The first time I saw this portrait, I was just a child, thirteen. I don’t remember where I saw it. I think it was in one of the art books of our family library and in that book, the painting’s title was ‘Man with the arrow”, by Rogier van der Weyden. I have a vague recollection of seeing the original for the first time in the Old Masters Museum in Brussels somewhat hidden away in a dark spot in the back but that’s perhaps just a fantasy. Now it’s hanging near the stairs, close to the Otto by Bouts. But it does not matter where I saw it first. I have seen it several times more and it is still one of my favourite medieval paintings, even though it is quite dark and small.
In more recent books and on the museum’s website, the portrait is no longer described as an anonymous man with an arrow but as a portrait of Antoine de Bourgogne, the illegitimate son of Philip the Good, half-brother of Charles the Bold, and who is also known as the Big Bastard of Burgundy (le grand Bâtard).
Yesterday I came across a post on Instagram showing the above portrait, with the information that it is a portrait of João de Coimbra, or John, Prince of Antioch (1431-1457). I was very surprised by this and also intrigued, with the original title of the painting in mind. Why would anyone think that this is not Antoine but a Portuguese prince? There is no information on the portrait itself so even the identity of the painter is not 100% certain and likewise the identity of the sitter cannot be deducted from the panel, only that he must be a knight of the Golden Fleece: the distinctive collar proves this. So who was this João and why would anyone think that the man with the arrow is him and not Anthony?
I thought at first that this would be simple to solve, just a mere oversight on my or the poster’s side but the research proved quite useful and I learned some new things. WordPress posts are probably not the best medium for long explanations so I’m going to distribute all the information over a few posts. The first will be about João.
João de Coimbra, Prince of Antioch (1431-1457)
I do not have a lot of documentation on Portugal and the Middle Ages so I am just going to take this from Wikipedia and hope there is not too much nonsense in it. The rest of my information is thoroughly checked in all sorts of books and articles.
João was the second son of Infante Peter, Duke of Coimbra, and Isabella of Urgell, Duchess of Coimbra.
He took part in the battle of Alfarrobeira, where his father’s army was defeated by the Portuguese royal army.
He was imprisoned and was to be executed. However, due to the intervention of his aunt Isabella, he was sent into exile in Burgundy together with his brother James and sister Beatrice. His aunt Isabella, Duchess of Burgundy, was able to offer protection to her nephews and niece as wife of Duke Philip the Good. In 1456, John was elected a Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
In 1456, John married Charlotte of Cyprus in Nicosia and was accorded the title Prince of Antioch. He was poisoned on the orders of his mother-in-law, Helena Palaiologina.
He was buried in Nicosia in a tomb which bears his coat of arms.
There are a number of things that match with the portrait. His age his right, he was a relative of the dukes, he was a knight of the Golden Fleece and he was in Burgundy around the time the portrait was painted. Also, the man on the portrait somewhat looks like a younger version of João’s father, Peter.
Peter could be one of the men on the St Vicente panels, painted by Nuno Gonçalez. This painting is interesting on its own so I’ll keep that for a separate post. But here is the presumed portrait:
But what do we know about Antoine? That is for next time.
To be continued.