Van Eyck’s Alpha and Omega

The world seems to work in our favor. Things happen which I used to call coincidence but which, in hindsight, are often far too fortuitous to be chance. Carl Jung described such events, at least the unusually important ones, as synchronicity and did not think they were coincidence. As an idea I used to scorn it; now I don't know. Most of us think that nature is either neutral in its attitude to our well-being or against us; few think it is on our side. Over recent years I have been paying closer attention to such events and try to learn from their mysteriousness. I welcome "coincidences" and take them seriously. 

Folio 188r, Luke I:I (Quoniam), Book of Kells (c.800) from present-day Iona, Scotland. Trinity College, Dublin.

This morning, for instance, I was reading an illuminating article by Ben Tilghman on extralinguistic meaning in the illuminated texts of medieval manuscripts.1 Published in 2011 it shows how symbols and letters are hidden in the geometric patterns of the well-known Book of Kells. He reveals that the illuminations encourage the viewer/reader to imagine lines where there are none leading, for instance, to the (half-imagined) presence of the Cross (above) which is not strictly there. It’s a very convincing argument not unlike the way I show how many later artists veiled letters and other objects in their images as something else. They still do.

Detail and diagram showing the "alpha and omega" of folio 188r of the Book of Kells.

Half-way through reading the article, someone asked me to come to the next room. I had reached the point where Tilghman reveals further meaning in the same detail. If the lines of the letter “V” (and it does represent a 'U' from within the accompanying text)2 are extended, they transform into an upper-case Alpha (A) in ancient Greek with a lower-case omega (ω) below it (above right). Alpha and omega was and remains a common description of Christ’s involvement at the beginning and end of time.  

Studio of Jan van Eyck, Holy Face (c.1438) Oil on panel. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

My friend had meanwhile been studying the celebrated Head of Christ from Jan van Eyck’s studio, thought to be a faithful copy of a lost original.3 The image on his desktop stunned me (above). 

L: Diagram of a detail from the Holy Face 
R: Examples of an upper-case Alpha and lower-case omega

There it was, almost as in The Book of Kells, a hirsute monogram of Alpha and Omega (see diagram)! Was it coincidence? Possibly but so unlikely, I am becoming more certain that the world really does want to help us. One just needs to grab the opportunities it gives.

I have not had time to research whether the Greek letters hidden in Christ's beard have ever been noted but I doubt it. Indeed had Joseph Koerner known in 1993, he might have questioned his conclusion that Van Eyck emphasized a precise moment by inscribing the date (31st January, 1438) and making the face look individual.4 Yes, Van Eyck does superficially refer to the moment the picture was created but underneath, on a more profound level, the hidden alpha and omega represent a very different time-scale, the divine or cosmic one that we mortals tend to forget, even today. The former is brief; the latter unimaginably long or circular because Alpha stands for Christ's (ie. God's) creation of the world and Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, for the end of time when He will return to judge. In modern parlance, we are talking light-years and relativity.

How, though, did the observation occur so close to my acquiring knowledge of it? My unexpected exposure to Van Eyck's Christ immediately after reading about a hidden alpha and omega in the Book of Kells seems too serendipitous to be coincidence or unrelated. What happened then? Jung's concept of synchronicity may or may not be the force behind the simultaneity but the benefit it provided me is a timely reminder that all art lovers should do their homework if they want to make original observations. This view is supported by  scientists who study insight. They have discovered, for instance, that those who develop as much knowledge as possible about their subject are more likely to have a moment of insight.5 Please place trust, then, in the importance of attaining knowledge and read as widely and as deeply as you can because as the great chemist Louis Pasteur wrote: ‘Chance favors the prepared mind’.6

Notes

1. Ben C. Tilghman, "The shape of the word: extralinguistic meaning in insular display lettering", Word & Image 27, no. 3, 2011, pp. 292-308

2. The letter V is often an alternate for U in Latin and ancient Greek.

3. On the painting's original frame Van Eyck's famous inscription (ALS ICH KAN or as I can in English) is rendered with Xs for the K's (ALS IXH XAN) like the hidden X in the folio from The Book of Kells.

4. Koerner wrote: "Instead of invoking a mythic origin in the most distant past, the Berlin Holy Face [by Van Eyck] asserts that it was produced, like ordinary portraits, at a precise moment in recent historical time. The very precision of the date of completion – 31 January 1438 - hyperbolizes the new magic of purely human creation, which can boast of producing such a detailed panel in a single day." Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (University of Chicago Press), 1993, p. 107

5. Colleen M. Seifert, David E. Meyer, Natalie Davidson, Andrea L. Patalano and Ilan Yaniv, “Demystification of Cognitive Insight: Opportunistic Assimilation and the Prepared-Mind Perspective” in The Nature of Insight, eds. R.J.Sternberg and J.E.Davidson (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press) 1995, pp. 81

6. ibid., p. 85

Reader Comments

This was such a fascinating moment of discovery you had, Simon. I enjoyed reading it and it makes me reflect on my own experiences. I think I’ve a few moments of synchronicity also over the years. “Coincidences” affirm to me to keep going on a particular path applying intellect and making something physical of it. Thanks for sharing yours, here.

I was standing in front of a Keith Haring painting today. He had made a mural in 1989 at an art school I attended years ago. I’m trying to let it speak to me. I bet if I could surrender or focus better I would hear it better. He seems to paint characters that say something in code.

Anyway, great post and interesting footnotes as always!

Adam Brown
30 Jun 2016

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