L’Histoire de l’oeil: the Hole and the Stain in Two Portraits by Jan van Eyck

“We underestimate this little hole, it seems to me, we call it the arsehole and affect to despise it. But is it not rather the true portal of our being and the celebrated mouth no more than the kitchen door?” 
– Samuel Beckett , Molloy

Man in a Red Turban, one of the titles often given to this work, is a portrait by Jan van Eyck dating from 1433. The year is painted on the gilded frame but made to look as if it were carved into it. The painter also added a date, 21 October, along with the following comment (as if the painting or the person in the portrait were speaking): “Jan van Eyck made me.1
Until proved otherwise, this painting is considered the oldest self-portrait in Western art, even though it lacks a clear signature. Instead, the artist has included a motto in Middle Dutch at the top, written in Greek capital letters: “AΛC IXΗ XAN”, a quasi-anagram of the painter’s name.2

Jan van Eyck_Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?), 1433, National Gallery London
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?), 1433, National Gallery London


2 That AΛC IXΗ XAN is in fact an anagram has recently been demonstrated by Paul Claes in his brief publication. Claes also demonstrated that the Greek capital letters are necessary for the anagram to work. The Λ (lambda) has to be inverted and read as a V, just as the letter C (Greek capital sigma) has to be turned 90° right to form an N: A V N  J K EY  K (=C)  AN = JAN VAN EYCK.
P. Claes, De kamerheer en de kanselier, Uitg. Epo, 2020

Because the painting has no true signature, not all art historians are convinced that it is a self-portrait. According to the legendary art historian Erwin Panofsky, the way in which the subject is depicted – the “look out of the picture” – is an artistic indication that we are dealing here with the painter himself.3 After all, for the artist, the pose and the gaze are the necessary conditions of a self-portrait. The painter is obviously looking at the viewer. In reality, he is adopting a pose and observing himself in a mirror, an essential instrument for this purpose.

3 E. Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, New York, 1953, p. 198

Panofsky doesn’t just emphasise the unprecedented status of this self-portrait; just as important for him is the way in which, for the first time in Western art history, the viewer outside the painted reality is being looked at from directly within the frame. The viewer stands in front of the portrait and meets, first of all, the gaze of the subject who is looking at him. As if the person in the portrait had just turned his head towards the viewer to grant them a unique personal encounter. Van Eyck creates this unique intimacy between work and viewer through elements that continue to simulate the act of portraiture long after the painting was finished: the light stubble sported by the man in the portrait, and in particular the excessive head covering, a chaperon or hat consisting of long, scarlet bands of cloth loosely tied around what is known as a bourrelet, a rolled-fabric ring around the head that supports the whole thing.4 The viewer has the impression that the folds and draping of the so-called cornette, the scarf-like tail, and the patte, the shoulder cape, could at any moment change shape, implode or rearrange themselves – or even flutter downwards, since it is hard to make out any knots that might hold them in place. It’s a miracle that this excessive turban could ever have stayed on.5

4 This kind of chaperon or hood was also known in a Middle Dutch source as a rolcapruyn (“roll hood”). An article about this type of headgear by Mireille Madou is available online here, while a more extensive Wikipedia article on the topic can be found here.

5 Perhaps a contemporary, familiar with this type of head covering, would immediately understand that such a chaperon is in fact impossible and exists in fantasy only.

Undoubtedly, it is these two elements – the sharp gaze of the subject with his strict, somewhat ironic facial features, and the imposing draped head covering – that fill (too) much of the painting’s surface, overwhelming the viewer. A fascinating experience that, through the endless, simulated variation of the folds, prevents the viewer’s gaze from becoming saturated. On the contrary, the painter knows how to create a picture in which everything comes together to draw in the viewing subject. This power of attraction works all the better given the small size of the work. Paradoxically, it is the small dimensions of the painting that render its impact even more overwhelming, lending the viewing experience an incommensurable quality.6

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail face), 1433, National Gallery London
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail face), 1433, National Gallery London

Most researchers rightly emphasize the exceptional, groundbreaking gaze from the frame that evokes a dialogue with the viewer in an unprecedented manner. Panofsky speaks in this regard about the magnetism of the face which causes the viewer to feel observed and analysed. Van Eyck’s discovery of the symbolic communication between the subject of the portrait and the perceiving subject is, from this perspective, the portrait’s essence. While, in Italy, the subject was inscribed in its setting by its imaginary place as the point of a monofocal perspective, van Eyck achieves a comparable subjective involvement by the mirroring reciprocity of exchanged glances.

The question is whether that exchange is really as pure and unmediated as has been thought. The attention drawn, for example, to the excessive turban could alert the viewer to the fact that something is afoot. While glances are exchanged and an intimate contact appears to be created with the subject, it is the turban that captures the eye of the viewer. Yet, apart from the fact that it adorns the subject’s head, it is not entirely clear what its role or added value may be, why the painter has chosen to devote so much of the painting’s surface to such an eccentric head covering. Does it flatter the subject? Does the turban serve to give him a certain allure? But if so, what kind? Such head coverings are more reminiscent of comic theatre, commedia dell’arte or a Molière farce.

6 A similar visual strategy, a sort of Alice in Wonderland effect, would be used by van Eyck a few years later for the Berlin Madonna in the Church, in which the scale of the Gothic interior comes into its own precisely because of the modest size of the panel. This is reminiscent of the hallucinatory description by medieval mystics of spaces that are small on the outside, but very large within. Think, for example, of the well-known medieval saying that a sphere whose centre is everywhere has no circumference.

What is the role or meaning of a head covering in such a portrait, whose significance seems after all to lie in its mimetic capacity and in its eye contact with the viewer? The same question arises with regard to the meaning of costumes and draperies in general in van Eyck’s work, at least if we assume that the painter isn’t merely trying to reproduce unfiltered reality, in the fashion of a reporter or a director of cinéma vérité.7

The least one can say is that the subject’s glance is resolutely determined by the presence of the draped chaperon. To what extent, and how, is so vague that the viewer is generally more inclined to negate the turban and treat it as a touch of historical local colour: “this is what it was like once upon a time”.

The turban alerts the viewer to the fact that this is no ordinary portrait of a person who habitually dons an enormous, excessive head covering in the painter’s studio. This is clearly a staging, a construction, a montage. Why is the hood so large? A question that may be difficult to answer immediately, as its function is also unclear. But one thing is certain: it is the signifier of the dysfunctional.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail turban), 1433, National Gallery London
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail turban), 1433, National Gallery London

In the appearance of an inane but overblown fascinum, not even a gestalt but merely a tied-up piece of scarlet, the turban is of course perfectly suited to taking on the role of a phallus. A showpiece on the head of the proud painter, the red chaperon stands as a mascot of his trade, a proof of self-importance and self-affirmation, as various researchers have rightly argued. This is of course only half the truth of a phallus, and the painter knows it. The initial experience of awe gives way to its opposite, and the viewer understands the comical nature of this headgear. The glance of the subject turns into a mocking smile at his own ridiculous posture. The image’s initial seriousness and sovereign truth are transformed into an almost absurd spectacle. Are the numerous modern pastiches and parodies of this “immortal” image of van Eyck with his turban not proof that the representation is intrinsically amusing? This deals the first blow to the initially symmetrical intersubjective exchange of glances between sitter and viewer.

The phallic nature of the turban is elegantly articulated by its materiality, which is itself formless, no more than a ream of cloth, though on the head it keeps up the appearance of a swollen volume. This delusion is not only an aspect of the two-dimensionality of the painting’s surface; in reality, the turban is just as ambivalent in volume. We believe in the splendour because of the earnestness of its wearer – the painter himself, who has offered himself an extraordinarily painterly ornament to decorate his own head, and which, even as a real object, must necessarily be excessive.

Let us try to imagine how someone with such a head covering, twice the size of his head, could parade around while wearing it. The fact that this evokes an absolutely comical scene reveals the typical way the phallus works: a thing that must conceal its intrinsic impotence and that is in fact a castrating signifier. A phallus is funny because it can at any moment turn into precisely what it wants to conceal: the potentially implosive nature of the cap, its fantastic (and therefore fantasised) appearance and its impossible presence on the head of a living being all contribute to making it so. The painter understands how the phallus works, and depicts the chaperon in such a way that it cannot be perceived as anything but comical.8 The showpiece implodes here into what it tries to conceal and the painter knows that this intrinsically ambivalent and amusing structure is that of the phallus.9 Van Eyck positions himself with the phallus, but not without alluding to and playing on its inherently ridiculous representation. Is this a painter who is laughing at himself by exhibiting himself as a ridiculous phallus?

No one has ever pointed out this intrinsically comical (because phallic) aspect of the chaperon.10 The reason for this is the historicism governing most interpretations of the painting. This approach excludes the idea that the painter intended the head covering to be droll – why would he? What strikes us today as excessive was not so for the painter; what seems comical today was certainly not then: surely the emergence of the self-portrait cannot, after all, be thought to start with a joke?11

The cap literally hangs above the head of the subject, as if it was struggling to defy gravity, which presses down on the scarlet cloth like an invisible hand. For French art historian Henri Focillon, “les chapeaux de Van Eyck” are first and foremost a trademark of the painter – an idea he applied to the gigantic beaver-felt hats of Arnolfini and Baudouin de Lannoy.12 Instead of being comical, in his view they are excessive and ecstatic, as was the entire 15th century, he points out, evoking the famous pages of Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages.

L: Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfiniportrait (detail hat), 1434, National Gallery London
R: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, 1435, Gemäldegalerie Berlin

In the Arnolfini double portrait, van Eyck in fact does something similar: a disproportionately large chandelier almost grazes the heads of the posing couple. Move an inch and they might back into it. Would his contemporaries not have understood this as tongue-in-cheek? What is the significance of such jokes that continually play on proportions and disproportions? Why joke around with hats? Isn’t it time for a psychoanalysis of the Eyckian hat? And a comparison with Magritte’s bowler hat, the hats of Rubens, the caps of Rembrandt etc.?

Anyone who does not succumb to the soporific historicism of the specialists will gradually discover the unusual, ominous disproportionality at play in van Eyck’s portraits. Here, the disproportionality of the hat ultimately becomes the signifier of something extraordinarily peculiar in this small painting, which the intimacy of its dimensions seeks rigorously to express.13

The turban is too explicit to be passed over in silence – it takes up too much space. It is what Albrecht Dürer barely a hundred years later would call ungestalt, commenting: “Die ungestalt will sich van ir selbs stettigs in unser werk flechten.”14 The formless constantly seeks to weave itself into our work of its own volition. It seems as if, in speaking of weaving, he might have had van Eyck’s undulating chaperon in mind. The portrait has a lot in common, in this regard, with a Medusa’s head, with cloth strands like snakes that tend to overpower the entire surface of the painting.15

Historicist art history has succeeded in normalising and neutralising the event of the Eyckian head-covering by considering it not as an invention of the painter, but as an object in reality that precedes its faithful reflection in the painting. This sort of approach turns the 15th-century artist into a respectable, slavish recorder of reality. The “terror of the reality principle” in art, as I once referred to it; the anti-artistic nightmare from which late medieval art – as well as that of later periods – cannot seem to awaken. Or, better, the decreed anaesthesia that is administered by the official, orthodox discourse about art. The term “orthodox theory”was introduced in 1934 by Erwin Panofsky and is directly related to the idea of the reality principle, as applied by Panofsky to van Eyck’s Arnolfini double portrait.16 It is the primordial task of iconology to recover the context of a work of art, but this is understood implicitly, perhaps out of an all too naïve and simplistic notion of the mimetic principle that is thought to dominate all the arts, to mean that there is a reality that precedes a work of art, in this case the reality of the wedding of an Italian merchant couple which prompted the painting’s commission. This can only originate from the historical cliché that dominates such art, namely, that one knows how, why, by and for whom artworks before the modern era were conceived. What would this mean for the curious object that is van Eyck’s red head-covering?

According to this logic, the chaperon is not something invented on the surface of the painting, but as exact a copy as possible of a chaperon which existed on the head of the subject. It looks the way it once looked in reality, because the subject’s task – possibly at van Eyck’s urging, or as the result of some complicity – was to put on the chaperon when posing for the picture.

An extreme example of such a normalising reality principle can be found in the otherwise accurate observations and descriptions in Lorne Campbell’s excellent book about the old collection of the National Gallery. He writes:

It is difficult to find another instance of a cornett wound quite so extravagantly around a chaperon. This may have been a transient fashion; or the cornette may have been twisted around the hat to keep it out of the sitter’s way.17

This normalising explanation of the excess of the chaperon has, in fact, been incorporated into most interpretations of the work. The extravagant draping of the chaperon exists, according to Campbell, outside the painting, and is the effect of a happy coincidence, or rather, it is a functional solution for flaps which may have disrupted the painter while he was at work, rather than the invention of a painter who may have designed the extravagant head covering on the surface of the painting. Or as one researcher has put it: “a chaperon—which may have been tied up to avoid getting it dirty…”. The painter is a slave to optical realism and paints what he sees as carefully as possible. Reality offers him everything he needs. And so we find ourselves back to square one.

And what if the painting only retroactively produced, created, staged such a head covering? The comical ambivalence of the virtuoso painting of the chaperon makes even the most extravagant, outright hilarious head-covering believable. In that sense, the painter himself relies on the reality principle: it is a crucial aspect of his pictorial illusionism, with which he leads the modern specialist and the cultivated viewer in particular down the garden path. It is, as it were, the first, fundamental trap laid by the painter: he makes the viewer believe that this is not a construction. Unravelling the meaning of a painting in this case means unravelling the underlying image from reality and its context. With Campbell, the description of the work covers barely half a page, while speculation about the possible identity of the subject takes up over a page. This says it all.

In other words, the entire painting is made in such a way that it succeeds in making us forget that it is a painting. It pulls the viewer into a reality that is so believable, so visually overpowering, that it seems as if the final word has been said. The painter depicts reality so incredibly well that we believe in it.

What this interpretation and iconographic process guarantees and legitimates is what one might call the immaculate image or mirror of iconology: speculum sine macula. This means that the image is the perfect reflection of the subject. Everything in this world of mirror images reflects everything else, and the viewing subject can also be reflected in paintings that are intended to be mirrors. But what if this vision endures thanks to a rigorous denial of what is happening in van Eyck’s painting? What if his picture was not a speculum sine macula but rather a macula sine speculum, or, better yet, a macula in speculo?

What if the entire iconology were in fact built around the almost perverse, voyeuristic glorification and consumption of virginal, untouched images, the pernicious blindness and conscious or unconscious denial of the stain in the Eyckian image? What if it were to turn out that the entire optical-realist construction served but one goal, namely, the hole in the image, the crack in the representation, the intrinsic ambiguity of exploring, manipulating and ultimately also constructing the gaze? What if van Eyck invented the self-portrait that beholds us, not on the basis of a new humanist or realistic paradigm, but rather by means of a split view and a split subject that sees reality as a big anamorphosis in which it is itself enclosed? Or should we avoid seeing a contradiction here and conclude that this is precisely the new paradigm that we refer to as the Renaissance, and that makes the painter aware of the stain on the portrait and its subject?

The Renaissance and humanism were invariably related to the advent of the gaze looking from the frame in the portrait, and the associated constitution, or self-fashioning, of the subject, in the words of Stephen Greenblatt. The portrait depicts this self-assured new subject and serves as a mirror. It is a subjectivising machine that enables one to identify with the subject of the portrait.

Let us examine afresh this portrait, with its landmark gaze from within the frame, that is so highly prized by humanists. Conceptually and formally, it seems extremely simple. Apart from the extravagant turban, whose symbolic, phallic qualities we have already evoked, there is only the face of the subject.

But are things really so simple? What is going on, for example, with the subject’s temple? What do we see here but the conceptual mirror beginning to show its first cracks, and sowing doubts in the viewer about the portrait’s intersubjective symmetry?

Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London
Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London

The temple suddenly looks like a gigantic almond: we hardly dare express what we think we are seeing here. Once again, it is the ambiguous function of the formless, which is never truly without form, as Georges Bataille has argued, but which knows how to reproduce itself via constantly oscillating, ever-changing shapes which the viewer does not seem able to master, no matter how hard he or she might try.

7 Campbell provides a version of this concept that ends up in a sort of simplistic nominalism. A chair is a chair, a chandelier is a chandelier. Things are what they are, and the idea that meaningful and meaning-transforming relations may be created as the painter depicts something or, on the contrary, decides not to depict something, is not seen as being within the range of possibilities. Van Eyck does not paint simply what he observes, nor does he depict existing rituals or scenes from daily life or people engaging in customs and traditions. When he does do so, or rather, when a scene looks suspiciously like a realistic daily setting, then we can presume a mise-en-scène, a vehicle for the painter’s bag of tricks that is opened up with the help of optical realism. It is precisely at this point that the viewer can be certain that what he or she sees is not what he or she thinks and that things surrender their simple daily (or even ritualistic) univocal meaning and lose themselves in ambiguity. This was already a problem for Panofsky, who far too often saw symbols as fixed containers of meaning, in which the same signified was firmly linked to the depicted signifier. This became even more dramatic among his epigones, who tried, unfortunately for the wrong reasons, to commit patricide. Their rejection of Panofsky’s so-called hidden symbolism led either to pragmatic nominalism (“What you see – in a painting – is what you get!”)or in a rigidly historicist culturalism that situated the symbolic meaning of things in the customs and rituals familiar to the persons concerned, and adopted almost mechanically by the painter, without any sense of “disguised symbolism”. Not only did everyone know the meaning of, for example, a candle in a wedding ritual. It is precisely because of this generalised knowledge that the symbolic meaning implodes, as it were, into an ordinary object that no one is surprised to see van Eyck depict. The consequence is an extreme perceptual decline and banalisation, and the reduction of the painter to technical virtuosity (given that he or she cannot even be given credit for compositions or montages). The univocity of the symbol is, of course, exactly the opposite of van Eyck’s method. Instead, he draws on and recycles signifiers in the broadest sense from the cultural, symbolic field, and grafts them onto existing symbolic scenographies that he shifts, transforms, camouflages, partly liquidates, combines with heterogeneous elements and deconstructs. The field of meaning is a creation that plays out exclusively on the surface of the painting where signifiers are set in motion, in relationship to, and as challenges against, one another. There is but one principle at play: the impossibility of reducing a signifier to a single signified. Elsewhere, we have explored van Eyck’s use of perspective, and the departures, anamorphoses or bizarre topologies at work in this domain, whereby two signifiers that are physically distant from each other can be located next to or opposite each other on the surface of the painting and play out that proximity in a symbolic fashion.

8 Perhaps there is a wordplay here as well between chaperon and capon (capruyn/capuyn, chaperon/chapon, kaproen/kapoen). That is, between a chaperon and the horned headdress of the horned figures depicted in various 15th- and 16th-century portraits of fools. Let us not forget that van Eyck got married around the time of this self-portrait, at a relatively old age.

9 Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, was painted by Rogier van der Weyden with a similar black chaperon, but this excessive exemplar had the opposite effect to making the duke appear ridiculous. Van Eyck is unbelievably sensitive to the manipulation of proportions and the rhetoric of disproportionality, the operation of which can be seen in several of his works.

10 Is this comical/phallic aspect of the chaperon not evidence that this is a self-portrait, since it is almost unimaginable that the painter would expose someone else in a falling/phallic guise? Perhaps we should interpret the artist’s motto/anagram in the same way, not as modesty per se, but as an ambiguity that also implies sexual potency and impotence.

11 Henri Focillon (for example in La vie des formes) clearly sees the disproportionality of Arnolfini’s hat (certainly in the context of a small room such as the one framed by the painting): “L’énorme chapeau d’Arnoulfini, au-dessus de sa petite tête éveillée, pâle et pointue, n’est pas un couvre-chef quelconque”;; but he does not make a link between what he calls the interest in l’humanité artificielle via costuming, etc., and its comic aspect or potential.

12 H. Focillon, Art d’Occident, Parijs, 1955

13 Lacan speaks in this context of the “extime” as the deeper core of each intimacy.

14 A. Dürer, 
Underweysung der Messung, mit dem Zirckel und Richtscheyt, in Linien, Ebenen unnd gantzen corporen, in Von Strittigkeit der Bilder: Texte des deutschen Bildstreits im 16. Jahrhundert, ed. J. J. Berns, Nürnberg, 1525, p. 70

15 Doesn’t the chaperon in fact have a phallic-castrating and, what’s more, sexually fascinating effect, as Freud remarked of the Medusa? At the end of part one of this text, I will argue that the head covering may be inspired by the 13th-century Roman de la Rose. At the centre of that work is one of the most ambivalent and amorphous objects of medieval fantasy: the rose itself.

16 A. Panofsky, art. Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 64, Nr. 372, 1934, pp. 117-119+122-127. Geraadpleegd via Jstor.

17 L. Campbell, The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools, National Gallery Catalogues, London, 1998

We find ourselves, as if it were self-evident, in the realm of that imaginary almond next to the left eye. And what an eye! The best observations (but not necessarily always with the best conclusions) here come from the cognitive science angle. Thus, for example, Jan Koenderink has observed that there is an unusual, noticeable disproportion between the subject’s left and right eyes.18 Measurement leads Koenderink to conclude that the left eye (or the right for the viewer) is thirty percent larger than the right eye, an idiosyncratic feature of all of van Eyck’s portraits. This may also play into the slight divergence of the subject’s eyes. The left eye seems to pull away from the right one, and looks forward out of the frame, while the right eye is more along the axis of the head and therefore appears to be turned to the right. The painter might take realism into account but here, at any rate, he is not trying to make the subject’s regard homogeneous.

If one keeps looking at the painting, it appears as if the regard that at first appeared so piercingly homogeneous now loses its focal point and goes off in all directions. The eyes that initially stared so directly at us are lost in, and diffused across, a disorienting spectrum. The viewer has a sort of partial object-view that is directed separately to the left eye, which has become a thing in itself – something that just so happens to be an eye. Why is that? Where does the left eye’s sudden power of attraction come from?

The viewer then becomes aware of the strong articulation of the left eye, certainly in comparison with the vaguer right one. Just above it, the far too pronounced temple comes into view via a sort of bridging zone that grows more intense as we return toward the excessively articulated eye. Now we also see it through the spiral of deep wrinkles and grooves below it, something that the right eye lacks completely and so more readily attracts the viewer’s attention. The viewer now also sees, for the first time, something absolutely remarkable, something that must always have been visible but that they initially didn’t notice, although it is more or less in the middle of the face: a point or punctum, or, on closer look, a hole, as if this hole was not a trompe l’oeil but had actually been bored or pricked through the canvas, the hollow beneath it catching the light. The spiralling lines form a vortex, at the centre of which is a hole. There, immediately beside the actual eye, at around the same height as the pupil, there is another eye, a blind eye if you will, and the unthinkable at last becomes visible: there can be no mistake, for what we see here is none other than an arse.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London

The left eye has pulled away from the right, annihilating itself as an eye in order to lure the viewer into meeting the impossible gaze of an arsehole. Is there a better description of this kind of experience than what Lacan called the confrontation with the Thing?

The Thing leaves no opening for a return. The artwork takes over from the viewer. This is what Lacan awkwardly called, for lack of a better term, the gaze (le regard), a term that can only lead to confusion. A kind of view does not actually see, of course, but only takes away vision, rendering it impossible for the viewer to adopt the same position as before. From now on, this position is determined literally by a black hole in the painting. The portrait seems to be a grandiose, concealing circumvention around a misplaced anus that is always able to elude eye contact. Once we have seen this, the rest of the representation also seems to steal things away, to swallow them up. This is an abyss.

18 J. Koenderink, art., The Eyes in Jan van Eyck: Enquiry on an Academic Question, in Vision & Material: Interaction between Art and Science in Jan van Eyck’s Time, ed. M. De Mey, M. Martens, C. Stroo, Brussels, 2012

What is the anus doing here? Why is a towering artist like van Eyck doing this to us innocent viewers? Could it be that the emergence of the self-portrait, which exchanges glances with the viewer, is impossible without the simultaneous emergence of the black hole, the blind spot that one way or another obscures the mirror image of the artist and that in turn makes it impossible for us to view it immaculately? At this point, the viewer suddenly grasps that in the formlessness of the temple just above the lost arse, there is the outline of a nude male body depicted frontally, or rather, something that resembles the torso of the famous Apollo Belvedere, depicting vaguely thighs, genitals and navel, revealing the imaginative function of the temple.19

Jan van Eyck_Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London

The destabilising experience of the self-portrait has been achieved, and in principle can never be undone. The portrait has revealed its well-preserved secret, a secret that at the same time was not a secret, for there was nothing hidden, everything was always open and exposed on the surface of the painting. There is in theory nothing more to be said. Every statement, every further investigation would only be a re-territorialisation (as Deleuze would call it) of the symbolic face and the human glance, a restoration of intersubjective communication.

And yet, perhaps a renewed relationship is possible with the portrait as a whole, even though we have now experienced a shocking impact and its concomitant aftershocks, now that the experience with this work will never be the same again. Let us try to reinterpret the work retroactively, starting from the confrontation with the arse. Let us also try to understand something about the artistic operations that the painter is undertaking here, and let us look primarily at how he plays with the positions of the subject who is confronted with the real. What do we see, and what do we want to see, what can we see, and what do we not accept in what we see? I can see it, but nevertheless I choose not to do so. Sight is possible only for a subject who surrenders his or her privileged position.

The power of van Eyck’s work lies in this manipulation of the position of the subject in relation to the signifier. In this way, the painter succeeds in painting the arse that no one sees, just as Edgar Allen Poe once successfully hid a letter by exposing it in plain sight. We also have to wonder what the impact of this Thing is, this Thing that is strictly speaking not something: a hole, a hollow, an impossible and misplaced arse, one that has lost its way, forgotten its organic and symbolic place in the body, a detached arse that has nestled like a parasite next to the obsessive left eye, a third eye, the blind, dark eye of the arse, the eye that does not see but gapes.

In a striking text, Ellen Friedrich argues that the rose (which is not a rose) in the Roman de la Rose reveals an ancient connection between the eye and the anus:

19 It is certainly worth closely inspecting the temples of other van Eyck paintings. The location of the temple is in medieval medicine associated with the imagination, recycling what the eyes capture into an image. In this sense the temple operates as a (virtual) mirror reflecting what the sitter sees (or imagines seeing) in front of him, what appears to be a naked male body.

The Old and Modern Portuguese reflex of Latin culus is cu(u). In Medieval Galician-Portuguese, olho, from Latin oculus (eye) was used in satirical poems, either alone or in expressions such as “olho do cu,” (eye of the ass) for asshole. This is an example of a metaphor by analogy of form: something small, round, and perceived as a hole, similar to the anus/ring—a small, circular, ’empty’ object. It is also most likely a metaphor by analogy of function: the opening and closing of the contractile diaphragm which is the iris of the eye, corresponding to the sphincter muscle of the anus, around the contractile round aperture which is the pupil of the eye, corresponding to the opening of the anus.20

Van Eyck’s self-portrait with the anus and the phallic chaperon is reminiscent, in form, of the popular 15th and 16th century image of the betrayed spouse (this being, in the late-medieval imagination, the condition of every married man) as a fool with a phallic hat compromised by the head and extended neck of a castrated cock, or capon – a reference, of course, to the cuckhold’s horns, or the symbolic castration of the spouse. In the vicinity of the figure, there is an anus situated on the fool’s bauble, or in this engraving a cat with an almost human face. The association with luxuria (unchastity) and sodomy in such images is explicit. They are openly obscene and leave no doubt about their moralistic remit. This moralistic side is completely absent from the van Eyck self-portrait, but when compared to such works, a formal resonance is almost unavoidable.

L: Anymous, Woman with a Mirror and a Jester (detail), ca. 1600, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
R: Quentin Metsys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th Century

The subject that comes to stand eye to eye with the macabre humour of the Thing, let us say the person whom this (nether) eye eyeballs, may be the queer subject or, in the terminology of the late Middle Ages, the sodomite. For van Eyck, art is by definition a sodomitical matter, the matter of the black hole or the dysfunctional arse. Van Eyck discovers that art is consistent with sexuality, not as an organic, procreative, normative act, but in its  problematic aspects, which the 15th century referred to as sodomy. With van Eyck, one can perceive a remarkable discovery of sexuality which coincides with the development and expression of his portraiture. This is given expression in nearly all of his works, although little or no attention has been paid to the fact in research to date.

In my view, we have to regard sodomy, as it is depicted in van Eyck’s work, as no longer being equivalent to homosexuality; however, the problematic aspect of sex is more precarious here for socio-cultural reasons than is the case with what is regarded as normative sexuality. Perhaps we can simply call sodomy in van Eyck’s work (modern) sexuality.

The status of the sodomite is ambiguous, complex and, in van Eyck, rehabilitated to achieve an artistic status. Whether van Eyck was homosexual or a sodomite is not really relevant, assuming it could even be deciphered from his work. Moreover, such a reading would be made endlessly more difficult by the artistic gesture towards realistic fiction or construction that is an intrinsic part of van Eyck’s sodomitical conception of art. What interests me is the meaning of the link between art and sodomy here, and what this might signify for art.

The astonishing first confrontation with the arse is accompanied by an almost impossible, radical enjoyment brought about by her freakish out-of-placeness. We have already spoken of the potential ridicule attached to the gigantic tangled drape that covers the subject’s head. The revelation of the arse leads to the conclusion that a grandiose, comical artist is at work here. But what kind of humour or comedy is involved?

Is this the comedy of the obscene, which flourished in the medieval fabliaux and was revived in the 15th century at the Burgundian court, around the same time as van Eyck served there as court painter?

The viewer must admit that there is little that is obscene about van Eyck’s painted hole, that the moment of its discovery is more one of surprise than obscene revelation. Never before has so innocent, so trifling an arse been painted, and never has it been located so far from its habitual place. It is an arse, yes, but stripped of all other associations since it is missing the pose that normally accompanies her exposure. This arse is a pure signifier, nothing more, without any connotations. What should we think of and do with an arse that is planted there, in the middle of the face, camouflaged by the mimicry of a wrinkled eye-bag?

Mimicry is the right word here. We have already explained how van Eyck was the first camouflage artist. Camouflage hides without hiding. An arse remains undiscovered because it has disguised itself in a profuse mass of wrinkles under the eye. How could van Eyck be convinced of his trick? The asymmetry between the two eyes is disconcerting. The right eye is free of any wrinkles. It is only when we discover the arse that we can properly take stock of the exaggerated and almost unnatural spiral-shaped quantity of wrinkles.

Moreover, isn’t it the case that a hole has camouflaged itself as an arse, an impossible hole made by the painter? In my view, it is not the arse that we should call sodomitical, for the arse is still the symbolic, that is non-normative presentation of something that sets itself absolutely beyond the artwork and yet finds itself in its midst. That “something” is simply a hole, and it is this hole that is the punctum of van Eyck’s sodomitical art.

In order to unravel the emancipatory nature of the Eyckian anus, it may help to compare it with the anus in the famous second story of the Burgundian Decameron, Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles. This collection of tales has been noted for its obscene episodes, its constant sexual innuendo etc. and has also been cited as evidence of the open-mindedness of the late Middle Ages. But the opposite is true. Think how the ultra-conservative traditionalist “alt-right” movement draws on an openly obscene and misogynistic discourse. Perhaps this comparison is not as anachronistic as it seems. Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles are often described as socially critical, humorous and at the same time classless. In reality, they are the conservative and repressive expression of the Burgundian state apparatus. Every story teems with humorous, obscene transgressions. In contrast to the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, which is beholden to the same tradition but is endlessly complex and ambiguous, these narratives are unequivocal in their morality and ideology, which is the same as that of the Burgundian court. Van Eyck’s humour is completely at odds with this. The comedy of the arse in van Eyck is that of an internal transgression that plays the obscene against itself.

In the second story of Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles, a one-eyed Franciscan doctor cannot get enough of the arse, ravaged by piles, of the beautiful daughter of a London merchant. After he has applied a highly toxic pomade to her arse, described with great voyeuristic delight, the friar pursues his diagnosis. On the pretext of curing her, he rolls his one eye in every possible direction so as to be able to observe the arse from various angles. The girl, who is kneeling and rests her head on a pillow, sees between her legs the friar’s one eye going up and down, and moving back and forth. As a result of her restrained bursts of laughter at the lusty eye that seems to be moving about like a separate entity without a body, she lets out a fart that send the toxic salve flying into the friar’s eye, blinding him for life. A traditional fabliau would probably stop here, but in the Burgundian version, the story’s coda is essential, as it extrapolates the voyeuristic impulse to the domain of the public order. The friar, considering he was not adequately compensated by the family, takes his case to a higher court. The story ends with the announcement that even parliament was amused to hear of these two remarkable adventures.

Miniature, Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles, ca. 1475-1500, Ms. Hunter 252 Glasgow
Miniature, Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles, ca. 1475-1500, Ms. Hunter 252 Glasgow

There is, of course, a notable similarity here to van Eyck: the equivalence between eye and anus. In the story, however, everything is stratified at the service of the voyeuristic gaze: eyes are eyes (even if there is but one), to which can be added the ears of the listeners in the story and of those who will hear the tale. Then there is the girl, the object of the voyeuristic subject, personified by her arse. The story does not stop when the voyeur is punished for his perversion. We could even say that the story only begins when the individual voyeurism becomes collective. Although it is not clear whether the friar succeeds in his attempt, which of course no one cares about, the story ends with the following remark about the girl: “And so she, who had previously been known for her beauty, goodness and sweetness, came to be notorious for this cursed condition of piles.”
This is traditionalism and conservatism disguised as transgressive humour in a work produced and encouraged by the Burgundian court. There seems to be but one emancipatory moment in the story that leads to the unmasking of the voyeur: the moment when the girl sees the voyeur’s one eye, separate from its voyeuristic function, as a strange object going up and down, and breaks into laughter.

20 E. Friedrich, When a Rose Is Not a Rose: Homoerotic Emblems in the Roman de la Rose, New York, 1998

The anus in van Eyck’s oeuvre is a hole in the vision of the self-portrait. There is no question of voyeurism here, but rather of sexuality as a gap in the subject. In this sense, sodomy signifies sexuality in the Freudian sense: it confronts people with the same problem as that of subjectivity. The problem of sexuality is the gap in the portrait. In Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles, sexuality is a voyeuristic matter that is not in itself called into question. It is important here to point out the fundamental heteronormativity of these stories, which in fact run parallel to the intensified persecution of sodomy in the Netherlands by the Burgundians in the course of the 15th century. Mark Boone has pointed to this politicisation of sodomy and the efforts against the emancipatory tendencies of cities like Bruges.21

For van Eyck, sodomy, and in this case the anus, appears as an artistic expression for a new, almost modern type of sexuality. The problem that arises here – one succinctly articulated by Freud – probably comes closest to the historical and theological concept of sodomy.

21 Mark Boone has pointed to this politicization of sodomy and its efforts against the emancipatory tendencies of cities such as Bruges. To Van Eyck, sodomy, and in this case the anus, seems to be an artistic expression for a new kind of sexuality that appears almost modern. The problem at stake here, best articulated by Freud, is perhaps closest to the historical and theological concept of sodomy.
M. Boone, art. State power and illicit sexuality: the persecution of sodomy in late medieval Bruges, in Journal of Medieval History, 1996, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp.135-153

I suspect, however, that van Eyck made his art resonate with sexuality/sodomy owing to his reading of Alain de Lille and the authors of the Roman de la Rose. For these authors, sexuality is a constantly recurring theme that always appears ambiguous and contradictory. It is primarily the basic ambiguity and contradiction of sexuality that must have inspired van Eyck to place his painting within this tradition. His art and the way in which sexuality plays a role in it compels us, it seems to me, to reassess the historicist conception of sexuality. And in its wake, artists like van Eyck’s own conception of art. Perhaps the sodomising of art by van Eyck can in a sense be seen as a certain desexualisation, at least if we understand sexuality to mean the normative, procreative sexuality of his own time, with its harmonious roleplay governed by vast, cosmic (so-called natural or rational) rules. The modern subject appears in van Eyck’s frame with a hole, a hole in the subject but also a rift in the traditional sexual harmony. Alenka Zupančič has convincingly shown that it is a mistake to think that there was no sexual discourse before the modern era.22 The opposite is true: in the traditional pre-modern vision, the entire cosmos is sexualised and the social is defined by cosmic sexuality.

This traditional cosmic vision is clearly dominant, for example, in Hieronymus Bosch. Bosch’s moralism is that of a gnostic with a dualistic worldview. In that sense, Bosch was a conservative painter, in contrast to van Eyck. The irony is that the contemporary perception of both painters tends to argue the opposite. That says a great deal about our own postmodern (and often neo-traditionalist) sexuality, which in many cases represents an ill-conceived return to the idea of a pseudo-natural sexuality. Van Eyck’s art is sodomitical in the sense that there is absolutely nothing natural about it, for sexuality is precisely that which does not line up with the teleology of reproduction. And the same is true of art.

22 A. Zupančič, art. Sexual Difference and Ontology, in e-flux journal, No. 32, 2012

Let us stay for a moment with Bosch and his followers. Amongst them we find the traditional reversal by which the back bears the face of a devil or demon. These clearly symbolic procedures of reversal, which have, under the influence of the renowned analyses of Mikhail Bakhtin, been falsely described as emancipatory, are not present in van Eyck.23 There is no question of reversal, but of an impossible, aberrant, ambiguous presence in the midst of the face of the symbolic Other (which, in the case of the self-portrait, articulates the Other in the self). Let us not forget that the face on the back is a traditional representation that does not liberate the anus as an independent partial object, but instead emphasises precisely its excretive biological function.

Jheronimus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1503-1515, Museo del Prado Madrid
Jheronimus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1503-1515, Museo del Prado Madrid
L: Zurich Violet Master, St. Anthony Abbas (detail), ca. 1500-1515, Würth Collection M: Michael Pacher, The Devil presenting St Augustine with the book of vices, ca. 1471-1475, Alte Pinakothek Munich R: John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis (detail frontispiece), 1650, London
L: Zurich Violet Master, St. Anthony Abbas (detail), ca. 1500-1515, Würth Collection
M: Michael Pacher, The Devil presenting St Augustine with the book of vices, ca. 1471-1475, Alte Pinakothek Munich
R: John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis (detail frontispiece), 1650, London
Anonymous, Satirical Diptych, beginning 16th Century, Bibliothèque Centrale Liège
Anonymous, Satirical Diptych, beginning 16th Century, Bibliothèque Centrale Liège

The obscene or transgressive nature of this image lies in the fact that it brings the sublime nature of the human face together with the disgusting faecal essence of the arse. What van Eyck does is to emancipate the arse as a partial object and give it a prestigious place next to the most important bodily organ for the painter: the eye. This coordination of the eye and the arse is at the very least astonishing. The arse, for van Eyck, is separated from its biological location and function, and becomes a signifier that cannot be integrated or symbolised but stands for impossible, because forbidden, sodomitical pleasure. The dysfunctional arse cannot, in my view, be understood in any other way.

23 Developed, of course, in his legendary work, Rabelais and his World, 1984

In what follows, I would like to develop a hypothesis that will explain the circumstances of this portrait and which might also explain the simultaneous presence of the ungestalt chaperon in relation to the anus and the temple in the form of a nude male body. Given that we are dealing here with a self-portrait, a biographical aspect is unavoidable, which brings us onto thin ice.

I would therefore like to stick to the demonstrative level and give readers a good deal of space to draw their own conclusions or to speculate about a possible historico-biographical context. As indicated, the greatest danger lies in the shift from viewing the painting as a constructed, fantastic space to one capturing some physical, organic reality. The self-portrait is, in this sense, not a copy of a reality that precedes it, but a fantasised portrait, a simulacrum or “counterfeit” portrait, to use van Eyck’s own words.24

The most obvious discourse that might explain how van Eyck was able to create such a composition comes from the 13th century Roman de la Rose. Let us not forget that the Roman initially contained a sort of pedagogical project to discourage young bachelors from engaging in homosexual acts and to prepare them for marriage. At the same time, the Roman is not just an obvious failure in this project, it in fact constitutes an ambiguous discourse that in various places even seems to foster homosexuality. The authors of the Roman of course drew great inspiration from De Planctu Naturae, the satirical prosimetrum written a century earlier by Alain de Lille. There are two elements of the self-portrait that unquestionably appear to have been inspired by the Roman de la Rose, certainly if they are interpreted with the same sodomitical approach one finds in van Eyck: the chaperon and the anus. Both appear to me to be a symbolic (chaperon) and real (anus) version of the rose itself, or its immediate representative, the allegorical character of Bel Acueil. In various versions, Bel Acueil is a male figure and the end of the Roman is ultimately a union with the figure of Bel Acueil rather than with the rose, which remains in the background.

L: Roman de la Rose (Bel Acueil, detail), BL London, Ms. Egerton 1069, f. 21v
R: Roman de la Rose (Bel Acueil, detail), BNF Paris, Ms. fr 24392, f. 175
L: The Romance of the Rose (Bel Acueil, detail), Palais des Arts Lyon, Ms. 025, f. 017 R: The Romance of the Rose (Bel Acueil, detail), BNF Paris, Ms. fr 19153, f. 26
L: The Romance of the Rose (Bel Acueil, detail), Palais des Arts Lyon, Ms. 025, f. 017
R: The Romance of the Rose (Bel Acueil, detail), BNF Paris, Ms. fr 19153, f. 26

Of all the scholars who have studied the Roman de la Rose, Ellen Friedrich has perhaps most deeply probed the ambiguous, sodomitical streak of Bel Acueil. In the long passage I cite here, it is clear how Bel Acueil implies sodomy:

24 “gheconterfeit”, writes van Eyck on the portrait of Jan De Leeuw that we will discuss in detail in what follows.

Anus originally meant ‘ring’ in Latin. By analogy of form anus became the most common metaphor and euphemism, the polite, standard, medical, and scientific term for Latin culus ‘butt’, which is itself of uncertain etymology, but possibly from Greek koilos ‘hole, cavity, opening’. The Romance reflexes of culus include French cul, Portuguese cu(u), Provençal cul, and Spanish culo. In The Latin Sexual Vocabulary Adams offers a humorous formation on culus; ‘Culibonia’, a nickname meaning one who has a ‘good ass’, perhaps designating a whore available for anal intercourse. Adams also mentions the term culiola for a type of whore (Cuius). Pierre Bec, in his discussion on burlesque and obscenity in the works of the Provencal troubadors, provides the following expressions: culada ‘asshole’ and culavis, probably ‘coup de cul’, ‘butt blow’ or ‘buttscrew’. Wordplays in Spanish and Portuguese on culo and cu(u) are not uncommon.The name of the Lover’s “biaus dous amis”, Bel Acuel (Bel Acueil in the Lecoy and Langlois editions), translated as Fair Welcome (Horgan; “Fair Welcoming” in Dahlberg), could be a jeu de mots. At the very least, if the first meaning given in Godefroy’s Old French dictionary for acueil (noun) and its variant spellings (including acuel)—‘recontre, choc, élan’—is taken, then the translation of the name might be as follows: for rencontre, “Good Meeting” or “Fine Encounter” (or “Collision, Junction, Skirmish, Bumping Into”); for choc, “Fine Impact/Shock/Crash;” or, for élan, “Good Thrust/Surge/Rush.” Many of these renderings, if not all, can be understood as metaphors for the sex act. If Acuel is the first person singular of the infinitive acueillier (variant acueller) or of acueillir (variant acuellir), Bel Acuel would inform us “well I catch, collect, gather up, attack, assail, take, or undertake”, again, he is speaking in possible sexual code.Other variations are to understand a as the verb form “he has” or as the preposition a and cuel as a noun, for example, “bel a cuel” or “bel a cueil”. Godefroy’s variations for (a)(c)cueil(l) include the following spellings (emphasis mine): coil, col, cuel, kel, chiol, coel, cuil, cceuil, couly cul, coeil, coeul, cueul, quoil, ceul, cuiel, cuoel, and initial k, q, qu, and cq for c or cc. Von Wartburg’s French etymological dictionary offers many other spellings. Both von Wartburg and Tobler-Lommatzsch list coil (masculine) and its variants as ‘testicle(s)’, and coille (feminine) and its variants as “testicle(s)” or “scrotum.” Both also list couille (and von Wartburg also has coille) as the “membre viril” or “mentula.” So Bel Acuel/Acueil maybe read as “bel a co(u)il(le)”, i.e. “Nice Ball(s) He Has”, or “Fine Dick He Has”. One of the other variant spellings, cul, would provide another reading, “bel a cul”—”nice ass he has” or “nice in the ass.” Or, with acuel a form of acculer, attested in the thirteenth century, “to drive (push, force) something back,” rather than of accueillir “to welcome, take in, accommodate,” one would hear “well does he push [it], drive [it], or put [it] in,” or as a noun: “Good Pushing.” Leaving the name in its traditional sense, “Bel Acuel” may be taken to mean “he accommodates, takes [it], or joins, well,” in a sexual sense. The possibilities for an erotic interpretation for Bel Acuel’s name are then at least as numerous, and as convincing, as the traditional readings. Any of these erotic meanings can support a reading of the Lover’s physical union—anal intercourse—with the masculine beloved, Bel Acuel.25

In such a discourse, it is not unusual for an excessive chaperon to take the shape of a burgeoning rose. In other words: the self-portrait can be interpreted in this sense as a portrait of van Eyck as the beloved (amant), or, rather, as the rose which can be plucked by the beloved (metaphorically or not).

To clarify the semantic compression of rose and anus, I’ll hand over to Ellen Friedrich:

25 E. Friedrich, 1998

Another metaphorical term for anus, rose des vents (literally “rose of the winds”), the nautical compass rose, is a slang term used by homosexuals. The Larousse Dictionnaire de l’argot explains the etymology as analogous usage of the color and form of the flower. It is also, of course, a reference to flatulence. Although in French rosette (Guillaume uses the word only once) is the term usually associated with anus, in English rosey and rosy are slang for ‘buttocks’, and rosebud (and redeye), ‘anus’. An amateur de rosette is an active homosexual, and a chevalier de la rosette either an active or passive homosexual. Feuille de rose and rosier fleuri are both terms for anilinctus.

References to ‘rose’ – its form, odor, color, etc. – occur in homoerotic literature in Greek, Latin and Medieval Hebrew and Arabic. Various reflexes of rosa in the modern Romance languages are also slang for anus. It is not difficult to postulate a metaphorical rose/anus by analogy of form—circular, with an “empty” center—and attributes—its color: rosy red, and function—from closing to opening. It should be noted that other slang terms in French for ‘anus’ which are analogous by form are similar either to the primarily two-dimensional anus/ring: anneau (ring), bague (ring), boutonnière (buttonhole), cercle (circle), disco (disc), oeillet (in its sense of ‘petit trou’/eyelet, or eye), rond (round), rondelle (round, diminutive form), pièce de dix ronds (a round coin), point noir (blackhead), trou de balle (asshole), and trou du cul (asshole/butthole); or to the three-dimensional rose/rosette/anusoeillet (carnation), oeuf (egg), and oigne, oignon (onion). This is again reminiscent of the similarity of the Medieval Galician-Portuguese expression olho do cu (eye of the ass) to the oeillet (eyelet/iris/eye/anus) and to the oeillet (carnation/flowering onion [recent restaurant fare in the United States]/oignon/rose/anus).

So when the Lover says “Mar toucha la rose a mon vis”, if one understands a pun on vis/vit (face/prick), instead of “When (literally, “in a bad or evil hour,” also “unfortunately,” “in vain,” “wrongly”) the rose touched my face,” the Lover may be describing his penile/anal contact with and penetration of Bel Acuel: “When the anus (of Bel Acuel) touched my prick.” Is it any wonder the Narrator/Lover tells us that Bel Acuel was thrown in prison, since there is some historical evidence that the passive partner in a homosexual relationship was dealt with more severely?26

The Romance of the Rose (Bel-acueil allowing l'Amant to kiss the rose), Early 15th Century, Ms. BNF 12595, f. 27v, Paris
The Romance of the Rose (Bel-acueil allowing l’Amant to kiss the rose), Early 15th Century, Ms. BNF 12595, f. 27v, Paris

26 E. Friedrich, 1998

It should be clear that sodomy in this sense also resembles Freudian (and Lacanian) sexuality, which is principally a matter of language. This means primarily that sex is also present when there is no body. A body is not indispensable, but subjects in language are. For van Eyck, painting is also a matter, and the image is constructed via language. This primacy of language over image (rather than the other way around) is an underestimated aspect of its art.

This places van Eyck in the line of visual artists such as Magritte, Broodthaers en Vercruysse. Not only does the image work by means of various allusions, connotations and references, shifts and deductions, language is also literally present in many of the extant frames.27
The information depicted is always crucial for van Eyck, always invoked by the historian who may at first sight appear absent. Everything counts in a painting by van Eyck, and everything, but really everything, has implications for the complexity of the meaning, even elements that at first sight seem to have no meaning.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London

27 Some crucial frames have not been preserved, unfortunately, such as one for the Arnolfini double portrait which a traveller from Leipzig, Jakob Cuelbis, saw in the Alcazár in Madrid in 1599, and about which he said: “There is a lot written on it, including this: ‘Promissas fallito, quid enim promittere laedit/Policitis diues quilibet esse potest.’ (‘See that you promise (in Ovid: see that you make promises), for what harm can there be in promises: everyone can be rich in promises’).”

Thus, for example, there is a date on the self-portrait: 21 October 1433.28 The date refers to the day when, as the painting says: “Jan Van Eyck had made me.” But although Lorne Campbell has demonstrated that van Eyck painted very fast, contrary to what has usually been thought, it continues to be a mystery just what activity the date coincided with.

In a recent article, Campbell suggests that it was the completion of the eyes.29 This hypothesis is, of course, influenced by the absolutism of the Eyckian look, a vision that has to some extent been called into question in this text. One line of enquiry which, to my knowledge, has never been investigated, is the fact that the same date also appears on his portrait of Jan de Leeuw, albeit in the form of the feast day of St Ursula. As the Middle Dutch verses on the frame of the Jan de Leeuw portrait indicate, 21 October was also his birthday.30

But why would the painter put that date on a self-portrait? The most obvious reason is that the self-portrait could be seen as the painter’s birthday present to Jan de Leeuw in 1433. Of course, the connotation we have given to the painting following our analysis gives this gift a very unusual dimension.

With everything we now know about the painting, we may well wonder, if we accept that the portrait may have been made for him:
– Why was a self-portrait of van Eyck given to Jan de Leeuw as a gift? Does this imply a close relationship between the two? Van Eyck had probably only recently married.
– Are the self-portrait’s sexual overtones intended specifically for Jan de Leeuw, and if so, what are the implications?
– Is this a forbidden friendship or a love relationship, or should we instead think of the kind of intimate, even sexual homosocial contacts often invoked by historians?
– Lastly, I am interested in the possibility of a symbolic or spiritual sodomy (one not excluding physical consummation) that is linked to a new artistic concept.

Instead of providing concrete answers, a detour by way of the portrait van Eyck made of Jan de Leeuw in 1436 may be a more sound option. Various researchers have in the past referred to formal and substantive similarities between the two portraits.

L: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man(Selfportrait?), 1433, National Gallery London
R: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw, 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Jan de Leeuw was apparently born on 21 October, the feast of St Ursula, in the year 1401. This information was recorded by the artist on the frame in trompe l’oeil, a painted deception that also succeeds in making the viewer believe that the frame was made of copper. Van Eyck used the same technique to paint four verses in Middle Dutch in such a way that they appear to have been carved out. Some letters were then adorned with metal, or at least that’s what it looks like. The painter spread the four verses equally over the four sides of the frame. Together, they make up a poem that can be read clockwise beginning at the top-left corner. What is fascinating is that van Eyck consistently sited the bottom verse at the top so that the viewer is moved to turn the work around in order to be able to read it easily.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (diagram)
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (diagram)

+ . IAN DE [lion figure] OP SANT ORSELEN DACH

Scholars are now more or less in agreement that there are three chronograms embedded in these verses that conceal, respectively, Jan de Leeuw’s birthdate, 1401; the starting date of the painting, 1436; and also the age of the subject. That concealment is relative, since the artist paints the letters, which actually appear to have been “carved”, and then covered with metal. There is something unusual going on: the decoded chronograms do not provide new information but only repeat what the painter himself has added in Arabic numerals. The age of Jan de Leeuw can immediately be deduced by any viewer by virtue of a simple deduction of dates. Much ado about nothing, it appears.

28 Van Eyck wrote the year, for example, in a combination of Roman and Arabic numerals, which undoubtedly had a meaning. We also suspect that there is a dual meaning to the sentence at the foot of the painting.

29 L. Campbell, art. The Speed of Illusion, in Van Eyck studies, Paris, 2019, pp. 257-261

30 “Jan De Leeuw op Sant Orselen Dach, dat claer eerst met oghen sach, 1401”

Of course, this redundancy has been explained away with reference to the playful verses, possibly inspired by van Eyck’s friends the rhetoricians, which wished to seal the intimate friendship between the subject and the painter.31
As regards the presence of clearly visible + signs and various series of points, these have either been ignored or cursorily explained as contributing to the appearance of sophistication and hermeticism which would have been appreciated by the subject of the portrait and his entourage. Hugh Hudson, who has offered the most definitive conclusion about the chronograms to date, but who unfortunately did not treat the crosses and points as meaningful signs, ends his four-page article as follows:

31 My article about Loys Vilein/Tymotheos could also point to the close bond between van Eyck and the Bruges Chamber of Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit, founded in 1428.

The frame inscription of the Portrait of Jan de Leeuw, painted in black letters, numbers and crosses, puncti and a lion with gold coloured highlights against a golden brown background, takes the form of sophisticated representation of three dimensional metalwork which the sitter, as a goldsmith, might well have appreciated. There is evidence that Van Eyck used chronograms in the inscription and it can be seen.32

Hudson rightly points out that, for van Eyck, the secret or seemingly cryptic is never truly hidden, but always visible on the surface. Moreover, van Eyck is a painter for whom “mere ornament” or minor detail does not exist. The redundant result of the pseudo-rebus that is unsatisfying makes us suspect that in this case smoke and mirrors are involved: an attractive and virtuous, albeit ultimately irrelevant artistic joke intended to divert attention from the real message. Its relevance lies in this diversion tactic.

We presume that the hermetic-seeming + and . suggest readily accessible signs that lie beyond reach precisely because of their simplicity and this typically Eyckian diversion tactic. What has until now been treated as the main question – decoding the chronograms – is in fact a secondary issue that does not so much conceal the true riddle as attract attention towards it, leaving its apparent insignificance out of reach.

The solution of these so-called chronograms is simply given by the painter – he himself added the dates in Arabic numerals – and at the same time all attention paid to the encryption is taken up by the traps of the master-trickster.

Van Eyck seems here to anticipate the classic narrative topos of the detective novel, in which the inspectors of Scotland Yard think they have found the solution, while Sherlock Holmes calmly points out to them that they have fallen into a trap in broad daylight. Perhaps van Eyck is a sort of mastermind à la Moriarty. Or he is the type of perpetrator who turns out, at the end of the book, to be the writer himself. Structurally, this is reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter, in which Lacan showed that the position of the subject vis-à-vis the signifier is decisive, whether they realise it or not.

Let us first take a look at the design of the verses on the frame. The third verse is written upside down, revealing a remarkable metaphorical stratification: Jan de Leeuw is featured in the top verse; Jan van Eyck in the bottom one, or indeed the other way around, which makes it possible that the top Jan and the bottom, turned-around-Jan, end up next to one another.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail frame), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail frame), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Is this stratification pure coincidence, or does the reversal of the third verse, together with the juxtaposition of the first names of the painter and the subject, point in a particular direction?

A first, immanent suggestion of this reading is to be seen in the letter C of gheconterfeit in the third verse. It is the only letter that has a figurative character, since the stems are placed over each other like two dog’s heads. Is this a coincidence?

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

The C shape invites one, of course, to such ornamental mirroring. An interesting example with similar implications is to be found in the Aix Annunciation by van Eyck’s namesake and follower, Barthélemy d’Eyck.

Barthélemy d’Eyck, The Aix Annunciation (detail middle part), ca. 1443-1444, Holy Ghost Church Aix-en-Provence
Barthélemy d’Eyck, The Aix Annunciation (detail middle part), ca. 1443-1444, Holy Ghost Church Aix-en-Provence

But the question is whether or not, in this charged semiotic context, such an ornamental choice can be written off as coincidence, or whether, on the contrary, van Eyck’s implicit key in rebus form serves to interpret the textual subordination of the first and third verses as anthropomorphic, and therefore also sexual?

Moreover, there is a medieval tradition that culminates in a slightly later work by the unknown master E.S. (as well as earlier precursors, like the 14th century typography of the Milanese Giovannino De Grassi) which was able to pull together the most fantastical anthropomorphic and/or zoomorphic combinations in the straitjacket of capitals, inevitably lending the figures a latent sexuality or even a blatantly obscene meaning.

Master E.S., Letter E from the Alphabet, ca. 1466–67, The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
Master E.S., Letter E from the Alphabet, ca. 1466–67, The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York
Master E.S., Letter R from the Alphabet, ca. 1450-1467, The British Museum London
Master E.S., Letter R from the Alphabet, ca. 1450-1467, The British Museum London

32 H. Hudson, art. The chronograms in the inscription of Jan van Eyck’s “Portrait of Jan de Leeuw”, in Oud Holland, Vol. 116, No. 2, 2003, p. 99
see Jstor

The idea that two verses are behaving like copulating bodies seems at first sight to be far-fetched. And yet, this sort of morpho-ethological interpretation of abstract verses or tropes as self-standing entities that exhibit human behaviour is not so unusual for the Middle Ages. An example of an explicit sexual interpretation of a physical representation of “copulation” between two simultaneously sung tropes in 12th century polyphony can be found in the treatise on organum, Ad organum faciendum.33

When we harmonize at the fifth and fourth, let us move precisely and to good effect, till, sweetly, we reach a copulation (copula) and see at once the service of these intervals. Let us unite two friends conversing leisurely, for so great is their bond, so great their affection, that one conducts the other out of kindness, giving it the fourth and fifth in return; and suddenly they are together at the octave or the unison.

Holsinger has pointed out at least two other comparable passages in the same treatise. Given this, it would not have been unusual for contemporary viewers of the Jan de Leeuw portrait to understand the metaphors of the painter, who places himself below the subject of the portrait in order to “counterfeit” him.

This brings me to the twofold, ambiguous meaning of the technical term conterfeiten. This is, of course, a concept (with the original meaning of falsifying and reproducing) that was used by painters to indicate something copied from a live model. Instead of the more current verb fecit (facere), or “made”, van Eyck this time uses a term that is not, of course, impossible, but far less widely used and allows it to speak in an almost animistic fashion from the portrait itself (either the subject of the portrait or some sort of inconceivable fusion of the two?): “gheconterfeit nu heeft mi Ian (Van Eyck etc…)” (“Ian has now counterfeited me”).

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Here, too, it is almost impossible for the contemporary reader and viewer not to imagine a salacious meaning, although to my knowledge this has never been discussed in academic literature. A sexual double-entendre is explicitly present, however, as facere can also mean to copulate, and contrafacere would then be understood as copulation a tergo. A semantic detour is certainly worthwhile here, not because it could reveal a different meaning, but because, on the contrary, it confirms the intuitive dual meaning via a complex semantic field.

I will try to circumscribe this field with a few examples. The first comes from Van den vos Reynaerde, the influential 13th-century Middle Dutch version of the Roman de Renard, in which a connection is made between coiners of counterfeit money and sodomitical practices. The passage in question speaks of two dogs from Kriekeputte whom the rabbit Cuwaert befriends, reflecting upon them nostalgically. Hans Rijns writes:

Hellinga suspects that Cuwaert had homosexual relations with these two dogs. The hunting dog Reynout making counterfeit money for himself and his accomplices, ‘making friends, paying the school fees’ for the dog Rijn, are all, according to Hellinga, expressions that should be interpreted as allusions to homosexuality (Hellinga 1958–1959: 362-363).34

33 B. W. Holsinger, Music, Body, and desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer, Stanford University Press, 2001, p. 161
“Cum autem diapente et diatessaron organizamus. Succincte et egregie curramus. Donec cum dulcedine ad copulam perueniamus. Et eorum diligentiam confestim uideamus. Prestolatim colloquendo amicas duas iungamus. Nam tantae affinitatis sunt tantaeque amicitiae. Prima conducit alteram causa beniuolentiae. Dat ei diatessaron. Et uicissim diapente. Vnaque in diapason uel eadem sunt repente.”

Jacob Senleches, Je me merveil, Codex Chantilly, Chantilly, Musée de Condé, Ms. 564, f. 44v
Jacob Senleches, Je me merveil, Codex Chantilly, Chantilly, Musée de Condé, Ms. 564, f. 44v

Next, in the first strophe of a French song from about 1400 by the Northern French composer Jacob de Senleches, we find the following passage:

Je me merveil aucune fois comment
Homme se vuelt meller de contrefaire
Ce dont n’escrit fin ne commencement
Et quanqu’il fait, raison est au contraire.
Dorenavant voil ma forge deffaire:
Englume ne mertell ne m’ont mestier
Puis que chascuns se melle de forgier

I am sometimes amazed how man wants to get
Mixed up in “contrefaire”
that of which one does not write end or beginning,
and all that he does, reason is contrary to it.
From now on I want to dismantle [ deffaire ] my forge:
neither anvil nor hammer have need of me,
because everyone is getting involved in forging.

The narrator or first-person speaker is surprised that men wish to mingle, or join together, in an activity designated as “contrefaire” (meller de contrefaire), specified to be “writing without end or beginning”. This activity is irrational, meaning contra naturam, inasmuch as reason is a God-given natural faculty. Contrefaire seems, moreover, to be related to the work of a smith. The narrator wants to stop “smithing” because everyone is doing it (forgier). Let us first notice the ancient connotation that still exists between forging (the work of a blacksmith, but also, and especially, falsifying) and counterfeit (also falsifying, minting false coins). These allusions are taken from two crucial medieval sources: De Planctu Naturae by Alain de Lille and the Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jehan de Meung. In particular, in the Roman, Lady Nature is presented in a smithy where she produces progeny, while she strikes procreative sparks with a hammer and anvil. Both texts are essentially anti-homosexual treatises (though both are themselves guilty of encouraging what they condemn, which makes them absolutely ambiguous, foundational texts about sodomy/homosexuality and therefore, of course, eminently interesting).35

Roman de la Rose, Lady Nature forging offspring (detail), University of Chicago Library, Ms. 1380
Roman de la Rose, Lady Nature forging offspring (detail), University of Chicago Library, Ms. 1380

The unnatural essence of contrefaire is explained in the song as a mingling (“meller”) of things that should not mingle and must formally remain absolutely apart (the imputation of an artificial hermaphroditism), and as a text without beginning or end, which is a deviation from normal writing, which begins with a beginning and ends with an end, according to what Ziolkowski calls Alain de Lille’s grammar of sex. That de Lille attempts to develop a concept of pan-sodomy that applies not only to human beings but also to nature, language and thus also poetry and the arts, points ahead to Freud’s general equation of sexuality and perversion.36

Counterfeiting is thus originally a term that refers to unnatural reproduction and that, precisely among ancillary activities or offshoots of metalworking, has connotations of unnaturality and sodomy. The best-known so-called excess in the Middle Ages was, of course, usury (usuria), whose profession had parallels to sodomy (making money with money), but also with the coining of counterfeit money.37 The connection between counterfeiting, or forging, and sodomy, goes even deeper, as Will Fisher has demonstrated in a highly original article on this topic, “Queer Money”.38

It is no accident that the portrait of Jan de Leeuw by van Eyck alludes subtly to the art of the blacksmith, with its trompe l’oeil copper frame, inlaid-metal letters and the ring that the subject holds between his fingers (with an aberrant association, as we will see shortly). Moreover, scholars more or less agree that the man in the portrait was a goldsmith from Bruges. Counterfeiting connects realistic portraiture (originally meaning to make a falsified image or copy of someone) with the craft of the goldsmith, carrying potentially dubious connotations ranging from minter of counterfeit money to usurer, who of course in a traditional society like Bruges was part of the proto-capitalist urban fabric. But most importantly, the intimate bond between the painter and his portrait is loaded with a dangerously ambiguous aura (of sodomy) that, remarkably enough, appears to have been initiated by the painter himself.

Will Fisher, though focusing on a slightly later period (the 16th and 17th centuries), has explained that sodomy as a social problem mainly revolved around the social differences between the two people concerned:

34 H. Rijns, art. Honden in Van den vos Reynaerde 
en Reynaerts historie in Tiecelijn, year book 5, year 25, 2012
see dbnl
[Then Reynaert said: ‘Well, tell him: do you know where Kriekeputte is?’ Cuwaert said: ‘Do I know that? Yes, of course, how could I not? Isn’t it near Hulsterloe, near that swamp in the waste land? I have endured great suffering there, and much hunger and often cold and constant poverty in Kriekeputte, for so many days, that I cannot forget it. How could I forget this: that unscrupulous Reynout made the counterfeit money there with which he earned a living for himself and his accomplices. That was before I became firm friends with Rijn, who often payed my school fees for me.’ ‘Alas,’ said Reynaert, ‘darling Rijn, dear friend, handsome little dog, God give you were here now!]
Of Reynaert the Fox, Text and Facing Translation of the Middle Dutch Beast Epic Van den vos Reynaerde, ed. A. Bouwman, B. Besamusca, transl. T. Summerfield, Amsterdam, 2009

35 Alain de Lille: Nature weeps, character passes away, chastity is wholly banished from its former high station, and become an orphan. The sex of active nature trembles shamefully at the way in which it declines into passive nature. Man is made woman, he blackens the honor of his sex, the craft of magic Venus makes him of double gender. He is both predicate and subject, he becomes likewise of two declensions, he pushes the laws of grammar too far. He, though made by Nature’s skill, barbarously denies that he is a man. Art does not please him, but rather artifice; even that artificiality cannot be called metaphor; rather it sinks into viciousness. He is too fond of logic, with whom a simple conversion causes the rights of Nature to perish. He strikes on an anvil which emits no sparks. The very hammer deforms its own anvil. The spirit of the womb imprints no seal on matter, but rather the plowshare plows along a sterile beach.
Alain de Lille, The complaint of nature. Text and translation of De planctu natura, Charles River Editors, 2011
The 1908 English translation by Douglas M. Moffatt with the original Latin can be found here.

36 J. M. Ziolkowski, Alan of Lille’s Grammar of Sex: The Meaning of Grammar to a Twelfth-century Intellectual, Medieval Academy of America, 1985

37 on the concept of usury and its philosophical and political implications in western culture, see M. Dolar, art. The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained, in The Yearbook of Comparative Literature, University of Toronto Press, Vol. 60, 2014, pp. 9-26

38 W. Fisher, art. Queer Money, in ELH, Vol. 66, No. 1, 1999, pp. 1-23

Male friendship could be labeled sodomy if the relationship was perceived to be too mercenary, or when the friends were not of roughly the same class standing. The word “ganymede” often referred to such a “degenerate” type of friendship. To be a “ganymede” is thus to participate simultaneously in illicit sexual, economic, and social exchanges.39

In the case of Jan de Leeuw and van Eyck, however, no class difference existed between them, and this may have given van Eyck the opportunity and relative freedom to develop a “sodomitic” jargon and a style exploring sodomy as an artistic project. By doing so, he could also cultivate an extremely intimate bond with artist friends that one might refer to as artistically sodomitic.40 This is of course but a hypothesis, by which I can neither confirm nor deny a possible sexual relationship between van Eyck and Jan de Leeuw.
What I mean is that van Eyck was aware of the link between artistic production, metalwork (and its associated economic aspect) and sodomy as connecting factors in an unnatural production practice.

If coining and sexual reproduction were homologous, counterfeiting and sodomy were to be understood as equivalent perversions of them: just as counterfeiting was considered to be a false imitation of legitimate monetary production, sodomy was figured as a false imitation of heterosexual generation. In other words, counterfeiting and sodomy were linked conceptually because they were both false forms of production-monetary and sexual respectively.41

The only thing missing from the list is the art of painting, as van Eyck exhibits himself in this painting and in his self-portrait in a sodomitical fashion.

Let us not forget that the relationship between sodomy and metalworking played out not only on the operational or economic level via counterfeit money and usury, but was also implicit in the material of copper, with which the painter decorated the frame in trompe l’oeil. Will Fisher writes of this in the same article:

39 W. Fisher, 1999, pp. 1-23

40 Though by this I do not mean that sexual relations were excluded. The vision of van Eyck and the semi-cryptic allusions in his work apparently did not pose any threat to his freedom or life. Whether one can conclude that such artistic cultivation of sodomy was tolerated and appreciated is not at all clear. Above all, it is the cultivation of semi-cryptic allusions and the naming of the unnameable in several works which is unusual.

41 W. Fisher, 1999, pp. 1-23

According to the alchemists, copper was Venus’s metal and hence denoted venery. In addition, it was a base metal that was specifically associated with the anus. The correlation between copper and anality was derived from the fact that the Latin word for copper is aes, aeris, and for “things made of copper” aenus. In addition, the Greek word Kopper means “excrement”.42

How did these implications, found in the frame, come to be made in reference to Jan de Leeuw himself, whose portrait was painted by Jan van Eyck? If we don’t count the portrait of the man with a blue chaperon, this is apparently the oldest portrait of a man holding a ring between his fingers. What the ring signifies has always been disputed, but a potential sexual meaning has never been investigated. Researchers either assume it relates to a marriage proposal, or they opt for a representation of the sitter as a goldsmith displaying the emblem of his craft. Needless to say, art-historical research has meanwhile traced countless marriage proposals in Western art – and even more goldsmiths happily displaying the signs of their trade.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Till Holger-Borchert nevertheless speaks of an ambivalence surrounding the significance of the ring, but sex is not discussed, only professional pride and commemoration:

42 W. Fisher, 1999, pp. 1-23

Jan de Leeuw was long married when Van Eyck painted his likeness in 1436 – he had children by then – and thus the offering of the ring cannot be read as a marriage proposal. In his portrait of the goldsmith, Van Eyck seems to have consciously applied a pictorial motif that was tied to a specific purpose of a portrait; but he introduced it in an entirely different context, namely that of what later became the occupational portrait. If he did so by way of experiment, or if he consciously wanted to add an ambivalent quality to this representation is as unclear as is the question if the illusionistic frame was meant as a reference to the sitter’s profession or was to evoke associations with memorial portraits, or, perhaps, both.43

43 T.-H. Borchert, art. Form and Function of Van Eyck’s Portraiture, in Vision and Material, Interaction
between Art and Science in Jan van Eyck’s Time
, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and Arts, 2012, p. 221

A marriage proposal is, in his view, excluded, for in 1436 Jan de Leeuw was already married and had children. In the following quotation, Borchert cites the same ambivalence, adding that the subject of the portrait seems to be offering the ring to the viewer. Let us not forget that, just as in the self-portrait and the portrait of Margaretha van Eyck, the painter’s wife, the subject looks out from the frame at the viewer. This relationship between viewer and subject, once again implying the birth of Renaissance humanism, is, for Borchert, as for most scholars, primordial.44 And presenting the ring can in turn refer to the importance of the proto-capitalist way of interacting with potential clients. Nevertheless, the ring is, for Borchert, a rather meagre attribute, certainly in comparison with later paintings of goldsmiths presenting their goods:

44 “His eyes focus on the beholder, and like in the case of the Portrait of Margareta van Eyck, invites the viewer to join a dialog with his likeness. And again, we are confronted with a speaking portrait…”.
T.-H. Borchert, 2012, p. 220

We should note, however, that Van Eyck simulates a metal frame in which the letters of the inscription are both engraved and put in relief. The frame, therefore, not only contains an allusion to the profession of the sitter, but also carries memorial connotations. It is ambivalent as is the motif of the precious ring that the goldsmith seems to offer to the viewer. The ring, of course, is another visual reference to the sitter’s profession yet it doesn’t have the quality of an attribute that we find in later occupational portraits such as Gerard David’s portrait of a goldsmith, who presents a selection of his merchandise to the viewer.45

45 T.-H. Borchert, 2012, pp. 220-221

But is this really what the ring is telling us? A careful look at this remarkable ring and a consideration of the aforementioned context brings us to a complex semiotics.

Fascinatingly, this may well be the first portrait in its genre. Which means that we are dealing with a typical Eyckian narrowing down of a suitable motif, the ring, which as a wordplay yields quite a different connotation. Jan de Leeuw’s occupation as a goldsmith provides the perfect camouflage for the production of an entirely ambivalent portrait. It is almost impossible that this dual meaning would not have been understood in the artists’ entourage.

Such an ambivalence ties the ring to the arse (anulus/anus). To clarify: this is not a marginal interpretation but an absolute classic of the double entendre genre that goes back to classical authors such as Ovid, was taken up in the Middle Ages and culminated in numerous references in Shakespeare. It is surprising that this meaning of the ring has not received any attention, especially since various elements on the frame point to the same connotative field.

Bruce Holsinger has shown how the 12th-century Parisian poet and Magnus liber organi composer Leoninus incorporated the absolutely clear anal innuendo made by Ovid in his “Amores 2.15” into a poem about a ring that he received from Cardinal Henry.46
In Ovid’s seemingly heterosexual love poem, it is the man who is the recipient of anal pleasure:

46 B. Holsinger, D. Townsend, art. Ovidian Homoerotics in the Twelfth-Century Paris in the Letters of Leoninus, Poet and Polyphone, in the GLQ Archive, Duke University Press, 2002, pp. 398-399

Yet it is the personified addressee of Ovid’s opening vocative that carries much of the poem’s most inventive sexual energy. Anulus, the Latin word for “ring,” is also the diminutive form of anus, the most prevalent word in Latin sexual and medical vocabulary for the asshole; annulus is used by Cato and others precisely to mean “little anus,” and the etymological connection between ring and anus is registered even in Cicero.18 The “little ring” that Ovid addresses throughout Amores 2.15 is thus also a small anus, a double entendre that becomes most explicit in its abandonment at the end: both the ring and the woman are orificial receptors, and a little anus can never rise to play the part of a man in a male- female sexual relationship. Throughout most of the poem, however, the speaker envisions himself not as the phallic penetrator but as the orificial explorer, cruising the surface of his lover’s body and caressing her with his open circle. The woman instead becomes the penetrating sexual partner who slips the little anus on and off her digitus.47

47 B. Holsinger, 2002

The beginning of Leoninus’ poem about the ring, in all its ambiguities, speaks volumes:

[Ring, given me as pledge of holy love—

You who were small just now, soon you’ll be large.
You’re small and large at once—naught keeps the two apart:
Your maker and your giver grant you this.
The craftsman’s hand draws tight your narrow arc;
A noble hand makes wide the entire circle.]48

Anyone who takes a close look and thinks about how the painting would have had to have been turned around in order to be able to read the bottom verse more clearly will see that, at 45° degrees to the right, the two fingers holding the ring look very much like the male torso that we have already seen in the temple of the man with the red turban.

L: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna R: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London
L: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
R: Jan van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Selfportrait?) (detail), 1433, National Gallery London

Recently, James M. Bromley devoted a fascinating chapter of his book Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare to the importance of the anus in the discourse of bachelors in the ancien régime in the run-up to marriage; what he describes is a sort of “Civilisation Process of the Arse”, from anus to phallus, and thus, in his view, a move from pleasure to reproduction. This closely recalls Freud’s description of infantile polymorphous-perverse sexuality led by partial impulses towards partial objects (such as the anus) that is guided towards a focus on the entire body and its functionality, but in this case at the level of young bachelors. The function of the body that is chosen is, of course, its fruitful, procreative role as opposed to the sterility of anal pleasure.

48 B. Holsinger, 2002

This reorganization focuses on the anus, and […] articulates connections between and among the disavowal of the anus, the production of proper inwardness, and the achievement of marriage in comic narrative closure. Bertram’s socialization involves learning that the anus is a site of illness, shame, and backwardness, instead of a site of history, status, and pleasure.49

The anus is, in this process of socialization, (symbolically) castrated by an exclusive association with its excretive functions, and the total, privatised control thereof. Anal pleasure is thereby marginalised in favour of stimulation of the reproductive organs.

But is this vision helpful for an understanding of the portrait of Jan de Leeuw? As noted, Jan de Leeuw had long been married and had two children at the time of the portrait. Should we assume that sodomitic sexuality, which is in fact none other than the problem of sexuality itself – namely that it is not directed merely at biological reproduction – was in a sense given a place in early modernity by being regarded as a preliminary stage of normative sexuality, as Bromley suggests? This does not seem correct here at all. It is clear that such a historicist vision of sexuality is essentially an identity discourse projected back into the past and inscribed in premodernity with a negative connotation. But van Eyck’s sodomy is not a practice or an identity, but rather an artistic representation and a questioning of its relationship to the subject (of the portrait, or the viewing subject). What van Eyck depicts is clearly not the promotion of procreative sexuality as a normative ideal, and along the same lines it is also not a condemnation or rejection of sodomitic sexuality (by which I mean: the impossible sexuality that is not directed at procreation), as if van Eyck wished to show that this was the fundamental problem of sexuality. What is remarkable is that the emergence of the portrait in van Eyck’s oeuvre arrives alongside the sexual. Van Eyck does not conceal the sexual, but neither does he expose it. He depicts it as a coincidence with a hole or a ring, as if he wishes to say that there is a hole in sexuality itself, and that this hole is also the hole in the subject being represented, the two holes coinciding here. There is, in van Eyck, no concealment and no exhibition of sexuality as if to say: art is sodomitic, sodomy finds its essence in art and in the portrait. The portrait is the subject with the hole of its sexuality. In this sense, the portraits are also works about art itself and its relationship to the sexual.

49 J. M. Bromley, 
Intimacy and Sexuality in the Age of Shakespeare, 
Cambridge, 2011, p. 50

There is no question of filthy sex or of a condemnation of sex, as in Bosch. There is an ontological uncertainty about sexuality; it is the portrait that is able to show something of sexual complexity and ambiguity. The sexual is a hole, the sexual is something unconscious: the confrontation with the hole in the subject.50

These portraits are, as has often been said, about the discovery of the ego, the subject, and so on, but they are also the simultaneous discovery of the blind spot of and in the subject; and this discovery is also that of sexuality, not as something natural or symbolically inscribed in the social order, but precisely as something that is absolutely unnatural and precarious as a symbolic inscription, because it is that which escapes whenever talk turns to sex. The sexual is the unconscious, as Freud claimed.

50 Alenka Zupančič has convincingly shown that it is a mistake to think that there was no sexual discourse before the modern era. A. Zupančič, What is Sex?, The MIT Press Massachusetts, 2017

That this interpretation is correct can be confirmed by the small, easily overlooked detail that Roland Barthes refers to as the punctum of the work, and Georges Didi-Huberman as the zone (patch, fleck).51 The ring could be an anus, but things are not so simple. Jan de Leeuw’s ring is not merely a symbolic anus. A careful viewer will see the punctum. The punctum is not just the crack in the ring, but the fact that the ring is always already cracked, that the ring is itself the crack. In my view, this punctum is a little red stain by the “eye” of the ring, and which has generally been interpreted as a red gemstone. But if you take a closer look, you can see that it is oddly mirrored by a red stain on the edge of the ring.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (detail), 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

What is it doing there? Is the painter trying to reflect a sort of crack or break in the ring?

Shakespeare had Hamlet say to the young actor who played female roles: “Pray God your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring” (2.2.430–431). Hamlet is of course talking about the young boy’s voice, which could break at any time during the performance, but the cracked ring” is also a reference to anal penetration. Could this round stain indeed be an allusion to the practice of anal sex?

51 “Such a zone may on the contrary suddenly spread out, causing a virtual explosion in the picture (…) opposes any mimesis likely to be thought of in terms of a ’product of the glass lens’. Ultimately, it is something like an accident: (…) as an accident it is disturbing..”
G. Didi-Huberman, art. The art of not describing: Vermeer – the detail and the path, in History of the Human Sciences, 1989, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 153-154

Perhaps, but for van Eyck things are always more complex. Why does he not paint the broken ring more clearly, if this was his intention? Why does it seem as though there is something not quite right in the depiction of the ring, precisely at the place that is crucial for the correct meaning? Why is this absolutely accurate painter suddenly sloppy and evidently unable to clearly represent a gemstone, much less the break or crack in a ring? Why did he not paint it? Why does he seem suddenly, and beyond any realism, to add a red stain (or two different red stains) that on closer inspection are impossible to define? Is this not what Didi-Huberman means with the difference between a detail (that may be minuscule but can nevertheless, through its context, have a clear meaning), and a patch: a scrap or spot without a clear meaning.52

In my view, the whole portrait of Jan de Leeuw ultimately has no “conclusive” meaning attached to this little red fleck. It is a flaw in the ring itself, which may be broken. As a reference to the arse and thus to sodomy, the ring itself suffices, and the red fleck does not add much more. At most, it accentuates the meta-position of the ring, and thus of sodomy. Sodomy is not a sexual identity but the problem of sexuality, that which places normative sexuality at risk: a hole or ring in what is normative.

Is this reading hypothetical? By way of conclusion, let us return to an as-yet-unsolved riddle: that of the points and crosses that, in my view, are the real message of the poem on the frame, and not the redundant chronograms.

+ . IAN DE [lion figure] OP SANT ORSELEN DAC

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (diagram)
Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (diagram)

Verses 1 and 3 have a similar coding: they are preceded by a cross, and in verse 1 that cross is supplemented by a point. Verses 2 and 4 are only preceded by points: in verse 2, by three points and in verse 4 by two points.

The code is very simple, in fact, and the touchstone of its correctness is of course that it must be applied consistently, so that the meaning of the cross and of the points must always and everywhere be the same.

The riddle involves an acrostic with certain particularities: namely that the first letters of certain words must be chosen, and the + and . determine the selection of those letters.

The cross + has two meanings that must apply always and everywhere: the first meaning has to do with its four points: i.e. begin with the fourth word; and the second meaning: and thereafter always take the first letter.

The point . means: take the first letter of the word whose position coincides with the number of points.


+ . means therefore: begin with the fifth word (cross=4+dot=1), take its first letter and every first letter of the following words

result: S O D

. . . means: take the first letter of the third word: E

+ means: begin with the fourth word, take its first letter and every first letter of the following words: M I

. . means: take the first letter of the second word: E

52 Patch is the current English translation of the French “panwhich Didi-Huberman borrows from Proust.

To wit: SODEMIE53

We conclude with the following observation. The self-portrait turns around a hole, not an organic one or one with a function, but an impossible hole that the artist painted next to the eye, a punctum without meaning, that upon closer examination resembles an anus that has been misplaced, and is without context: a nomadic arse or a wandering arse, if you will, a partial object that involves confrontation with the Thing. The Thing is thus a hole, an absence.54 Three years later, the arse is symbolised by a ring and there is a punctum, the red stain, that is not a hole but something extra, a surplus.

Van Eyck painted two portraits: the so-called self-portrait and the portrait of Jan de Leeuw, which in terms of design, style and content are in close relationship to one another even if there are three years between their respective creations in 1433 and 1436. What links the two paintings is the date 21 October, Jan de Leeuw’s birthday, which is noted in both his own portrait and on the artist’s self-portrait. A coded acrostic in the Jan de Leeuw portrait undoubtedly gives us the word “sodemie”, and in the self-portrait, close to the left eye of the subject, van Eyck paints an unmistakable arse. Jan de Leeuw’s portrait is, moreover, decorated with copper (aenis) and the subject of the portrait holds a ring (anus, anulus) between his fingers (which, with a quarter turn, displays a nude male torso). In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, this was an allusion to sodomy. In the portrait of Jan de Leeuw, van Eyck uses the verb “conterfeiten” to describe the act of his portraiture. As I have sought to demonstrate, he thus associates his painting and Jan De Leeuw’s goldsmith’s art with sodomy. Sodomy is another word for sexuality, which the painter expresses in the portraits though a hole, a ring or a stain.

53 This form of writing diverges from the one I was able to decipher on van Eyck’s painting Léal Souvenir, where “sodomyt” is written cryptically in retrograde, in Greek letters. Of course there was no standard form of writing at the time. This, for example, can be found in a summons from the court of Pamele in 1610: “enorme crim van sodemie”.

54 It is remarkable how, in Lacan, the three ungestalt coincide with the symbolic (the turban), the imaginary (the naked body on the temple), and the real (the hole, the arse).

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