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Van der Goes, The Adoration of the Kings

Hugo van der Goes, The Adoration of the Kings (Monforte Altar), c. 1470, oil on oak, 147 x 242 cm (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Beth: When you walk into the gallery, this painting just stands out. It almost seems to glow. Steven: The hands are unbelievable. Beth: He does seem particularly interested in hands. We follow them from the figure of Joseph holding out his hands, looking questioning, and then the delicate way that Mary holds up Christ's left hand, and then the figure of the first Magi, whose hands are in prayer as he worships the Christ Child. Steven: The hands continue in the frieze of figures. We see the second Magi, whose hand is in front of his breast. His thumb is up; the fingers are slightly separated, and the light is coming from behind. It creates this kind of transparency, that's really extraordinary. Beth: Yeah, that really seems like skin. Steven: Doesn't it? Steven: Look at the way we can see the light on his palm, between his fingers. Beth: Yeah; and at his fingertips. Steven: It seems so three-dimensional. It's as if we could walk into this space, and shake that hand, and we'd feel its muscle; we'd feel his grip. Beth: And we feel his grip, actually, on the goblet that he's about to offer to the Christ Child. Steven: Beyond that, there's the assistant, who's holding up that goblet, and just over his head is another hand that holds the third gift, that's to be given by the third king, but that hand, where the fingers are facing up, and there the light is so subtle, because the entire hand is in shadow. The light is a tour de force, and I think it's in many ways unprecedented in the history of painting. Everything seems so physical and actual. Even the spiritual here is made really present. The story that's being told is a common one. The star of Bethlehem leads three kings from the east, to pay homage to the newly-born Christ. It really speaks of the way the Earthly power, even the power of kings, is humbled before the power of God. The wealth of the king's crown sits neglected against that rock. He's far more interested in Christ and in his devotion to the divine than that worldly wealth, that worldly power, but it's so interesting, because Christ, in Mary's lap, is not actually paying attention to the king. Christ stares out directly at us, so if we were kneeling in a church, directly before this altar, we would be returning Christ's gaze, and Christ would in turn be blessing us, and so there really is this wonderful sense of intimacy and directness here. Beth: It seems like Hugo van der Goes is combing all of these elements of the northern Renaissance, and then adding something that's very much his own. Steven: The intensity of the detail makes everything feel actually concrete, as if it's more than just having volume; that it is actual in the world, in some vivid way. Look at the irises for instance, on the left, or the columbines on the right. The fur of the crown, or any of the brocade, or just the enormous number of details throughout. But none of it feels crowded. There's a kind of elegance and a kind of spareness that makes us see these elements as distinct. Beth: One famous art historian said that Hugo van der Goes' figures have a sense of stage presence. That really makes sense to me. The figures all have a sense of individuality, but in a way that has a kind of charisma to it, where we're drawn to them and looking at their faces, and wondering what they're thinking. Steven: There's a sense of a theatricality here that draws us in and makes us want to be part of this scene of intense worship. (piano music)