Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece (1475-76)

Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece (1475-76). Oil on panel, 253 cm × 588 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Moving forward in time, we go next to patrons in the fifteenth century. Though I meant to write on one work from the Northern Renaissance and one from the Italian, I realized that I could not let this work pass just because it crosses boundaries into both of these territories. So this is going to stand in for a more wholly Northern work though the patrons were Italian. The artist, Hugo van der Goes was from Ghent, and the work was commissioned in Bruges and painted there so that's good enough for me!

The altarpiece's central scene is an Adoration of the Holy Family and Shepherds (Luke 2:10-19). Here Mary is shown deep in prayer as she accepts what her child must do during his life to become the salvation of all human souls. Mary's somber countenance is offset by the awestruck wonder of the poor and lowly shepherds. Though many Adoration scenes are that of the Magi, or the Three Kings as they are commonly known, this is a painting that depicts an more humble moment in the infancy of Christ. Crowned heads of state are not here offering gifts to the son of God, here peasants humble themselves before a child who they believe, before anyone, is holy. While many patrons of similar works in terms of size or subject matter might have preferred a more lavish work with themselves shown as one of the Magi or an attendant on a king, depending on one's social standing in real life, here the Portinari are shown as pious supplicants to Christ and Mary, while the altarpiece's size and beauty are left to highlight the wealth and power of the patron and his family.

Tommaso Portinari was a wealthy Italian banker who was the representative of the Medici family of Florence to Bruges. He lived there for over 25 years and during his time in the Netherlands was very successful for both his employer and himself. This work was commissioned to showcase his achievement in Florence and was created for his family chapel at the hospital of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Tommasso is shown kneeling on the left wing of the altarpiece with his patron saint, Thomas (with spear), and his two sons, Antonio and Pigello, with Antonio's patron saint, Anthony also present. On the right shutter Portinari's wife, Mario Baroncelli and their daughter Margherita are shown with their patron saints, Mary Magdalen (on the far right with her jar of ointment) and Margaret (with holy book and cross). They had another son named Guido who is not shown but was born in 1476.

The artist, Hugo van der Goes, here amalgamates the painting styles of the best of his time. He is able to show the symbolic details and intricate technique of Jan van Eyck while retaining the emotional responsiveness of his subjects to the drama unfolding before them. Here, however, he surpasses van der Weyden in his ability to show the difference in responses in each group of onlookers. The Virgin Mary and St. Joseph (in the shadows on the left of the central panel) watch in a controlled and somber contemplation, while the peasants react to the moment with bigger gestures and emotive facial expressions.

Symbolic details abound in the work and are very evident in the small still-life composition at the bottom center of the central panel. The flowers, irises and scarlet lilies, shown in the intricate vase to the left are symbols, iconographically, of Christ's passon, royal lineage and purity. The flowers, columbines and carnations, in the glass container are common symbols of the Virgin Mary's grief and sorrow at his Passion. The sheaf of wheat and the grapes incised onto the earthen vase allude to the body and blood (wine) that makes up the Eucharist. This small tableau of iconographic objects is a particularly important aspect of the work and is given pride of place in the forefront of the scene.

Other aspects of that make this painting such a masterpiece come in the slanted lighting that illuminates the naked Christ child while throwing into darkness the small barn, and the beasts within, where he was born. The symmetrical composition of the work that revolves around the Virgin and Child is a masterful creation that gives each component of the work a place in the scene unfolding. The Virgin is shown as the bridge between the humble and divine but the angels that kneel in adoration are another way to bridge a gap between the patrons and the Holy Family.

The Portinari Altarpiece arrived in Florence in 1483 and was widely admired by court persons and artists alike. There are many instances of artists of the time attempting to emulate the wonder and awestruck expressions shown on the realistic depictions of the humble peasants. Though the altarpiece was well-received, it was one of Hugo van der Goes last major works. He retreated to the sanctuary of the monastery of the Roode Klooster between the years of 1476 and 1478.

Tommaso Portinari remained an avid patron of the arts and there are two famous portraits of himself and his wife by Hans Memling from around the same period (shown below).

Hans Memling, Tommaso di Folco Portinari & Maria Portinari, probably 1470. Oil on wood, Tommaso overall 17 3/8 x 13 1/4 in. Maria overall 17 3/8 x 13 3/8 in.

Sources Used:

Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.

Image source for Portinari Altarpiece: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/Hugo_van_der_Goes_004.jpg

Image Source for Hans Memling, Tommaso di Folco Portinari (1428-1501); Maria Portinari (Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, 1456-?) (14.40.626-27) Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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