When Botticelli ‘goosed’ Hugo van der Goes

Botticelli, the mischiveous Kobold

So why did Sandro Botticelli decide to include a profile of the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, and Van der Goes do likewise and feature Botticelli in the Monforte Altarpiece?

Did the two artists meet at some time, perhaps in Florence after Hugo was commissioned to produce an altarpiece for the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova? Or maybe on his way to making a pilgrimage to Rome?

Botticelli’s self portrait is shown above (left). In Hugo’s painting he is depicted wearing a blue cap and staring at another artist, Dieric Bouts who was deceased at the time. The reason why Hugo painted the cap in ‘cobalt’ blue was to reference the German mythical Kobold, a house sprite reputed to play malicious tricks if insulted or neglected – and a fitting description for Botticelli’s reputation for vindictive humour, often expressed in through his paintings.

Not seen in the frame above is the piece of rock placed across the chest of Bouts. It’s there for two reasons, but in this instance relates to the Kobbold and hints at the probable cause of Bouts’ death. Wikipedia explains: “The name of the element cobalt comes from the creature’s name, because medieval miners blamed the sprite for the poisonous and troublesome nature of the typical arsenical ores of this metal (cobaltite and smaltite) which polluted other mined elements.”

As a young apprentice, Bouts was probably tasked to grind minerals and rocks as part of the process in preparing paint. It likely contributed to his health problems later in life. This may also explain why Hugo van der Goes descended into bouts of depression and odd behaviour. Botticelli also struggled with depression.

Hugo van der Goes portrayed in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (left) and his own version (right)

Hugo van der Goes gave himself a prominent position in the Monforte Altarpiece, almost centre stage. Draped in black, an indication of his approaching death, he depicts himself as the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, Frederick III, perhaps somewhat in recognition of his own vainglory.

Botticelli paints Hugo in the role of Balthazar, said to be a Babylonian scholar, in the secondary line of Magi. The iconography relating to this is detailed and complex, but one example is the striped scarf around his shoulders, the stripes representing myrrh and its association with death.

But there is another reference Botticelli creates with the scarf – that of a goose, a play on Hugo’s name, Goes, and its pronunciation “hoose”. The goose shape with its long neck can be seen by turning the feature on its side. Another pointer to the long neck might be the inferrence that Hugo was sticking his neck out by taking on a commission in Florence and the work from the mouths of local artists. Perhaps this is why Van der Goes responded by showing the figure in front of Botticelli with a long neck and what appears to be a ‘steel’ collar pointing to Botticelli’s cheek!

The long-necks… Botticelli’s ‘goose’ scarf version, and Van der Goes retort aptly applied to his figure of St Augustine doubling up as ‘Il Moro’, the shorn Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.

As said, there is more iconogrphy related to this section of Botticelli’s painting which I will post on another time. Enough to say at this stage the ‘spat’ between the two artists suggests the Monforte Altarpiece was painted after the completition of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration.

Two versions of the Adoration of the Magi… The Monforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, and Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version