[This text is a reconstruction of a previously unpublished article of the same name by Gerard van den Acker. It has been adapted with supplementary materials found in van den Acker’s preparatory seminar notes from 2012–15, with additional paragraphs based on his notes from 2018. The authors have added endnotes and web links. Here, the thesis that Loys Vilein is the subject of Jan van Eyck’s 1432 Portrait of a Man (Leal Souvenir) appears for the first time in its full version. B.S. and M.G.]
“Egyptian mystery”, according to the legendary Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, is the quality that radiates from the sitter in a Jan van Eyck portrait now held by the National Gallery in London. The work bears the painter’s signature, and the date, 10 October, 1432, preceded by the past participle actum. This word choice has reminded multiple researchers of a notarial or legal deed, rather than a painting.1
It seems as if the sitter, who holds a parchment scroll, has just emerged from the darkness and positioned himself against a low wall. In reality the wall is a trompe l’œil – a painting of a weathered stone parapet on which the inscription LEAL SOVVENIR has been chiselled (so to speak) in 12th century, Roman-style capitals. Above the inscription, painted in pseudo-Greek letters, in the volatile, sketchy manner of graffiti, and with the same white paint as the date and signature at the bottom, is the word TYΜ. ωΘΕΟϹ.
The image leans towards transience and melancholy: there is the gaze of the sitter with his subtly tearful eyes; there is also the broken stone, a remnant of classical antiquity with its hermetic, almost erased traces, signs and inscriptions. Did any artist before van Eyck recycle the ruinous classical past in such a way, using it as decor? The design is inspired by Roman epitaphs and tombstones, which often showed the deceased in a similar way, in a niche behind a balustrade bearing informative inscriptions.2
The stone at the bottom acts as a frame for the painting – the original frame has been lost – pushing the sitter further back: a minor intervention that not only suggests depth but also turns the portrait into a meta-portrait. Is the sitter aware of this frame in trompe l’œil stone, making the impossible connection between his world and that of the viewer? A slight shadow below the right hand gripping the parchment scroll seems to suggest so. The stone is a threshold that does not seem to belong to any reality. The observer does not necessarily have to be aware of the parapet’s impossible position, but its intermediate nature advances the hallucinatory nature of the painting and its subject.
Is this frame, this ruined parapet with its crooked inscriptions and lowly graffiti, this plump, gaudy trompe l’œil with its exaggerated, comic mixture of registers and languages – French in Roman (or Romanesque?) capitals, juridical Latin in Gothic letters, bastarda in italics, a Greek rebus in capitals and small letters – just an ornament, a carrier of a message? Is it a statement by the artist, a kind of manifesto, both conceptual and meta? Or is it a cryptic commentary on the sitter’s private or public life, his poetics or destiny?
Not enough emphasis has been placed on the virtuoso semiotics at play here, a semiotics which, on closer inspection – when examined in all its subtlety, taking into account the absurd, Babylonian combinations on display – is also absolutely comical too. Above, a man locked in silent contemplation; below, a broken stone babbling excessively in multiple tongues; in between, a rolled up, illegible text. But has the last word been spoken? Perhaps it is this mysterious stratification, this strange economy of signs, that makes the observer unable to forget the image, torn as they are between the unintelligibility of the stone that is lifeless but cries out, and the sadness of the man whose message is mute.
The artist must have known that his work would evoke contradictory reactions and interpretations depending on the social status of the viewer – a situation that holds true whether that subject is a contemporary of van Eyck’s or a citizen of the 21st century.
Van Eyck’s art had an observing subject in mind – or, rather, he anticipated the observer before the work was finished, even at the very moment of its conception. He predicted possible reactions, as if he knew how to make the subject the plaything of his work, and then built them into the artwork’s development, like a chess player who has already virtually mapped out his course by registering the opponent as a pawn in the strategy he is to pursue; or like a hunter laying out trap after trap but not without a second parallel set of lures to capture the impossible-to-predict interaction of the subject at a meta-level.
The painting radiates virtuosity and technical intent, but stare at it a little longer and you begin to see absurd, comic elements – perhaps even to the extent of parody. No story is told: a narratio, historia or fabula lacks, but there is this cracked stone full of inscriptions. Does this serve to showcase the painter’s bravura technique or to stage a secret? With van Eyck we see the birth of the dubious, ambiguous artist – or, in other words, the artist.
2 For more on this subject, see Erwin Panofsky’s influential 1949 article, Who is Jan Van Eyck’s “Tymotheos“?
E. Panofsky, art., Who is Jan Van Eyck’s “Tymotheos”, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 1949, Vol. 12, p. 80
“It is the only Northern portait of the fifteenth century in which an attempt is made to conjure up the shades of classical Antiquity [..] The figure emerges from behind a parapet on which the words LEAL SOVVENIR appear to have been engraved with a chisel, precisely as do the effigies of Roman soldiers or provincial artisans from their memorial tablets; and the chips and cracks in the stone of this parapet, indicative of venerable age, make the painter’s archaeological intention even more obvious.”
To return to Huizinga’s initial remark: is van Eyck’s art Egyptian – are the people portrayed Egyptian, or is this merely the allure of their appearance? Isn’t the subject of the Arnolfini double portrait absolutely, unquestionably, Egyptian?3
Why might the boy whose name I believe to be Loys Vilein, who lived in Bruges and died there in 1432 for the so-called crime – in the Middle Ages but also well into the 20th century – of sodomy, be said to have an Egyptian aura? Or does Egyptian perhaps denote the somewhat clumsy, anachronistic indication of what, in the painting, appears to oscillate in and between time? Did van Eyck try to paint that oscillation?
According to James Weale, art historian and van Eyck eminence, the young man is “certainly not a Fleming, perhaps a Greek”.4 In the first English translation of The Waning of the Middle Ages, Huizinga cites the man’s “enigmatic candour”5, a formulation that sadly loses the mummifying associations of Egyptian, whereby the image hovers between life and death. Elizabeth Dhanens talks of “a righteous expression in the open-hearted eyes”.6 While, for Max Friedländer, the predominant impression is “one of shy and sorrowful goodness of nature. He is modest and at once startled”.7
Is there such a thing as an art historian’s intuition, or what Huizinga has aptly called Ahnung (“hunch” or “foreboding”)? What have these researchers sensed? Some kind of tension? The calm before the storm? Or have they tried to express what Walter Pater called the Anders-streben(“other-striving”) of art, which could be applied here to the painter’s capacity to virtually enclose in the image its own catastrophe, a tension that researchers cannot help but call Egyptian?8
What I have learned about the identity of the person portrayed in van Eyck’s painting should convince even the sober, historico-empirically oriented reader: van Eyck did not simply want to fabricate a memorial for Loys Vilein, he also wanted to portray him entre deux morts.9 In this case literally, because van Eyck must have depicted him between his arrest on charges of sodomy (symbolic death) and his eventual execution at the stake (physical death), after which every symbolic commemoration of the sodomite was returned to ashes and obliterated. Van Eyck did not portray a dead person, but a man looking death in the eye. The aforementioned researchers have sensed something of the condition of the person portrayed – of the undead, as the English say – but they have lacked a historico-biographical explanation for the circumstances of his portrait. They have been unable to find a better term for the Anders-streben of the sitter – his intermediate state – than Egyptian. Their trans-historical, untimely feeling (which leads to absurd comparisons, at least in the eyes of the empirical historian) is what Huizinga calls Ahnung. Ahnung is not an effect of historical fact or so-called historical empathy. It is an internal antenna capturing that which escapes the historicity of the representation, its state of exception. And this antenna makes it possible to distinguish between historical details that are symbols, and details that do not enter the symbolic order.
The portrait is an epitaph in memory of the deceased – but the deceased lives, and is depicted alive behind the parapet. He stands dignified, with death in his eyes, and it is this gaze that captivates the viewer. Van Eyck does not simply paint a portrait of a loved one; he paints it entre deux morts, a limbic state which the painter knows that art alone is capable of representing.
Erwin Panofsky suffered from keine Ahnung and believed that this was the only sound way to practice art history, seemingly refusing to fall into the trap of intuition and empathy. Panofsky did not search: he found. And what he found did not at all surprise him. Feeling and empathy are the icing on the cake: retrospective proof that the researcher was right all along. And so he came to the conclusion, via clues and what he calls elimination (“the rest is elimination” sounds scientific, but is fatal even when applied to cultural phenomena) that the sitter in the portrait was the Franco-Flemish polyphonist and choirmaster Gilles Binchois. A historico-empirical conclusion which he saw confirmed in the man’s facial features:
his strong, blunt face with square jaw, short, pointed nose and prominent cheek-bones might belong to a young Flemish peasant.
And since, according to Panofsky, a musician is not an intellectual but rather a kind of craftsman, he clarifies:
3 “Optical space of luminous apparition”, “Optical space of luminous apparition” is one of the essential characteristics of Egyptian art according to Gilles Deleuze – a quality which he recognizes in the works of Francis Bacon.
G. Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic Of Sensation, Londen, 2003, pp. 122-125.
Researchers such as Harold van de Perre have taken van Eyck’s “Egyptian” literally and looked for clear, formal similarities (the problem with van de Perre’s approach being that he mistakes superficial formal similarities for similarities in content and causality): Both the face of Arnolfini in the famous painting in London’s National Gallery, and the portrait of Echnaton from the large standing statue derive their monumentality from the egg and boulder shapes of the hat and crown cap, but there is also a great physical resemblance. They are like twin brothers with their too narrow faces and a fishlike look. A possible explanation of this plastic parallel is the stylization of the Burgundian clothing and the richness that results in a hieratic, liturgical attitude and refers to the strict stylization and liturgical style of the Amarna era. At the same time individuality is more prominent in both periods. Could it be that Van Eyck ever saw Egyptian statues? We don’t know the answer.
5 J. Huizinga, The Waning Of The Middle Ages, 1922, p. 277
6 E. Dhanens, Hubert en Jan Van Eyck, Antwerpen, 1980, p. 182
7 M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, 1967, p. 39
8 In a similar way, in Derrida, ein Ägypter, Peter Sloterdijk explains why the pyramid is typically Egyptian – namely “a construction that is built to look as it would after its own collapse”. In the author’s view, the Gothic is in fact the first Western architectural style to incorporate its own ruin. Van Eyck’s drawing of Saint Barbara (1437) proves that this is not an anachronistic, modern view: the painter uses the fundamentally unfinished, or rather, unfinishable nature of the Gothic as a vehicle to leave his own painting unfinished (non-finito).
9 A concept formulated by Jacques Lacan
the face of one who feels and produces rather than observes and dissects.10
Panofsky reterritorializes (to borrow a Deleuzian term) the uncertain confrontation with the work of art as Anders-streben, a kind of internal dialectic that makes the experience of the painting elusive, and thereby “Egyptian”, for the viewer, through symbolic and ethnic identification of the Flemish peasant face.
Van Eyck, however, paints the imminence of something terrible: the approach of a violent death, an experience presented (impossibly) to the viewer in the form of an apparently static, post-mortemepitaph. This involuntarily brings to mind Freud’s haunting description of Michelangelo’s Moses on the tomb of Pope Julius II, which is presented in a similar intermediate state. A more immediate comparison could be made with van Eyck’s dynamic The Madonna in the Church (1438), a miniscule panel on which the artist paints a gigantic multicoloured Madonna in a Gothic interior that can barely contain her, much like Lewis Carroll’s growing Alice. She is clearly the oversized version of a small monochromatic wooden statue placed right behind her between two candles in the niche of a flamboyant rood screen.
But by reducing the gigantic Madonna to an ecclesiastical symbol, and by seeing in her the persistence or effect of the archaic, medieval anti-perspectivist mentality, Panofsky completely misses the way in which van Eyck presents the viewer with a diagram that spares them from getting lost in the impossible representation of a complex movement. Van Eyck paints a delayed intermediate stage that enables the viewer to reconstruct the dynamics of the process itself, secundum imaginationem. What van Eyck depicts is an image of extremely restrained tension, a dialectical one, that is neutralized by the viewing subject in the position of the canonical (orthodox according to Panofsky) discourse and is regarded as a static symbolic figuration.
Typical for the master discourse of Panofsky’s brand of art history is the importance placed on the revelation of the identity of the sitter (an act that reduces meaning to biographical or contextual detail, ignoring an artwork’s operation). The unknown sitter always turns out to be someone of stature – as if painting of the caliber of van Eyck’s would only lend itself to portraying a grandee, finding its articulation and confirmation in the subject’s social standing. History and art history make a perfect marriage in this kind of discourse, with the latter contributing to the illustration of the glorious past and its glorious representatives. Simply put, the art-historical importance of the portrait is equal to the historical importance of the portrayed. Van Eyck is a servant of that importance. And this is why his work matters. No image is wasted on what will not stand the test of time. This is why the idea of van Eyck as a state painter is so well-received. The state monitors and guarantees the artist’s works; ensures that he makes state artworks by producing portraits of important persons in its employ.
According to Panofsky, Gilles Binchois was such a person: an innovative composer and a loyal state servant. And for this reason van Eyck paints TYΜ. ωΘΕΟϹ on the parapet, invoking none other than Timotheus of Miletus, innovator of Greek music and court composer to Alexander the Great, whom the Burgundian duke Philip the Good, in all his megalomania, liked to compare himself to. In his 1953 classic Early Netherlandish Painting, written four years after his article on Tymotheos, Panofsky sums up the incestuous relationship between the state and the arts as follows:
To glorify Philip’s court musician as “the new Timotheos” thus meant to glorify Philip himself as “the new Alexander” – and, incidentally, Jan van Eyck as “the new Apelles.11
The fact that the latter title was given to van Eyck by Karel van Mander in the early 17th century and is therefore completely beside the point does not seem to be a problem for Panofsky. It is thought-provoking that the marriage between historical art-production and state ideology is adopted as a seamless axiom. Someone like van Eyck apparently produces art that fully corresponds to the symbolic order of his time – even more, that contributes to its very construction. Historicist analysis must do nothing but map out the socio-cultural networks of which art is the perfect reflection. The fact that art historians have proved so keen to conceive of ancient artworks as flawless representations of the contemporary symbolic and ideological order is an idea that should itself be subject to criticism.
But let’s dwell a moment on Timotheus of Miletus. Panofsky is right to associate the name on the parapet with the musician of ancient times. Other hypotheses such as an association with the Greek sculptor Timotheus of Epidaurus, mentioned by Pliny, must be rejected for reasons which will become clear below.12 However, Timotheus of Miletus must remain in the frame for reasons diametrically opposed to those that motivate Panofsky, i.e. not at all because of his fame, artistic achievements and connection to the court of Alexander the Great. Moreover, it is not even historically correct to say that Timotheus of Miletus was known for such reasons in the Middle Ages (besides Boëthius, Panofsky and followers hardly cite any sources from van Eyck’s time or before).
The reason why Timotheus of Miletus was known in the Middle Ages instead has to do with his infamous reputation, which can be compared to some extent with that of the philosopher Socrates: namely that he was a spoiler and seducer of youth. This description figures in De institutione musica by Boëthius – an immensely popular medieval text, which provides the most important historical description of Timotheus. The curious thing is that Panofsky himself quotes this description but does not comment on it. We quote Panofsky quoting Boëthius in his famous 1949 article:
In Plato’s opinion the state must carefully watch out that music be well-behaved and chastely harmonious, so as to be modest, simple and masculine, and not effeminate nor wild nor variegated. This rule was faithfully observed by the Spartans as long as Thaletas from Gortyna on Crete, called to the city at great expense, instructed their boys; for such had been the custom of the ancients, and it stayed for a long time. But when Timotheos the Milesian proceeded to add one more string to those which he had found before, and rendered music more complex (multipliciorem), it was resolved to expel him from Laconia, which resolution… I have appended in its original Greek words. The burden of this resolution is that the Spartans had waxed indignant at Timotheos the Milesian because, in rendering music complex (multiplicem), he harmed the souls of the boys entrusted to him for instruction and kept them away from the sobriety of virtue; and because he had perverted harmony from its previous mode to the chromatic mode which was too soft.13
A 14th century paraphrase of this text has survived, in which Johannes Hollandrinus tries to prove the damaged, perverse nature of the chromatic genus. It confirms the dismissive medieval orthodox view of Timotheus, going so far as to accuse him of sodomy (an accusation that could already be read between the lines in Boëthius):
13 E. Panofsky, art., Who is Jan Van Eyck’s “Tymotheos”, p. 83
Compare to the Boëthius original:
“Idcirco magnam esse custodiam rei publicae Plato arbitratur musicam optime moratam pudenterque coniunctam, ita ut sit modesta ac simplex et mascula nec effeminata nec fera nec varia. Quod Lacedaemonii maxima ope servavere, dum apud eos Thaletas Cretensis Gortynius magno pretio adcitus pueros disciplina musicae artis imbueret. Fuit enim id antiquis in more diuque permansit. Quoniam vero eis Timotheus Milesius super eas, quas ante reppererat, unum addidit nervum ac multipliciorem musicam fecit, exigere de Laconica consultum de eo factum est, quod, quoniam insigne est Spartiatarum lingua […] Timotheo Milesio Spartiatas succensuisse, quod multiplicem musicam reddens puerorum animis, quos acceperat erudiendos, officeret et a virtutis modestia praepediret, et quod armoniam, quam modestam susceperat, in genus chromaticum, quod mollius est, invertisset.”
Chromatic music is that which is measured through the fourth, which proceeds by minor semitones. That is to say between the first and second strings three semitones sound, but between the second and third one semitone sounds. The inventor of this music is said to have been a Milesian, who by his wonderful and sweet-sounding singing made young men effeminate, and thus induced them into sexual activities [dulcisono iuvenes effeminabat, et ita ad actus venerios deducebat], for which reason he was thrown out of and expelled from Athens [sic]14
Timotheus of Milete made men effeminate (effeminabat) and seduced them into venereal acts (ad actus venerios), which of course means that he incited men to perform unnatural sex or sodomy: a mortal sin in the Middle Ages, and one that supposedly caused extreme harm to the public order. This would have set alarm bells ringing amongst those able to read the name “Tymotheos” in Greek letters in van Eyck’s painting.
I claim that the person van Eyck portrayed was not an innovative composer, and that Tymotheos is written on the parapet precisely because of the bad reputation with which the ancient musician has been saddled since the Middle Ages. There is eminent proof for this in the form of the rebus that van Eyck creates by transcribing the name in an unusual way, not as it would normally appear, namely in one go and in capitals: TYΜΩΘΕΟϹ.
14 E. E. Leach, Gendering the Semitone, Sexing the Leading Tone: Fourteenth-Century Music Theory and the Directed Progression, in Music Theatre Spectrum, No. 28, 2006
“Chromatica musica est, quae per diatessaron mensuratur, quae procedit per semitonia minora. Sic scilicet quod inter cordam primam et secundam tria semitonia resonant. Sed inter secundam et tertiam unum resonat semitonium. Huius autem musicae inventor dicitur fuisse Millesius, qui suo canto mirifico et dulcisono iuvenes effeminabat, et ita ad actus venerios deducebat, propter quod fuit ab Athenis eiectus et expulsus.”
Transl. L. Holford-Strevens
It is curious to note that several studies do indeed “correct” the designation, because they assume that van Eyck was unable to write proper Greek.15 This is not only an huge misconception, it is also a symptom of the way he is constantly reduced to a virtuoso painter above all.
What van Eyck paints, to recap, is: TYΜ. ωΘΕΟϹ
The name Tymotheos can be read in one go if the punctuation mark is not taken into account. There is a full stop after TYM, and rather than continuing with a capital letter Ω, the inscription continues with a lowercase letter ω.
The painter-as-trickster must have known precisely what would happen next: exegetes would begin to doubt, and puzzlers, rebus addicts and art detectives would take over from there. However, this puzzlement has yielded little after more than 100 years. Most researchers have butted up against (pun intended, to be explained) the stone with the mysterious inscriptions. What do people hope or expect to find? What deeper meanings will come to light? Naturally there is the hope that the name of the sitter will be revealed. And there is hope for insight into the work, into the why of the work, or its deeper meaning. The painter does not hide anything but rather stages depth and deeper meaning. Everything is visible on the surface, and yet everything seems to suggest that there is more to it, that something is hidden, that some code needs to be cracked in order to reveal the truth. But which truth is not entirely clear.
The name of the person portrayed is not hidden but rather deliberately omitted and van Eyck replaces, or substitutes, him with Tymotheos – perhaps to be able to speak of a person whose name cannot or must no longer be mentioned. I’m not convinced that the name of the sitter was on the original lost frame, as was the case with van Eyck’s portraits of Margaretha van Eyck and Jan de Leeuw. I also believe that the identity of the person portrayed was unknown to the uninitiated, to the accidental guest, to the casual spectator. That the true identity of the person portrayed had to be jealously concealed because the sitter himself had become unnamable, having committed the unnamable crime, the so-called crimen nefandum. It would suffice to say of ancient Tymotheos: let he who can understand. Tymotheos is therefore an alias, such as the broken stone of the parapet that reveals but also envelops or conceals, borrowed from an ancient artist who, according to tradition, has committed the sin of sodomy – or what else do you call a bending and unnecessarily complicated art that is supposedly simple and natural in origin, but that confronts and contaminates the youth, warping their supposedly natural disposition and inciting them to unnatural acts? Tymotheos must have been more than just a name to van Eyck himself. Perhaps he was the true, albeit secret, patron of the artist who was then hard at work creating an irreparable rift in the traditional, so-called organic harmony between the cosmos and earthly existence. What van Eyck stages in the portrait is the central problem of modernity, the primordial myth of which can be situated in antiquity, of degenerate art that retroactively evokes the dream and desire for so-called pure, natural art. It seems to the authors as if van Eyck inaugurated this moment with a ruined, broken stone and with the portrait of a man whose name could not be mentioned, a martyr depicted as Tymotheos, patron saint of degenerate sodomite artists.
But van Eyck also wanted to inscribe an immanent meaning in the name of Tymotheos . Let’s look again at the Greek letters on the stone:
15 Panofsky writes (in Who is Jan Van Eyck’s ‘”Tymotheos”‘: “an attempt [at identifying the sitter] is hampered, not only by Jan van Eyck’s somewhat erratic spacing and spelling […] but also by the partial loss of the last letter.”
That the “erratic” spelling might in fact be intentional, providing the key to interpretation is apparently not an issue. The ambiguity of the last letter that could be an S or, according to some, an N, also seems to me intentional on van Eyck’s part. The Panofskian attempt to decode Tymotheos is paradigmatic of the canonical mode of art-historical deduction – a subject about which Carlo Ginzburg has written two classic articles. To this author, ambiguity seems to be the key and cause of so-called van Eyckian optical realism – which is as much linguistic as it is pictorial – and not its representative, mimetic univocity, as usually thought.
E. Panofsky, p. 80
Besides the name Tymotheos, other readings have speculated on the meaning of the words tumeo (“to serve”) and Theos (“God”) in Greek. Elizabeth Dhanens sees a possible Latin reading in the name: Time Deum (“Fear God”), which was the motto of a number of aristocratic families in Flanders. Her thesis, which led to nothing significant per se, was rigorously rejected by Panofsky and others. The investigation threw up a possible signifier, but was immediately forgotten because it lacked context, falling on brackish ground. It then wandered unnoticed in an art-historical no man’s land until the present and our research, when it is reborn as the sword with which to cut the Gordian knot.16 That is why we will rebrand Dhanens’s Time Deum at the end of our remarks.
The Greek inscription consists of two parts separated by a full stop which is followed, unexpectedly, by a lowercase omega, and by Greek capital letters, just as in the first part.
Numerous meanings, both profound and banal, have been attributed to these two parts, whether separately or together, but have not produced anything particularly new or interesting. The only meaningful response to most of these exegeses is a shrug of the shoulders and a mumbled “So what?”. Above all one is left with the impression that, without the researcher being aware of it, the trickster painter is playing games with them, using smoke and mirrors. Above all, the art historian does not understand the stakes of the game as the painter sets out traps, raises smoke screens and convinces him or her of the profundity of his riddles and rebuses.
Dhanens also suggests that TYM might be an abbreviation of Tymmeke, which she believes would mean that the sitter is called Thomas and not Tymotheos – and that’s the extent of her point. Even more meaningless are the pseudo-profound statements of other critics, leading to nothing but (to make matters even worse) the introduction of theology, or the disregard of an immanent logic in the matter. Now anything goes. Van Eyck is rolling in his grave.
Perhaps the solution has never been put forward by anyone because it is so redundant and banal, and yet at the same time so remarkable in its method, as to seem almost impossible? Here we must turn to another beloved technique of the trickster: namely camouflage.17
Camouflage is the reverse of concealing, of hiding or covering up. Camouflage means that something is fully visible but not seen because it blends into its environment so successfully that it can hardly be distinguished from it. The fact that it is not seen is not because it leads a hidden existence in its environment, but rather the opposite, because it is so visible that it remains unnoticed. This technique is often combined with the distraction or diversion of the observer. Something escapes the observer’s attention because there is something else nearby that demands all of it. For the authors, camouflage and distraction are crucial techniques in van Eyck’s artistic armoury.
Two concrete examples: the full stop as distraction and the omega as camouflage. Why this full stop? Why the omega in small case? The small omega must have a crucial meaning otherwise van Eyck might just as well have opted for a capital. Perhaps the inquisitive reader has also noticed: there are as many as four omegas on the parapet, omegas that seem to have lost their way, wandering without context or other Greek letters to accompany them on their strolls.
But what is a lost omega, an omega without the camouflage of other Greek letters? Think of a rebus wherein each cryptogram is coded individually, regardless of its context. Wherein letters, drawings, symbols and diagrams are used interchangeably. What if the painter gives a clue as to the decoding of the inscription with that omega, but it is hard to understand because it is perceived as an inappropriate intrusion of the obscene into a pictorial context that seems much more sublime? At the same time, it is like a dark (cryptic) joke that painfully approaches the situation of the person portrayed. The trickster-painter knows that the canonical exegete can think of anything except what he does not want to see, which he cannot see. Again, as I have stated elsewhere: the real is visible only according to the viewer’s position and discourse. For example, a miniscule omega pops up between all capital letters, a letter that is not actually a letter, but camouflage. The exegete has no doubts that it is an omega, especially in an inscription otherwise consisting of Greek letters. But the exegete should sound an alarm at the sight of so many omegas scattered around the stone and think: the painter wants me to believe that it is an omega, but why not make it big like the other capitals? Because it is about the pictorial value of the omega, of course, a pictorial value that is lost in the capital. But this requires the observer to approach the omega as a rebus, and at the same time it produces a rupture in the semiotic register that the subject seems unable to accept. However, ask anybody in the street what’s suggested by this and the answer will be forthcoming: a butt.
It’s that simple. Van Eyck paints a butt between the Greek capitals and says: here’s the clue, read this backwards, do a reading a tergo, and what you read will have formal and substantive meaning, the two intertwined. This backwards reading is of course a sodomitical reading: backwards copulation as a model for backwards reading. The 12th century philosopher Alain de Lille has exhaustively explained the rules of this sodomitical grammar in his influential satire De Planctu Naturae. Hieronymus Bosch, to name but one, is of course a more explicit practitioner of that grammar than van Eyck.
So let’s do it. Let’s neglect the full stop because it has no meaning except that van Eyck meant it to obscure the possibility of our retrograde reading.
A medieval man whose mother tongue was Middle Dutch would have understood this word immediately. Perhaps the contemporary reader needs some additional help.
C is, of course, the capital sigma, so one reads an S
as in van Eyck’s motto: ALC IX XAN
OE is the Middle-Dutch variant of the modern Dutch long OO.
OE is therefore simply pronounced as Dutch O.
Θ Is the th or theta which can of course be read as D , as in theos = deus
SOD – (we are beginning to understand).
The omega ω, is of course read as O
And finally MYT
which needs no further explanation, and which produces:
SODOMYT, or, obviously: sodomite.
There is no longer any doubt and no escape. Tymotheos is the ancient sodomite and so must be the person portrayed: the conclusion could hardly be more redundant. We do not know anything about him for the time being, we do not know his profession and we do not know who he was, but the riddle of the name Tymotheos leaves no doubt that the portrait that van Eyck painted is the somewhat veiled portrait of a sodomite. That he has succeeded in obfuscating this is evident from the total surprise provoked by this absolutely simple (and yet improbable) exegesis – improbable because it has no symbolic place in the interpretation of ancient art.
For the time being we do not know why van Eyck painted a portrait of someone whom he refers to as a sodomite through an allusion to antiquity (Tymotheos) and at the same time through an encryption (Sodomyt). In the Middle Ages, sodomy was the term for all sexual acts that were not aimed at reproduction – so not only homosexuality, but also masturbation and heterosexual acts with no procreative function. These acts were strictly forbidden by both the Church and secular powers, being considered socially dangerous, and in most cases punishable by death.
In his article “State power and illicit sexuality: the persecution of sodomy in late medieval Bruges”, a subject about which a fair amount of historical information has been preserved, Marc Boone has shown that almost all cases of punishment for sodomy involved sexual acts between people of the same sex, usually men.18 Heterosexual sodomy was theoretically just as criminal, but in practice it was mainly homosexual men, and to a lesser extent women, who were brought to court, and usually burned at the stake. As Jonas Roelens, who has undertaken the most extensive study of sodomy in the Low Countries to date, aptly parodies it, Bruges was the “Sodom of the North”; yet whereas Venice and especially Florence were known in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance for the large presence of, and relative tolerance towards, homosexuals, the fact that we are so well informed about the North’s homosexual epicentre is mainly due to the intensive persecution of sodomy there.19
To my knowledge, there exist no other portraits whose motif is the sexual orientation of the sitter, or the social consequences of that orientation. At the same time, it is clear that van Eyck made little or no allusion to sexuality or sexual acts. Sodomy is not a theme of his work, nor does he condemn or criticize it in any way.
In addition, the French inscription, which I will analyze in more detail here, does not seem in any way to imply a condemnation of the person portrayed. There is no critical allusion to sodomy. On the contrary, the performance is constructed in such a way that the spectator’s moral judgment is suspended. Apart from the semi-cryptic inscription, there seems to be no immediate connection between the depiction and the conviction of the person portrayed for criminal and immoral acts of sodomy. What is the function of the word sodomy, not even being a word, but rather a kind of parasitic signifier that operates as a mirage or an aberrant double (after all, it doesn’t really add anything new, other than tearing open the symbolic meaning of Tymotheos and confronting us with the real of his name)? Tymotheos already has the allure of an unofficial graffiti, not so different in function to the cracks in the stone. Sodomite is the impossible stain left after the inversed, contrary, backwards reading. What changes in the portrait after a reading like this? Everything and nothing.
18 M. Boone, art., State power and illicit sexuality: the persecution of sodomy in late medieval Bruges, Journal of Medieval History, 1996, Vol. 22, Nr. 2, pp. 135 – 153
19 J. Roelens, Citizens & sodomites: perception and persecution of sodomy in the Southern Low Countries (1400-1700), doctoral thesis Ghent University, 2018
Boone has shown that the intensified prosecution and condemnation of sodomy in 15th century Bruges was part of the Burgundians’ strategy to gain a greater political grip on the all too independent (supposedly) free-spirited city, where sodomy was apparently largely tolerated and practiced across all strata of the populace, and thus could easily become a locus of repression for the powers on high.20 In the light of this context, the portrait naturally acquires a new relevance. It may not have to be situated in the context of the Burgundian court, but rather in the context of the artistic milieu of Bruges, in which the wealthy middle class was an important player.21
Would data concerning the convictions and executions of so-called sodomites in Bruges in 1432 provide additional help here? Apparently so. According to the Bruges Chamber of Accounts from 1432, three people were burned at the stake that year for committing sodomy with one another: Pieter Zeebaut, Hannekin de Rudder and Loys Vilein. Nothing else is known about them; the execution must have occurred around 20 September or shortly after, as this was the approximate date of the expenses incurred for the stake.22
Vilein’s last name is intriguing. As previously mentioned, Dhanens has pointed out a possible allusion to Time Deum in her analysis of the Tymotheos inscription, used as a motto by the important Ghent family Vilain, amongst others. In the official Vilain family tree there is no Loys Vilain or Vilein for the first half of the 15th century.
Perhaps he was a bastard who moved to Bruges? Or could Loys Vilein be the sodomite portrayed by van Eyck? It is striking that LEAL SOVVENIR is a quasi-anagram of his name, especially if we take into account the visual clue that van Eyck provides, which is the only way of ensuring the correct interpretation.
The last letter R should apparently not be interpreted as an R: van Eyck painted a rift between its first part, an I which indeed perfectly resembles the preceding I, and its residue, an oblique omega that seems to be artificially attached to the I to form an R.
This results in the following:
LOYS VILEIN (with a surplus A and E).
(As custom, the two Vs could be read as V and Y.)
What is the meaning of the remaining A and E?
There seem to me two possibilities.
Either we read:
AVE LOYS VILEIN
thus adding an extra V, a reading possibly legitimized by the entangled Vs.
Or, if we interpret AE as a classical Latin abbreviation, we could also read:
LOYS VILEIN AE
a legitimate abbreviation for aetatis (suae), found in numerous Renaissance paintings indicating the age of the sitter. Is there indeed an age to read cryptically? If we do not take into account LEAL, a procedure suggested by the large crack between the two French words of the inscription, and we add the Roman numerals plus the R representing the Arabic numerals 13, we arrive at the following number:
V + V + I + 13 = 24
This sum, consisting of Arabic and Roman numerals, can be justified by van Eyck’s similar way of writing the date 1433 on the so-called self-portrait in London; 1400 in Roman and 33 in Arabic numerals.
This age does not seem to contradict the appearance of the person portrayed.
Who is Loys Vilein? Except the certain fact that he was labeled a sodomite and burned at the stake in Bruges, nothing is known about him. Or is it?
20 Interestingly, Boone provides detailed cases proving that sodomy was often directly mediated by the highest instances of the Burgundian Court, and not only when courtiers were involved. This neatly demonstrates the intrinsically perverse connection between power and sexual control on the one hand, and voyeurism and enjoyment on the other. The extreme control and punishment, and the proper involvement or production of voyeuristic enjoyment are two sides of the same coin.
21 Not so much because of its implication of sodomy, which could be precisely the reason for a potential localization at the court with its voyeurism/repression, but because the depiction doesn’t submit to any voyeuristic gaze. On the contrary, despite its being a painting, it refuses to represent sodomy but rather constructs it as a writing on sexuality as a problem, articulated first of all through language.
22 ARA RK 13772, Bailiff’s accounts for Bruges, 6 May-22 September 1432, f. 54v
Executions were usually carried out as soon as possible after the verdict (in this case the stake for “bugghernie”).
Van Eyck’s portrait of Vilein is dated October 10, 1432, that is, 20 days after his death.
In his 1995 article “The Sitter for Jan Van Eyck’s ‘Leal Sovvenir’”, Jacques Paviot proposes an interesting hypothesis which, as with Dhanens’s Time Deum theory, subsequently foundered for lack of further evidence. Moreover, Paviot had a second hypothesis which he considered more likely, namely that the portrayed was a member of the Chamber of Rhetoric of Tournai.23 It is time to revisit Paviot’s initial hypothesis.
According to his initial hunch, Paviot suggests that the person portrayed must have been a writer or clerk living in Bruges, in particular the first clerk of the newly established first Bruges Chamber of Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit (Rederijkerskamer van de Heilige Geest), an extremely important cultural association under the impetus of the late Jan van Hulst, a poet best known for his contribution to the Gruuthuse manuscript, a Middle-Dutch collection of love poems from Bruges around the year 1400. Paviot’s argument is as simple as it is to the point, revolving around three crucial elements. It is based on the meaning of the scroll that the sitter holds and on the notarial or judicial tenor of the Latin sentence with which the painter signs the parapet. In the light of what we know now to have been Loys Vilein’s fatal end, his arrest and execution, it takes on a further bitter aftertaste.
Finally, the French poetic formula LEAL SOVVENIR is also essential, suggesting, according to Paviot, a literary/poetic environment. For example, the formula might be an allusion to the literary character Souvenir who, in Baudet Herenc’s 1425 work Le Parlement d’Amour, made in the wake of Alain Chartier’s La Belle Dame sans merci, is very appropriately called “le bon Greffier d’amours” (“the good clerk, or registrar – recorder – of love”). SOVVENIR thus refers not only to the portrait’s commemorative function, but also to the professional activity of the person portrayed, who was the writer and guardian of the poetic activities of a literary society.
For Paviot, such a person is most likely to have been in van Hulst’s entourage, and more specifically to have been amongst the 13 members of the first Bruges Chamber of Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit, founded in 1428, whose names are a matter of public record. Some were prominent Bruges traders with artistic ambitions; others professional visual artists and writers. They consisted of: the butcher Joost Prumbout; Bruges councillor and dean of the paternoster-makers, Jacob Bardevoet; the painter Lodewyck Halyncbrood, who emigrated to Valencia in 1439 and is said to have worked in van Eyck’s studio; Jan de Roouere, perhaps the father of the well-known poet Anthonis de Roovere; Bartholomeus Huijs; Pier Worst; Willem Michiels; Pierken van Bouchoutte; Anthonis Goosin; poet and councillor Gillis Honin, who was one of the leaders of the 1436 Bruges uprising against Philip the Good; Joris Jooris; and Jan Bork. The name of the first clerk of the society is written at the end: Lossche Luÿcke. Paviot concludes: “The new guild had a first clerk, Lossche Luÿcke. If he was still in charge in 1432, he may have been the sitter for ‘LEAL SOVVENIR’.” He includes no further information.
It is remarkable that, unlike the other members of the association, the clerk is only mentioned by his first name and a descriptive epitheton, a kind of nickname. Might this indicate his youth, worthy of note for being different from the other members? If Loys Vilein was 24 years old at the time of his death in 1432, as can be inferred from his portrait, then in 1428, at the founding of the rhetoric chamber, he would have been just 20, and therefore undoubtedly the youngest member of the association.
Los(s)ch means “squint-eyed” in Middle Dutch and could indicate the clerk’s strabismus. Luÿcke is a diminutive for Loys. An attractive hypothesis now presents itself: might not “Squinty Loyke” be Loys Vilein, the boy who was tried for sodomy in 1432, and immortalised in an epitaph by Jan van Eyck? This seems absolutely plausible to me.24
The question is whether the sitter is indeed squinting. Van Eyck pays a great deal of attention to creating a naturalistic representation of the eyes, which at first sight (so to speak) do not show too great a deviation. If there is any question of strabismus in the person portrayed, then the painter has not emphasized this. Nevertheless, the unusual position of the light reflections, which would normally appear in the same place on both eyes, does produce a slight oddity. (In the portraits of Margaretha van Eyck and Jan de Leeuw there are perfectly similar and symmetrical light reflections on the sitters’ eyes.)
In Léal Souvenir, the light reflection in the sitters’ eyes differs. The right pupil deviates slightly to the right, causing the right eye to squint so that the light reflection does not fall partly on the pupil, as with the left eye. This seems even more evident after recent restoration. It seems as if the position of the right eye must have been corrected in centuries past so that the pupil sat a little more in the centre of the eye.
24 Panofsky was closer to the truth than he might have realised when he called the sitter a Flemish farmer: after all, Vilein (vilanus) means farmer. So if we are to attribute any meaning to Panofsky’s physiognomic impressions, must we conclude that van Eyck gave the sitter a more rustic air than he really had to do justice to the meaning of his name?
However, it cannot be ruled out that los(s)ch simply has a different meaning here. It could also be a reference to naughty or transgressive behaviour, an idea borne out by my research. Finally, drawing on an interesting etymological analysis by Reinier van der Meulen from 1913, it could mean “of the red leather” or “of the red sheets of parchment”, referring to a red parchment that was in demand in Bruges called loosch vellen or rodlosch – not impossible given his job as a scribe.25 Given this, however, it does not seem implausible to me that los(s)ch might also simply mean red, as van der Meulen indicates, or red-haired (and that is undoubtedly the colour of the stubble that protrudes from Loys Vilein’s chaperon), and so the name Rosse Luÿcke is perhaps the most obvious. Whether his possible redheadedness is also related to his later conviction as a sodomite remains unanswered. After all, in the 15th century redheads were more often the victims of discrimination, suspicion and exclusion. Redheads have been associated with sexually transgressive behaviour and even witchcraft, as described in 15th century witchcraft treatise the Malleus Maleficarum.
Whether or not Lossche Luÿcke is indeed Loys Vilein cannot be said with certainty. But there no longer seems to be any doubt that van Eyck portrayed Loys Vilein, perhaps on the basis of sketches he made before his execution, and that the portrait served as a memorial to the deceased. But how is such a thing possible? And why does van Eyck pay so much, albeit cryptic, attention to the reason for Loys Vilein’s execution? The portrait is not a portrait of the deceased Loys Vilein, but a portrait of Loys Vilein as Tymotheos; as sodomite. In what context could such a portrait ever have had meaning?
I can imagine only one or two possible contexts. The first is the private life of the painter himself: van Eyck made the portrait solely for himself in memory of someone who must have been very dear to him. The second is perhaps more plausible and does not exclude the first. The tragic loss of Loys Vilein, first clerk of the Chamber of Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit, the association in which important figures from the Bruges middle class came together to share their passion for rhetoric, poetry and literature, was compensated for by a worthy portrait of the deceased. Who could be more appropriate to supply this portrait than the most important painter of the time, van Eyck, who had just moved to Bruges and might even have known Vilein personally? We can imagine that the portrait would have been given a central place in one of the rooms of the association.
The fact that, after his death, a writer executed for sodomy might have been honored with a portrait by a small, but in terms of status not insignificant, group, not only goes against the official ordinance that every memory of the sodomite had to be erased, it also opens the door to new questions and hypotheses around the tolerance, acceptance or even appreciation of homosexuality in certain urban environments. In addition to this, it leads the authors to wonder whether it might not be time to revise longstanding views about the supposed tension at the time between art, society and sexuality.26
Is it not tempting, but of course somehow speculative too, to see a connection between the uncanny (unheimlich) feeling that remains with the viewer when the true facts and implications of van Eyck’s portrait of Loys Vilein have been understood, or even just sensed – via the technico-artistic tricks with which van Eyck manages to instil that feeling, naturally – and the motto of the Bruges Chamber of Rhetoric: Mijn werc es hemelic (“My work is hidden/heavenly”), a motto that plays on the double meaning of heavenly and secret or hidden? The word hemelic is fascinating to say the least because it has an inner crack akin to the characteristics of a parallax or an anamorphosis, in which the heavenly and the covert oscillate endlessly without giving a fixed position to the subject. Perhaps here we come across another of the trickster techniques used and shared by artists in 15th century Bruges. The inner splitting of the image, the ambiguity, ambivalence and continuous oscillation from the subject’s point of view are central here.
Finally, I outline below some of the questions and concerns raised by the identification of the sitter in the van Eyck painting as Loys Vilein, and especially by the new interpretation of Tymotheos/Sodomyt in connection with the execution of the sitter in Bruges in 1432.
26 My hypothesis is that, for van Eyck, sodomy (i.e. sexuality in the Freudian sense, which is essentially structured by something that escapes reproductive functionality – or, sex as a problem, a gap) and art are related; Van Eyck’s views on art being the same as his views on sexuality. This is a subject I explore in my analysis of the Arnolfini double portrait, which I consider to be van Eyck’s conceptual magnum opus, giving shape to his total vision. The tension between natural and unnatural (re)production is fundamental here. For more on this subject, see: A. Zupančič, What is Sex, Cambridge Massachussets, 2017.
The first and most important question concerns the role and meaning of sexuality in van Eyck’s paintings.27
As I have demonstrated elsewhere, van Eyck more or less cryptically thematizes sodomy in at least four or five other paintings: Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban(Self-Portrait?) and the Arnolfini Portrait, both at the National Gallery in London; The Madonna at theFountain at Antwerp’s KMSKA, and (perhaps unexpectedly) the Ghent Altarpiece, at St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent.28
There is a strong suspicion that another lost painting by van Eyck from 1440 also depicted sodomy, whether or not in an encrypted manner. Marcantonio Michiel saw the work around 1520 in the Casa Lampagnano in Milan. It depicted a banker with his client and must have been the inspiration for A Goldsmith in His Shop, by Petrus Christus, a painting that, according to Diane Wolfthal, condemns sodomy.29
The influence of this lost van Eyck can be traced well into the 16th century through the Banker of the 16th Century with HisWifeby Quinten Metsys, and the different versions of The Money Changers by Marinus van Reymerswaele, with their sexually perverse undertones. In the light of our new findings about van Eyck’s National Gallery portrait, in which the sitter is cryptically referred to as a sodomite, but in which there is otherwise no indication that the painter might have shared the official view of sodomy as a crime and mortal sin, it might be necessary to revisit Petrus Christus’s 1449 A Goldsmith, which, according to Wolfthal, rejects problematic homosexuality and affirms virtuous, procreative heterosexuality. First of all, it seems far from certain to me that the painting represents this all too simple dualistic view of sexuality. While I agree with Wolfthal that the work is absolutely about sex, in its permitted and forbidden versions, it is primarily a representation of a dilemma, of some kind of unsolvable problem that interweaves and connects questions about desire, procreation, reproduction, marriage and the economy.
27 In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, sodomy was a general term for engaging in sex without reproductive purposes. In concrete terms, only homosexuality was prosecuted in Bruges and punishable by the death penalty. Heterosexual sodomy was officially punishable, but there are no known examples of prosecution.
28 These texts will be available via this website in the near future.
29 D. Wolfthal, In and Out of the Marital Bed: Seeing Sex in Renaissance Europe, New Haven Yale, 2010
What Wolfthal completely ignores, for example, is the fact that the painting is not just about marriage and sodomy, but rather about usury (usuria,or excessive interest), which has been associated with sodomy.30 Although it might be true that van Eyck’s work, to which Petrus Christus was greatly indebted, is much more complex and ambiguous, Christus’s Goldsmith also transcends a dualistic morality. To what extent paintings from that period took a clear moral position, or presented a moral problem in all its complexity, so that they might function as discursive catalysts among specific social groups, is unclear.
It may be observed that the inscriptions in the Tymotheos painting differ in quality. All information pertaining to the conviction and execution of the subject for sodomy is painted on the stone parapet in an intentionally sloppy manner. This seems to suggest that such information is temporary because washable – that it has an unofficial status, in contrast to the apparently neutral portrait and the official French inscription that has supposedly been carved into the stone.
It is striking that van Eyck’s signature is itself an implicit part of the sodomite discourse. The last letter of his name, K, touches the bottom curve of the R of Léal Souvenir (an anagram of the name Loys Vilein), and the vertical stem of the K is broken by the R. This could be a coincidence, but it seems plausible to me that the painter wanted to suggest a connection to the person portrayed, not least because this connection concerns the ambiguous letter R, the letter that does not actually exist, according to the anagram’s logic. The touch also happens on the residue of the letter, the oblique omega figure that appears disconnected from the stem through the crack in the stone.
Perhaps there are also subtle indications in the portrait that something is off here; small details that function like the cracks in the parapet. If one looks closely at the eyes, one notices that they are tearful; there even seems to be a teardrop hanging from the left eye. And is the yellow reflection in the eyes that of a flame or a fire? These could be all subtle references to the sitter’s fear and his sad fate at the stake, which he nevertheless faces with lofty dignity.
Let us not forget that the chiselled inscription on the stone parapet, an indelible memory as it were, has paradoxical connotations in the light of the fate of a sodomite. As indicated by various 15th century anti-sodomy laws, the body of the sodomite was to be burned to ashes leaving no trace and, above all, no material memento such as a grave or tombstone. In this sense, the painted tombstone functions as the grave that the sitter was legally denied.
Another apparently marginal but nevertheless telling element in the painting is the complete absence of hair on the sitter’s face, whereas van Eyck gives most of his male sitters a slight stubble beard.31 Rather than a naturalistic representation of the sitter, this could be a seen as a physiognomic intervention via which van Eyck subtly articulates the nature of the person portrayed. Consider the caustic remarks of 14th century French satirical poet Eustache Deschamps, who once made an appearance as a performing poet in Bruges, and whose oeuvre was known to the city’s literary and artistic circles, about men without beards, which he saw as a sign contra naturam:
Femme d’omme, qui doit estre barbus,
Homme sanz poil, c’est a chascun laidure.
Eulx encontrer n’est que male adventure,
Et leur regart ne doit plaire a nulluy,
Car nature double a aucuns sur luy,
Aucune aussi, incestes en leurs fais
Usans des deux; de mon temps en congnuy,
Infeables, desloyaulx et mauvais.32
[A woman out of a man, who should be bearded,
Man without hair, this is an insult to everyone.
To meet them is nothing but misfortune,
And their gaze can be pleasing to no one.
Each possesses a double nature,
Incestuous in their acts,
Using both kinds (sexually); in my time I have known them:
Untrustworthy, disloyal, evil]
Could the LEAL of LEAL SOVVENIR be a literary reference and refutation of Deschamps’s desloyaulx? In any event, the way in which van Eyck introduces sodomy into the painting genre is remarkable and unprecedented, to say the least. Let us not forget that this is also the oldest known portrait by the painter. Rather than a realist commissioned portrait, Tymotheos might more accurately be called a conceptual, or even a political work.
Sodomy or, let’s say, the sensitive pleasures of the flesh that, although strictly forbidden in practice, are able to touch the eye in a sublime way through art (think in this context especially of the male body in 15th century Italian painting), is in no way brought into view by van Eyck; no naked bodies appear in his portrait, and no reference is made to the erotic aspect of sexuality or of the obscene. Which is interesting in itself. Instead, van Eyck introduces sexuality as a problem and as a politics through language – through paradoxes, riddles and linguistic contradictions. At the risk of a misguided anachronism, one might say that van Eyck enrolls sexuality in his work not as a physical practice, as often analyzed in modern queer theory, but as a linguistic practice, in the style of Freud and Lacan. In this sense, the painting also seems to suggest that the sodomite lacks a clear identity. As if van Eyck wants to show that it is impossible to make a portrait of a sodomite because sodomy does not easily coincide with positively affirmed characteristics. Van Eyck seems to portray a man who refuses to expose himself and his practices – his body – to the voyeuristic judgment of the inquisitorial “big Other” who labels him as a sodomite.
Is it anachronistic to regard the dignity with which Loys Vilein was portrayed in light of his conviction and execution as a political statement?
32 Cited in: E. Whitney, What’s Wrong with the Pardoner? Complexion Theory, the Phlegmatic Man, and Effeminacy, The Chaucer Review, 2011, Vol. 45, Nr. 4, pp. 357-389.
“Two physical characteristics tie the Pardoner literally to the phlegmatic complexion: his utter lack of a beard and his lank, scraggly, yellowish hair, both of which are signs of a phlegmatic complexion in scientific and physiognomic literature. In Chaucer’s world beardlessness was a marker for both effeminacy and moral and sexual deviance.” This also seems to apply to van Eyck’s sitter.
The question of whether medieval sodomy in all its implications appealed to the painter van Eyck can hardly be answered with certainty. What is clear, however, in my opinion, is that for the artist art itself was a sodomitical practice – a theme upon which I have elaborated elsewhere.33 Van Eyck is part of an artistic tradition whose roots go back to the 12th century, and the beginnings of the Gothic, when art began to be conceived as something unnatural, or contra naturam. A work of art is by definition ambiguous and contradictory. It can fit into the frame of its own time, but it also transcends it. The work of art lives on after its era, and continuously produces new meanings for new generations: a kind of sodomitical reproduction, as it were – an inorganic propagation that runs counter to the organic-procreative imperative of the reigning social order.
Proof of this comes in the anamorphic Tymotheos/Sodomyt of Léal Sovvenir. Art and philosophy corrupt youth and society: this is the work’s lesson, and the ultimate mission of the artēs. For van Eyck, therefore, sodomy is not a purely sexual concept, but a concept comparable to Freud’s or Lacan’s (death) drive that disconnects art and sexuality from their supposedly organic, natural or functional roles and points to their intrinsic ambivalence and openness. Van Eyck presents Loys Vilein as the (unknown) martyr of this sodomitical art; an internally split, ambiguous art that is comparable to the ambiguous status of the sodomite in 15th century society. Art is able to articulate that split or crack. Van Eyck stages the crack or fracture in the centre of the stone parapet between LEAL and SOVVENIR. Art produces a crack in society similar to the role of the sodomite. In the figure of Tymotheus, both worlds, art and sexuality, are united but inadmissible to the so-called natural, organic and reproductive logic of the state that answers their twin threats with exile or incineration.
Is it not time for a revision of the role that van Eyck played as an artist at the intersection of Bruges’s urban life and Burgundian court culture? Such an historical revision could begin with a serious analysis of van Eyck’s ambiguous semiotics.
Boone ends his pivotal text on the sweeping repression of sodomites in 15th century Bruges as follows:
“Although many questions concerning the social history of Bruges still need to be studied, the tragic fate of the 90 Bruges sodomites invites us to reconsider the splendor of the Burgundian theater-state in Bruges. Seen in the light cast by the 44 burning stakes, its cracks and tarnishes are visible.”34
One of those 90 sodomites now has his name back – and his face, which was not unknown, though no one knew the tragedy that hid the souvenir (memory) of his tombstone. Only a trickster painter like van Eyck could have simulated a grave more durable than stone, which, for 600 years, has remained faithful to the memory of Loys Vilein, the sodomite who died at the stake and had to do without a grave.35
It should be clear that the nationalistic and identitarian recuperation of van Eyck in the 21st century can only take place through a manifest denial or obfuscation of the historical truth that, as Walter Benjamin writes in his theses on history, always flashes up as a souvenir at the moment of danger. No coincidence, then, that it is precisely now that Loys Vilein has stepped into the light as the subject of van Eyck’s Léal Souvenir.
34 M. Boone, art., State power and illicit sexuality: the persecution of sodomy in late medieval Bruges, Journal of Medieval History, 1996, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 135 – 153
35 Is there a relation between van Eyck’s trickster art and the queerness in/of his works, and would it mark the essential difference between van Eyck and, for example, Campin or van der Weyden? Ambiguity or ambivalence in form and content, essential for van Eyck (and less present or relevant for contemporaries) seem to be key concepts here, and ones that resonate with the originally anti-essentialist, anti-identitarian notion of the concept of queer. For a recent exploration of this theme, see Leo Bersani’s book on Caravaggio (L. Bersani, Caravaggio, 1999) and his article “Is there a Gay Art?”(L. Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave, 2009).