Unknown Masters 


Van Eyck: The Painting Heretic?

Jan Van Eyck is considered as one of the founders of modern painting techniques. But Van Eyck is also known as an alchemist and may have left us with a powerful, magical talisman: The Adoration of the Lamb.

Philip Coppens

When Clive Prince contacted me in May 1995 to contribute certain material for the then not yet published “The Templar Revelation” – which since has gone on to inspire the likes of Dan Brown – I also became introduced to the idea of the existence of an “underground heretical stream” that ran throughout Western society. This “resistance movement” was attacking the Christian religion, though not openly. Clive and his co-author Lynn Picknett had begun to pay particular reference to the Florentine painter Leonardo da Vinci. Some months later, my attention was drawn to a painting by Jan Van Eyck, “The Adoration of the Lamb”. In 1993, I had helped in the production and publication of a pivotal book on the theft of one panel of this painting, “The Just Judges”, which is one of the great unsolved crimes of the 20th century. Soon, evidence began to collate that drew us to the conclusion that if Leonardo da Vinci had been exposed to a secret doctrine about an alternative point of view on Christianity, Van Eyck seemed to be too – if not more so.
Art historians have designated this 14th century Flemish painter as the founder of the “Flemish Primitives”, which was a new style of art that would revolutionise painting ever after. What singled out Van Eyck and Da Vinci was that both were using oil paints in a manner unlike anyone else at that moment in time. Decades ago, art historians had speculated that both men were somehow aware of or communicating with each other, and exchanges details about their oil paints. Indeed, Van Eyck would, for a long time, be seen as the inventor of the oil painting technique, though it is now known that he was “merely” the first who brought its techniques to unrivalled heights. His innovative mastery of painting with oil rather than water would find its way to Italy, where it entered the Verrocchio study in Florence, where the likes of Leonardo learned to master it. This trail from Flanders to Florence is an intriguing connection, in which there was an exchange of techniques – trade secrets – passed on between colleagues, but not between Leonardo and Van Eyck, but, it seems, between Verrocchio's studio and Van Eyck. But were it merely trade secrets that were passed on, or also other knowledge – maybe even heretical, dangerous knowledge?

Nowhere is Van Eyck's master more on display than in “The Adoration of the Lamb”. The presumed patrons of this painting are the Flemish banker Judocus Vijdt and his wife, who on the panel are depicted as worshipping John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. The “Ghent Altarpiece”, as it is alternatively known, is located in the city’s Saint Bavo’s cathedral. In the 15th century, however, the church’s patron saint was John the Baptist and today, the crypt remains dedicated to John the Baptist. The painting was officially installed in the church on May 6, 1432, which was the feast-day of John the Evangelist. This seemed to straightforwardly remove any esoteric connection to the painting… or did it?
The Italian 16th century art historian Giorgi Vasari described Van Eyck as “an alchemist”, which suggests that he was exposed to non-orthodox material – which is exactly what the then secret societies were all about. This statement, that Van Eyck was an alchemist, was echoed by Karel van Mander in 1604. One group of Freemasons has noted that Van Eyck is also the only painter who, as far as they have been able to trace, actually depicted a working lodge: a sheltered place at the foot of a tower, in a drawing by Van Eyck of Saint Barbara. Saint Barbara was considered by many to be the patron saint of alchemists (though this was of course never officially ratified by the Church!) and she also features on the Ghent Altarpiece.
The central aspect of alchemy concerned a combination of prayer, study and working hands-on with matter. Its motto was “Pray, Read, Read, Read, Read Again and You Shall Find” and underlined a symbiosis of science and religion.
Was the incorporation of elements related to John the Baptist a veiled hint that Van Eyck was indeed part of this “underground stream” in Western Europe? Whereas it was known that this knowledge lay at the origins of the Florentine Renaissance, the origins of this movement was seen as knowledge coming in from Byzantium… not Flanders. So if Van Eyck knew, how did he know? Could it be that the underground stream had been present in Europe much longer, before the exposure to Byzantine knowledge at the Council of Florence in 1439?
Little if anything is known about the circumstances in which Van Eyck made “The Adoration of the Lamb” – and whether he himself painted it or merely finished the painting that had been started by his brother, as an inscription on the painting suggests. Marc Penninck actually argues that this brother, Hubert, was not his brother at all. He argued that Hubert Van Eyck was actually the real name of Jan Van Eyck; he interpreted the inscription that Van Eyck began the painting when his name was “Hubert”, but that when he became a “brother”, i.e. a member of an esoteric society, he changed his name to Jan (John). This possibility is a sound alternative for the existing speculation, as it resolves several problems, rather than creating further mystery, as most other theories by art historians had done, who had merely assumed a genuine Hubert Van Eyck had to exist, as Jan Van Eyck had stated as such on the painting. Though this theory comes with its own flaws, just like the more “accepted” theories, what is clear, is that Penninck’s will not go down well within the art world.
Still, let us note that adopting a new name was customary in many initiatory organisations. What was, of course, highly interesting was that if Van Eyck did change his name, he chose the name “John”: on the very painting where the inscription was found, he had painted Vijdt and his wife as worshipping the two Johns. Furthermore, in later centuries, the stories went that the Knights Templar had made contact in the Middle East with religious communities that were specifically followers of John the Baptist… their leaders taking on the name “John”!

In 1430, when Van Eyck was working on his masterpiece, his patron Philip the Good established the Order of the Golden Fleece, a chivalric order based on the English Order of the Garter. The order was created to celebrate Philip’s marriage to the Portuguese princess Isabel of Aviz. Why he settled on the image of the Golden Fleece has never been fully explained. Let us note that Philip the Good himself was interested in alchemy and it is known that in his palace in Brussels, he had asked for the installation of an “alchemical room”. Interestingly, the story of the Order of the Golden Fleece has been labelled as being of extreme importance to the alchemist’s quest. They used the symbol of the Golden Fleece to symbolise the descent of the Divine down the Tree of Life into our reality, underlining the belief that the divine was reachable on this plane of existence – a concept that was anathema to the Roman Christian mind, who believed that access to the divine was impossible.
The Golden Fleece, of course, was also directly linked with the lamb and the symbol of the Order was indeed a lamb. Was – is – the Ghent Altarpiece more than merely a commission for Vijdt? Could it be linked with the foundation of Van Eyck’s patron of the Order of the Golden Fleece?

Philip had no fixed capital and moved the court between various palaces, the main urban ones being Brussels, Lille and Bruges. He held grand feasts to show off his power to his subjects, and the knights of his Order frequently travelled throughout his territory participating in tournaments. He was known to the Arnolfini family of Bruges, for in the period from 1444-6, he is estimated to have spent a sum equivalent to two percent of Burgundy's main tax income over those years with Giovanni di Arrigo, supplying him with silk and cloth of gold. Several years before, Van Eyck had painted a famous portrait of Arnolfini and his wife, currently on display in the National Gallery of London, and featured in the movie “V for Vendetta”.
Van Eyck had entered the service of Philip the Good following the death of John of Bavaria in 1425. He resided in Lille for a year and then moved to Bruges, where he lived until his death in 1440. Intriguingly, where precisely Van Eyck lived in Bruges has never been established. In 1428, Van Eyck travelled to Portugal to paint King John I's daughter Isabella before Philip married her – the marriage that would result in the Order of the Golden Fleece.
As a painter and chamberlain, Van Eyck was exceptionally well paid and he felt no need to inscribe himself in the local guild of painters. His annual salary was quite high when he was first engaged, but it doubled twice in the first few years and was often supplemented by special bonuses. An indication that he was held in extraordinarily high regard is a document from 1435, in which the Duke scolded his treasurers for not paying Van Eyck his salary, claiming that Van Eyck would leave and that he would nowhere be able to find his equal in his "art and science”. The use of the word “science” may refer to Van Eyck’s revolutionary painting techniques, but it would suggest knowledge outside the confines of painting. Though no-one doubts that Van Eyck performed certain missions other than painting portraits for the Duke, the exact nature of these missions is unknown. Finally, it is clear that both men were very close, for the Duke served as godfather to one of Van Eyck's children, supported his widow upon the painter's death and years later helped one of his daughters with the funds required to enter a convent. One could almost argue that the two were like “Brothers”…
So though it appears that “The Adoration of the Lamb” is a commission for the Vijdt family, it is known that Van Eyck, at the time of painting it, was actually employed by Philip the Good. Whereas it would not have been impossible for Vijdt to commission Van Eyck (definitely not if Vijdt was on friendly terms with the Duke), Van Eyck was largely a portrait painter. And a portrait took far less time than the enormous amount of time and energy that Van Eyck spent on painting this altarpiece. Rather than a small diversion of a few weeks or even a few months, this commission would take him years to complete. Would his patron and friend have agreed to such a commission? Or was his patron instead in agreement that this work was somehow special and “had” to be done?

If Van Eyck tried to hide a secret doctrine in his paintings, he had far fewer occasions than Leonardo, whom seldom painted portraits – the Mona Lisa being a notorious exception. For Van Eyck, we should begin with the Arnolfini portrait. Some have seen this as a normal wedding portrait, whereas others have interpreted it as an “alchemical wedding”. Indeed, we note that the Arnolfini wife is pregnant with child, which normally, though not always, suggests they had been married for some time previously. The painting is definitely replete with symbols, such as the solitary flame burning in bright daylight, which can be interpreted as the bridal candle; there is St Margaret (the patron saint of women in childbirth), whose image is carved on the chair. The companion dog is seen as a symbol of faithfulness and love; even the discarded shoes are not thought to be incidental, but to signify the sanctity of marriage. But with so many details, what is the overall message? The portrait could have been seen as a talisman for the couple and their unborn child – in the tradition of Renaissance art, as practiced by Botticelli, who asked Ficino for magical elements to be incorporated into his paintings – just like John North has retraced other specific – this time scientific – elements present in Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”. But none of the symbolism in this Arnolfini portrait is esoteric or Hermetic, and though it is an incredible portrait, specifically the detail that has gone into painting the mirror, it seems this is a portrait, rather than a talisman.
Another painting is “Our Lady with the Canon van der Paele”, from the ancient Cathedral of St. Donatien, finished in 1436 and thus postdating the Ghent Altarpiece. It was originally going to be the decoration for a funerary chapel, but then became an altar piece for the St Donatien Church in Bruges, where Van Eyck himself would be buried (the Church was later destroyed and stories that its crypt was used as a secret meeting for “alchemists” are rife, but never substantiated). We note that the Virgin is depicted in red, rather than her usual blue. Blue was seen as female; it was also the colour of water, in Latin “mare” – “Mary”. Red on the other hand was the colour of blood, hence of sacrifice, but also of love. Here, we may therefore have an element of “non conformance” – but hardly more than that.
If there is any evidence of an “esoteric predisposition”, it is indeed the “Adoration of the Lamb” that was the only painting where Van Eyck would be able to express it. Apart from direct though obscure references to the Knights Templar and John the Baptist, the three central upper panels should be our main focus of attention. The altarpiece was closed during the week (revealing the Vijdt family adoring the two Johns), but opened on Sundays, when it showed this central upper pannel. It had the Virgin Mary to the left, John the Baptist to the right, with the central figure normally identified as Jesus. Though some elements of this figure could refer to Jesus, other elements clearly refer to God, or a king – the consensus thus opting for “Jesus depicted as king”. But equally, it is noted that though Van Eyck wanted to paint a figure that could be identified – or misidentified – as both Jesus and God, this was actually uncommon in Medieval or Gothic paintings. And when we note that the “underground stream” in Western society were specifically not fans of Jesus… alarm bells should begin to ring.
What to think of the presence of the lamb which is bleeding and whose blood is captured in chalices? References to the Holy Grail? The inscription on the fountain reads (in Latin) “this is the source of the water of life, originating from the seat of God and the lamb”. Further references to the Holy Grail and its gift of Eternal Life?
Though the list of “esoteric coincidences” is growing longer, the key is actually hidden in one of the tiles of a floor, in which almost invisible and definitely not meant to be obvious to the eye, the word “AGLA” was written. AGLA was a protective magical formula, a Kabbalistic acronym of the biblical phrase "Ateh Gibor Le-olam Adonai”, "The Lord is mighty forever”. And though it may not appear to be much, with the presence of a magical formula, suddenly, it is obvious – proven – that this painting is indeed a magical talisman, in the same category as Bottticelli’s paintings that would inspire some to label him a grandmaster of the imaginary Priory of Sion.

Let us return to our central figure, which could be Jesus depicted as a king. His depiction seems to have been inspired by Byzantine iconography – taking us back to the likely origins from where the heretical knowledge entered 14th century Europe. But of specific interest is Revelations 19:12-16: “His eyes [were] as a flame of fire, and on his head [were] many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he [was] clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies [which were] in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And he hath on [his] vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” Though we do not see his thigh, Van Eyck did write a sentence from these verses on this figure’s “vesture” – his mantle – evidence that we are indeed in front of the “King of Kings”… who may or may not be Jesus.
This brings us to the conclusion that what Van Eyck seems to be referring to, is the “Apocalyptic Lamb” – which even from a “basic symbolic” perspective adds a new symbolic dimension to the painting. However, let us take it one step further – and perhaps one step too far. It is known that the “underground stream” was a mixture of Kabbalistic, astrological and scientific information. And within this framework, the Lamb becomes linked with the constellation Aries. This constellation is the first to appear at the vernal equinox. But because of the precession of the equinoxes, the Lamb is always "slain" for a new constellation at each new zodiacal age. And so it is at each new spiritual Age, and so it is that it is incorporated as a symbol of the end of one and the beginning of a new age. Hence, did Eyck paint a magical talisman that would accompany a “New Age”? For surely that is what the creation of the Order of the Golden Fleece was meant to herald too? And when we note that it was the constellation Aries that was identified with the Golden Fleece… we suddenly see the pagan, astrological-astronomical dimension shining through on these wooden panels.
And it may thus just be that Van Eyck not only introduced oil painting to the Florentine Renaissance artists, but that he may also have introduced the notion of incorporating Hermetic messages into paintings to that city. And if “The Adoration of the Lamb” was indeed meant to be a magical talisman for a New Age, then he was indeed the man who seeded and initiated that age…