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.