The Portinari Altarpiece (1476-1479) by Hugo van der Goes, is an astonishing Netherlandish masterpiece (figure 1). Situated in the Galleria degli Uffizi amongst the Italian masters, it dominates the space in terms of size and virtuosity. In considering the complexities of its treatment and meaning, any analysis needs to integrate a number of points. Recent technical development has allowed new revelations but this needs to be assessed in the context of Hugo’s stylistic and physiological proclivity, the demands of the donors and the function of the altarpiece within a contemporary fifteenth century context.
Tommaso Portinari commissioned this altarpiece for the chapel of Sant’ Egidio, in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Florence, of which his family was patrons. The dedication of artworks to chapel hospitals by wealthy donors was customary. Such commissions served the vainglory of the patrons and perhaps also enhanced prospects for a propitious incorporeal exchange; piety for transgression. Hospitals served the poor and moribund. The altarpiece’s primary function was to adjure the dying to seek ablation for their sin and find salvation for their souls. Hugo believed indubitably, like his spiritual leader Geert Grote, “that images that stick tenaciously to the mind imprint all the more forcefully the spiritual realities signified through them”. For Italians conversant with tempera, the oil medium with its rich, saturated palette and translucent, light reflecting glazes would have seemed preternatural.
Portinari, with sons Antonio and Pigello, along with Saints, Anthony Abbot and Thomas occupy the left wing (figure 2). At the medial edge of the wing is a gate providing an interface between the temporal and holy realms. Transition between the two is suggested through the continuous architecture. Turned inward and kneeling, the human supplicants appear diminutive in contrast to the saints. Hierarchical practices of attributing size according to status may be indicated or the disparity may suggest technical issues. Analysis has revealed that Tommaso’s portrait was painted separately and inserted later, requiring reduction in head and thorax sizes of the other donors, which resulted in disproportions and Maria’s strained facial expression.
Maria Baroncelli with their daughter Margherita, and Saints, Margaret and Mary Magdelene are depicted in front of a crumbling wall in the right panel (figure 3). Mary Magdalene at the lateral edge plays a key role. Her size creates a balance to the figure of Saint Thomas and also provides an example of a rehabilitated transgressor. There appears to be a transposition of the female saints, with both diagonal to their namesake. Infrared reflectography indicates that the children were conceived as part of the image in the underdrawing stage but not the initial setup (figures 4 and 5). The atypical positioning of the female saints may suggest that both were originally ascribed to Maria Baroncelli; ...