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The Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes

  • The Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes

    From Flanders to Florence: a journey through painting, fabrics and jewelery

    The Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes
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    INTRO/1 The Portinari Triptych

    And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

    (from the Gospel of St Luke, 2, 8-12, King James Bible).

    In Christian culture the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God becoming man, opened a new era, a new beginning for the universe, a source of renewal and hope. This extraordinary event, celebrated by Christians at Christmas, was depicted by Hugo van der Goes in the Portinari Triptych with great ability and profusion of details, helping us to take of part in the holy event, just like the donors presented on the triptych’s side panels.

    The  ‘holy scene’ is depicted as a popular representation erniched with a lot of symbolic and erudite references whose eloquence is underlined by the figures of the shepherds, the people excluded by the society of the time and redeemed by the coming of Christ, present in the scene as a naked baby lying on the floor, but shinning with is own light (Lux mundi). Jesus is also the saviour of the pagans, in the person of the Magi, who came from distant lands to worship him (in the background of the right hand door).

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    Intro/2 The Portinari Triptych

    The triptych was painted from 1473 to 1478 by Hugo van der Goes, on commission from Tommaso di Folco Portinari (1428-1501), a Florentine banker, agent of the Medici Bank in Bruges and influential adviser to the Burgundy court. The triptych is made up of a central panel depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds and two lateral doors featuring the patrons accompanied by their patron saints.

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    INTRO/3 The Portinari Triptych

    Van der Goes died in 1482 and the triptych was sent to Florence thanks to the financial support of banker Niccolò di Giovanni Capponi, who stepped in to replace Tommaso Portinari, by then in financial difficulty. After a sea and river odyssey, it reached Florence on 28 May 1483 and was placed on the high altar at Chiesa di Sant'Egidio, adjoining Santa Maria Nuova hospital which had been founded in the 13th century by Folco Portinari and was under the family’s patronage. The work completed the cycle with Life of the Virgin scenes and images of saints painted by Domenico Veneziano, Andrea del Castagno and Alesso Baldovinetti.

    Van der Goes’s masterpiece – in its day the largest Flemish work of art on display in the city – inspired huge curiosity and admiration. Artists like Filippino Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli and Leonardo da Vinci were so struck by the detailed naturalism and the brilliant effect of the oil technique used by Van der Goes, that they included references to this masterpiece in their paintings. 

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    INTRO/4 The Portinari Triptych

    References to the history of the ancient hospital are the small and tender scene in which Saint Joseph supports Mary close to giving birth, and in some figures such as that of Saint Anthony, invoked as protector against the disease that bears his name in Italian ( herpes zoster in Italian "fuoco di Sant'Antonio") and characterized by the tau stick, the same shape of the emblem of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova; Saint Margaret, protector of women in labor and Saint Mary Magdalene with the jar of ointment with which she perfumed Christ's feet. The messenger of salvation is above all the frail Infant Jesus who, as "medicus humilis", as Saint Augustine defined him: he was born in a poor environment to bring relief and assistance to the most needy humanity, here personified by the miserable shepherds.

    Mentioned by Vasari as a work by Ugo d'Anversa, the triptych was removed from the main altar in 1576 during some works in the church, and subsequently dismembered. Over time, the memory of the paternity of Hugo van der Goes was lost, and the author was confused with the names of the architects of some destroyed frescoes: the panel with the Nativity was attributed to Domenico Veneziano and the two side doors to Andrea Del Castagno. In 1871 the triptych, which in the first half of the century had recovered the correct identity of the author, was reassembled in Santa Maria Nuova, and later, in 1900, merged together with other works of the hospital in the Gallery of the Uffizi.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters


    The outer panels depict the Annunciation in monochrome: the topic indeed is the necessary precursor to the Nativity, and depicts the two figures (the Angel and Mary) set into deep niches. In his choice of the grisaille technique Hugo van der Goes adopted the Northern European models previously used by Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, that gave to these "pseudo sculptures" a vibrant vitality by a sophisticated use of light and shadow.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    Central panel

    In the central panel the Nativity scene is grandiose with the figures surrounding a clearly defined spatial dimension, at the centre of which there is the naked Christ child, shivering with cold and enveloped in divine light, worshipped by shepherds, angels and the Virgin.

    The young mother contemplates her Son. St Joseph is kneeling in prayer alongside a column, a reference to the column the Virgin lent against as she gave birth, in the accounts of the Apocryphal Gospels.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    The shepherds

    The wonder and pathos of the shepherds, with their vigorous and grotesque eloquence, contrast sharply with the quiet, intimate composure of the holy figures. Their wrinkled faces marked by toil, gnarled hands and rustic clothing are details which have made them unforgettable and, in proportions parallel to those of the sacred figures, key players in the scene. There are allusions to these three shepherds in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Chiesa di Santa Trinita Nativity (1485)

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters


    The singular rendering of the angels kneeling and in flight is extremely sophisticated and accurate, ordered in accordance with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s hierarchy; the Seraphims, Cherubims, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Rulers, Archangels, and Angels each have their distinct wing colours (blue, red and peacock eye as symbols of divine omniscience) and different garments and ornaments.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    Flower vases

    In the foreground, an exquisite still life reflects the popular habit of positioning flowers in front of holy images and is also an allusion to symbolic meanings. A similar piece appeared at the foot of the so-called Medici Madonna now in Frankfurt (Städelsches Kunstinstitut) painted some time earlier by Roger van der Weyden for the Medici family in Florence.

    A majolica albarello (an apothecary’s jar) decorated with ivy leaves in cobalt blue and gilt is a faithful reproduction of a sample of Valencia pottery, probably from Manises; it contains white and blue irises and a lily, symbolising the Virgin’s chastity, Christ’s kingliness and the Passion. Alongside it a glass vase contains seven blue columbines, alluding to the Virgin Mary’s pain, and three red carnations, references to the Trinity. The glass is a reference to Mary’s chastity, in accordance with an image passed down by St Bernard ‘Just as the rays of the sun penetrate glass without damaging it but taking on the colour of glass... so the Son of God entered the Virgin’s intact womb and came out pure.’ Behind the flowers resting on the ground we catch a glimpse of ears of wheat prefiguring the Eucharist bread.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    The hoof. A devil

    The wooden hoof abandoned at St Joseph’s feet has clear symbolic meaning, evoking the sacred character of a place which had to be entered barefoot as God commanded Moses before the burning bush (Exodus, 3.5).

    Next to the capital of the column a devil with a lion face and clawed paw is painted, today hardly distinguishable. The unusual presence of the demon in the context of the Nativity has been explained with reference to the passages of two sacred texts: the Epistle of St. John (3.8) and the Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varagine. In the Epistle the evangelist writes: ”Whoever commits sin comes from the devil, because the devil is a sinner from the beginning. Now the Son of God has appeared to destroy the works of the devil ”. In the Legenda Aurea the Dominican Jacopo da Varagine mentions the demon about the Nativity: “Nativity is a protection against the devil, from now on the Demon can no longer harm us as it once did”.

    In the period Hugo Van der Goes was painting this masterpiece, was obsessed with the sense of guilt and the terror of eternal damnation: it is plausible that the painter wanted to warn man of the power of demonic forces everywhere by introducing this detail.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    The Palace of King David

    The stable takes the form of a loggia with classical columns erected near a large building representing King David’s palace, as Christ’s forefather, identified in the harp symbol sculpted into the portal.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    The midwives

    To the right, near a fence, on the edge of the countryside, there are two women, probably midwives, who the Apocryphal Gospels refer to having helped the Virgin give birth and, in the background, an angel carrying word to the shepherds

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    Left panel

    These two panels were painted at a later date (1477-78) than the central panel (1473-74) and show certain stylistic differences consisting of darker colours and less spatial depth.

    The left panel portrays patron Tommaso Portinari and his sons Antonio and Pigello, born in 1472 and 1473 (or 1474) respectively, with the saints of the same names behind them: St Thomas, resting on the spear by which he was martyred, and St Anthony the Abbot with his bell attribute, his abbot’s staff and his rosary. St Thomas, patron saint of the Florentine Magistratura dei Sei della Mercanzia, was an especially appropriate choice for Tommaso Portinari, elected magistrate in his later years. In the background, against jagged peaks, an extremely unusual episode taken from the Gospel of James announcing the imminent Nativity is depicted in which the pregnant Mary, accompanied by the donkey, moves on foot along the road to Bethlehem, supported by Joseph.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    Portrait of Tommaso Portinari

    The portrait of Tommaso Portinari was painted on a separate support (paper or parchment) and subsequently attached to the wooden panel using a technique also employed by Hans Memling for his effigy of this same Portinari in the Last Judgement triptych now in Gdansk (Poland) in 1473. This was, in all likelihood, requested by Portinari as it was of Memling. The portrait may have been painted in person in Bruges, approved and then added to the door.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    Right door

    The right-hand door shows Tommaso’s wife, Maria Baroncelli Portinari, kneeling to face the Christ child, with her daughter Margherita born in 1471 and, behind them and much larger, the female patron saints. The sophisticated, aristocratic elegance of this group of women stands out. To the left, with her book and small astylar cross, St Margaret is trampling the dragon, personification of the demon which had swallowed her according to legend and, to the right, a sophisticated Mary Magdalene is holding her characteristic jar of ointment.


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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    The two saints with the same names as the women have, however, been inverted. This is the result of a change in the painter’s intentions, as designs beneath the current painting revealed in imaging show that he had originally positioned these correctly and probably changed them later at the patron’s behest. This would explain St Margaret’s red cloak and long hair worn loose, which are distinctive characteristics of Mary Magdalene.

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    I.The history, the symbols, the characters

    The Magi Procession

    In the background, to the left, against an austere winter landscape with bare trees and a partly dilapidated village on a lake, the three Magi procession winds its way on horseback, preceded by a servant on foot asking an elderly peasant the way to Bethlehem. Just like the other door, the action converges on the adoration of the Christ child in the central panel.

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    I. The history, the symbols, the characters

    The masterful Winter landscape is depicted with lenticular precision as seen in the rendering of the birds, resting on the bare branches of the soaring trees, or in the description of the poor villagers in tattered clothes in the woods; they observe the royal procession that represents  the redemption of the humanity in need, redeemed, as for the shepherds, from the birth of Jesus.

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    II. The jewels

    Maria Maddalena Baroncelli Portinari

    Precious gems are one of the most seductive aspects of Hugo van der Goes’ quest for realism in his altarpiece commissioned by Tommaso Portinari. In fact, the jewellery depicted in this triptych is not only indicative of a certain social status, it also alludes to the moral virtues of Maria and Margarita, Portinari’s wife and daughter. Our attention is first drawn to Maria’s ring finger, which sports a ring eloquently composed of a cabochon-cut ruby and sapphire, set side-by-side. This is a marriage ring known as a gimmel ring, from the latin ‘gemellus’, and is well documented in Flemish portraiture. Maria also wears an opulent necklace comprising enamels, rubies, sapphires, pearls, and most likely Burgundian onyx. In addition to their aesthetic and financial purposes, gems were often chosen for their symbolism, and in this particular case, they make reference to the role played by the lady in her marriage, family, and society at the time. In this triptych, the pearls allude to chastity, the diamonds to strength and nobility, the rubies to love and generosity, and the sapphires to humility. Jewels of this kind were often given as wedding gifts, or rather, as ‘loans’ intended to remain the property of the husband, who had the right to dispose of them at his own convenience. In fact, the necklace depicted in this altarpiece did exist in real life, and was faithfully documented by Hans Memling in a portrait of Maria Portinari, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is set with a jewel that Tommaso was later forced to sell in order to pay off debts following the bankruptcy of the Medici Bank, which he represented in Bruges.

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    II. The jewels

    Margherita Portinari

    The young Margarita wears an elaborate necklace featuring pearls, enamelled gold and a three-gem pendant. Two of the gems are cabochon-cut (a ruby and a sapphire), while the other is a diamond with a distinctive pointed cut, symbolising goodness, humility and nobility, as well as a talisman of health, wealth and strength. Even more eloquent is the young Margarita’s hat pin, which is adorned with a series of (enamelled?) ovals that form a Gothic M, with an additional stem and three spherical pearls, known as margaritae in ‘lapidary’ language, a clear reference to the young girl’s name, and her childlike purity. Her mother’s cone headdress is a typical Flemish hennin, decorated with the initials M and T embroidered in pearls – a reference to her identity and marriage to Tommaso.

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    II. The jewels

    Saint Margaret

    Both depictions of angels in van der Goes’ work feature vanitas jewellery, which serves to remind us of the earthly nature of the protagonists. A garland of pearls sits atop Saint Margaret’s head (on the right behind Magdalen) and is a reference to the painting’s transcendental dimension, as well as a reflection of the character’s identity and chastity.

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    II. The jewels

    The angels

    More so than the saint’s delicate headpiece, the crowns and diadems worn by the angels demonstrate that jewels often had multiple meanings depending on the context and the characters depicted. Here, they serve as both realistic accessories, and as an expression of their divine light and heavenly dimension.

    This iconography also appears in the mystical Ghent Altarpiece painted by Jan van Eyck in 1432, which sits in St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Hugo’s hometown. In fact, Hugo van der Goes was almost certainly aware of the altarpiece. Similarly to van Eyck’s work, Goes’ triptych depicts angels wearing exquisite jewels, such as diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls, which adorn their robes, crowns and diadems of varying designs. The parallels we can draw between the angels and the gems are consistent with their virtuous nature as messengers sent from heaven, and their relationship with the stars. Indeed, Gregory the Great once stated that there was a precise link between angels and the gems mentioned by the prophet Ezekiel (in the Fall of Tyre), while Pseudo-Dionysius (author of De coelesti Hierarchia) stated that gems represented a number of angelic characteristics. For example, white gems represented light, red gems represented fire, and green gems represented youth and strength.

    In this triptych, however, Hugo strays from the traditional angel-gem system of reference. Several gems appear on the same angel, and only the angels sent from heaven, kneeling on the ground in front of the Child, are adorned with ornate precious stones. On the other hand, the angels in flight are wearing simple tunics and no crowns. The message appears clear: only angels who descend from heaven to interact with humans are distinguished by regal attributes symbolising their spirituality. As for the gems, pearls symbolise purity, sapphires symbolise heavenly virtues, rubies symbolise the fire of charity and the word of God, emeralds symbolise eternal life, and diamonds symbolise the strength of faith, thereby reaffirming the glorious dimension of the Kingdom of Heaven from which the angels have descended.

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    II. The jewels

    Among the headdresses featured in the artwork, the diadems worn by the angels kneeling on the left stand out in particular. In fact, they are wearing bandeaux with a central vertical element shaped like a tree branch with dangling pearls. One of the two is a sprig of coral, often used as an amulet to protect children from epileptic seizures and to relieve teething pains. As such, they were often associated with the nativity – the triptych’s central theme – but were also most likely intended as a reference to the commissioning clients in this instance, who were already parents to three children, and are pictured in the triptych, perhaps waiting for their fourth. Furthermore, due to its oft-natural cross shape, the sprig of coral may also have been included here due to its power to drive out the devil. This power, as noted by Marbodius of Rennes in De lapidibus [“On Gemstones”], enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in Europe, where Rennes’ work was well-known thanks to its translation into many languages.

    Empowered by the coral talisman, the angel closest to the viewer seems to have taken on the role of guardian of Maddalena’s pregnancies, and most likely the entire family, whose social and economic status was beginning to falter at the time.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    The fabric and items of clothing in this triptych by a prominent Flemish painter are depicted with great precision, giving us an insight into the artist’s client, Tommaso Portinari, and the role he played in the Duchy of Burgundy.

    Perhaps the most intriguing piece of information available to us is that Portinari had a monopoly on the trade of Florentine cloth of gold in both the Flemish market and in the Duchy of Burgundy, a position previously held by Giovanni Arnolfini from Lucca. An abundance of cloth of gold was requested from Portinari for use during the Duchy’s state occasions, and to make clothes for the Duchess Margaret of York. From Portinari’s work as a merchant, we are able to infer that (silk and wool) textile production was an important trade at the time, becoming a powerful driving force behind the European economy in the second half of the fifteenth century.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    Mary Magdalene

    Mary Magdalene wears her hair in a striking style. She has a shaved forehead and her hair is gathered into a large up-do at the nape. A rectangular clip made from black fabric is decorated with fine gold embroidery and sits on top of her head to hold her hairstyle in place with a red lace looped through small golden rings. A braid, most likely false – as was the trend at the time - is arranged in a double loop to further embellish Magdalen’s hairstyle and to help hold it in place.

    The saint’s neckline is embellished with a very fine neck veil (or partlet), which were usually made from linen or silk bordered with a metallic trim. Creases in the fabric suggest that the garment has been pressed.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    Mary Magdalen’s robe is made from a very luxurious a griccia velvet, which was one of the most popular fabrics of the fifteenth century. The pattern features a long body culminating in a large multi-lobed leaf with a thistle flower in the centre, and a pear-shaped symbol similar to a bell in the lower section. The presence of the bell here is significant. Patterns were often altered to include references to certain heralds, emblems, insignias, and endeavours. As the triptych features no explicit reference to the heraldry of Portinari and Baroncelli, this decorative detail could be interpreted as a nod to the ancient role of the ‘porter’, in reference to the surname ‘Portere’, the Flemish equivalent of Portinari.

    The technique used here is extremely ornate. The saint wears a shimmering black velvet garment with brocade sections featuring gold bouclé. The bottom section is covered in wefts of spun gold.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    The saint’s tunic surcoat is made from a very luxurious a griccia velvet ending in a multi-lobed, elongated leaf, with a thistle flower in the centre and a pine cone motif. Thistle and pomegranate motifs also populate the smaller branches. The painting makes use of chiaroscuro to depict the white bouclé brocade velvet featuring spun gold. The neckline is embellished with a spun-gold trim bearing the inscription: MARIA/MAGDALENA/SANCTA. Both sleeves also have a gold trim, and bear the inscriptions: EP[?] (left) and OPR[E] (right).


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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    The saint’s surcoat is most likely lined with a very precious petit-gris fur (a kind of squirrel or sable). The saint’s gestures are also of note, as she appears to be offering her surcoat as a neatly folded gift, which is depicted by the painter in all its abundance.

    The cloak covering her shoulders is made from a black cloth – a sign of humility.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    Maria Maddalena Baroncelli Portinari

    Maria Maddalena Baroncelli wears a Burgundian-style dress. It features a plain black velvet surcoat with a deep V-neckline, offering us a glimpse of a smock underneath with a square neckline in the same colour. Her overcoat has long sleeves attached to the bust, and the neckline is lined with a white mink fur trim that leads from the shoulders to the chest, and also caps both sleeves.

    The bust is wrapped in what is most likely a white leather belt fastened at the back with a bejewelled buckle. Scholars believe that the emphasis placed by the painter on this accessory is a reference to her pregnancy. Maria’s belt, depicted in a traditional style, is also a reference to the cult of Mary, which is a central theme in this altarpiece. The skirt descends from Maria’s hips down to the ground and is flared at the bottom, where it sports a white velvet trim.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    Maria’s hair is gathered under a hat known as a hennin, and she has a shaved forehead, which was very fashionable at the time. The hennin features a fabric flap (or cornet), which descends from Maria’s forehead – where we can see a frontlet (a ring used to adjust the position of the headdress) – to her shoulders. Maria wears a truncated cone adorned with rows of pearls arranged in a zig-zag pattern forming triangles. The initials M for Maria Maddalena and T for Tommaso are embroidered in spun gold inside each triangle as an homage to the spouses. This section of the hennin is wrapped in a very light silk veil that falls to the ground.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    Saint Margaret

    The saint’s neckline is covered by a very fine neck veil or partlet, on top of which she wears a blue smock, whose left cuff is visible underneath the sleeve of her surcoat. Her surcoat is most likely made from a blue cloth and is lined with lamb’s fur. The coat is fairly large and circular and is made from a precious scarlet woollen cloth, which is evidenced by the way the fabric reflects the light. The inside hem is also visible. The surcoat is fastened with two green laces looped through metal eyelets anchored to a gold chevron. The colour green is reminiscent of Margarita Polinari’s surcoat, as is the chevron bordering the saint’s surcoat.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    Margherita Portinari

    The girl in this painting is around seven years old. At the time, it was customary for children to wear the same clothing as adults. As such, Margherita is dressed in a fashion that was popular with young women in France at the time. Under her gamurra, she wears a brown square-necked smock, while her surcoat is made from a plain green velvet, a colour often worn by young women. The gamurra has a very close-fitting bust, with a V-shape at the front and laces looped through small eyelets sewn onto the dress. The opening of the dress features a spun-gold chevron that runs around the back of her neck. Her neckline is covered in a very fine partlet finished with a trim cord. The girl wears a chevron belt that descends gently towards her waist and is fastened with two button studs joined by a gold chain. The sleeves of the gamurra are close-cut to the girl’s arms and are embellished with dark brown velvet cuffs, as is the flounce bordering the bottom of her skirt.

    The girl has a shaved forehead, while her hair is left long and loose. Her headdress is embellished with a brooch and sections off two pieces of hair at the front to frame her face.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    Angels on the bottom right

    The angel closest to the observer, to the right of the central panel, wears a very ornate red and gold cope, the two liturgical colours reserved for festivities. The angel’s orphrey has a large loom-woven trim, which is embroidered with the word SANCTUS. The inscriptions, made in relief, are embroidered with pearls and separated by brooches with three settings. The cope’s elaborate fastening features a jewel with a visible setting and stones.

    The cope’s body features a multi-lobed leaf in red velvet. Thistle flowers emerge from smaller branches and are also outlined in velvet.

    The angel to the right is wearing a green high-low velvet dalmatic, with brocade decorative motifs in spun gold. It is most likely an a griccia fabric housing a thistle flower in the centre of the main leaf, and a pomegranate motif in the centre of the smaller leaves. The vertical bands (clavi) running down both sides of the angel’s dalmatic are made from strips of reddish-brown high-low velvet.

    Behind, another angel is just visible and is wearing a cassock, probably made from red damask with decorative silk and silver brocade motifs. The motif appears to be of a vase containing three flowers.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    The angel to the right is wearing a green high-low velvet dalmatic, with brocade decorative motifs in spun gold. It is most likely an a griccia fabric housing a thistle flower in the centre of the main leaf, and a pomegranate motif in the centre of the smaller leaves. The vertical bands (clavi) running down both sides of the angel’s dalmatic are made from strips of reddish-brown high-low velvet.

    Behind, another angel is just visible and is wearing a cassock, probably made from red damask with decorative silk and silver brocade motifs. The motif appears to be of a vase containing three flowers.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    On the left side of the central panel we see a pair of angels in the foreground dressed in white robes. The angel closest to the observer wears a hooded alb with a back-piece featuring a red beaded fabric with gold palmette motifs and a double-cross blue brocade. This fabric may have been used for liturgical purposes to border some parts of the vestments. The sleeves are also lined with a gold (velvet?) fabric featuring a red cross motif and a pomegranate. This imagery may very well be a reference to a cross-carrying angel. A cross-body stole, made from a gold braid, descends from the angel’s chest to its hip, ending in a brooch.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    In the left-hand corner, an angel in flight wears a cope with a very ornate stolon embroidered with pearls, precious stones, and a fastening. The cope itself is made from a precious lampas, most likely a white satin embroidered with wefts of spun gold. The decorative section comprises a pattern of ogival-shaped meshes, featuring a pomegranate motif in the centre. The cope is lined with green fabric and is bordered with a trim interspersed with pairs of small silver bells. The precious stolon, embroidered with abundant pearls and a brooch, features alternating tiles housing geometric motifs of cherubic faces. The fastening also appears to be a jewel. The cope’s hood is partially visible and features a double cornice lined with pearls on gold fabric.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    Tommaso wears a sumptuous plain, black velvet surcoat, with a low collar. It is open at the front and has long, full sleeves capped with fur cuffs. The surcoat is entirely lined with fur, as can be seen in detail on the bottom right. Due to the coat’s colour and length, it is most likely made from a marten or sable fur, which was very popular at the time. The garment is very long and large, but also practical and elegant, suitable for Portinari’s job as a merchant.

    Tommaso is most likely wearing a more tight-fitting robe underneath, either a smock or pour-point made from plain red velvet. We can just about see the collar and a section of the underlying shirt.

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    III. Fabric and Clothing

    Antonio e Pigello

    The two young sons of the Portinari house, Antonio and Pigello, wear black sleeveless surcoats that are most likely open at the front, and are long and pressed, as can be spotted on the lapels around the neck, armholes and hem. The overcoats are most likely made from satin. Underneath, both children are wearing either a smock or a pour-point made from plain red velvet.

    Black garments were very popular with both men and women in northern Europe from the mid-fifteenth century onwards, thanks primarily to Philip the Good who, while initially dressing in the colour as a sign of mourning, slowly transformed its meaning with his refined and elegant style. While Portinari was in Bruges, the colour black was indicative of the merchant class, as well as the institutional apparatus of the court and nobility. In fact, despite not receiving an official appointment, Tommaso Portinari was treated as a councillor at the court of Charles the Bold. As such, and as a representative of the community of Florentine merchants residing in Bruges, the Duke granted him the honour of joining the wedding procession for his marriage to Margaret of York in 1468:

    Vestu comme les conseillers de monseigneur le duc, car il est de son conseil; et aprè luy marchoient dix marchans deux et deux, vestuz de satin noir figuré, et apres dix facteurs, vestuz de satin noir simple, et tous avoient pourpointz cramoisy ...

    [Mémoires d'Olivier de La Marche maître d'hôtel et capitaine des gardes de Charles le Téméraire. Tome 3, p. 113, 1885]

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    The video with the analysis of the painting

    Click here to watch the video

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    Hugo Van der Goes (Gand 1440 c. - Audergem 1482)

    Hugo Van der Goes’s date of birth in around 1440 can be inferred from his appointment on 5 May 1467 as master of the Ghent painters’ guild, where he was admitted with Justus van Gent as his guarantor. In 1468 Hugo worked with other artists on decorating the Bruges tower on the occasion of the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York. There is evidence of him having been in Ghent in 1472 for celebrational work, once again in honour of Charles the Bold. Frequently used by the city government as a painter of gonfalons and standards and other temporary paintings required by the era’s ceremonies, in 1474-75 he was elected deacon of the Ghent guild.

    Artistically, he was influenced by an acquaintanceship with Robert Campin’s painting and a fundamentally important study of Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Mystic Lamb polyptych, much admired in Ghent and used as a model for his painting technique, brilliant use of light and fine attention to detail. The Mystic Lamb was a benchmark for Van der Goes for the whole of his career and his attempts to measure up to it must have been a fully-fledged obsession if the words of German Humanist Hieronymus Münzer in 1495 are to be believed. After admiring this gigantic polyptych Münzer wrote: ‘It seems that a further great painter [Hugo van der Goes] wanted to emulate this painting in his work and became melancholy and foolish.’ The influence of Roger van der Weyden, an eminent Brussels artistic milieu painter, was also profound and Hugo van der Goes may have worked with him for a period, drawing allusions and stylistic elements in his expressive figures, accentuated gesturality and landscape layout from the former. In making these essential components his own, together with an attentiveness to other masters such as Dieric Bouts and Hans Memling, Van der Goes developed an original painterly language characterised by intense naturalism and a chiselled quality in his drawing, a language which came to full expression on a monumental scale in the Portinari Triptych, a key work in any overview of his work, of which no other painting has survived.

    Painted for Chiesa di Sant'Egidio dell'Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, the triptych is mentioned in the hospital’s accounts as ‘the altarpiece which Tomaso Portinari sent from Bruges’, in relation to payment for transport from Bruges to Florence (1483) and is cited for the first time as the work of Van der Goes by Giorgio Vasari: Life of Andrea del Castagno who cites the triptych as the work of ‘Ugo d'Anversa , who did the panel in Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. The name ‘Ugo d'Anversa’ will not have been an error on Vasari’s part as it is possible that, before settling in Ghent, he may have worked in Antwerp (Anversa in Italian) and Brussels. The commissioning of the triptych may date to 1472, when Tommaso Portinari had a certain sum of money available for masses to be held on a daily basis at Chiesa di Sant'Egidio e della Santissima Annunziata and decided to decorate its high altar with an altar piece as eloquent testimony to his newly acquired status in Flanders. Van der Goes probably began work on the triptych in 1473 and progress took place in two distinct phases, broken off in 1476 when he left Ghent to withdraw to a monastic life as a novice at Rooklooster, an Augustinian monastery near Brussels. In 1477 he began painting the lateral panels which he completed in 1478, dates confirmed by the age of Portinari’s youngest son, Pigello (left door) who was born on or after 1473. The critics agree in dating the completion of the triptych to 1478 although Portinari’s subsequent financial difficulties meant that the work got to Florence only in 1483, after the painter’s death, thanks to the financial support of Niccolò di Giovanni Capponi.

    In approximately the end of the 1470s Hugo van der Goes was struck by severe mental illness which prompted periods of depression and delusions which prevented him from painting for some time. Fellow monk Gaspar Ofhuys testified to the artist’s acute feelings of guilt, terror of eternal damnation and repentance for the pride he had felt after achieving fame as a painter. Van der Goes emerged more humble from this illness, once again according to Gaspar Ofhuys, and returned to painting with profoundly moving work such as the Bruges Death of the Virgin (Groeningmuseum), probably his last work, in which his personal torments and adhesion to the principles of the Devotio Moderna movement are expressed in a pared-back but accessibly dramatic language designed to obtain maximum devotional involvement.

    His corpus of work, reconstructed on the stylistic basis of the Portinari Triptych, includes the Vienna Diptych (Kunsthistorishesmuseum) with Original Sin and the Lamentation of Christ, dating to his youth, the Adoration of the Magi in the Monforte de Lemos convent altarpiece (Berlin, Gemaldegalerie) datable to around 1470 and the Adoration of the Shepherds (Berlin, Gemaldegalerie) datable to around 1480.

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    Tommaso Portinari (Florence 1428 - 1501) 

    Tommaso Portinari was born in Florence in 1428 into a banking family in the Medici milieu with interests in the Bruges business world. For many years his father Adoardo (or Adovardo) managed the Medici Bank’s central headquarters in Florence and when he died early, in 1428, Tommaso and his brothers Pigello and Acerrito enjoyed the protection and concrete support of Cosimo the Elder.

    In around 1440 Tommaso was invited to Bruges to work at the Medici Bank branch there managed by his cousin Bernardo di Giovanni d’Adorado with whom he began his career. The branch had been founded by Bernardo di Giovanni himself in 1439, following on from the Medici decision to manage their Flanders business directly, to enhance the flourishing trade then engaged in via correspondents and, in general, to restore ‘Florentine primacy’ over Low Countries’ financiers which had been such a feature of the 13th to the first half of the 14th centuries.

    In 1438 Bernardo was recalled to Florence when he failed to generate positive results, while Tommaso continued to work there for a further twenty-five years without coming to particular prominence. It was only in 1465, after Cosimo de’ Medici’s death, that he was appointed branch director, taking over from his rival Angelo Tani and becoming bank partner.

    On the strength of this new strategic appointment, and to consolidate the bank’s and his own personal prestige, in 1466 Tommaso Portinari obtained Piero de’ Medici’s permission to buy up one of the most attractive and grandiose buildings in Bruges as branch headquarters – Hôtel Bladelin, previously owned by Pierre Bladelin, councillor to Philip the Good, situated in the city’s trading centre. He thus managed its refined décor, supplementing it with Medici coats of arms and carved busts. His skilled nurturing of relationships with the Burgundy Court, as well as the loans given and services made, led to him being appointed member of the Duchy’s council under Philip the Good and then Charles the Bold, whose close friend he became.

    His entrepreneurial skill, and the absence of Florentine ambassadors to Bruges, led to Portinari carrying out important diplomatic missions for Charles the Bold and the Florentine Republic. It can certainly be said that in these years (1465- c.70) Portinari was the most influential Italian in Bruges and, in fact, the only foreign merchant to be invited to Charles the Bold and Margaret of York’s wedding in 1468 where he led the Florentine delegation in the wedding procession, a clear acknowledgement of his success.

    He showed significant commercial skill in ensuring Florentine silk cloth an outlet in the flourishing Flemish market from 1465 onwards, replacing the Lucca-based companies previously monopolising this market. The Burgundy court continued to buy high quality fabric refined with gold and silver and brocade from Florence until at least 1480.

    The Florentines were also part of the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree and habitually made generous donations to churches and monasteries. It was with his commissioning of paintings by Hans Memling and, above all, Hugo van der Goes, that Tommaso Portinari achieved the apex of his prominence.

    Returning to Florence in 1469, he married fifteen year old Maria Baroncelli, daughter of Francesco Bandini Baroncelli, in 1470 and had five children with her: Margherita (1471), Antonio (1472), Pigello (1472 or 1473), Guido (1477), Francesco (1478), Dianora (1479) and Giovanni Battista (1485).

    We have images of three of these in portraits painted by Hugo van der Goes in the triptych in which Antonio and Pigello (left door) and Margherita (right door) are shown as children with their parents. Portraits of Tommaso and his wife, always dressed ‘Burgundy style’, also appear in a further two Flemish masterpieces commissioned by the banker from Hans Memling: half bust in two panels (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art), possibly doors in a small triptych whose central image has been lost; kneeling whole figure in the Passion of Christ panel in Turin’s Palazzo Sabauda, probably commissioned for the family chapel in Sint-Jakobskerk, Bruges.

    Tommaso is also depicted in a sort of ‘cryptoportrait’ as an elect soul in Hans Memling’s Last Judgement triptych (Gdansk, Muzuem Narodowe).

    Lastly, in late 1469, Portinari returned to Bruges and, when Piero de’ Medici died, Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici took over as heads of the Medici Bank and its business partners. In around the mid-1470s the Bruges branch went into severe financial crisis as a result of a series of events and risky operations by Portinari, such as: the closure of the London Medici Bank branch in 1477, and the transfer of its debts to the Bruges branch; the death of Charles the Bold, to whom Tommaso had lent huge sums, in the 1477 Battle of Nancy; the purchase of the Gravelines port (near Calais) customs tender; and the financing of a Portuguese expedition to Guinea.

    Following on from these huge losses Lorenzo de’ Medici broke off relations with Portinari in 1480, leaving him the branch with all its debts and noting sarcastically that ‘these are the great profits which the management of Tommaso Portinari has accorded us’. The total shortfall of the two branches – London and Bruges – amounted to 70,000 ducats.

    Portinari’s responsibility for the Bruges debacle has been much debated historiographically, but he must certainly have been an audacious, charismatic man with considerable diplomatic skills, because financial disaster did not prevent him from continuing to engage in intense commercial activities and being appointed to prestigious posts. In 1486 he was sent to Milan by Maximilian of Austria, consort of Mary of Burgundy, to negotiate with Ludovico il Moro and, as a result of this, he and Lorenzo il Magnifico were reconciled. This latter sent him to England in 1489 to draw up a commercial treaty and Philip the Fair commissioned him with delicate negotiations between the Low Countries and England in 1469. In 1497 he returned to Florence where he received a number of important appointments: Gonfalonier of the Compagnia del Popolo, member of the Otto della Guardia and member of the Sei dell'Arte della Mercanzia.

    He died in 1501 at Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova founded in 1288 by his ancestor Folco Portinari and was buried at the Chiesa di Sant’Egidio family tomb in front of the high altar, where the triptych bearing his name is exhibited.

The Portinari Triptych by Hugo van der Goes

From Flanders to Florence: a journey through painting, fabrics and jewelery


Introduction by Cristina Gnoni Mavarelli

I. The history, the symbols and the characters by Cristina Gnoni Mavarelli

II. The jewels by Silvia Malaguzzi

III. Fabrics and clothes by Daniela Degl'Innocenti

Biographies by Cristina Gnoni Mavarelli


Scientific coordination: Cristina Gnoni

Texts: Daniela Degl'Innocenti, Museo del Tessuto di Prato; Cristina Gnoni, Gallerie degli Uffizi; Silvia Malaguzzi

Coordination: Patrizia Naldini, Francesca Sborgi

Editing web: Andrea Biotti

Translations: Eurotrad srl

Photographs: Francesco del Vecchio, Roberto Palermo

NB: each image in the virtual exhibition can be enlarged to view it in finer detail.

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