HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL FOLLOWERS OF THE WHITE BOX AND KEEP SAFE IN THESE UNUSUAL TIMES. THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT. GORDON.
The Portinari Altarpiece is one of the most complex descriptions of the nativity from the fifteenth century, crammed full of symbolism. I came accross it while looking for a painting of Joseph and Mary’s reason for being in Bethlehem. An event rarely recorded in Western Art, this exquisitely painted scene appears at the top of the left hand panel. From Luke 2, and recorded in all traditional “Nine Carols and Lessons”, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem for the census. It is one of the few images depicting Joseph as the loving father (to be) caring for Mary on their torturous journey. He is normally seen as a sort of ‘extra’ confined to the sidelines. Mary’s condition is revealed more by Joseph’s caring stance than her own pregnancy.
The left hand panel is dedicated to the donors and their patron saints, Anthony and Thomas. The right hand panel refers to the journey of the Magi with the saints, Margaret and Mary Magdalene. The Magdalene holds the ointment jar symbolising her washing Christ’s feet. The other saints all hold symbolic images, St Anthony’s bell, St Thomas’s spear and St Margaret trampling the dragon with her feet.
The Nativity scene predominates the central panel and what a gorgeous painting it is. The scene is centred on Mary, but here, not as the mother, but adoring the divine child; look at her hands which mark the centre of the painting. Below Mary, in the central space, is the Christ Child. But there is no manger, no stall – just the bare floor. But look closely. What may initially appear as straw below the babe is actually ray’s of light. The light is not illuminating the child but is emanating from its flesh. Hugo van der Goes is highlighting the moment that the Word became Flesh – the divine light. Joseph is here, of course, but starting to retreat into the background; but before he does, he reveals the prophecy for the child. The sumptuous red coat forewarns of the future passion and death Jesus and all that it means.
The other main characters in this scene are the shepherds to the right. Their annunciation is depicted with the angels in the top right but their attendance in the main scene is to adore the babe and forever enter the Christmas story. But here is the catch and the answer to my earlier question – why did the painting cause a furore when it was first revealed.
The Hieratic scale was the normal mode for religious and history paintings in the fifteenth century. This means that people are sized according, not to perspective but, to their importance. The shepherds here are of equal size as the virgin and Joseph and larger than the angels. The artist is at his subversive best promoting the status of the ordinary workmen above that of the holy family. Even more revolutionary is the detailed realism with which their faces are depicted. These would have been recognisable people, a far cry from the expected representational faces of the masses. For comparison look at the identical unrealistic faces of the angels.
At eight feet tall this is a monumental painting and the size and position above the altar emphasise the symbolism and also the subversive tricks in the non hieratic representation. A true masterpiece (of art and trickery). There is of course much more symbolism to look for regarding the nativity and the importance of the event in world history. Enjoy.
The still life in the foreground with flowers, vases and wheat contains no less than eight more symbols of the Nativity, Christ’s suffering and the Eucharist. Any ideas what they all are, Stephen Blake excluded as he will know them all!