Staying with Hugo van der Goes and his self portrait in the Adoration of the Shepherds.
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.
Whatever pressures Hugo put himself under which may have affected his mental state, it appears that he came through his crisis and all was well at the end. So well that he was able to recognise and accept the reasons for his affliction and record his ordeal and recovery in his latter paintings – the Adoration of the Shepherds being one of them.
It would be surprising that living in Ghent and able to admire the Ghent Altarpiece at any time, Hugo would not be influenced by the exceptional creativity of Jan van Eyck and, like oter artists of the time, he incorporated and acknowledged Jan’s influence in his own work – a hat-tip, so to speak. He did so in the Adoration of the Shepherds. The Joseph figure represents Jan van Eyck, but the motif is borrowed from the work of Rogier van der Weyden, another admirer of Van Eyck.
The self-portrait of the well-again Hugo looking upwards to heaven is borrowed from Van Eyck’s self portrait of himself as a young man that appears in the centre panel (Adoration of the Lamb) of the Ghent Altarpiece. Jan is also looking up. As Augustine heard the voice of a child saying “Take and read” (the bible), so Hugo is listening to the voice of the young Van Eyck to take and read his paintings. And that’s why, like Van Eyck, Hugo’s paintings encompass so many Scripture references.
Another self-portratit of Hugo is found the Vienna Diptych – The Fall and Rise of Man, mournful and repentant as the crucified Christ is taken down form his cross. Hugo has matched this pose with the so-called Mr Arnolfini from Van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait. In fact the man has a dual personality (notice the cleft chin): Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, as a repentant sinner, combined with the features of Jan van Eyck who sometimes acted as the duke’s proxy, especially when making pilgrimage. Notice also how Hugo has featured the fur trim and the hand that seems to be making a blessing.
Finally, Hugo’s red skull cap, is a match for the ‘skull’ portrait of Philip the Good, a traditional symbol usually featured at the foot of the cross to remind the viewer that life is short, but the red strap of Hugo’s cap also indicates his despair when he declared himself unworthy and damned while returning from visiting Cologne – a pilgrimage – with members of his community. The hand sign is the action of a cut across his throat. Such is Hugo’s self-loathing and lack of peace that he looks down towards the place he is convinced he is heading for.
Fortunately for Hugo he was brought through his crisis of faith and self-doubt, as witnessed by his transformation depicted in the Adoration of the Shepherds.
• More on Hugo’s Adoration of the Shepherds in a future post.