The Man in the Mirror

An attempt at reconstructing the physical appearance of Charles the Bold. A work in progress

When I first started to think about copying the portrait of Charles the Bold by Rogier van der Weyden, as a huge challenge because the original is dark and worn, I wanted to figure out what he really looked like. Rogier tends to paint his subjects in a formulaic way, idealised with eyes that are slightly too large.

There are many portraits of Charles the Bold, most of them completely fictitious, so they are probably not reliable. The contemporary portraits show a clean shaven, usually slender man with fairly long frizzy hair. The 19th century likes to portray Charles as a burly man with sleek short hair and a big moustache. So where is the truth?

The research was two-fold: 1) examine the contemporary portraits 2) examine the descriptions of the chroniclers .

1. The contemporary portraits

The collection of portraits can be found under IV The Burgundian Codex in the menu. I am only going to repeat the essential ones here. The collection is also a work in progress.

The earliest portrait I could find is a drawing of Charles as a toddler. It is not very realistic. Note the dreaded bowl cut. It is still interesting because it shows his ear in detail. I have read somewhere that his ears showed an anomaly, but I don’t know what yet, so this is something to start from.

Other youth portraits of Charles the Bold can be find in the dedication miniatures of manuscripts, where he is usually standing near his father Philip the Good. They show an active, happy looking, darkhaired boy of varying ages, richly dressed and with a dreaded bowl cut.

Rogier van der Weyden portrays him in his twenties (most likely).

Charles has turned into a stern adult with a constant frown, heavy bottom lip and rather heavy jaw, not exactly looking like the life of the party. Note the small hands but that could be a van der Weyden stock image.

There are a number of miniatures showing him in his twenties and thirties, but these are small and nothing more than caricatures, and tend to differ.

From his prayer book:

Charles didn’t get far in his forties. There is a copy of a portrait dated 1474, when he went to Dijon with the bones of his parents, to bury them in Champmol. He was 40 at the time.

He looks rather rough in this portrait. Same features as before, the frown, the jowls are still there, but more prominent than before, and with a heavier body. His unevenly cut hair is plastered against his forehead and seems rather limp compared to before. Still beardless but not exactly clean shaven either.

So it seems that most of the time he was clean shaven with dark curly hair in a fairly long bowl cut. However, at the end of his life after having suffered a loss at battle he locked himself up and let his beard grow. It grew very long and he looked rather wild, until he was persuaded to shave it off.

One thing that not very important but still interesting: was he left- or right- handed? On the van der Weyden portrait and the Dijon portrait he is holding his sword with his left hand. On the Liege reliquary his sword is placed on his left, so for right-hand use. In some miniatures you can see a dagger on his left side. I may need to go through the chronicles again.

2. The contemporary chronicles and other sources

According to the description of Georges Chastellain and Philippe de Comines, Charles was not as tall as his father but well-built, with strong shoulders – though a little stooping – and big legs, long hands and elegant feet. He didn’t have too much meat or too few bones. His body was light and agile, powerful and suited for hard work. His face was slightly rounder than that of his father, and darker. He had his father’s full, red mouth. He had a pronounced nose and a brown beard. His complexion was bright, light brown, his brow attractive. He had thick, dark hair and a white neck. He had a tendency to slump and look at the ground when he walked around, but he was a fine looking handsome prince.

This is quite different from how the Strasbourg chronicler Trausch (quoted by De Bussière in Histoire de la ligue contre Charles le Téméraire) describes his appearance during the meeting with Frederik at Treves in September/October of 1473: “He was completely dressed in gold cloth and covered with numerous pearls and precious stones. But the splendour of his clothes accentuated his burly and stern physique. His big black eyes, his proud and determined air, couldn’t make one forget how little elegant he was with his square build, his rather broad shoulders, his very stout limbs and his slightly bowed legs due to all the time he spent on his horse.”

There is another description of Charles at this event, which is less harsh. Guillaume Faret/Farell in his Histoire de Rene II (quoted by P. Aubert Roland in La Guerre de René II contre Charles le Hardi): “He was small and nervous, his complexion pale with an oval face, his hair dark chestnut, his eyes black and sparkling, his presence majestic but a bit stern (nb – he uses the word farouche for this, which can also mean fierce, hard, shy, or cruel etc.). His spirit was lively, his heart magnanimous, he had an immense ambition, intrepid, courageous and impetuous. Capable of great deeds, he only lacked prudence to achieve them.”

His eye colour remains the biggest mystery so far. Rogier van der Weyden painted him with grey (“vair”) eyes, like his father. The painter of Dijon and the Chroniclers gave him brown to black eyes. He looked more Portuguese than his French ancestors. His mother was part Portuguese. Is it safe to assume his eyes were dark, rather than grey? I have no definite answer yet. A number of the biographies (19th-20th century) mention how one of the choniclers (I think it was Chastellain) say of his eyes that they were angelically clear, but I haven’t been able to locate that exact fragment yet.

For the portrait the description of his entire body is probably not important. In the older van der Weyden portrait where he is in his twenties, the bulky velvet doublet hides his body and the same can be said of the armour in the “newer” Dijon portrait but it is quite obvious he is much bulkier and has aged a lot by 1474, looking rough and haggard. He has spent many years in tents on battlefields and out in rain, snow and sunshine, didn’t sleep enough. The people around him complained he worked too hard, never relaxed and would probably not get old. Even in those days people seem to have been aware of burnouts.

The chroniclers mention that he never complained of tiredness but that doesn’t mean he was always in good health. As a child he was quite ill several times and later in life he was so ill at one point that he nearly died. At that time he had a fever and couldn’t keep his food down. He got oedema in his legs and was treated by means cupping and hot compresses to draw blood from his heart. It is not clear what illness he was suffering from, some said poison. After fourteen days he was up and about again, but according to the descriptions he had lost a lot of weight and was quite pale.

There may have been something unusual about his ears, as mentioned before.

His autopsy report is also a good source of information about his physique.

After the battle of Nancy, Charles the Bold couldn’t be found and nobody knew whether he was dead or not. After a couple of days, somebody claimed he saw Charles fall from his horse and led them to the spot where he last saw Charles. The duke was found dead, a bit away from the others, completely naked, lying face down in a ditch near the lake of St. Jean, his face frozen to the ice. His body was severely mutilated and partially eaten by wolves (though there is no word of this in the contemporary report, I need to investigate where this is coming from).

How he exactly died and his appearance in death is of little importance for the portrait painting but the description of the characteristics by which he could be identified was. For the circumstances of his death I have created a separate page. His personality I will also describe on another page.

They were able to identify his body by the following six characteristics (these seem to be taken from the chronicles of Philippe de Comines, ed):

The first one was the upper teeth he had lost in a fall.

The second one was a scar on the right side of his throat which he received in the battle of Monthléry.

The third one were his nails which were longer than anyone else in his company.

The fourth one was a wound he had in one of his shoulders because of a carbuncle he had suffered from.

The fifth one was a fistula he had in his lower abdomen on the right side of his penis.

And the sixth one was an ingrown toe nail.

After much investigation I have discovered that he lost actually two of his upper teeth when he fell of his horse, but I don’t yet know which teeth and when and where it happened. Apart from these six characteristics, some sources mention that he was identified by a ring he was still wearing and some other scars but I’m still going through the materials for a second time so I can’t tell yet exactly where I read it. There is so much to digest and regurgitate.

For the description of the wake and the funeral I refer to the page “Death at Nancy” (still under construction).


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