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.”
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.