Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: The Portinari Altarpiece

At last, the peasants get a little dignity.

The Portinari Altarpiece is an unusually large Flemmish painting, 8.5 feet high and 19 feet wide, commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an agent of the Medici Bank (and himself coming from one of Florence's oldest and richest banking families; the family palazzo still stands and houses a bank) living in Ghent in what is now Belgium. He commissioned it for his old family parish church of Sant' Egidio back in Florence where it was installed on the high altar. He intended it to celebrate his great success in Flanders before all his old Florentine neighbors. His choice of a Flemmish painter was not all that terribly unusual. Since he was so far away from his native Florence, it made sense to take advantage of the abundant local talent in Flanders. Also, there was far more interest and enthusiasm for Flemmish painting in Italy than there was for Italian painting in Flanders.
The painting created a sensation when it arrived in Florence sometime just after it was completed in 1476. It is still in Florence, in the Uffizi Museum.

The Portinari Altarpiece is the masterpiece of that dark melancholy genius Hugo Van Der Goes, who entered the Red Cloister near Brussels about 2 years after finishing this painting to conclude his life in what we would diagnose as a crippling clinical depression.

Far greater writers than I, such as James Snyder and Erwin Panofsky, discuss the complex Eucharistic and Marian symbolism of this painting at great length and depth. What I want to talk about is the radical egalitarianism in this picture.

What I've always found so striking about this picture is the large role played by the prominent ground plane in all 3 panels. Writers always talk about the "humility" in this painting. All the figures stand together on the same ground, including the new born and naked Christ child. The newly incarnate God lies in remarkable vulnerability on the ground surrounded by mortals, animals, and angels together in equality around Him. They freely mix together, standing almost shoulder to shoulder in a circular composition around the infant.  They are all, animals, angels, and shepherds, standing about equal distance from the Child.  The only one who is privileged by proximity is His Mother, who gazes in prophetic sorrow at her Son.

For the first time that I'm aware of, the shepherds are treated with sympathy. They stand together with the angels in the circle around the Christ child. They certainly are on the lumpen side with the tools of their trade and work worn features. But, they are far more than calendar symbols under zodiac signs, and they are certainly more than part of the property of some feudal lord. They react with paternal warmth as well as wonder at the Incarnation. Their counterpart across the picture is Joseph who similarly has work worn features, and plays a role that is far more dignified than the miserable cuckold other artists of the time assigned him. Hugo Van Der Goes' angels look more like Flemmish choir boys wearing parish vestments for a mystery play than the spiritual agents in paintings by Fra Angelico or Rogier Van Der Weyden. Their prosaic quality, far from being distracting, only enhances that sense of sacred equality of all creation in the presence of their newly incarnate Creator.

This is a splendid painting with its wintry landscape, its vivid characters, and its over-all dark blue tonality. I'll conclude this with the beautiful little still life of flowers and a sheaf of wheat in the foreground. The iris is a flower that appears a lot in Hugo Van Der Goes' work.

I'll let you iconography enthusiasts figure out the Eucharistic and Marian symbolism in this little still life. Count the flowers and pay attention to number. There's number symbolism here. There's also color symbolism here. Blue is very prominent in the columbine flowers and on one iris. Red also plays a meaningful role. Note the light passing though the clear water glass, and remember your readings in St. Bernard in seminary.


June Butler said...

I've seen this one, Counterlight. It's magnificent. I'm sorry that I did not note at the time the expressions on the faces of Mary and the shepherds, which are extraordinarily well-executed and quite moving. Mary knew from the beginning that a sword would pierce her heart.

The Uffizi is overwhelming in its number of treasures, and, although I started slowly, I moved faster toward the end of my visits, with the result that I rushed through parts of the museum each time I was there.

Thank you for a beautiful post and pictures.

Counterlight said...


The Uffizi exhausts me too. There's just so much in there that is so wonderful and demands thoughtful attention. If I don't pace myself and stretch it out over a couple of days, I really wear out; more so than if I visit churches or palazzi.

IT said...

The symbolism of the flowers is too much for me....I'm no iconographer....

Nij said...

Would you please dwell a bit on the light coming through the glass of water/St Bernard? For those of us ladies who weren't in seminary?
These are wonderful, moving pictures and your posts are just the tops. Thank you, Counterlight.