Saturday, October 25, 2014

THE PORTINARI ALTARPIECE


In the Botticelli room of the Uffizi gallery there is a huge lonely masterpiece. It stands for the most part alone without admirers as it is outshone by its more famous contemporary, the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, located directly opposite. However, when this painting arrived in Florence on May 28 in 1483, it was a huge hit and people fought to see it just like they do with the Botticellis in the room today.

Portinari Altarpeice, Hugo van der Goes, oil on wood, Uffizi gallery, 1477-8.

This very large triptych (a composition made up of three paintings) was commissioned by a Florentine banker, Tommaso Portinari, who had been living abroad for decades, in Bruges,  working for the Medici bank. When his ex-patriot stint  finished and he returned home, he brought with him some art work that he had commissioned form the fashionable native contemporary painters of his host area, Flanders. He commissioned the above mentioned  altarpiece from Hugo van der Goes for his family’s local church, Sant’ Egidio, the church of the Santa Maria Nuovo hospital. The hospital, which is still one of the major hospitals in the city today, had been founded by his ancestor, Folco Portinari (the father of Dante’s muse, Beatrice) in l288.

The central panel of the triptych depicts the adoration of the shepherds. The flanking panels depict the Portinari family with their individual namesakes. On the left are the males of the family, the head of the family, Tommaso, with Saint Thomas behind him (the saint is holding the spear that was used to make the wound on Christ’s side) and his two sons, Antonio and Pigello, with Saint Anthony Abbot behind them (Anthony is holding his attribute, a little bell). The right panel depicts Tommaso’s wife, Maria, and their daughter Margherita, and behind them are Saint Margaret (the saint is holding a cross and a dragon is at her feet) and Mary Magdalen (the saint has the perfume bottle to wash Christ’s wounds after the deposition from the cross).

Side panels: left panel with Tommaso Portinari and two sons with St Thomas and St Anthony Abbot.
Right panel: Margherita and daughter Maddalena with St Margherita and Maria Maddelena.

The middle and main panel depicts the Adoration of the shepherds. The Virgin Mary looks down at her baby who is lying directly on the ground on wheat. The wheat is a reference to his future death and thus ensuring salvation for mankind, wheat being symbolic of the Eucharistic host. The masterfully depicted cow and ox to the left of the scene look on silently and reverently. They are in shadow, under the barn shelter; however, the detail in the beautiful muzzle and nose doesn’t go unnoticed. Joseph looks on from the far left of the painting with his hands clasped in pair and sign of his awareness of the holiness of the scene in front of him. His hands catch the light and the realism of the rough worked skin is unbelievable. The three shepherds are grouped on the right. They too have been depicted with extraordinary realism, hyper realism, the antithesis of airbrushing. The painter shows them in the raw; they are ugly and lined after years of living outside with the elements. The painting is skilfully developed on a diagonal which creates a sense of dynamism to the scene, not to mention, uniqueness.

Main panel of Portinari altarpiece, Adoration of the shepherds. 

The delightful shoe, one only in front of Joseph makes the eye notice the individual wheat stalks and the delightful still life in the central foreground. These flowers in the foreground would have been read immediately by the public as religious symbols relating to the people depicted behind. The red carnations symbolise love and the white irises are for purity, the violets are for humility and the blue irises are heaven and the orange lilies for the Passion of Christ.

Detail of the flowers in the foreground of the main panel.

The flanking panels are double sided as the altarpiece would be closed when not being used for ceremonies and prayer. The frontispiece panels depict the Annunciation, the Virgin on the right and the archangel Gabriel on the left. It is executed using the technique of Grisaille. This is a monochrome painting executed in shades of grey.

Cover panels of the altarpiece in grisaille depicting the Annunciation. 

The altarpiece was finished in 1475 it was put on a boat which sailed to Sicily after which the painting was put on a boat to Pisa and then it was brought to Florence on a barge dragged up the Arno river to the porta San Frediano. It was carried by sixteen porters to the church close to the cathedral. When the painting arrived in Florence it caused quite a commotion amongst the artistic community. The painting’s strong realism and microscopic  attention to details coupled with the intense moving humanity in the facial expressions of the shepherds were all so different to the Italian priority given to the ideal aspect of the figures. Domenic Ghirlandaio’s painting of the same subject matter, Adoration of the Magi, from 1585, is exemplary in showing the influence that Hugo van der Goes’s great masterpiece had in the city.

Adoration of the Magi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, egg tempura on wood, Santa Trinita, 1485.


Detail of the shepherds from the main panel of the Portinari altarpiece, Hugo van der Goes,  1477-78.

The painter, Hugo van der Goes,  was from Ghent and very little is known about his life. This painting is considered his masterpiece. He was registered as a painter with the artists' guild in Ghent in 1467. He became the dean of the guild in 1475 and maybe the same year entered a monastery in Brussels. However, he still travelled.  It seems that he suffered from depression and had a mental breakdown in 1481 and died the following year. The Portinari triptych is the only painting which can be ascribed to him with certainty. It is unsigned however. Vasari also mentions it in his Lives of the Artists. 


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