In his early sixteenth-century chronicle of the Augustinian priory of Roode Klooster (“Red Cloister”), just outside Brussels, Gaspar Ofhuys (1456–1523) described the mental breakdown between around 1480 and 1482 of a fellow brother (frater), the painter Hugo van der Goes (d. 1482/83), as follows:
On the way back [from Cologne], our converse brother Hugo incurred a strange mental disease, as a result of which he kept saying he was a lost soul and was adjudicated eternal damnation. Furthermore, he was intent on injuring himself physically and committing suicide (and would have done so had he not been forcibly restrained by those who were standing by to help).
A native of Ghent, Van der Goes had been admitted to the city’s painters’ guild as a full master on May 5, 1467. He was receiving prestigious commissions already by 1468 and rose to the deanship of his guild by 1473. Between 1475 and 1477, however, Van der Goes retreated to the Roode Klooster, where his biological brother Nicolaus was also a frater. In Ofhuys’s telling, Van der Goes was allowed to continue painting and to receive visits from his patrons there, worldly privileges that only compounded the artist’s mental anguish, as Van der Goes worried that not even nine years would be enough for him to finish the commissions he had accepted.
The paintings on panel and canvas that Van der Goes did complete between 1467 and 1482 are among the most esteemed achievements of the fifteenth-century southern Netherlandish ars nova. Depending on which expert one asks, as few as ten and as many as twenty autograph paintings by Van der Goes on panel and canvas have come down to us, plus two exquisite drawings that no one contests. Four of the paintings, all on wood panel, exceed six feet in either height or width or both, and therefore cannot travel for conservation reasons. They are the Portinari Altarpiece (ca. 1476/77–82/83) in Florence, the Trinity panels (ca. 1475–80) in Edinburgh, and the Nativity (ca. 1480) and Monforte Altarpiece (ca. 1470/75) in Berlin.
Given those constraints, Berlin is the only venue that could have brought all but two of the works attributed to Van der Goes together for the first time under one roof. It is a shame that the present exhibition cannot travel elsewhere, though, for it offers much more than just every surviving work by Van der Goes save two: it also thrills visitors with thirty-four related objects on panel, canvas, paper, and vellum ranging in date from the 1460s to 1591. While the earliest of those works demonstrably influenced our artist, the remaining thirty-three are testimonials to Van der Goes’s wide-ranging and enduring effect on both contemporary and later artists working in the southern Netherlands and beyond.
In Berlin the paintings and drawings are set tastefully against chocolate-brown walls in a series of discrete but contiguous spaces, with Van der Goes’s more securely dated works providing the chronological anchors. Those paintings and drawings, intermixed with works by contemporaries, are followed by paintings and drawings by imitators working after Van der Goes’s death in 1482/83, actual-size photographic reproductions of the absent panels in Florence and Edinburgh, and a final space dedicated to Ofhuys’s manuscript description of Van der Goes’s madness and its reception upon its rediscovery in the nineteenth century.
All three rendered the visible world with crystalline, even uncanny verisimilitude.
What accounted for Van der Goes’s renown in his own lifetime and explains the esteem in which he is held today? He is now widely viewed as the third of the great practitioners of the southern Netherlandish ars nova, after Jan van Eyck (d. 1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464). All three were masters of the newly invented medium of oil painting, and all three rendered the visible world with crystalline, even uncanny verisimilitude. But while Van Eyck’s figures tend to be cool, dignified, and aloof, and Van der Weyden’s unified by graceful gestures and shared emotions, Van der Goes’s most memorable actors seem to be possessed by a sometimes pained but always thoughtful and often moving melancholy.
Take, for example, what is believed to be Van der Goes’s earliest surviving work, the Monforte Adoration of the Magi in Berlin. The arrival of the three kings from afar to offer the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, celebrated on January 6 as the feast of the Epiphany, was usually presented in fifteenth-century northern European art as a regal occasion, however humble the mise-en-scène. In Van der Goes’s rendition, though, the event is treated as a solemn foreshadowing of the Savior’s bitter destiny.
Seated on his mother’s lap, Jesus looks out pleadingly at the spectator while the three magi gaze at him as if contemplating his inevitable final sacrifice. The first magus’s gifts of gold sit on a rectilinear slab of schist directly below mother and son, likely alluding either to the cold stone that the condemned Savior sat on while awaiting his nailing to the cross, or to the stone that sealed his tomb from sundown on Good Friday until Easter morning—or perhaps to both. A stand of irises at the panel’s far left and two shoots of columbine at the painting’s lower-right edge serve as symbols for the Virgin’s co-suffering during her son’s passion, while the scattered wheat straws in the foreground quietly remind viewers that Jesus is the living Eucharistic bread.
Yet for all of this foreboding, there is so much beauty to take in.
Yet for all of this foreboding, there is so much beauty to take in: the figures’ handsome physiognomies and sensitively rendered hands, the second of these one of Van der Goes’s greatest artistic strengths; the gold-threaded silk brocades and fine woolens worn by the three magi; the bejeweled fur hat of the first magus leaning against the ominous block of schist; the diademed red-velvet hat and the fur cuffs and edgings of the garment worn by the second magus; and the exceptional dignity of the third magus, one of the earliest black figures in Western art.
One could go on about all of Van der Goes’s works for as long as I have about the Berlin Adoration. For a fuller immersion, read and pore over the generously illustrated and beautifully produced catalogue; for a direct encounter with Van der Goes’s troubled but sublime art, make your way to Berlin hastily and view the exhibition itself.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 10, on page 56
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