I have a list of pieces to consider writing about on this blog. When I wrote down the Portinari Altarpiece, I had no idea what in the world I would be writing about in relation to it. You don’t look at this painting like other work and think, “Oh, that reminds me of the time…” Few altarpieces are meant to do that. “Remember that time we saw the birth of the savior, honey?” Maybe the Isenheim Altarpiece conjures up some sort of direct relation, but only if you lived in the early 16th century, had the plague and were set to have a leg amputated in order to save your life…which it didn’t. At best, you would have a brief, painful connection with Grünewald.
My time with the Portinari Altarpiece in person was limited. It is located in the Uffizi in Florence. I’m fortunate to have been there once, but a quick look at the collections’ highlights on their website will show you that a 3-hour tour isn’t going to get it done unless your only goal is to take a trip there in the summer and litter social media with your terrible photos of great art, with the hashtags “#breathtaking” “#art” “#kunst”. My one trip might end up being my one trip. No complaints. Truly. You’d have to be insufferable to say something like, “Well, I’ve only been to the Uffizi once.” So instead of a piece being significant because of how it relates to some other part of my life, the art is the significant experience. It took some serious effort to get in front of it.
What I remember most about my 15-20 minutes with this painting is that I was in a room with 50 other people and I was the only one looking at it. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a triptych that is about 107” tall and 256” wide. It’s not tucked away in a corner. The triptych sits on an elevated base and commands the wall in sits in front of, yet no one was looking at it. There is a good reason why: it is in a gallery stacked with Botticellis. More importantly, it is as far away in the room as you can get from The Birth of Venus. Here is a set of screengrabs from the Google Arts and Culture project for you to see what I’m talking about. Click on the right side to advance the images. At first I thought that this was kind of a mean-spirited curatorial move to put this piece in with ol’ Sandro. The altarpiece deserves its own room. But by making it the oddball in the gallery, it ends up having its own space by default.
People descend upon Venus like the Mona Lisa, because, “Oh my gosh, it’s that Venus, take my picture.” Normally, everyone with a committed interest to art kind of hates everyone else in a museum because, no matter where you are standing, you are blocking someone’s view of another painting. If you have no museum experience, then it is like being at the grocery store waiting for the person in front of you to figure out which brand of potato chips they are going to buy, acting like they have never seen potato chips before in their lives, when all you want to do is get the salsa sitting on a shelf right behind their cart. 10 years ago, I was in line at a coffee shop and I heard the customer at the front of the line say, “What is a latte?” This was followed up by some mumbling from the barista and then I heard the guy say, “OK. So, what is a cappuccino?” That is my average museum experience. Get out of my way, plebes. I know why I’m here and you’re in my way. Read a book and come back when you’re ready.
My experience with van der Goes might be the only time I will benefit from this “Oh my gosh, it’s that famous painting. Take my picture” museum mentality. Y’all stay 30’ away from me and soak up the Neo-Platonism and I’ll check out this giant northern European oddball masterpiece that found its way to Florence. Because here’s the deal, Botticelli, currently, is not my jam. And by currently, I mean the past 25 years. I stopped definitively trying to close the door on any artist as I got older so I’ll always allow that one day I might walk up to a Botticelli and have some sort of Sherlock/Beautiful Mind experience where it all locks into place. But then again, I also might wake up one day and suddenly love The Smiths. Each is highly unlikely to happen and even less likely with each passing year, but you always have to take into consideration that you might get hit in the head with something heavy and blunt.
When you know your time in front of a piece is limited, you scan and try to remember things to look up later. “Look fast.” Similar to my experience with the Dürer drawing, I understood that there was a “Colorforms” methodology to arranging this piece. If you had to guess, van der Goes was probably commissioned by Portinari to create an altarpiece of a certain size. Once he had the proportion of the measurements, he drew a rectangle, drew a line down the middle and then subdivided it again vertically where the doors would be. Now you have 4 sections of equal size and an assignment to fit into those spaces. You know the figures, the symbols and the narratives that need to be expressed. Start pushing all of that around the grid until it makes sense not only as a scene of implied spatial dimension but also as a flat space with shapes arranged in it. If you have no experience making two-dimensional art that represents a three-dimensional space, then you may not have ever considered that anyone making a painting, drawing, print or movie not only has to consider whether or not the thing works in creating the illusion of depth but then they also have to deal with the compositional ramifications of how things sit on a flat two-dimensional plane. Both are at work, together. That is the goal of this altarpiece. It sounds basic but you constantly have to remind students of this. They are so proud to have rendered depth and then you have to say, “Yeah, but…” to them and the magic is gone. Like a film student I knew in college said, “Yeah, I used to like movies. Then I became a film major.” Death by a 1,000 “yeah, buts”.
All of these figures, symbols, etc must revolve around a nativity. But it’s not just the nativity. The piece compresses a number of events surrounding the birth of Christ into one scene. There is the implication of time but, if we’re honest, there is no linearity to it. We can always say that something in the background is smaller and therefore we know that it is in the past and we slowly work our way into the foreground to the present. I get that. That’s why medieval artists used roads as lines to move through the piece. Follow the road. Tell the story. But appreciate that that a northern European “primitive” painter is not stupid and understands the simultaneity of the how they depict separate times and events on the same plane. In the background alone, van der Goes gives you the trip of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the annunciation to the Shepherds, the travel of the Magi, and two women behind a gate that I’m still trying to identify. You’d think it would be Mary visiting Elizabeth but that doesn’t make sense. The foreground of the central panel shows the infant Jesus, more exposed and more vulnerable than I can recall in any other piece, lying on the ground, worshiped by Mary, Joseph, angels, the shepherds (freshly arrived from the background), a bull, a donkey, and (unbeknownst to most people) a friggin’ demon hiding behind the bull. It might be the first time in art history that someone has entertained the thought that Satan was witness to the birth of Christ. Almost as if to counter that idea, an angel floating in that same quadrant is wearing a robe with Jesus’ adult face repeatedly embroidered into the edging. This is a nativity but embedded in the piece is the knowledge of what is to come. There are also symbolic objects and flowers in the foreground that point to Christ’s eventual suffering and death, but I’m not going to dive into that. You can look it up.
The foreground of the door panels depicts saints and patrons. The left panel shows the patron/banker Tommaso Portinari kneeling with his two sons, Antonio and Pigello. They are accompanied by Saint Thomas and Saint Anthony. The right panel features Maria di Francesco Baroncelli (Portinari’s wife) and their daughter, Margarita. Odd fact: this Portinari family is the same family that about 200 years earlier brought Beatrice Portinari into the world: Dante’s assumed muse. Mary Magdalen and Saint Margaret stand behind them. Margaret stands on the monster/dragon that she flayed open. Keep in mind that this monster’s head is in this piece as I try to explain the calming effect this piece has on me. Van der Goes accomplishes this effect with this monster in the mix. The figures are all painted as if they are all worshipping along with Mary, Joseph, etc. It’s almost 1500 years of time compressed into one space. In addition to this disregard for linear time, the setting is hardly 1st c. Bethlehem. It is a somewhat ruined 15th c. Belgian city and landscape. This is the simultaneity that northern Europeans sought that Italians seemed to ignore. The Italians weren’t invested in accuracy, but they also didn’t attempt to bring the Gospel into a contemporary context. This is one of many gifts that the northern Renaissance gave us.
Occasionally I give an assignment that focuses on balance and directional force at work in the altarpiece. It’s not a trick question to ask what compositional form of balance is used in the piece. You’re correct no matter what you choose but if you want a gold star, then you’ll acknowledge that there are approximately symmetrical anchors holding together an asymmetrical composition with a use of radial, diagonal energy to move you from focal point to focal point. All of that overlaps so there is rock solid stability but then directional energy to keep your eye ever-moving. I liken it to an episode of Frasier when Frasier and Niles are competing to be corkmaster of the wine club and a trick bottle is thrown in the competition to see who has the most sensitive palette. Both were able to discern the individual components but only one of them knew how those components related.
(Compositional analysis of the altarpiece- first image is of the symmetrical elements. Click on the right side to advance and see the radial energy)
Your eye moves from figure to figure but it rests everywhere it lands. Because everyone in the piece is stilled by the presence of Christ. There are at least 29 figures in the foreground. Only three seem to not be silently looking at Mary or Jesus: St Margaret, a kneeling angel and one of Portinari’s boys. There’s no question where to look. The angel that is not looking at Christ is breaking the 4th wall, not staring you directly but staring outward as if to say, “Are you seeing this?” It’s one of many direct ways to enter the painting. You’re being invited by an angel, for Pete’s sake. If you miss that then almost every hand is pointed inward in radial fashion either to Mary or Jesus. Your eye follows all of these pointing elements, but each figure or grouping is its own self-contained unit. This is what Heinrich Wölfflin would refer to as “linear” vs the idea of “painterly” in his Principles of Art History. Explicitly delineated edges of forms. Look at the shepherds. That grouping looks like a Fathead sticker a kid would have on his wall. You feel that you could peel that entire section off and scoot it over an inch if you need to. The same with the angels in the bottom right center. If one angel moves, they all move. No unit or individual figure encroaches on another or even acknowledges that the other is there. It keeps every focus on Jesus, so you never ask yourself about the relationship between two other figures. Does Portinari get along with his wife? Don’t know. Don’t care. Your relationship to God is made stronger by being in community with fellow believers, but at the end of the day, your relationship to God is your relationship alone. Van der Goes doesn’t encourage you to wonder how the brothers get along or what Saint Thomas and Anthony are doing later. There is a serenity and stillness in this piece that seems almost impossible to achieve considering that there are about 50 figures, 5 narratives, three settings and 1500 years of time being pushed together. Drama is not the goal. Contemplation is the goal. If you want a large painting with a lot of figures and endless drama, then you should head to Rome and sit in front of Raphael’s Transfiguration or go look at any Peter Paul Rubens. Figures interact in those pieces. They have animated facial expressions and melodrama not to be experienced again until the Marvel Universe sucked up all of the money in Hollywood.
As with a lot of pre-Dürer northern European art, van der Goes largely ignores linear perspective. I don’t know if he knew it or not. He appears to have a grasp on it in the Monforte Altar (The Adoration of the Kings) but it could also be a convincing approximation. It works architecturally but if you look at the main magi’s clothing it flattens out in the gloriously northern way that does not obey the rules of perspective or fabric. The same observation applies to the figure behind him. He floats more than he sits back in space. I always appreciate this about the “primitives”. Perspective is a tool, not a requirement. Why have one horizon line when you can have two or three? The floor is always pitched up from the back to allow for a more unobstructed view of “the stage”. You don’t need Cubism to reinvent space. Cubism broke the 400-year-old rules of the Renaissance but, in some ways, they didn’t invent a revolution. They dialed the clock back to possibilities that existed and were perfected before Brunelleschi sat down in the baptistry and demonstrated what vanishing points could do.
Christian art gets a bad rap for being too literal and narrative compared to other religion’s art. Blame Michelangelo and the Italians that followed him into the Baroque. Blame Rubens and the Counter-Reformation. The northern primitives had quiet on lock. By comparison to Zen Buddhist painting or Islamic patterning, the Baroque give too much information to digest to have a quiet moment. They want you in awe of their spectacle, not lost in a moment of serenity. The Portinari Altarpiece argues against that. Yes, a lot is going on but, if you take a minute, it settles. You stand in the middle and you stare at Jesus because everything in the painting is telling you to look at Him. The piece is so large that the periphery of your vision is consumed by everyone else in the painting, but they’re doing the same thing you are doing- looking at Jesus. Nothing calls out to you from the edges to demand your attention should you choose to withhold that from the rest of the piece. You can sit there and be still and the altarpiece will be quiet with you, no matter how many people 30’ away from you are saying, “Oh my gosh, y’all, it’s that Venus” in how ever many different languages are being spoken in the room while you are there. If you do acknowledge the other 50 figures in the work, if you move to the left or the right and think about it just as art, you’re rewarded with a piece of sophisticated compositional construction that, for me, has no rival. Pick one of many available entry points into the piece. One way or the other, you’re going to end up in the middle and you’re going to be still and quiet and grateful that some curator put another masterpiece at the end of the room to distract people so you could have that moment.
This book by Margaret Koster is a great analysis and worth tracking down. I learned a lot from it and may have inadvertently borrowed some ideas from it. Pricey but worth the read if you can find it in a library.