Angelic inspiration

CONVERSION OF ST AUGUSTINE (c1430-35) by Fr Angelico, Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg

In an item posted here in January about Fra Angelico’s painting, Conversion of St Augustine, I mentioned that Hugo van der Goes had referenced the work in his Monforte Altarpiece. At that time I wasn’t aware that Hugo had done the same in two other paintings he produced following his ‘breakdown’, thought to have been after 1480.

In yesterday’s post I pointed out the crib connection to St Augustine in Hugo’s painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds and the link to Fra Angelico’s painting of Augustine’s conversion. But there’s more. Hugo’s composition is actually based on the scene painted by Fra Angelico – a conversion process in itself.

ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS (c1480), Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Sometimes described as Old Testament prophets, the two men either side of the frame pulling back the green curtain are Hugo van der Goes (left) and Thomas Vessem, Prior of the Rood Klooster, who helped care for Hugo following his breakdown.

Hugo has depicted himself as the peacock, a symbol of pride, while Thomas Vessem represents the humble ‘desert father’, standing at the entrance of his cave – a ‘“little nook” – in Fra Angelico’s scene. Augustine and his friend Alipius (two converts) are matched by the two shepherds entering the cave where Jesus is born, symbolising two conversos entering the Rood Klooster monastery.

As for Hugo being seen as a figure of pride, he can also be viewed at the Prodigal Son whose father welcomed him and instructed his servants to bring out the best robe and put it on his son.

Notice also that Hugo and Thomas Vessem are each embedded in the lower corners of the picture – another example of Hugo’s fascination for the words of Thomas à Kempis: ““I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.”

More on this in my next post.

Fathers and Sons… part 2

Continued from the previous post…

A father and sons… detail from the Panel of the Prince section of the St Vincent Panels.

This trio of men featured in the St Vincent Panels are related. The older man is the father of Hugo van der Goes, and also of the half-hidden figure behind him, Hugo’s half-brother Nicholas. Hugo is placed at his father’s left shoulder, almost cheek-to-cheek, and looking straight at the viewer – a sign of recognition. Did Hugo, or even the father contribute in some way to this section of the painting, or was the artist Nuno Gonçalves perhaps paying tribute to the men for some personal reason?

The other men in the line-up also represent family groups, fathers and sons. The three men to the right of Hugo are two sons with their father. Left of Hugo’s father are two men hat can be considered a son and his father, while to their left the three men represent another family group, possibly the Gonçlaves family with Nuno looking out from the edge of the frame next to his brother and both positioned behind their father.

So what other evidence is there that points to Hugo and his father among the group of men in the Panel of the Prince? There are two extant paintings attributed to Hugo van der Goes and housed in New York’s Met Museum that provide the answer: Portrait of an Old Man can be matched to Hugo’s father, while Portrait of a Man, possibly a self-portrait of Hugo, and probably cut down to size from a larger scene, has a particular feature – the praying hands – that Gonçalves has repeated for the hands of the father. Is this a statement by Gonçalves to say that both Hugo and his father had a hand in the painting of this panel?

Potrait of an Old Man, and Portrait of a Man, attributed to Hugo van der Goes, Met Museum.

What is a more likely scenario is that the old man isn’t actually the paternal father of Hugo and Nicholas, but can be considered instead as a pastoral or spiritual father, guiding the two men during their formation and time as lay brothers in the monastic community of the Roode Klooster which Hugo joined around 1477. Could he be Father Thomas Vessem, Prior of the Roode Klooster during Hugo’s time there as a lay brother?

The relationship between the two men shown in the Panel of the Prince is undoubtedly a close one, and the portrait of him painted by Hugo is not the only time he was portrayed by the artist. The same man features in Hugo’s Death of the Virgin, as shown below left. He also appears in the Justice Panels attributed to Dieric Bouts: Justice of Emperor Otto lll – Beheading of the Innocent Count and Ordeal by Fire. One was completed, and the second started by Bouts before he died in 1475. Van der Goes is said to have completed some of Bouts’ unfinished paintings. Was this one of them, and which artist included the ‘father’ figure associated with Hugo, shown below right alongside the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden as part of the beheading panel?

The praying ‘father’ figure from Death of the Virgin, and the ‘father’ alongside Rogier van der Weyden.

And not by coincidence, a portrait of Van der Weyden (left) is also included in the St Vincent Panels, alongside Dieric Bouts (below).

Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts, Panel of the Knights of the St Vincent Panels.

And this brings the circle back to Hugo van der Goes who also placed the portrait of Dieric Bouts at the edge of the frame in the Monforte Altarpiece, but not alongside Van der Weyden, preferring to subsitute him with the Italian artist Sando Botticelli. And why should he do this? Because Botticelli included the figure of Hugo alongside himself in his own version of the Adoration of the Magi now housed in the Uffizi, Florence.

Hugo van der Goes stands in front of Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Galleries.

More on this and Hugo’s Death of the Virgin in my next post.

Fathers and Sons

Panel of the Prince, St Vincent Panels, Nuno Gonçalves, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon.

I made mention in an earlier post that it was likely Hugo van der Goes had access to another altarpiece now known as the St Vincent Panels, attributed to Nuno Gonçalves. Elements of the Portuguese painter’s panels are echoed in Hugo’s Monforte Altarpiece. Did the two painters know each other? Could they even have worked together at some time? It has been suggested by some researchers that Gonçalves could have spent time learning his craft in Flanders.

The Monforte Altarpiece (Adoration of the Magi) by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

Francisco Filipe Cruz wrote in his Facebook summary on the St Vincent Panels: “…the style of the painting shows some very clear influences from the Flemish “primitives” school. Among the suggested influences are Jan van Eyck, Dieric Bouts, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, and contemporary Flemish-influenced Iberian painters like Bartolomé Bermejo and Jaume Huguet. Indeed, it is sometimes conjectured that a foreign painter (perhaps even van der Weyden or van der Goes), rather than a native Portuguese, was the original artist, and some have even gone so far as to speculate that the painting is not Portuguese at all, but was made in Flanders for the Burgundian court, and represents a Burgundian scene. As we have practically no details of the life of Nuno Gonçalves, there has been much conjecture of when and where he learned or developed his style and technique. It seems almost certain he must have gone abroad at some point. Some have speculated that the youthful Nuno Gonçalves met Jan van Eyck when the latter visited Portugal in 1428, and travelled back to Flanders with him in 1429, as part of the retinue of Isabella of Portugal, Duchess of Burgundy. He probably spent a few years there in the circle of the Flemish primitives, absorbing their style and techniques. It has been suggested that Gonçalves spent some time in Tournai, apprenticed in the atelier of Robert Campin.

There is also a curious reference on Gonçalves’ Wikipedia page suggesting the father of Hugo van der Goes may have “collaborated in the painting” adding “but there is no concrete proof.” Unfortunately the compiler doesn’t provide a source for the claim.

However, Clemente Baeta, who has spent the last eight years researching and studying the St Vincent Panels, suggests the claim may have arisen from an article in Diário de Lisboa, published in January 1963, which speculated on a possible connection between a Hospitaller Prior named Nuno Gonçalves de Gois (or Goes) and the family of Hugo van der Goes.

Nothing is known of Hugo’s family except that he had a half-brother, Nicolaes

In both the Monforte Altarpiece and the St Vincent Panels there is a shared theme – the transition of power and hereditary rights, and relationships between fathers and sons.

In what is referred to as the Panel of the Prince, St Vincent reveals a passage from Scripture – John 14 : 28-31– in which Jesus attests that his Father is greater than himself, and “the world must be brought to know that he loves the Father and that I am doing exactly what the Father told me.” Jesus also warned that the prince of the world is on his way but has no power of Him.

It is this example of the Son’s obedience to his Father that is the basis for identifying the scenario painted by Nuno Gonçalves, which also pinpoints the reason why Hugo was inspired by this painting when he later included a similar Father and Son theme in the Monforte Altarpiece.

Another feature in the Panel of the Prince that may throw some light on the speculation about Hugo’s father having “collaborated” in the St Vincent Panels is the group of men in the background – a line-up of fathers alongside their sons – among which are Hugo van der Goes, his half-brother Nicolae, and his unnamed father!

• My next post will deal with the identification of Hugo van der Goes and his father in the Panel of the Prince.

Full and short measures

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.

A date with destiny

More about the Monforte Altarpiece… This detail from the left edge of the painting is another indicator that it was produced later than its current attribution date of c1470.

The man wearing the burgundy-coloured jacket and standng next to the black horse has just crossed over the bridge with a small entourage following him. He is Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy who died at the Battle of Nancy fighting against an army of Swiss mercenaries employed by Rene ll, Duke of Lorraine.

The date of his death is significant, January 5, 1477, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany which commemorates the visit of the Magi to pay homage to the new-born Christ, depicted as the main scene in the painting.

The bridge represents Charles’ crossing over from life on earth to face whatever justice awaited him. For certain he was a debtor, as were the other three men represented by the Magi: Pope Sixtus IV; Frederick lll, the Holy Roman Emperor; and Ludovico Sforza, Regent of Milan; their common creditor being the powerful Medici Bank. It was Charles death and massive debt that instigated the closure and eventual liquidation of the bank’s Bruge branch in 1478.

A possible consequence could also have been that artists like Hugo van der Goes may not have been paid for pictures they were comissioned to paint, especially by Tommaso Portinari who managed the Bruge branch and made extravagant loans to Charles the Bold in an effort to ingratiate himself at the Duke’s court.

He commissioned several paintings, including the famous Adoration of the Shepherds painted by Hugo van der Goes and which was finally delivered to its Florentine destination after the painter’s death – possibly because Hugo may not have been paid and had held on to the work.

Another connection in the painting to Charles the Bold is the kneeling figure of Maximilian I, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick lll. After Charles was killed, Maximilian married the Duke’s daughter and only heir, Mary of Burgundy.

There is an illustration in her Book of Hours that depicts Mary being chased by Death while out hunting. She is riding a white horse. Is this the riderless white horse being escorted past Charles in the detail at the head of this post? And is this ‘pale horse’ representative of the horse from the Book of Revelation that signifies death, and the black horse that which is said to represent the scales of justice?

Clothed in splendour

The Monforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

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.”

His name is John… one of the embroidered
vestments depicting the life of John the
Baptist, designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo.

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.

More on the Monforte Altarpiece

As mentioned in a previous post Hugo van der Goes applied several identities to the figures in the Montforte Altarpiece, probably inspired, as other artists of his era, by Jan van Eyck who created various identities for the riders in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Monforte Altarpiece was likely commissioned for display in the monastery of San Vincento do Pino. The saint is one of the identities given to the tall man on the right who, at surface level represents one of the magi, Balthazar. Local tradition has it that there was a pine tree in the old monastery dedicated to St Vincent and so the Dominican building became known as San Vicente do Pino.

But the saint is better known as Vincent of Saragossa (where he spent most of his life), or Vincent the Deacon, patron saint of Lisbon and Valencia. He was martyred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian early in the 4th century. Wikipedia describes his death in this way:

“He was stretched on the rack and his flesh torn with iron hooks. Then his wounds were rubbed with salt and he was burned alive upon a red-hot gridiron [its bars were framed like scythes, reports another account]. Finally, he was cast into prison and laid on a floor scattered with broken pottery [shells, in some accounts], where he died… Vincent’s dead body was thrown into the sea in a sack, but was later recovered by the Christians and his veneration immediately spread throughout the Church… According to legend, after being martyred, ravens protected Vincent’s body from being devoured by vultures, until his followers could recover the body. It was taken to what is now known as Cape St. Vincent; a shrine was erected over his grave, which continued to be guarded by flocks of ravens. In the time of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula, the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi noted this constant guard by ravens, for which the place was named by him “Kanīsah al-Ghurāb” (Church of the Raven). King Afonso I of Portugal had the body of the saint exhumed in 1173 and brought it by ship to the Lisbon Cathedral. This transfer of the relics is depicted on the coat of arms of Lisbon.”

The most obvious reference which links the figure to the monastery of San Vicente do Pino is the gold, pine-cone-shaped vessel containing myrrh, given by Balthazar as a homage gift to the new-born infant Jesus.

Vincent was a deacon of the Church and so the front part of his green garment is shortened to represent a dalmatic vestment worn by deacons. The position of the sword below the edge of the garment also points to his life being cut short when he was martyred. It has been mentioned that the bars of the gridiron he was tortured on were framed like scythes. Notice the scythe shape of Vincent’s collar. Then there is his elongated body and long neck, indicating the time he was stretched and tortured on the rack.

There are two references to Ravens. The first is Vincent’s dark hair, shaped to represent the wing and head of one the ravens that protected his body after he was martyred. The Lisbon coat of arms depicts two ravens, one at each end of the ship that transported Vincent’s body to the Portuguese city. The second raven appears on the sleeve cuff of Vincent’s left arm, above which is a string of looped pearls, meant to represent the looped sails seen on the ship’s mast.

There is another reason why Van der Goes has drawn attention to Vincent’s left arm in this way. It is still displayed as a relic in Valencia Cathedral (see below).

It’s likely that Van der Goes had access to another painting relating to St Vincent, that known as the St Vincent Panels said to have been produced by the Portuguese painter Nuno Gonçalves between 1450 and 1471. There are parts of his painting that are echoed in the Monforte Altarpiece. The orginal retable consisted of more than twelve panels and was on display in Lisbon Cathedral until near the end of the 17th century. The remaining six panels are now housed in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.

The two centre panels of six remaning, featuring St Vincent.

There are more references to St Vincent but they crossover into the figure’s other identities and so probably best left to present at another time. This post was simply to point to some of the iconography that confirmed the identity of San Vicente do Pino in the Monforte Altarpiece.

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.

The Monforte Altarpiece

The Monforte Altarpiece (Adoration of the Magi) by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie

I first posted this item in January 2019 under the heading “In light of the Epiphany”, but as I intend to soon present further observations about the painting, this introduction provides a base to continue from. Two further posts which link to Hugo van der Goes and the Monforte Altarpiece are listed at the end of the article.

The Monforte Altarpiece is an oil-on-oak, panel painting by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, depicting the Adoration of the Magi. The altarpiece was originally the central panel of a triptych with movable wings that are now lost.

The principal narrative is pilgrimage and the search for God, reflecting not just the journey made by the Magi but also that of the artist in his later years, accompanied by an assortment of other pilgrims, painters and priests who impacted on his life in some way

Hugo carefully crafts a composition of several themes, weaving and skilfully blending narratives to produce a telling masterpiece of iconography.

from Flanders to Galicia…

Some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” they asked. “We saw his star as it rose and we have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2 : 2

The painting takes its name from Monforte de Lemos, in northern Spain, where it was housed in the town’s College of Our Lady of Antigua. It was sold to the State Museum of Berlin in 1913 to raise funds to extend the college facilities. The site previously served as a university and seminary founded by Cardinal Rodrigo de Castro (1523-1600) towards the end of the 16th century. He was a great grandson of the Ist Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez Osario (†1483).

Iconography evidence reveals the painting was commissioned specifically as an altarpiece for a church or chapel located in Montforte de Lemos, most likely the Dominican monastery of San Vincento do Pino adjacent to the Castle of the Counts, and probably to commemorate Beatriz Enriquez de Castella (1398-1455), wife of the first Count of Lemos. The commission also coincided with the rebuild of the castle after it was damaged during the Great Irmandiño War (1467-1469). A fire later damaged the monastery and this was rebuilt during the 16th century. It may have been at this point that the painting was moved to another location, possibly the Convent of Santa Clara in Monforte Lemos, founded in 1622  by Caterina de la Cerda y Sandoval following the death of her husband Pedro Fernández de Castro (1576-1622) and VII Count of Monforte. In 1633 Caterina professed as a Poor Clare, taking the name Caterina Conception as the convent was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. 

Hugo’s painting was eventually placed in the chapel of the college of Our Lady of Antigua, possibly as a gift from its founder Cardinal Rodrigo de Catsro who may have inherited the artwork via his family connection to the 1st Count of Monforte de Lemos. A copy of the work has replaced the original now kept in the Gemäldergalerie, Berlin.

time moves on…

As to when the painting was completed, art historians generally date the work c1470, although Till-Holger Borchert places it between 1473-1477. However, there are historic narratives in the painting for it to be attributed thereafter, even as late as 1482, the year put at Hugo’s death. If Hugo did die that year then it is feasible the Montforte Altarpiece was one of his last paintings. Besides the historic references supporting this hypothesis are three figures in the scene portraying Hugo as “close to death”.

the artist

Not a lot is known about the life of Hugo van der Goes. There is no certainty about his birthdate or when he died exactly. It is assumed he was born in Ghent around 1440 and died in 1482 at Auderghem near Brussels. Sometime after 1475 Hugo entered cloistered life as a lay brother but continued to paint. It was later claimed by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk serving with Hugo in the Roode Klooster, that the artist suffered with a psychological illness and on one occasion attempted to self-harm. Incidents surrounding this traumatic episode late in Hugo’s life are alluded to in the painting, supporting Ofhuys’ account later chronicled around 1510.

missing parts…

The Monforte Altarpiece had two wing panels attached that are lost, and the main centre panel was cut down in size at some time in its history. However, there is a small-size copy of the original centre section (right) housed at the Museo Baroffio in Varese, Italy. Although some elements have been altered the replica does complete the picture, so to speak, and provides further information about the structure of the building in which the scene is set. The work is attributed to “a follower of Hugo van der Goes” and dated at the end of the 15th century.

temples and towers…

The ruined building is a standard backdrop for Nativity and Adoration scenes. It represents the ruined Temple of Solomon. The grey stone section behind the fence is the Second Temple (also destroyed), while the newborn infant Jesus signifies the sanctuary that was destroyed and raised up again in three days – his death and resurrection (John 2 : 19). The golden-colour building at the rear represents the rebuild of the Monforte castle and probably its monastery wing damaged during the Irmandiño War.

The castle’s main tower – which still survives – is known as the Torre dl Homenaje, the Homage Tower, which the local people were made to rebuild after the uprising and then swear allegiance and do homage to the 1st Count of of Monforte de Lemos. Hence the association with the scene based on the biblical passage from Matthew’s Gospel (2 : 12) when three men from the East made their way to Bethlehem seeking the infant king of the Jews and to do him homage.

That the scene is linked to the Monforte Tower of Homage is borne out by Hugo in the way he cleverly combines a group of figures to refer to the coat of arms of the 1st Count, alongside those of his wife, that were set into the rebuilt tower in 1480. One of the titles attributed to the Virgin Mary is Tower of David. Stonemasons marks, including the Seal of Solomon, are also inscribed on the tower.

The combined arms of the 1st Count of Lemos, Pedro Alvarez Osario, and his first wife Beatriz Enriquez de Castella, as displayed on the Monforte Tower of Homage, and cleverly disguised in the Monforte Altarpiece by the artist Hugo van der Goes.

Conversion Paths
When Botticelli went to Leuven

Hong Kong plans Botticelli exhibition for 2020

Detail from the Monforte Altapiece by Hugo van der Goes shows Sandro Botticelli (left) alongside Flemish painter Dieric Bouts,

The Uffizi Galleries in Florence will stage the first museum exhibition on Botticelli in China next September, as part of an unprecedented five-year exchange with the Hong Kong government’s culture department. Details at this link.

‘Christos fanciullo’ – a new connection to Leonardo da Vinci

Christo fanciullo (Young Christ), terracotta, Eredi Gallandte collection

This terracotta head of a young man is known as “Christo fanciulllo”. It came to light in 1931 after it was discovered in a convent at Ascoi Piceno. As to the sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci is considered a candidate. His name is linked to a claim made in 1584 by the Italian artist Gian Paolo Lomazzo who wrote: “I have also a little terracotta head of Christ when he was a boy, sculpted by Leonardo Vinci’s own hand…”

However, there is an earlier reference which also links to the terracotta Christo fanciullo (Christ as a young man). It appears in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes. Although its current attribution is c1470, the painting has references which date the work to a later period, probably to sometime in 1482, the year that Van der Goes is said to have died.

The main panel of the Monforte Altarpiece depicts the Adoration of the Magi. Like Bottcelli’s Uffizi version it has underlying narratives and picks up on Botticelli’s references to Leonardo, his pointers to other artists and the assasination of Giuliano de’ Medici. Hugo is depicted in the Botticelli altarpiece and returns the compliment by featuring Botticelli in the Monforte painting.

A section of the Monforter Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes

The head sculpted by Leonardo or even of the artist as a young man, can be matched with the kneeling figure, whose left hand supports a golden chalice.

The Van der Goes painting is another work that assigns multiple identities to most of the figures. Hugo’s influence for this was likely Jan van Eyck who did the same – four for each figure – in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

At surface level the golden-haired figure is presented as a servant to the second magus in the group. At another level he represents Maximilian I, Archduke of Austria, and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. A third identity is Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia.

A fourth identity is Leonardo da Vinci, and in his role as an artist, he is positioned receiving a golden chalice from the dying Hugo van der Goes, symbolising a rite of passage. This can be interpreted in more than one way. The most obvious is Leonardo leaving Florence to start a new chapter in his life and career at the Milanese court. Next to the kneeling Leonardo is the figure of Ludovic Sforza, Regent of Milan, known as Il Moro – the Moor – because of his dark complexion, and who Leonardo served as court artist from 1482 until 1499.

The figure also represents St Augustine of Hippo, one of the four Doctors of the Church depicted in the painting. A third identity for this figure is Michael Szilágyi, uncle and guardian (regent of Hungary) to the young king Matthias. The regency role is matched to the identity of Ludovic Sforza, uncle and guardian to the young duke of Milan, the boy holding the sceptre and portrayed at suface level as a servant to the third magus. When the figure is identified as St Augustine, then the boy is recognised as his son Adeodatus who died in adolesence.

The rite of passage theme also connects to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi and to one of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel which shows Moses commissioning Joshua to lead the Isralites. The Testimony and Death of Moses was the last fresco completed in the series depicting the lives of Moses and Jesus. It was probably finished in 1483 and is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomea Gatta.

A section of the Testimony and Death of Moses, fresco, Sistine Chapel

Joshua, the man shown kneeling in front of the ageing Moses, is represented by Leonardo da Vinci. The man standing immediately behind him is presented as his father Piero da Vinci, while Moses is represented by Leonardo’s grandfather and guardian, Antonio da Vinci.

Van der Goes repeats a similar motif in his painting, the bearded magus handing down the chalice to the young man kneeling alongside. While there is far more depth of meaning and significance in this motif and the composition of figures, the purpose of this presentation is to link Leonardo to the painting and back to the terracotta head.

Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration also shows a similar hand-over composition where Leonardo is depicted stooping with his right hand over the left hand of the man wearing a black coat, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s assassinated brother Giuliano. Notice also the handing over of the chalice to Lorenzo wearing the white gown by his father Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.

A section of the Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi gallery

So now we have three paintings with symbolism representing a rite of passage, a passing over, of life to death to new life, that includes Leonardo da Vinci.

Christ as a Young Man came of age around the time he was twelve years old. Luke’s Gospel mentions “the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom.” For Maximillian I the rite of passage at a young age was at 18 when he married Mary of Burgundy. Matthias Corvinius was just 14 when elected king of Hungary. Leonardo was also 14 years old when his family moved to Florence and he was placed as an apprentice in Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio.

So in age representation the head of “Christ as a Young Man” can be applied to all three identities. Van der Goes, it appears, had sight of the terracotta head, made a drawing or drawings of it, and included it in his painting to link Leonardo to the Botticelli and Signorelli/Gatta fresco. This would also suggest that Hugo van der Goes had sight of the relevant artworks both in Florence and Rome.

Professor Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo wrote:

“Of the exant sculptures assigned to him [Leonardo] on grounds of style, none has decisively entered the accepted canon. Given the unlikelihood of any existing sculpture ever proving to be incontestably by Leonardo on the grounds of documentation and cast-iron provenance, any attribution must necessarily rest on less secure foundation of comparisons with his works in other media and with related sculpture of masters with whom he was closely associated, especially Verrocchio and Rustici.”

(‘Cristo Fanciullo’, Achademia Leonardi Vinci, IV, 1991, PP. 171-6)

Included in professor Kemp’s paper is a profile image (right) of the sculpture. The copy I have doesn’t show much detail but it is the profile itself that is of interest. When flipped, rotated and simply superimposed over the profile in the Van der Goes painting, the fit is an impressive match. Couple this with the deliberate references and connections Van der Goes has made to Leonardo in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi and the Sistine Chapel fresco, it would be reasonable to suggest that the “Christos fanciullo” head is the model for Hugo van der Goes adopted for the head of the kneeling servant in the Monforte Altarpiece.

Monforte Altrapiece… Leonardo profile superimposed with profile of Christos Fanciullo

When Botticelli went to Leuven

The Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament (1464-68) by Dieric Bouts, St Peter’s church, Leuven

In my previous post I revealed how the portraits of Sandro Botticelli and Hugo van der Goes featured in corresponding versions of the Adoration of the Magi, suggesting that Van der Goes may have visited Florence in connection with his painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds, commissioned for the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.

Further research has produced evidence to suggest that Botticelli likely travelled to Flanders and, in particular, to the Flemish region of Brabant and the city of Leuven, now part of Belgium.

While in Louven, for whatever reason, it appears that Botticelli visited St Peter’s church and laid eyes on the famous altarpiece (still displayed there) painted by Dieric Bouts – the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament. The triptych was commissioned in 1464 and completed four years later in 1468.

As Bouts died in May 1475, it is likely that Botticelli’s visit would have occurred sometime during a seven year span between 1468 and the early part of 1475.

Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi incorporates in detail some of the iconography and ideas embedded in the Bouts triptych, particularly in the centre panel depicting the Last Supper. I can only assume that this detailed knowledge was given to Botticelli by Dieric Bouts himself, which may further explain why Hugo van der Goes, a close associate of Bouts, placed portraits of the two artists side by side in his Adoration triptych known as the Montforte Altarpiece.

A look of admiration and appreciation from Sandro Botticelli for Dieric Bouts in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes.
Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, inspired by not only by the works of Leonardo da Vinci but also the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament painted by Dieric Bouts, still displayed in St Peter’s church in Leuven.

When Botticelli ‘goosed’ Hugo van der Goes

Botticelli, the mischiveous Kobold

So why did Sandro Botticelli decide to include a profile of the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes in his Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi, and Van der Goes do likewise and feature Botticelli in the Monforte Altarpiece?

Did the two artists meet at some time, perhaps in Florence after Hugo was commissioned to produce an altarpiece for the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova? Or maybe on his way to making a pilgrimage to Rome?

Botticelli’s self portrait is shown above (left). In Hugo’s painting he is depicted wearing a blue cap and staring at another artist, Dieric Bouts who was deceased at the time. The reason why Hugo painted the cap in ‘cobalt’ blue was to reference the German mythical Kobold, a house sprite reputed to play malicious tricks if insulted or neglected – and a fitting description for Botticelli’s reputation for vindictive humour, often expressed in through his paintings.

Not seen in the frame above is the piece of rock placed across the chest of Bouts. It’s there for two reasons, but in this instance relates to the Kobbold and hints at the probable cause of Bouts’ death. Wikipedia explains: “The name of the element cobalt comes from the creature’s name, because medieval miners blamed the sprite for the poisonous and troublesome nature of the typical arsenical ores of this metal (cobaltite and smaltite) which polluted other mined elements.”

As a young apprentice, Bouts was probably tasked to grind minerals and rocks as part of the process in preparing paint. It likely contributed to his health problems later in life. This may also explain why Hugo van der Goes descended into bouts of depression and odd behaviour. Botticelli also struggled with depression.

Hugo van der Goes portrayed in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (left) and his own version (right)

Hugo van der Goes gave himself a prominent position in the Monforte Altarpiece, almost centre stage. Draped in black, an indication of his approaching death, he depicts himself as the Holy Roman Emperor of the time, Frederick III, perhaps somewhat in recognition of his own vainglory.

Botticelli paints Hugo in the role of Balthazar, said to be a Babylonian scholar, in the secondary line of Magi. The iconography relating to this is detailed and complex, but one example is the striped scarf around his shoulders, the stripes representing myrrh and its association with death.

But there is another reference Botticelli creates with the scarf – that of a goose, a play on Hugo’s name, Goes, and its pronunciation “hoose”. The goose shape with its long neck can be seen by turning the feature on its side. Another pointer to the long neck might be the inferrence that Hugo was sticking his neck out by taking on a commission in Florence and the work from the mouths of local artists. Perhaps this is why Van der Goes responded by showing the figure in front of Botticelli with a long neck and what appears to be a ‘steel’ collar pointing to Botticelli’s cheek!

The long-necks… Botticelli’s ‘goose’ scarf version, and Van der Goes retort aptly applied to his figure of St Augustine doubling up as ‘Il Moro’, the shorn Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan.

As said, there is more iconogrphy related to this section of Botticelli’s painting which I will post on another time. Enough to say at this stage the ‘spat’ between the two artists suggests the Monforte Altarpiece was painted after the completition of Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration.

Two versions of the Adoration of the Magi… The Monforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, and Sandro Botticelli’s Uffizi version

The art of homage

In earlier posts I revealed how the hands of four of the disciples sat alongside Jesus in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts, represent the emblems of four colleges associated with the Old Louvain University.

Mention was also made that some of the disciples represent artists, Jan van Eyck being one of them. Another is Hugo van der Goes, portrayed as Judas. It begs the question, why would Dieric Bouts have chosen Van der Goes for the role of the disciple who ‘sold out’ on Jesus?

Following the death of Dieric Bouts in 1475, Hugo van der Goes went on to produce the Monforte Altarpiece. The surviving panel, Adoration of the Magi, references elements and themes from The Last Supper panel produced by Bouts; in particular, the four emblems associated with the Old University of Leuven: the Castle, the Falcon, the Lily, and the Boar (pig), as shown below.

The Old University of Louven and emblems of its four colleges represented in the Adoration of the Magi (Hugo van der Goes) and the Last Supper (Dieric Bouts).
The Castle, the Falcon, the Lily, and the Boar.

Of Duchys, Kingdoms and Empires

This clip from the Monforte Altarpiece shows Maximilian I, husband of Mary of Burgundy. They were married in 1477. Maximillian was later crowned King of the Romans (1486), became Archduke of Austria in 1493, and proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor in 1508.

He is depicted kneeling at the side of Casper, one of the three adoring Magi painted by Hugo van der Goes. The figure of Casper is also assigned four other identities: the artist himself; St Jerome; St James the Greater; and Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor and father of Maximilian I.

Hugo has deliberately created uncertainty as to which of the two figures is receiving the chalice. Both have a hand on the vessel. Is it the son Maximilian serving his father Frederick, or is it symbolic of a transference of power, which can also be employed in a religious sense, from Father to Son?

Furthermore, the transaction relates to the time when Hugo van der Goes was a lay brother at the Rood Klooster, an Augustinian priory, where he was allowed to continue his work as a painter. Many notable personages would visit the priory in Brabant, one being Maximilian I who, in 1478, met with Hugo and presented him with a gift of expensive wine (perhaps for one of his paintings). So in this scenario the standing figure receiving the “wine mixed with myrrh” from Maximilian is Hugo van der Goes. The mix of wine with myrrh is a biblical refrence to when Jesus was offered the drink while he was on the cross (Mark 20:23), and probably a reference to the mental anguish suffered by Hugo in his later life.

It’s at this point that a third identity for Casper is introduced – that of St James the Greater, a son of Zebedee and brother to John “the beloved disciple”. St James is the patron saint of Compostella, the pilgrimage shrine in Spain. Monforte de Lemos was once a base for the Order of Hospitallers of St John that served and accommodated pilgrims on their way to Santiago Compostella.

It was Salome, the mother of James and John, who requested Jesus to grant her two sons seats either side of him in heaven. Jesus responded: “Can they drink the cup that I am going to drink”, that is the bitter cup of “wine mixed with myrrh”. The brother’s responded that they could but Jesus explained that the places were not his to give but for those his Father had prepared them for. A close inspection of the stem of the chalice shows two cartouches in the style of Egyptian hieroglyphics. There are several other Egyptian references made in the painting. Oval cartouches with a line underneath are symbols inscribed with the names of royal kings. In this instance, there are no inscriptions to reveal any identity. The containers or places have been prepared but have yet to be filled.

Another reference to the Father and Son relationship is the sculpted profile formed by the four-finger grip in the chalice stem. It is meant to suggest a reflection of Maximilian’s profile, like father, like son, or in biblical terms, the repsonse given by Jesus to Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Image courtesy of The Knight Shop

The profile and Maximilian gazing at the chalice combine to make another point, the Archduke of Austria’s fascination with suited armour. The “fluting” on the stem of the chalice is associated with a style of plating favoured by Maximilian that later became known as “Maximilian armour”. While the fluted armour was designed as a feature to deflect pointed weapons, helmets were equiped with visors shaped as bellows, similar to the finger formation gripping the chalice. Visor as in visage echoes the earlier reference to seeing the Father in Jesus as well as facing up to death – and drinking from the cup of salvation.

The fourth identity given to Casper is St Jerome, one of the Four Doctors of the Church. An attribute depicted in paintings of St Jerome is a lion. In this showing a lion features in the fur trim of the black coat. However, Maximilian is also portrayed as a lion. He has a gold mane and his profile is meant to depict a golden lion – the heraldic symbol of the Duchy of Brabant.

There is more iconography that connects to the four identities but links to other features in the painting.

Conversion paths

CONVERSION OF ST AUGUSTINE by Fr Angelico, Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg, France

The Conversion of St Augustine is by the early Renaissance Italian artist Fra Giovanni Fiesole, better known as Fra Angelico. It is a section of a larger type of work described as a Thebaid, which depicts the life of hermits and monks living in the desert, sometimes referred to as the Desert Fathers.

Five of six panels are known to exist and are kept at different locations. It is not known if the sixth panel has survived. The four outside panels show the four original Doctors of the Church, all saints: St Augustine of Hippo, St Ambrose, St Jerome and St Gregory the Great. The date attribute is between circa 1430 and circa 1435.

The Thebaid, particular the section depicting St Augustine’s conversion, has elements which the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes later incorporated into the Monforte Altarpiece (featured in an earlier post this week).

MONFORTE ALTARPIECE (Adoration of the Magi) by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie

For instance, the four Doctors of the Church also appear in the Van der Goes painting, and Augustine’s friend Alypius, the figure with his back to the church wall, is remodelled, given a new identity and placed next to the Temple wall. The peacock, the low fence, the topiary trees, the sheep, and especially Augustine’s position on the ground (matched by the female figure sat on the hill), are all components ‘converted’ from Fra Angelico’s depiction of St Augustine’s conversion.

Which begs the question: did Hugo van der Goes ever make his way to Italy on pilgrimage and have sight of Fra Angelico’s Thebaid?

Fra Angelico was already a painter before becoming a Dominican friar in his mid-twenties. So too was Hugo van der Goes when at the peak of career he joined a monastic community as a lay brother.

In light of the Epiphany

The Monforte Altarpiece (Adoration of the Magi) by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie

The Monforte Altarpiece is an oil on oak panel painting of the Adoration of the Magi by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes. The altarpiece was originally the central panel of a triptych with movable wings that are now lost.

The principal narrative is pilgrimage and the search for God, reflecting not just the journey made by the Magi but also that of the artist in his later years, accompanied by an assortment of other pilgrims, painters and priests who impacted on his life in some way

Hugo carefully crafts a composition of several themes, weaving and skilfully blending narratives to produce a telling masterpiece of iconography.

from Flanders to Galicia…

Some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” they asked. “We saw his star as it rose and we have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2 : 2

The painting takes its name from Monforte de Lemos, in northern Spain, where it was housed in the town’s College of Our Lady of Antigua. It was sold to the State Museum of Berlin in 1913 to raise funds to extend the college facilities. The site previously served as a university and seminary founded by Cardinal Rodrigo de Castro (1523-1600) towards the end of the 16th century. He was a great grandson of the Ist Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez Osario (†1483).

Iconography evidence reveals the painting was commissioned specifically as an altarpiece for a church or chapel located in Montforte de Lemos, most likely the Dominican monastery of San Vincento do Pino adjacent to the Castle of the Counts, and probably to commemorate Beatriz Enriquez de Castella (1398-1455), wife of the first Count of Lemos. The commission also coincided with the rebuild of the castle after it was damaged during the Great Irmandiño War (1467-1469). A fire later damaged the monastery and this was rebuilt during the 16th century. It may have been at this point that the painting was moved to another location, possibly the Convent of Santa Clara in Monforte Lemos, founded in 1622  by Caterina de la Cerda y Sandoval following the death of her husband Pedro Fernández de Castro (1576-1622) and VII Count of Monforte. In 1633 Caterina professed as a Poor Clare, taking the name Caterina Conception as the convent was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. 

Hugo’s painting was eventually placed in the chapel of the college of Our Lady of Antigua, possibly as a gift from its founder Cardinal Rodrigo de Catsro who may have inherited the artwork via his family connection to the 1st Count of Monforte de Lemos. A copy of the work has replaced the original now kept in the Gemäldergalerie, Berlin.

time moves on…

As to when the painting was completed, art historians generally date the work c1470, although Till-Holger Borchert places it between 1473-1477. However, there are historic narratives in the painting for it to be attributed thereafter, even as late as 1482, the year put at Hugo’s death. If Hugo did die that year then it is feasible the Montforte Altarpiece was one of his last paintings. Besides the historic references supporting this hypothesis are three figures in the scene portraying Hugo as “close to death”.

the artist

Not a lot is known about the life of Hugo van der Goes. There is no certainty about his birthdate or when he died exactly. It is assumed he was born in Ghent around 1440 and died in 1482 at Auderghem near Brussels. Sometime after 1475 Hugo entered cloistered life as a lay brother but continued to paint. It was later claimed by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk serving with Hugo in the Roode Klooster, that the artist suffered with a psychological illness and on one occasion attempted to self-harm. Incidents surrounding this traumatic episode late in Hugo’s life are alluded to in the painting, supporting Ofhuys’ account later chronicled around 1510.

missing parts…

The Monforte Altarpiece had two wing panels attached that are lost, and the main centre panel was cut down in size at some time in its history. However, there is a small-size copy of the original centre section (right) housed at the Museo Baroffio in Varese, Italy. Although some elements have been altered the replica does complete the picture, so to speak, and provides further information about the structure of the building in which the scene is set. The work is attributed to “a follower of Hugo van der Goes” and dated at the end of the 15th century.

temples and towers…

The ruined building is a standard backdrop for Nativity and Adoration scenes. It represents the ruined Temple of Solomon. The grey stone section behind the fence is the Second Temple (also destroyed), while the newborn infant Jesus signifies the sanctuary that was destroyed and raised up again in three days – his death and resurrection (John 2 : 19). The golden-colour building at the rear represents the rebuild of the Monforte castle and probably its monastery wing damaged during the Irmandiño War.
The castle’s main tower – which still survives – is known as the Torre dl Homenaje, the Homage Tower, which the local people were made to rebuild after the uprising and then swear allegiance and do homage to the 1st Count of of Monforte de Lemos. Hence the association with the scene based on the biblical passage from Matthew’s Gospel (2 : 12) when three men from the East made their way to Bethlehem seeking the infant king of the Jews and to do him homage.

That the scene is linked to the Monforte Tower of Homage is borne out by Hugo in the way he cleverly combines a group of figures to refer to the coat of arms of the 1st Count, alongside those of his wife, that were set into the rebuilt tower in 1480. One of the titles attributed to the Virgin Mary is Tower of David. Stonemasons marks, including the Seal of Solomon, are also inscribed on the tower.

More on this and other levels of identities in a future post.