The Portinari Triptych
Oil on panel
99 5/8 x 230 11/16 in. (253 x 586 cm) total
Hugo van der Goes is an extraordinary painter and produced paintings on a surprisingly large scale, both literally and in the unprecedented monumentality of the figures. His most famous work,The Portinari Altarpiece, now in the Uffizi, Florence, was to prove very influential in Italy, where it decorated the church of the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. It was commissioned by a Florentine banker, Tommaso Portinari, who lived in Bruges and acted as the Flanders agent for the powerful Italian de' Medici family. The dimensions of the painting, which when open measures over 8 ft (2.5 m) long, were dictated by a Florentine precedent.
Van der Goes is said to have died of religious melancholia, and knowing this, we may persuade ourselves that we see a barely controlled passion in his work. But without this biographical information, it may simply strike us as immensely dignified. Like the wings, the central panel, The Adoration of the Shepherds, shows two different scales in use, with the angels strangely small in comparison to the rest of the scene. This was a common device in medieval painting; it makes it easy to spot the important characters.
SAINTS AND THE DONOR'S FAMILY - The two large figures of St. Margaret and St. Mary Magdalene, who appear in the right panel of The Portinari Altarpiece, are presenting Portinari's wife, Maria, and their daughter. St. Margaret (patron saint of childbirth) can be identified by the fact that she is standing on a dragon. According to legend, she was swallowed by a monster, but burst out of it. Mary Magdalene carries the jar of ointment with which she anointed Christ's feet.