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Hugo Van Der Goes: Portinari Altarpiece

Updated on April 5, 2013
Portinari Altarpiece
Portinari Altarpiece | Source

Portinari Altarpiece

The Portinari Altarpiece is a large oil on wooden panels painting by Flemish painter Hugo Van Der Goes. In this work Van Der Goes depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds, one of the variants of the Christ Nativity scene.

The Portinari Altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari for the church in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence Italy. Portinari was working for the Medici Bank in Bruges when he commissioned the triptych painting. His goal by commissioning the painting was to prove his loyalty to Medici, and to insure that other people would not forget him while he was abroad for business.

Little is known about the life of Hugo Van Der Goes, but a brief summary of key events in his life are given below.

Hugo Van Der Goes

Hugo Van Der Goes was believed to have been born in Ghent Belgium in 1440. Solid documentation about his life doesn't begin until 1467 when he was put on record for qualifying for the Ghent Painter's Guild. It's assumed that Van Der Goes was a well known and established artist by the time he entered the guild because the next year he was called upon by Charles the Bold to assist in public decorations for his wedding.

Van Der Goes would eventually be appointed Dean of the Ghent Painter's Guild in 1473, only holding the position for two years while he produced banners and other forms of decorative art for the city of Ghent. Towards the end of his time as Dean and after he left the post is when Van Der Goes was believed to have received Portinari's commission for the Altarpiece.


Painting Information

Hugo Van Der Goes
Portinari Altarpiece
Year Painted
Type of Painting
Oil on Wood Panels
253x141cm for Side Panels 253x304cm for Center Panel
On Display
Uffizi, Florence Italy

Looking at the Painting

The altarpiece commissioned by Portinari is a triptych, meaning it is a three piece painting. Each panel features important people related to the Nativity scene, objects that are symbolically important to Christianity, and a tribute to the Portinari family who commissioned the altarpiece.

Left Panel

On the left panel of the painting the kneeling adult is Tommaso Portinari, and the two children kneeling behind him are Portinari's sons. There inclusion in this painting was Van Der Goes way of paying tribute to the man and family who commissioned the work. The saints Thomas and Anthony are standing behind them and they are the name saints of Tommaso and his oldest son.

Portinari and his sons are painted on a smaller scale than the two saints to symbolize that their status and significance isn't as great as the holy figures in the painting. In the background Mary and Joseph can be seen making there way to Bethlehem.

Right Panel

On the right panel, the larger kneeling figure on the right is Portinari's wife, and the smaller kneeling figure behind her is his daughter. They are painted on a smaller scale for the same reason Portinari and his sons are painted on a smaller scale. Standing behind them are their name Saints Mary Magdalene and Margaret.

Further back in the painting a retinue of people arriving to the nativity scene includes The Three Magi. The barren trees near them suggest that it is winter, and the architecture of the painted buildings resembles the type of architecture you would see in the Netherlands during the 15th century.

Center Panel

On the ground towards the center of the painting is Baby Jesus, and beams of light surround his body, creating a glowing effect. He is surrounded by angels and holy figures. Towards the back right of the center panel, the shepherds can be seen. Great attention to detail was paid to the shepherds faces by Van Den Goes. Typically in Nativity scenes the shepherds are paired with The Three Magi, but in this painting they are not.

A lot of Eucharist symbols are present, too. On the ground, towards the center of the painting a sheaf of wheat can be seen. Wheat represents bread, which represents Christ's body. On the vases near the wheat, vines and grapes can be seen. Grapes and vines represent wine, which represents the blood of Christ. The red carnations in the vase represent the nails that were used to crucify Christ.

Impact and Influence

By the time the Portinari Altarpiece arrived in Florence in 1483, nearly a decade after it was commissioned it went on display where it had large and influential impact on the local populace.

Artists and admirers from the area looked in awe upon the painting's naturalism and its realistic expressions, especially the expressions of the shepherds. Today, this painting is known as the most famous painting by Van Der Goes, and it's regarded as one of the great masterpieces of early Flemish art.

Additional Information About Medieval and Early Renaissance Paintings

Giotto Bondone: The Lamentation of the Death of Christ

Bondone's Lamentation of the Death of Christ is one of 37 different fresco scenes painted by Bondone for the Scrovegni Chapel. Bondone is able to convey emotions in greater detail than his predecessors. Giotto is widely regarded today as the first artist in a line of great Italian artists that would make up the Italian Renaissance

Rogier Van Der Weyden: Descent From The Cross

This article focuses on the Flemish painter's life and arguably his most famous painting Descent From The Cross. Van Der Weyden pays tribute to the crossbow guild that commissioned him in the painting by featuring several hidden crossbow images.

Sandro Boticelli: Primavera

One of the most popular paintings in western art, Primavera, is still one of the most widely debated paintings today. Boticelli paid great attention to detail in his work, which is evidenced by the over 500 identified different plant species in this painting.

Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Portrait

The Arnolfini is one world's earliest oil paintings and is arguably one of the earliest examples of a genre painting. With this painting Jan van Eyck helped to encourage the trend to make more realistic looking paintings.


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