In light of the Epiphany

The Monforte Altarpiece (Adoration of the Magi) by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie

The Monforte Altarpiece is an oil on oak panel painting of the Adoration of the Magi by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes. The altarpiece was originally the central panel of a triptych with movable wings that are now lost.

The principal narrative is pilgrimage and the search for God, reflecting not just the journey made by the Magi but also that of the artist in his later years, accompanied by an assortment of other pilgrims, painters and priests who impacted on his life in some way

Hugo carefully crafts a composition of several themes, weaving and skilfully blending narratives to produce a telling masterpiece of iconography.

from Flanders to Galicia…

Some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” they asked. “We saw his star as it rose and we have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2 : 2

The painting takes its name from Monforte de Lemos, in northern Spain, where it was housed in the town’s College of Our Lady of Antigua. It was sold to the State Museum of Berlin in 1913 to raise funds to extend the college facilities. The site previously served as a university and seminary founded by Cardinal Rodrigo de Castro (1523-1600) towards the end of the 16th century. He was a great grandson of the Ist Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez Osario (†1483).

Iconography evidence reveals the painting was commissioned specifically as an altarpiece for a church or chapel located in Montforte de Lemos, most likely the Dominican monastery of San Vincento do Pino adjacent to the Castle of the Counts, and probably to commemorate Beatriz Enriquez de Castella (1398-1455), wife of the first Count of Lemos. The commission also coincided with the rebuild of the castle after it was damaged during the Great Irmandiño War (1467-1469). A fire later damaged the monastery and this was rebuilt during the 16th century. It may have been at this point that the painting was moved to another location, possibly the Convent of Santa Clara in Monforte Lemos, founded in 1622  by Caterina de la Cerda y Sandoval following the death of her husband Pedro Fernández de Castro (1576-1622) and VII Count of Monforte. In 1633 Caterina professed as a Poor Clare, taking the name Caterina Conception as the convent was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. 

Hugo’s painting was eventually placed in the chapel of the college of Our Lady of Antigua, possibly as a gift from its founder Cardinal Rodrigo de Catsro who may have inherited the artwork via his family connection to the 1st Count of Monforte de Lemos. A copy of the work has replaced the original now kept in the Gemäldergalerie, Berlin.

time moves on…

As to when the painting was completed, art historians generally date the work c1470, although Till-Holger Borchert places it between 1473-1477. However, there are historic narratives in the painting for it to be attributed thereafter, even as late as 1482, the year put at Hugo’s death. If Hugo did die that year then it is feasible the Montforte Altarpiece was one of his last paintings. Besides the historic references supporting this hypothesis are three figures in the scene portraying Hugo as “close to death”.

the artist

Not a lot is known about the life of Hugo van der Goes. There is no certainty about his birthdate or when he died exactly. It is assumed he was born in Ghent around 1440 and died in 1482 at Auderghem near Brussels. Sometime after 1475 Hugo entered cloistered life as a lay brother but continued to paint. It was later claimed by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk serving with Hugo in the Roode Klooster, that the artist suffered with a psychological illness and on one occasion attempted to self-harm. Incidents surrounding this traumatic episode late in Hugo’s life are alluded to in the painting, supporting Ofhuys’ account later chronicled around 1510.

missing parts…

The Monforte Altarpiece had two wing panels attached that are lost, and the main centre panel was cut down in size at some time in its history. However, there is a small-size copy of the original centre section (right) housed at the Museo Baroffio in Varese, Italy. Although some elements have been altered the replica does complete the picture, so to speak, and provides further information about the structure of the building in which the scene is set. The work is attributed to “a follower of Hugo van der Goes” and dated at the end of the 15th century.

temples and towers…

The ruined building is a standard backdrop for Nativity and Adoration scenes. It represents the ruined Temple of Solomon. The grey stone section behind the fence is the Second Temple (also destroyed), while the newborn infant Jesus signifies the sanctuary that was destroyed and raised up again in three days – his death and resurrection (John 2 : 19). The golden-colour building at the rear represents the rebuild of the Monforte castle and probably its monastery wing damaged during the Irmandiño War.
The castle’s main tower – which still survives – is known as the Torre dl Homenaje, the Homage Tower, which the local people were made to rebuild after the uprising and then swear allegiance and do homage to the 1st Count of of Monforte de Lemos. Hence the association with the scene based on the biblical passage from Matthew’s Gospel (2 : 12) when three men from the East made their way to Bethlehem seeking the infant king of the Jews and to do him homage.

That the scene is linked to the Monforte Tower of Homage is borne out by Hugo in the way he cleverly combines a group of figures to refer to the coat of arms of the 1st Count, alongside those of his wife, that were set into the rebuilt tower in 1480. One of the titles attributed to the Virgin Mary is Tower of David. Stonemasons marks, including the Seal of Solomon, are also inscribed on the tower.

More on this and other levels of identities in a future post.

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