Identifying the Dormition Apostles

Detail from the Death of the Virgin (The Dormition), Hugo van der Goes, Groeninge Museum, Bruges.

The arrangement of Apostles in The Dormition of Mary echoes The Last Supper panel produced by Dieric Bouts between 1464-1468. Hugo’s painting of the Virgin Mary on her deathbed and surrounded by the twelve apostles of Jesus was completed at least a decade later.

Some of the Apostles are easily recognised, Peter and John, for example, but the whole group, it seems, has never been clearly identified by art historians. Jesus had a habit of renaming his disciples and giving them new identities, which may have partly inspired Hugo to take the same approach and apply more than one identitity to each man. But he does provide visual clues and each figure is usually placed to connect in some way to one next to it. This was the approach Dieric Bouts took with The Last Supper. So did Jan van Eyck when he painted the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

First the identities of the twelve Apostles as placed by Hugo in the painting. Starting with the figure gripping the headboard and moving clockwise around the bed, they are: Thomas, Peter, Philip, Jude, Matthias (the replacement for Judas Iscariot), Simon (the Zealot), James (the Lesser), Matthew, James (the Greater), Bartholomew, John, and Andrew.

• More on this and some of the other identities in my next post.

The Dormition of Mary

My next study project is the Hugo van der Goes painting: Death of the Virgin, also referred to as The Dormition, dated 1470-80. It’s housed at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges.

Wikipedia has a page about the painting and so does the Flemish Primitives website which dates the work as 1470-72.

The scene depicts Mary the mother of Jesus on her deathbed surrounded by his twelve apostles, and relates to an account from the Golden Legend by the Italian chronicler Jacobus de Varagine.

But there was a more local source that also inspired Van der Goes, the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. In Hugo’s version the ‘just judges’ are the twelve apostles appointed by Jesus to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19 : 28).

On visiting Ghent in 1495, some years after Hugo’s death in 1482, the humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote that the Ghent Altarpiece had no rivals and “another great painter” who had attempted to equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work had been “driven mad and melancholy”. Art historians assume that Münzer was writing about Hugo van der Goes.

A feature of Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges panel is the multiplication of identities – four– given to each of the ten judges. Hugo adopted a similar approach of creating multiple identities for The Dormition.

Fathers and Sons… part 2

Continued from the previous post…

A father and sons… detail from the Panel of the Prince section of the St Vincent Panels.

This trio of men featured in the St Vincent Panels are related. The older man is the father of Hugo van der Goes, and also of the half-hidden figure behind him, Hugo’s half-brother Nicholas. Hugo is placed at his father’s left shoulder, almost cheek-to-cheek, and looking straight at the viewer – a sign of recognition. Did Hugo, or even the father contribute in some way to this section of the painting, or was the artist Nuno Gonçalves perhaps paying tribute to the men for some personal reason?

The other men in the line-up also represent family groups, fathers and sons. The three men to the right of Hugo are two sons with their father. Left of Hugo’s father are two men hat can be considered a son and his father, while to their left the three men represent another family group, possibly the Gonçlaves family with Nuno looking out from the edge of the frame next to his brother and both positioned behind their father.

So what other evidence is there that points to Hugo and his father among the group of men in the Panel of the Prince? There are two extant paintings attributed to Hugo van der Goes and housed in New York’s Met Museum that provide the answer: Portrait of an Old Man can be matched to Hugo’s father, while Portrait of a Man, possibly a self-portrait of Hugo, and probably cut down to size from a larger scene, has a particular feature – the praying hands – that Gonçalves has repeated for the hands of the father. Is this a statement by Gonçalves to say that both Hugo and his father had a hand in the painting of this panel?

Potrait of an Old Man, and Portrait of a Man, attributed to Hugo van der Goes, Met Museum.

What is a more likely scenario is that the old man isn’t actually the paternal father of Hugo and Nicholas, but can be considered instead as a pastoral or spiritual father, guiding the two men during their formation and time as lay brothers in the monastic community of the Roode Klooster which Hugo joined around 1477. Could he be Father Thomas Vessem, Prior of the Roode Klooster during Hugo’s time there as a lay brother?

The relationship between the two men shown in the Panel of the Prince is undoubtedly a close one, and the portrait of him painted by Hugo is not the only time he was portrayed by the artist. The same man features in Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, as shown below left. He also appears in the Justice Panels attributed to Dieric Bouts: Justice of Emperor Otto lll – Beheading of the Innocent Count and Ordeal by Fire. One was completed, and the second started by Bouts before he died in 1475. Van der Goes is said to have completed some of Bouts’ unfinished paintings. Was this one of them, and which artist included the ‘father’ figure associated with Hugo, shown below right alongside the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden as part of the beheading panel?

The praying ‘father’ figure from Death of the Virgin, and the ‘father’ alongside Rogier van der Weyden.

And not by coincidence, a portrait of Van der Weyden (left) is also included in the St Vincent Panels, alongside Dieric Bouts (below).

Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts, Panel of the Knights of the St Vincent Panels.

And this brings the circle back to Hugo van der Goes who also placed the portrait of Dieric Bouts at the edge of the frame in the Monforte Altarpiece, but not alongside Van der Weyden, preferring to subsitute him with the Italian artist Sando Botticelli. And why should he do this? Because Botticelli included the figure of Hugo alongside himself in his own version of the Adoration of the Magi now housed in the Uffizi, Florence.

Hugo van der Goes stands in front of Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Galleries.

More on this and Hugo’s Death of the Virgin in my next post.

Fathers and Sons

Panel of the Prince, St Vincent Panels, Nuno Gonçalves, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.

I made mention in an earlier post that it was likely Hugo van der Goes had access to another altarpiece now known as the St Vincent Panels, attributed to Nuno Gonçalves. Elements of the Portuguese painter’s panels are echoed in Hugo’s Monforte Altarpiece. Did the two painters know each other? Could they even have worked together at some time? It has been suggested by some researchers that Gonçalves could have spent time learning his craft in Flanders.

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

Francisco Filipe Cruz wrote in his Facebook summary on the St Vincent Panels: “…the style of the painting shows some very clear influences from the Flemish “primitives” school. Among the suggested influences are Jan van Eyck, Dieric Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, and contemporary Flemish-influenced Iberian painters like Bartolomé Bermejo and Jaume Huguet. Indeed, it is sometimes conjectured that a foreign painter (perhaps even van der Weyden or van der Goes), rather than a native Portuguese, was the original artist, and some have even gone so far as to speculate that the painting is not Portuguese at all, but was made in Flanders for the Burgundian court, and represents a Burgundian scene. As we have practically no details of the life of Nuno Gonçalves, there has been much conjecture of when and where he learned or developed his style and technique. It seems almost certain he must have gone abroad at some point. Some have speculated that the youthful Nuno Gonçalves met Jan van Eyck when the latter visited Portugal in 1428, and travelled back to Flanders with him in 1429, as part of the retinue of Isabella of Portugal, Duchess of Burgundy. He probably spent a few years there in the circle of the Flemish primitives, absorbing their style and techniques. It has been suggested that Gonçalves spent some time in Tournai, apprenticed in the atelier of Robert Campin.

There is also a curious reference on Gonçalves’ Wikipedia page suggesting the father of Hugo van der Goes may have “collaborated in the painting” adding “but there is no concrete proof.” Unfortunately the compiler doesn’t provide a source for the claim.

However, Clemente Baeta, who has spent the last eight years researching and studying the St Vincent Panels, suggests the claim may have arisen from an article in Diário de Lisboa, published in January 1963, which speculated on a possible connection between a Hospitaller Prior named Nuno Gonçalves de Gois (or Goes) and the family of Hugo van der Goes.

Nothing is known of Hugo’s family except that he had a half-brother, Nicolaes

In both the Monforte Altarpiece and the St Vincent Panels there is a shared theme – the transition of power and hereditary rights, and relationships between fathers and sons.

In what is referred to as the Panel of the Prince, St Vincent reveals a passage from Scripture – John 14 : 28-31– in which Jesus attests that his Father is greater than himself, and “the world must be brought to know that he loves the Father and that I am doing exactly what the Father told me.” Jesus also warned that the prince of the world is on his way but has no power of Him.

It is this example of the Son’s obedience to his Father that is the basis for identifying the scenario painted by Nuno Gonçalves, which also pinpoints the reason why Hugo was inspired by this painting when he later included a similar Father and Son theme in the Monforte Altarpiece.

Another feature in the Panel of the Prince that may throw some light on the speculation about Hugo’s father having “collaborated” in the St Vincent Panels is the group of men in the background – a line-up of fathers alongside their sons – among which are Hugo van der Goes, his half-brother Nicolae, and his unnamed father!

• My next post will deal with the identification of Hugo van der Goes and his father in the Panel of the Prince.

Full and short measures

More on the Monforte Altarpiece… When Hugo van der Goes suddenly became agitated on his journey back from Cologne, he kept insisting he was a lost soul and bound for eternal damnation. He made an attempt to self harm – some say to commit suicide. Whatever, his actions revealed a sense of deep despair and hopelessness.

Hugo expressed this fatalistic notion in his painting, alongside the belief that life is determined by celestial signs, just as the rising star followed by the Magi signalled the birth of the infant king of the Jews. But astrology was not just for men from the East. The underlying identities of the Magi – Pope Sixtus IV, Frederick III, Maximilium I and Ludovico Sforza – all used the services of astrologers in decision-making and to determine their future plans.

Moriah, the place where God determined a sacrifice be made of Isaac – represented by the rock, or altar – also links to Hugo’s idea of fatalism. ‘Moriah’ is a pun on ‘Moirai’ or ‘Moerae’, the three goddesses of Fate in Greek mythology who “controlled the mother thread of life in every mortal from birth to death.” The three Moirai are Clotho who spins the thread of life from her distaff onto the spindle; Lachesis who measures with her rod the thread of life given to each person; and Atropos who cuts the thread of life with her shears.

The Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted in paintings spinning wool with a distaff and spindle. This iconography is based on a passage from the Protovangelium of James which describes how Mary was chosen to spin the ‘true purple’ for the temple veil and the scarlet cloth for the serving priest. In Hugo’s painting, the thread of life is spun from the Infant Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ seated on Mary’s lap. Her purple garment defines her as the ‘Temple of the Lord’.

The serving priest is the kneeling figure in scarlet who represents both Pope Sixtus IV and Pope St Gregory the Great. Prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth whose husband Zechariah was the principal serving priest at the Temple. However, he was unable to fulfil his duty after being struck dumb because he doubted the angel who told him his barren wife would conceive a child. His place was taken by Samuel. For Zechariah read Sixtus IV and for Samuel, St Gregory the Great. For Clotho, the “mother thread of life”, read Mary, Mother of God.

The scarlet figure of Pope Sixtus IV dominates the central section of Hugo’s painting. This is not without reason and is explained later. The remnant or what is left of the pontif’s life is the trailing length of cloth. It is measured out by the pointed foot of Emperor Frederick III, as if to suggest he has the measure of the Pope. The boot is shaped as a snake’s head and this is part of another theme in the painting associated with the Three Fates that links to the men from the East and pagan belief and worship. The Holy Roman Emperor is presented in the role of Lachesis.

The third Fate, Atropos, is illustrated by combining the figures of Maximilian I and Ludovico Sforza. At first glance it appears that the sword close to the hem of the red robe belongs to the standing figure of Ludovico. In fact it hangs from the waist of Maximilian. The sword is there to cut the thread of life, hence its placement next to the hem of the Pope’s garment, and also alongside the fringe of the green overcoat worn by Ludovico. Notice the shortened length of the front compared with back of the garment trailing on the floor. And this links back back to St Vincent the Deacon, his short dalmatic vestment, and shortened life by martyrdom.

The pommel on the sword’s grip is a pointer to an unexpected death in the life of Maximilian, while his left knee is positioned next to the deadly nightshade plant, whose latin name is shared with the Third Fate, Atropos! Together with the white edge of the scarlet robe (hem-lock) Hugo presents a lethal poison for cutting the thread of life.

Observe also the ‘keystone’ symbol that ‘cuts’ through the fringe of the garment, a reference to the hypocrisy and vanity displayed by the scribes and Pharisees recorded in Mathew’s Gospel (23 : 1-12), and to Jesus being the keystone rejected by the builders (1 Peter 2 : 6).

It also refers to Moriah as the place where Solomon built his temple on the plan of a trapezoid shaped as a keystone.

A date with destiny

More about the Monforte Altarpiece… This detail from the left edge of the painting is another indicator that it was produced later than its current attribution date of c1470.

The man wearing the burgundy-coloured jacket and standng next to the black horse has just crossed over the bridge with a small entourage following him. He is Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy who died at the Battle of Nancy fighting against an army of Swiss mercenaries employed by Rene ll, Duke of Lorraine.

The date of his death is significant, January 5, 1477, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany which commemorates the visit of the Magi to pay homage to the new-born Christ, depicted as the main scene in the painting.

The bridge represents Charles’ crossing over from life on earth to face whatever justice awaited him. For certain he was a debtor, as were the other three men represented by the Magi: Pope Sixtus IV; Frederick lll, the Holy Roman Emperor; and Ludovico Sforza, Regent of Milan; their common creditor being the powerful Medici Bank. It was Charles death and massive debt that instigated the closure and eventual liquidation of the bank’s Bruge branch in 1478.

A possible consequence could also have been that artists like Hugo van der Goes may not have been paid for pictures they were comissioned to paint, especially by Tommaso Portinari who managed the Bruge branch and made extravagant loans to Charles the Bold in an effort to ingratiate himself at the Duke’s court.

He commissioned several paintings, including the famous Adoration of the Shepherds painted by Hugo van der Goes and which was finally delivered to its Florentine destination after the painter’s death – possibly because Hugo may not have been paid and had held on to the work.

Another connection in the painting to Charles the Bold is the kneeling figure of Maximilian I, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick lll. After Charles was killed, Maximilian married the Duke’s daughter and only heir, Mary of Burgundy.

There is an illustration in her Book of Hours that depicts Mary being chased by Death while out hunting. She is riding a white horse. Is this the riderless white horse being escorted past Charles in the detail at the head of this post? And is this ‘pale horse’ representative of the horse from the Book of Revelation that signifies death, and the black horse that which is said to represent the scales of justice?

Clothed in splendour

The Monforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

In the Monforte Altarpiece the painter Hugo van der Goes has grouped the ‘Three Kings’ and the figure of Joseph to represent the Four Latin Doctors of the Church: Joseph as St Ambrose; Melchior as Pope St Gregory the Great; Caspar as St Jerome; and Balthazar as St Augustine. This is qualified by the liturgical colours of their ‘vestments’ worn by priests for celebrating Mass. Ambrose wears Rose, Gregory wears Red, Jerome is in Black (his attribute, the kneeling ‘lion’ alongside, is draped in Purple), while Augustine is robed in Green.

The focus on the distinct coloured vestments also serve a purpose: to highlight the cloth manufacturing industry of Bruges and Florence. In his book The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice, Luca Molà writes:

“In the second part of the fifteenth century, the silk industry, driven as usual by Italian entrepreneurs, pressed its triumphal march further north, reaching Flanders. It found fertile ground in Bruges, a city that specialised in the production of a light fabric in which silk was mixed with other fibres. This ‘satin of Bruges’ was of considerable renown in European markets during the Renaissance, and in 1496 its manufacturers were numerous enough to found a guild of its own.”

His name is John… one of the embroidered
vestments depicting the life of John the
Baptist, designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo.

TEMPLES AND THREADS
There is another vestment allusion in this section of the painting which connects to Florence and its famous baptistery of San Giovani: the gold strands on the floor beside the large stone. They refer to a famous set of gold-embroidered liturgical vestments designed and produced by another Florentine artist Antonio Pollaiuolo between 1466 and 1479.

The vestments depict the Life of St John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence. They were for use in the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, situated next to the Battistero di San Giovani. Nineteen of the embroideries survive in various condition, but not the vestments.

Just as Pollaiuolo embroidered the life of the Baptist on vestments, so Hugo van der Goes paints a variety of narratives on his panel, threading and fusing a tapestry of themes and events which relate to a key period in his life. “Clothes maketh the man” and so Hugo spins, measures and cuts the cloth to drape his figures who, like the infant Jesus, were all born naked into the world. The garments are designed to be admired and to express the wearer’s status in life, but Hugo also uses them to depict the measure of the man and what fate has in store, revealing possibly that the artist may have had a fatalist temperament which contributed to his instability and uncertainty in later life.

This self harm attempt probably explains Hugo’s inclusion of the quatrefoil and its reference to the Sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham’s hand was held back from killing his son Isaac by an angel’s intervention. Likewise when Hugo made what is said to be a suicide attempt he was prevented from doing so by the group of monks he was travelling with after visiting Cologne. This excursion or ‘pilgrimage’ was likely to have been to Cologne Cathedral which houses the Shrine of the Three Kings and where there is a reliquary said to contain their bones. Also displayed in the cathedral at the time was Rogier van der Weyden’s triptych known as the St Columba Altarpiece (Cologne Cathedral is dedicated to St Columba). Its central panel portrays the visit of the Magi. Van der Weyden’s painting may also have served as inspiration for Hugo’s version of the Adoration of the Kings.

Another pointer to the Florentine cloth industry is the gold ciborium placed on the large stone in the foreground. In this instance its quatrefoil shape relates to a design feature that frames a series of panels on a set of bronze doors of the Battistero di San Giovani in Florence. This particular set of doors was commissioned by the Arte di Calimala, the cloth importers guild, and made by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the famous Florentine goldsmith and sculptor. A trial panel was commissioned by the guild who specified it should depict The Sacrifice of Isaac within a quatrefoil surround.

This biblical narrative, also known as the Binding of Isaac, is found in the Book of Genesis 22. God sends Abraham to the land of Moriah and asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac. After making an altar and binding his son, an angel appears and prevents Abraham from taking Isaac’s life and a ram is used as the sacrifice instead.

So in this scenario we see why Hugo has depicted the Infant Jesus staring directly at the ciborium on a stone altar, and why he is seated on a white cloth that features the outline of a ram in its folds. The Child is portrayed as the Redeemer, the unblemished Lamb of God.

More on the Monforte Altarpiece

As mentioned in a previous post Hugo van der Goes applied several identities to the figures in the Montforte Altarpiece, probably inspired, as other artists of his era, by Jan van Eyck who created various identities for the riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Monforte Altarpiece was likely commissioned for display in the monastery of San Vincento do Pino. The saint is one of the identities given to the tall man on the right who, at surface level represents one of the magi, Balthazar. Local tradition has it that there was a pine tree in the old monastery dedicated to St Vincent and so the Dominican building became known as San Vicente do Pino.

But the saint is better known as Vincent of Saragossa (where he spent most of his life), or Vincent the Deacon, patron saint of Lisbon and Valencia. He was martyred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian early in the 4th century. Wikipedia describes his death in this way:

“He was stretched on the rack and his flesh torn with iron hooks. Then his wounds were rubbed with salt and he was burned alive upon a red-hot gridiron [its bars were framed like scythes, reports another account]. Finally, he was cast into prison and laid on a floor scattered with broken pottery [shells, in some accounts], where he died… Vincent’s dead body was thrown into the sea in a sack, but was later recovered by the Christians and his veneration immediately spread throughout the Church… According to legend, after being martyred, ravens protected Vincent’s body from being devoured by vultures, until his followers could recover the body. It was taken to what is now known as Cape St. Vincent; a shrine was erected over his grave, which continued to be guarded by flocks of ravens. In the time of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula, the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi noted this constant guard by ravens, for which the place was named by him “Kanīsah al-Ghurāb” (Church of the Raven). King Afonso I of Portugal had the body of the saint exhumed in 1173 and brought it by ship to the Lisbon Cathedral. This transfer of the relics is depicted on the coat of arms of Lisbon.”

The most obvious reference which links the figure to the monastery of San Vicente do Pino is the gold, pine-cone-shaped vessel containing myrrh, given by Balthazar as a homage gift to the new-born infant Jesus.

Vincent was a deacon of the Church and so the front part of his green garment is shortened to represent a dalmatic vestment worn by deacons. The position of the sword below the edge of the garment also points to his life being cut short when he was martyred. It has been mentioned that the bars of the gridiron he was tortured on were framed like scythes. Notice the scythe shape of Vincent’s collar. Then there is his elongated body and long neck, indicating the time he was stretched and tortured on the rack.

There are two references to Ravens. The first is Vincent’s dark hair, shaped to represent the wing and head of one the ravens that protected his body after he was martyred. The Lisbon coat of arms depicts two ravens, one at each end of the ship that transported Vincent’s body to the Portuguese city. The second raven appears on the sleeve cuff of Vincent’s left arm, above which is a string of looped pearls, meant to represent the looped sails seen on the ship’s mast.

There is another reason why Van der Goes has drawn attention to Vincent’s left arm in this way. It is still displayed as a relic in Valencia Cathedral (see below).

It’s likely that Van der Goes had access to another painting relating to St Vincent, that known as the St Vincent Panels said to have been produced by the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves between 1450 and 1471. There are parts of his painting that are echoed in the Monforte Altarpiece. The orginal retable consisted of more than twelve panels and was on display in Lisbon Cathedral until near the end of the 17th century. The remaining six panels are now housed in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.

The two centre panels of six remaning, featuring St Vincent.

There are more references to St Vincent but they crossover into the figure’s other identities and so probably best left to present at another time. This post was simply to point to some of the iconography that confirmed the identity of San Vicente do Pino in the Monforte Altarpiece.

Christ’s burial cloths

Turin’s Cathedral will be making the image of its Holy Shroud available through televison and social media channels on Holy Saturday (April 9).

The announcement by Vatican News reminded me of Jan van Eyck’s special interest in the Shroud and also the face cloth, known as the Sudarium, left in the cave after Jesus rose from the dead.

A sudarium is a sweat cloth but was also used as a cloth to seal an annointing with oil, especially when administering the last rites.

The Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden showed this in his famous Seven Sacraments painting. The dying man depicted is Jan van Eyck, and van der Weyden has compared Jan’s suffering in death to the that of the crucified Christ – as being on the cross.

But there is another reason why Van der Weyden has shown Van Eyck’s head covered in a sweat cloth. It’s a pointer to a painting produced by Jan early in his career for the illuminated manuscript now known as the Turin-Milan Hours. Several of the miniatures are dated to around 1420 and attributed to an artist referred to as “Hand G”, believed by art historians to be Jan van Eyck.

The particular minature that relates not only to the Sudarium but also to Christ’s cross, therefore matching the connection made by Van der Weyden, is titled the Finding of the True Cross. It depicts the story of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, discovering the wood of Christ’s cross during a pilgrimage she made to the Holy Land in the 4th century.

Three workmen are shown uncovering the buried relic, one of whom is Jan van Eyck who is wearing a sweat cloth.

As to the man on his right, could it be Jan’s brother Hubert van Eyck?

Levels of insanity

It is documented that Hugo van der Goes suffered from mental health issues towards the end of his life and that he unduly worried about completing his paintings. He had spent most of his life working in the Flemish city of Ghent, in the shadow of the great Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert’s most famous work, the Ghent Altarpiece.

On visiting Ghent in 1495, some years after Hugo’s death in 1482, the humanist Hieronymus Münzer wrote that the famous Ghent Altarpiece had no rivals and “another great painter” who had attempted to equal the Ghent Altarpiece in his own work had been “driven mad and melancholy”.

Art historians assume that Münzer was referring to Hugo van der Goes.

In the Ghent Altarpiece, particularly on the Just Judges panel, Van Eyck applied mutiple identities to some of the figures, as many as four in some instances. Van der Goes did the same when he painted the Monforte Altarpiece, obviously influenced by Van Eyck, as were other artists of the time.

In the Monforte Altarpiece Hugo also acknowledges his mental health issues and his period of “insanity”. He makes it very clear that time is running out for him and he is close to death. To be able to portray this in his painting suggests Hugo was of “right mind” and completely prepared for his death in 1482 when, I believe, this work of art was probably completed.

In my previous post, I mentioned that the painting was likely commissioned by the Ist Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez Osario, possibly for display in the Dominican monastery of San Vincento do Pino adjacent to the Castle of the Counts, and in memory of his first wife Beatriz Enriquez de Castella who had died in 1455.

The count’s coat of arms and those of his first wife Beatriz can still be seen on the castle tower known as the Homage Tower as seen in the image below.

Hugo has referenced the sets of arms in an unique way using the four figures placed behind the wooden fence (not those seen on the hill in the background – that’s another story.)

The four men, two shown as youths, refer to an event that took place in Florence in 1478 known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, when members of the Pazzi family set out to displace the Medici family as rulers of Florence. The plan was to assassinate the brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici and the attempt was made on April 26, 1478. Lorenzo was wounded but Giuliano was killed. Vengeance was taken by the Medici and several of the plotters were executed and the Pazzi family banished from Florence.

The two men with their backs to the wall are two of the plotters. One of them grips a dagger in his left hand. The two youths represent Lorenzo and Giuliano. Lorenzo is depicted with his cloak covering his left shoulder, a reference to how he used it to defend himself during the attack. At Lorenzo’s risght shoulder can be seen part of a castle wall with an entrance and rampart. Lorenzo’s flowing golden locks are also significant and symbolic of a lion’s mane representing the Marzocco, the famous heraldic lion of the Florentine Republic.

In his right hand Lorenzo holds a cap in front of his brother’s chest. The round, gold-coloured shape represents a bezant, a gold coin, symbolic of those found on the Medici family’s coat of arms, of which there are five. Now we can begin to see how Hugo is constructing his reference to the Medici family and the Pazzi conspiracy; Lorenzo’s coat covers his arm (coat of arms). His brother Giuliano wore no armour or any protection on the day he was murdered. Even his wealth and status was unable to protect him from assassination. He was stabbed 19 times and his wounds are represented by the indented hat band. The hat or bezant shape is also cleaved by the black hat rim, an indication that the fatal blow to Giuliano was by a sword wound to his head.

So now we have the elements associated with the Pazzi Conspiracy and the Medici family that can be referenced and combined with elements found in the combined coats of arms assocated with the Count of Lemos and his wife.

The count’s arms depict two running wolves. These are the two assassins standing with their backs to the wall. The arms of Beatriz Enriquez de Castella show a castle, a lion rampant and six roundels or bezants. Hugo has shown the castle positioned at Lorenzo’s right shoulder; the lion is represented by Lorenzo, symbolic of the Marzocco; and the round hat represents the roundel or bezants depicted not only on the Medici arms but on those of Beatriz as well.

Can this unique creativity seriously be the product of an insane mind? There are other connections made by Hugo to the Pazzi conspiracy, but one in paticular is signficant and involves word-play, similar to the word associations Jan van Eyck would embed in his paintings. The word is Pazzi but by replacing the last letter with another vowel to make ‘pazzo’, then this translates as “insane”!

Perhaps the artist was trying to say that if some judged him as “insane” then what did that say about the insanity of the Pazzi Conspiracy and its consequences for all involved – even for a Pope who had a hand in the conspiracy and the outcome, portrayed here as Sixtus IV on his knees before the Infant Jesus.

The Monforte Altarpiece

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

I first posted this item in January 2019 under the heading “In light of the Epiphany”, but as I intend to soon present further observations about the painting, this introduction provides a base to continue from. Two further posts which link to Hugo van der Goes and the Monforte Altarpiece are listed at the end of the article.

The Monforte Altarpiece is an oil-on-oak, panel painting by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, depicting the Adoration of the Magi. 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.

The combined arms of the 1st Count of Lemos, Pedro Alvarez Osario, and his first wife Beatriz Enriquez de Castella, as displayed on the Monforte Tower of Homage, and cleverly disguised in the Monforte Altarpiece by the artist Hugo van der Goes.

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