Choral clues to attribution date?

When Hugo van der Goes set about including choristers in two panels of the St Vincent polyptych there can be no doubt he was inspired by the two prominent panels of singing and musical angels that Jan van Eyck had painted in the Ghent Altarpiece. However, instead of angels, Hugo preferred Flemish painters in the guise of choristers.

Left: The Singing and Musical Angels panels from the Ghent Altarpiece, matched with the Knights and Relic panels from the St Vincent Panels.

Another reason was to point to the period in his life after he joined the Rood Klooster, an Augustinian community, in 1475 and suffered a mental breakdown some five years later. To aid Hugo’s recovery the prior Thomas Vessem arranged regular choral sessions as part of the painter’s therapeutic treatment. This rationale was based on the biblical account of David playing his harp for Saul who was plagued by an evil spirit. Whenever the evil spirit bothered Saul, David would play his harp, Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would go away. (1 Samuel 16 : 14-23)

Death of the Virgin, 1639, etching and drypoint by Rembrandt.

Rembrandt picked up on this in his etching referred to as Death of the Virgin (1639), except that the person in the bed is Hugo van der Goes and not the Virgin Mary! Hugo is surrounded, not by choristers or musicians, but by the many characters from the paintings he produced after his recovery.

Centuries later, and based on a chronicle account by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk who resided at the Rood Klooster during Hugo’s time there, the Belgian artist Emile Wauters created a painting in 1872 showing a manic Hugo seated and listening to four choristers and two musicians.

The Madness of Hugo van der Goes. Wood engraving, 1890, from a painting by Émile Wauters, Wellcome Collection.

The work even drew comment from the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in letters he wrote to his brother Theo, stating he likened his own appearance to the depiction of Hugo.

So does Hugo’s pointer in the St Vincent Panels to the treatment he received after his breakdown suggest that the polyptych was completed after his recovery, sometime during the years he was at the Rood Klooster, between 1475 and the less-than-certain date of 1482 given for his death?

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.