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.