The Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo Van Der Goes

Hugo Van Der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece, was shocking when first revealed to the public. The unprecedented portrayal of the shepherd’s amazed viewers and emphasized Van Der Goes theme of humility. A monumental work that challenged both the art world, and the individual, to reconsider what is truly important. This work stands as a testament to the brilliance of this troubled artist.

Who was Hugo Van Der Goes?

Hugo Van Der Goes is recognized as one of the most original and bold of the Netherlandish painters. Born in or around Ghent, he spent most of his artistic life there. He completed altarpieces, portraits, court commissions and civic projects.  Few of his original works have survived, however we have many copies of Van Der Goes work. The extent to which copies were made is a testament to his popularity and enduring influence in the area. His influence extended far beyond Ghent. Part of that influence is due to the Portinari Triptych that we will be looking at today.

Hugo Van Der Goes suffered from depression and a fragile mental state. At one point he walked away from his workshop and joined a religious community that had grown out of the Devotio Moderna, or the Modern Devotion movement. This was a group calling for religious reform among the clergy, and a renewal of pious practices such as humility, obedience, and a simple life. The most recognizable member of the movement is Thomas a’Kempis,  who wrote The Imitation of Christ. 

While Van Der Goes continued to paint while he lived in this community, he still struggled with his mental health. He made an unsuccessful suicide attempt that he never fully recovered from and he died within the year, a great loss to the art world.Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo Van Der Goes

The Commission for the Altarpiece

The Portinari Triptych was ordered for the church of San Egidio in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence.

The piece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, who was from Florence, but was living in Bruges, as he was the manager of that branch of the Medici Bank. He probably made the commission to show that, while he lived abroad, he was still loyal to Florence, and lest anyone forget him, he and his family are included in the painting.

On an interesting side note, 100 years earlier, Dante had written his Divine Comedy, and included another member of the Portinari family. Dante had been in love with Beatrice Portinari and crafted her into the epic poem as his guide through heaven.

The Long Journey to the Altarpiece’s Home

This is a very large altarpiece, over 8 feet high and 19 feet long. It is a triptych, meaning there are three panels. The side panels fold in. Often triptych’s were displayed closed and then opened on special days of the year. This triptych was finished around 1479 and transported by boat to Sicily, then by barge to Porta San Frediano in Florence. Over part of the trip it was supposedly carried by ’16 burly porters’. I imagine it was quite heavy. Anyway, it arrived at its destination in May 1483. Sadly, Hugo Van Der Goes had died before his most famous work made it to its home.

Frontispiece of the Portinari AltarpieceThe Side Panels

While I will be spending most of our time examining the central panel of the triptych, all of the panels work together to tell a story, so we will quickly look at the closed view, and the side panels.


When closed the painting on the frontispiece is the Annunciation. Mary is painted on the left with the dove, or the Holy Spirit, descending over her, and Gabriel is arriving on the right to announce to Mary that she will bear a son. Van Der Goes has painted the two panels in shades of gray. This is called “grisaille,” and is most often used when artist wish to imitate sculpture. Painting a frontispiece in grey was common in Flemish art, and made the opening of the piece to the vibrant colors within even more striking.

Left side panel of the Portinari AltarpieceLeft Side PanelDetail from the Portinari Altarpiece

The two side panels have donors, saints, and a narrative portion of the Nativity story. The use of hieratic scale is a prominent feature of the panels.  This means that people are sized, based on their importance.

As the donor and his sons are minor players in the unfolding drama, they are small. Standing at their backs are the name saints for Tommaso and his oldest son. The saints are painted in the same scale as the Biblical figures in the center panel.

Saint Anthony is in dark friar robes and carrying a bell. St. Anthony was the patron saint of an order called the Hospitallers. They were a group that treated the diseases of the poor. The Hospitallers raised swine to support themselves and their work, so St. Anthony is most often pictured in black robes with a pig, or in this case a bell to call the pigs. As this work was going to a chapel in a hospital it is fitting that St. Anthony be in the picture.

Right Side Panel of the Portinari AltarpieceSaint Thomas is in a green robe and is holding a spear. Often saints are pictured with something that symbolizes the way that they died, particularly if they were martyred. It was said that St. Thomas was martyred with a spear.

In the background of this panel we can also see Mary, great with child, and walking with Joseph helping her. The donkey is with them. This is recounting their traveling to Bethlehem for the census before Jesus’ birth. In this detail we can see that this miniature background scene is treated with the same care as the rest of the work.

Right Side Panel

Portinari Altarpiece detail from the right side panelOn the right panel we have the donors wife, Maria Barocelli and their daughter Margaret. Behind them are their name saints. In red robes, is Saint Margaret, the saint of childbearing. She was believed to have been eaten by a dragon, but made the sign of the cross and the dragon expelled her. We find this tale in the Golden Legend, a compilation of extra-Biblical stories. You can see the dragon under her foot.

Next to her is Saint Mary Magdalene. She is holding the jar of ointment that she will use to anoint Jesus’ feet before his crucifixion. She also has the traditional red hair, bundled on her head.

Another interesting historical note, you will observe the unusually high foreheads of the women. This was considered beautiful and women of the day shaved their hairlines to achieve the look.

Behind the women, in the background we see the 3 wise men coming to Bethlehem. Their servant has run ahead and is inquiring about where they might find lodging.

Close Reading of the Nativity (Central Panel)

Finally we come to the center panel. This is an Adoration painting. Sometimes paintings focus on the adoration of the Shepherds, the Magi, or angels…but in this painting everyone is adoring the infant. Even Mary and Joseph are kneeling before the child.Hugo Van Der Goes Nativity scene from the Portinari Altarpiece

Annunciation to the shepherdsDetail from the Portinari Altarpiece

Before we begin to analyze the main figures, let’s look at the scene in the background. There we have the angels arriving to tell the shepherds the news of Christ’s birth. This is known as continuous narration, one painting containing multiple elements of a story. With the addition of the stories included on the side panel and the annunciation on the frontispiece, all of the key elements of the nativity narrative are included in the triptych.

Van Der Goes is not interested in painting an historically accurate picture of the nativity, but in communicating doctrine and religious meaning. That the shepherds are pictured on the hill receiving the announcement from the angels, and then again, in the nativity scene, is not a concern. The device of continuous narration was used for centuries by religious painters and was the accepted tool used to provide context and additional information for the viewer.

Detail from the Portinari AltarpieceMary

The Virgin Mary is the center of our painting, specifically her hands. Mary is not depicted as a mother here, cradling the infant Jesus in her arms, but instead as another worshipper of her Lord. She kneels, head bowed, a look of reverence on her face.

Mary’s gorgeous blue dress reveals her character. In the 13th century lapis lazuli, a mineral mined in Afghanistan, was discovered by Marco Polo and was the most expensive pigment that artists could purchase. Overtime, a purification process developed that produced ultramarine, a pure version of the pigment. More expensive than gold, ultramarine was treasured by those who could afford to purchase it. Because the pigment was so precious, the Catholic Church declared that it should be used for the robes of the Virgin, and the color blue came to be associated with holiness, humility, virtue, and divinity.

Eventually the color blue became synonymous with the Virgin and the fact that she participated in the incarnation. The Incarnation is a term that means God took on human flesh. During her pregnancy Mary carried the divine within her and by her obedience, participated with God in the salvation story.

I mentioned hieratic scale above, and we see that the device is used here. Mary is important, so she is painted larger than the figures around her. Her size dwarfs the angels, who appear as small children next to her. Even though she is kneeling, she is as tall as Joseph. Again, hieratic scale is used to show importance, and in this painting Mary is clearly the most important figure.

The Christ ChildDetail from the Portinari Altarpiece

The Christ child is laying on the bare ground, not in a manger or even on straw. If you look closely you will see that what could be mistaken for straw is actually beams of light. The Light of the World has come down into the darkness of our world. A light is not shining on the baby Jesus, the light is emanating from him.

Christ’s nakedness emphasizes that ‘the Word became flesh’. We are to recognize that God, who is the source of light, took on flesh and came as a humble baby. The imagery is powerful. It is believed that these elements of the painting originated in the visions of St. Bridget of Sweden.

Saint Bridget had visions throughout her life. One of the most famous was that immediately after giving birth, Mary kneeled to worship the babe who lay on the bare ground and shone with light. Artists in the North were familiar with Saint Bridget and often included this detail in their nativity scenes.

Detail from the Portinari AltarpieceJoseph

Joseph is dressed in red and is to the left of the stable area. Red denotes humanity and human blood so we have a double meaning here. First, Joseph is Jesus’ human father, his protector and guardian during his childhood. Second, the red is a reminder that this child will shed his blood for the sins of humankind, including his earthly father, Joseph.

Just in front of Joseph is a shoe, which he has kicked off because he is standing on holy ground. The baby Jesus lies directly on the ground, and Joseph recognizes that he is in the presence of divinity and shows respect by removing his shoes.

Often in works of the Holy Family, Joseph is small in size and relegated to a corner, often asleep or disengaged from the unfolding drama. In this work Joseph is given respect. Not only is he present, adoring the infant, he is nearly as large as Mary. This is a recognition of his role in the salvation narrative.

The Shepherds (my favorite part)Detail from the Portinari Altarpiece

The shepherds in the altarpiece are the key to understanding the work.

First, they too are painted large, giving them the same importance as the Holy Family. This was shocking to the audience who first viewed this work. These common shepherds are granted a key role..

Making this statement even more obvious is the fact that this work was monumental in size. Remember this painting is over 8 feet high, and Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds would have been larger than life. This portrayal of the shepherds had not been done before. Obviously, looking at a small reproduction on a computer screen cannot communicate the impact.

Also shocking to the original audience was the realistic portrayal of the shepherds. This realism made waves in the world of art. It’s really my favorite part. Normally, people, particularly commoners, were depicted in a generalized fashion…not as unique individuals. Yet, here we see a ragtag group of rough men who are very distinctive. This created quite a stir in Florence when the work was displayed. And it’s not just that they are presented as individuals, but that they, the least ‘important’ visitors to the Christ child, are the ones that received special attention by the artist.

Detail from the Portinari AltarpieceAngels

Standing in stark contrast to the shepherds are the angels. Although they are celestial beings, messengers of God, they are quite small.

Additionally, their faces are all remarkably similar, likely all painted from the same pattern. Unlike the shepherds, these angels are generic. Beautiful, yes, but generic.

Their rich clothing and crowns reminds us of their heavenly origins and contrast sharply with the rough textured tunics worn by the shepherds. The juxtaposition of the Angels with the Shepherds communicates Van Der Goes’ priority with this work, elevating the humble.


In the back of the painting, over a feed trough, we see the ox and the donkey, which are commonly included in nativity paintings. The two animals together reference a passage in Isaiah, which says that the ox and ass recognize their master, evidently, even when their master appears as an infant. It is also believed the ox, a clean animal, references the Jewish nation, and the donkey, an unclean animal, references the gentile nations, (or those which are not Jewish). As Christ is the Messiah of the Jews, including the ox and donkey is making the point that Christ has come to save all of humankind, not just the nation of Israel.

Still LifeDetail from the Portinari altarpiece

In the foreground of the painting we have a still life. The items in this still life are meant to remind us of Christ’s passion, his suffering and death, and of the Eucharist, or Communion. Beyond their religious significance some elements are also connected to the healing arts. As this work was destined for a hospital, these elements would be significant to the workers and patients there. Flowers, in Medieval time, had their own meanings, along with any healing properties, and were often selected for artworks based on those meanings.

The Vase

The white vase is an albarello, or a majolica earthenware jar originally used to hold herbs and ointments that were used in medicine. The jar is covered with a grape motif that alludes to the wine of communion.

The Lilies and Irises

The jar contains orange lilies symbolizing Christ’s suffering. The color orange would have been noted by viewers familiar with the iconography of Mary. Mary is identified with white lilies, and so the change to orange would have been noted.

The Irises have multiple meanings. The white is for purity, the purple is for Christ’s royal bloodline, and that there are three signify the trinity. Additionally, Iris’s were called ‘little swords’. This is taken as a reference to Simeon’s prophetic words to Mary in Luke 2:35. “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”  

Seven Columbines

This leads us from Simeon’s words to the seven blue columbines which connect the theme of the Virgin’s Seven Sorrows. While, for Mary, Christ’s birth is joyful, there are many sorrowful moments to come. Scenes containing Mary and ‘seven’ objects is often meant to connect her to her sorrows. Mary’s sorrows included: The prophecy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, the loss of Jesus in the temple, meeting Jesus on this way to the cross, the crucifixion, taking his body down from the cross, and Jesus burial.

Seven is also significant in other ways, including the fact that seven in the number of the incarnation, or God becoming man. The trinity, or 3, is the number for God, and 4 is the number of man. This is because man has 4 limbs, 4 seasons of life, and there are 4 elements of the earth. When combined 3 and 4 become the number for the incarnation or 7.

Three Carnations and Transparent Vase

With the columbines are three red carnations, an additional reminder of Christ’s blood that will be spilled, and of the Trinity. The columbines and carnations are in a glass vase. The transparent quality of the vase that allows light to shine through, correlates to the Virgin Mary’s miraculous conception. In the same way light shines through the vase without breaking it, so the Light of the World entered Mary leaving her virginity intact.

Finally, there are violets scattered on the floor signifying humility.

Sheaf of Wheat

In the background of the still life is a sheaf of wheat symbolizing the bread in the Eucharist. Taking communion, the bread and wine, or body and blood of Christ, was a central part of Christian practice. In this scene, the sheaf of wheat would automatically bring to mind the body of Christ, broken for us, which is the verse spoken during communion.

Here the wheat lies just in front of the naked body of the Christ child, exposed and vulnerable. We are meant to connect the two, the wheat with the body of Christ.

We are also meant to be disturbed by the image. Babies are not placed on hard, bare ground. While the babe is clearly divine with the light shining off of his body, his vulnerability in this scene reminds us of his coming sacrifice.

Detail from the Portinari altarpieceUniting Theme of Humility

The uniting theme of this painting is humility. From Mary kneeling before the Christ Child, to Joseph kicking off his shoes, to the donors in the side panels kneeling, we have image after image of humble adoration.

Because these images are so familiar to viewers of religious art, and therefore, easily glossed over or ignored, Van Der Goes has taken pains to be sure the viewer cannot escape the message that God elevates the humble, and places little value on the riches of this world.

We’ve discussed the shepherds and how Van Der Goes has used them to emphasize this point, but this piece is also noted for the loving and individual way that the children’s portraits were done. In the side panels it is the children who are painted as individuals, not just as extensions of their parents. This detail emphasizes the value that God places on humility, and the elevating of the humble.

In the central panel it is the humblest of people who are given monumental size. The heavenly angels, who are dressed in finery and have the glory of heaven, are placed in the subservient role. As we noted in the beginning of this post, Van Der Goes was part of the Devotio Moderna movement. The importance Van Der Goes has bestowed on the shepherds and children elevates the central tenet of the Devotio Moderna movement, that one should strive to live a humble, simple, pious life.

A Monumental Shift has Occurred

The center of this painting is the virgin’s hands. Instead of using a single point perspective, the artist has composed the painting in diagonals going out from her hands. This gives the work a chaotic dynamic. It is an interesting contrast.

Most of the figures are in postures of adoration, kneeling, hands folded or lifted in praise, but appear contained and serene. The shepherds have a slight movement forward, and the angels might give the impression of fluttering, but when you isolate and consider each figure on its own you see calmness. That is not, however, the overall feeling when viewing the composition.

The somewhat discordant notes perhaps shake us up a bit and cause us to consider that something monumental has shifted. With the birth of this child not only will history on earth be changed, but eternal ramifications will be felt. Christ’s incarnation or birth, irrevocably changes everything, and while the world looks the same, everything has changed.

Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 14 Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli and the Mystic Nativity


E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.


Thoughts on the Portinari Altarpiece

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