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The Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo Van Der Goes

Welcome to day 13.

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 his works. 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.

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. I know that painting in the donors was common, but it still seems so odd to me.

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 story as his guide through heaven.

This is a very large altarpiece, over 8 feet high and over 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. The 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 it’s destination in May 1483. Sadly, Hugo Van Der Goes had died before his most famous work made it to it’s home.

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 state. 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.

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.

Hugo Van Der Goes. Frontispiece of the Portinari Altarpiece. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

When closed the painting on the frontispiece is the Annunciation. 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 frontispiece’s in grey was common in Flemish art, and made the opening of the piece to the vibrant colors within even more striking.

The two side panels have donors, saints, and a narrative portion of the Nativity story. The use of heiratic scale is a prominent feature of the panels.  This means that people are sized, based on their importance in the painting. As the donor and his sons are minor players in the unfolding drama, they are smaller. 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. They 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.

Saint Thomas is in a green robe and is holding a spear. Often saints are pictured with something that symbolizes the way that they died. It was said that St. Thomas was martyred with a spear.

In the background of this panel we can also see Mary, greatly pregnant 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.

On the right panel we have the donors wife, Maria Barocelli and their daughter Margaret. Behind them, 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 Magdaline, holding the jar of ointment that she will use on Jesus feet.

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

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. 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 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 panels, the key elements of the nativity narrative are included in the triptych.

The Holy Family and shepherds are monumental in size. Remember this painting is over 8 feet high, and Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds would have been larger than life. This had not been done before. Obviously, looking at a small reproduction on a computer screen cannot communicate the impact.

Striking to us, shocking to the audience this was intended for, the realistic portrayal of the shepherds 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 they are the least ‘important’ visitors to the Christ child, common folk, yet here they received special attention by the artist.

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.

Christ 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 sometimes included this detail in their nativity scenes.

Joseph is dressed in Red and is to the left of the stable area. Just in front of him is a shoe, which he has just kicked off because he is standing on holy ground.

In the foreground of the painting we have a still life. The items in this still life are meant to remind us of Christ passion, his suffering and death, and of the Eucharist, or Communion. Beyond their religious significance some 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 white vase is an albarello, or a majolica earthenware jar originally used to hold herbs and ointments that were used for healing. The jar is covered with a grape motif that alludes to the wine of communion. The jar contains orange lilies associated with Christ suffering.

The Irises have multiple meanings. The white is for purity, the purple is for Christ 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.”  

Leading from Simeon’s words to the seven blue columbines is the connecting theme of the Virgin’s Seven Sorrows. While this period of Christ birth is joyful, Mary has many sorrowful moments to come, and scenes containing Mary and ‘seven’ objects is often meant to connect her to her sorrows. Seven is significant in many ways, 7 deadly sins, 7 virtues, and 7 sacraments. Seven is also the number for the coming together of God and man, or the incarnation. 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.

With the columbines are three red carnations, an additional reminder of Christ 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, signifies the Virgin Mary’s miraculous conception. In the same way the Light of the World entered her leaving her virginity intact. By some accounts the resulting birth was equally miraculous, so that she remained a virgin throughout her life. Finally, there are violets scattered on the floor signifying humility.

Uniting the theme of humility, which was a central tenet of the Devotio Moderna that Van Der Goes is affiliated with, is the attention and importance he has bestowed on the shepherds and the children in this painting. We’ve discussed the shepherds, but this piece is also noted for the loving and individual way that the children’s portraits were done, 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 in the subservient role here.

In the background of the still life is a sheaf of wheat, 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 that would automatically bring to mind the body of Christ, broken for us, lies just in front of the naked body of the Christ child, which is exposed and so human and vulnerable in the center of the painting. We are meant to connect the two. We are also meant to be shocked by this. 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 should remind us of all He had sacrificed to come to the earth, and all that He would sacrifice before His time on earth is done.

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. We have most of the figures in postures of adoration, kneeling, hands folded or lifted in praise, but fairly contained and serene. The shepherds have 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 incarnation or birth irrevocably changes everything.

There is much to be considered in this painting, and I hope you have the time this Advent season to meditate on the message of the nativity.

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.


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