is the official name of the Templars. Some scholars say their appearance makes the Mystic Lamb truly "heretical". The second knight from the left carries the banner of the Temple, but others say it is in fact St George and Peter
The "Milites Christi" is the official name of the Templars. Some scholars say their appearance makes the Mystic Lamb truly "heretical". The second knight from the left carries the banner of the Temple, but others say it is in fact St George and Peter

In search of Hubert Van Eyck

The most valuable source regarding the council of Constance is the Chronicle written by Ulrich Richental, completed between 1420 and 1430 and illustrated by two artists who lived in his neighbourhood. Historians observed that there were similarities between the illustrations of Richental's Chronicle and Flemish paintings of the 15th century. Details like the horse drawings or the features of the singers seemed to be related even more to the style of the Ghent Altarpiece. Art historian Hans Rott succeeded in identifying the names of the painters who illustrated the Chronicle of Constance: Hans Stürmli and Hans Krütli, who both lived near Richental. In his days, Krütli was very famous. He was praised as "the most learnt and intelligent in painting, writing, rhetoric and in all fine arts".

"This praise resembles very much the high esteem documented in the quatrain for the painter Hubert," Voorn says. "So I began to ask myself whether Hans Krütli and Hubert Van Eyck were not the same persons, only at different times. If this were the case we would have an explanation for the inscription of the tiles on the panels with the musicians. On one of these tiles I read the initials J H K f. If this is the signature of the painter then it could be read as Johannes (= Hans) Hubert(us?) Krütli fecit (= made this). The problem is that the initial H is split, therefore it can also be read as an E combined with an I. In this case, the initials would refer to J(an) van EIK, though we cannot distinguish a dot on the I. Besides, Van Eyck's name was mostly spelled with Y and C. (...) Now if we look closely, we see a scroll on which the initials are painted. On the left side next to it, one of the points of the ermine hemmed dress of St Cecilia touches the ground of the tile. Ermine is used as the best brush hair to paint with, and the fur hat Hubert wears is also ermine hemmed."

"In 1418, the council of Constance was brought to an end," concludes Peter Voorn. "This might have been the moment that Hubert left the city for Ghent, for reasons that we have yet to discover. It is possible but equally not proven that Jan Van Eyck had already joined Hubert in Constance, in the function of either a disciple or a young associate..."

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Comments 4 comments

nikki1 profile image

nikki1 6 years ago

very informative. Cool pic.s


Vanderleelie profile image

Vanderleelie 3 years ago from New Brunswick, Canada

An interesting hub about an exceptional work of art and the scholarship associated with it. I saw the altarpiece several years ago in Ghent and had to marvel at the quality of the painting, the beautiful imagery and the excellent condition of the work. Voted up and interesting.


Sam Reid 21 months ago

I was looking at a clip on this site of a program that was made I think for the BBC BY David Tompson in the early 80s .It was called A mirror in time the Story about the brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck ...can you perhaps help me find this program as I have been looking for it for years and without success.thank you


Ian 21 months ago

I've been looking for the same program by David Thompson as Sam, but I can't find it anywhere.

Here is a link about the film with details of the team who made it:

http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2b6e0cc413

Does anyone know where you can get a copy of this to view? Is it on YouTube?

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