The Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes

The Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes (c.1475)

Today My Daily Art Display looks at the oil on wood triptych painting by the Flemish artist Hugo van Goes known as the Portinari Altarpiece or the Portinari Triptych.   It was completed around 1475 and can now be found in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.   The work was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an Italian banker for the Mèdici bank in Bruges and a wealthy man in his own right.   The commission was for the high altar of the Sant’ Egidio, the  church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence which was founded two hundred years earlier by Tommaso’s ancestor, Folco Portinari.  This is a huge work of art measuring 253cms x 586cms (almost 8.5ft high and 19ft across)

The three shepherds

The triptych consists of three hinged panels.  The centre and largest panel depicts The Adoration of the Shepherds.  One can see the three shepherds on their knees with their hands clasped in prayer.  Look how well the artist has portrayed the facial expressions of the three men.  They look mesmerised by what lies before them.    Look at the detail he has put into their lined faces.  Look at their hands, rough and wrinkled.  These are hard working-class men of meagre wealth who have left their place of work to come and pay homage to the baby Jesus.  They look down at the baby with a degree of wonderment and affection.  It is interesting to note that the artist has not included the three Kings with all their wealth.  Was this intentional and if so why was there this omission?

Kneeling around the Virgin Mary and the baby we can see a number of angels.  The artist for some unknown reason does not present us with the baby Jesus in a crib but instead has him lying on the ground and for this reason many have said that this is not a Nativity scene but rather an Adoration of the Child setting.  In the background, on the right hand side of this central panel, we have the shepherds being visited by the angel telling them of the birth of Jesus.  In the foreground we have a still-life of two vases, one earthenware with a grape motif and one made of glass containing flowers behind which is a sheaf of wheat.   Art historians would have us believe that the glass vase symbolizes the “entry of the Christ Child into the Virgin’s womb without destroying her virginity the way light passes through the glass without breaking it”.  Of the grape motif on the earthenware vase, this alludes to the fact that it is wine made from the grapes and then we are to believe that this therefore is symbolic of the Eucharist wine.

Floral display and wheatsheaf

The flowers are a mixture of orange lilies, red carnations, blue columbine and purple and white irises.  The orange lilies symbolise The Passion whilst the white irises are a sign of purity.   The purple irises and blue columbine represent the seven sorrows of the Virgin.    Many art historians who love delving into interpretations of paintings would have us believe that the three red carnations symbolise the three nails of cross.  The bundled wheat in all probability is there to remind us of bread and the Last Supper in which Christ broke the bread.  In the centre middle-ground we have the Virgin Mary with eyes closed, contemplative and in prayer.  To the left of this central panel we see the figure of Saint Joseph, almost lost from our view in the shadows.  He exudes dignity and humbleness but appears rather weary.

 Saint Margaret holding a book and Mary Magdalen with the pot of ointment are shown on the right wing of the triptych along with Portinari’s wife Maria di Francesco Baroncelli and their daughter Margarita both seen kneeling in front of the saints.     On the left wing we see Saint Anthony, with a bell, and Saint Thomas, holding the spear along with Tommaso Portinari himself and his two sons Antonio and Pigello.

The closed triptych

The two outer wings of the closed triptych are painted in monochrome and are much more sombre than the three colourful inner panels.  On one side one has the Archangel Gabriel and on the other one has the depiction of the Virgin of the Annunciation.  Both figures stand under retreating arches.  The figures themselves and the way in which the artist has painted the folds of their robes give the two scenes a somewhat 3-D feel.  There is also an emptiness about the scenes which is in sharp contrast to what our eyes are greeted with when the wings of the triptych are opened.  Surely this contrast was intentional.  I am sure the artist intended to astound people when the wings were opened and they beheld the three panels and the amazing colourful scenes before them.

This was one of Hugo van de Goes‘s last masterpieces and probably marks the high point in his artistic career.  His mental state began to fail and he became afflicted by severe depressions.  He gained some solace by entering a monastery in Brussels where he continued to paint and he lived there until his death in 1482.   Once again we look at the life of an artist who created such beauty and had given so much pleasure to so many and yet  during his later life was unable to alleviate his own depression.  Maybe he was a perfectionist who just could not believe in the perfection he created.