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Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece

Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece (or Adoration of the Shepherds with angels and Saint Thomas, Saint Anthony, Saint Margaret, Mary Magdalen and the Portinari family, recto; Annunciation, verso), 1477-78, oil on wood, 274 x 652 cm (Uffizi, Florence) A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(classical music) - [Steven] We're in the Uffizi in Florence and we're looking at an enormous altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes known as the Portinari Altarpiece. - [Beth] We're in Italy, but we're not looking at an Italian Renaissance painting. We're looking at a painting from the Northern Renaissance from Bruges. - [Steven] And it's interesting because this painting has always been seen in Florence amongst other works of Italian artists, and this was placed in a church here in the city. - [Beth] And it caused a big stir when it arrived in the late 15th century, because there is a big difference between the style of the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance. And so when this was seen in Italy, it caused something of a surprise. - [Steven] But it's also a reminder of the close ties between businessmen in Italy and in the North. And in fact, one of the most important banking families in Florence, the Medici, had a major office in the city of Bruges and it was one of their agents that actually commissioned this painting. - [Beth] We see Tommaso Portinari, the patron, along with his two sons and on the right, his wife with their daughter, but they're represented much smaller than their patron saints who tower above them, and they're also in that characteristic kneeling position that we often see patrons in. - [Steven] The central panel is a nativity as well as the adoration of the shepherds. - [Beth] Mary and Joseph, and the angels worship the newly-born Christ child, who we see here surrounded with a protective halo of light. - [Steven] Although seeming very vulnerable there. - [Beth] Everyone keeps their distance and looks down at him, and what I really like about this painting is all of the distinct groups who in their individual focus and attention are alone in their sense of the miraculousness of this moment when God is made flesh. - [Steven] Well, look at Mary. She looks down at him with a kind of solemnity, a kind of dignity, and despite the distance between her and the child, a kind of intimacy. The painting feels spacious. To some extent, it's because the central panel is 10 feet wide. Each figure is accorded a lot of room, and that gives the artist an opportunity to put in lots of detail. In the foreground, there is for example, a lovely still life. We see a vase that holds flowers. We see one red lily, a symbol of Christ's suffering to come, and then we see irises, flowers associated with the Virgin Mary. In addition, we see columbines, associated with the sorrow of the Virgin Mary, and then scattered on the floor are violets. - [Beth] And behind them a sheaf of wheat, which is associated with the body of Christ. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Christ. - [Steven] And look at the way that the sheath of wheat lies on the floor, just the way the Christ child lies on the floor, and the yellow of the wheat is not so distant from the gold of the halo. Look at the level of botanical specificity. You can see why the Italians were really awed by the naturalism of the Northern painters. - [Beth] And that's a totally different kind of naturalism. With the Italians, they're going for a naturalism that has to do with a unified space constructed with the use of linear perspective, where everything makes sense in relationship to one another within that space. - [Steven] And the human body as well. - [Beth] But here we're going for a naturalism that has to do with a very close observation of very specific things, in a way that doesn't take into account a rational unified space, but in terms of detail, it's incredibly realistic. - [Steven] You can see that also in the very sumptuous brocade worn by the angels. Look at that gold stitched into that red velvet. - [Beth] And the jewels that are embedded there. - [Steven] This painting is filled with other kinds of symbolic forms. Note, for instance, the Corinthian column just to the side of the Virgin Mary, a symbol associated with Mary. Look at the harp just above the doorway in the church in the background. This is a symbol that recalls King David and speaks to Christ's ancestry. Look at the three shepherds. These are rough figures that have come to pay homage to the newborn Christ. They're represented with three really different approaches. The lowest of the three seems to be a representation of real piety. The figure to his right, perhaps wonder. And just above that, I figure that's just gawking. - [Beth] And they're so different than the rest of the figures in the painting, who exhibit a tranquil nobility. These figures seem deeply human. - [Steven] Look at The care with which, for instance, their hands have been painted. Look at the foreshortening of the right hand of the right-most figure. It curves slightly, comes around towards us. It's a perfect rendering of the human hand which is such a complicated set of forms. - [Beth] This whole painting, I think, really problematizes our use of the word naturalism or realism because in so many ways, this is very naturalistic. We have an illusion of a vast landscape created with atmospheric perspective, where the mountains turn blue and fade into the distance. We have the naturalism of the brocade, of the flowers, of the hands of the figures. And yet, that lack of that unified space that we so expect of the Renaissance in Italy. So this interesting coming together here in the Uffizi, on one side of the gallery, Botticelli, and on the other side, Hugo van der Goes. (classical music)