16th Century
Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer

Oil on oak panel
Image size: 14 1/4 x 11 3/4 inches (36 x 30 cm)
Period style frame

POA

 

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This portrait shows Chaucer with a string of beads in one hand and a writing implement in the other. The Arms in the top left of the picture are the Arms of Chaucer, featuring a per pale argent and gules, a bend counterchanged.

This painting appears to derive, like all other portraits of Chaucer, from an illustration in an early fifteenth-century manuscript, Hoccleve’s De Regimine Principum. Here Hoccleve included one portrait of Chaucer, showing him with an inkhorn around his neck and holding a rosary in one hand. Since it is likely that Hoccleve had met Chaucer, many scholars believe this could be the most genuine representation of the English writer with all other depictions being seemingly based on it.

In almost all portraits of Chaucer, including this one, the poet is shown wearing a pendant attached to his vest. This item is often considered to be a penner, included in the artworks as a sign of the general occupation of a writer. Whilst the pendant is generally accepted as a case for a writing instrument, possibly with equal plausibility, it has also been suggested that the item is an ampulla, a small lead vial containing water and the blood of St. Thomas Becket, given to Canterbury pilgrims as the particular sign of their visit to the martyr’s shrine. Usually these served as souvenirs, as legal proof of pilgrimage, and as signs of devotion, but the ampullae also functioned additionally as miraculous relics.

As all portraits of Chaucer were made after his death it is prudent not to view them as historically accurate likenesses but as acts of reverence to the poet. From this view point an ampulla would be a more specific tribute to the poet than a writing instrument, honouring him as the creator of the Canterbury Tales. It also provides additional evidence of the relative popularity of the Tales among Chaucer’s works. Furthermore, the ampulla would identify him as a devout man, reinforcing the idea already suggested by the prayer beads he holds in his other hand.