Hugo van der Goes’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” (Portinari Altarpiece) (1476-1478/79) (99.6’’ x 119.6’’) (oil on panel) is considered by art scholars to be one of the most celebrated and influential works of Christian art of the 15th Century. The Flemish painter was chosen for the commission by Tomasso Portinari, a wealthy Italian banker who lived in Bruges for forty years and managed the Medici family bank. Van der Goes painted the altarpiece in Bruges; and it was shipped by boat to Sicily, then sent by barge to Florence, where it arrived in May 1483. Portinari commissioned the triptych for the altar of the family chapel of the Church of St. Egido, the church of the well-known hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. Portinari was a descendant of Dolco Portinari who founded the hospital in 1285.
It was a tradition during the Renaissance for patrons to be painted in the scene or on the side panels of a triptych. On the left panel, Tomasso Portinari kneels with his two sons Antonio and Pigello. The hieratically taller figures behind them are their patron saints, the elderly Saint Anthony with the cane, rosary, and bell, and Saint Thomas with the spear. In the distant landscape, Mary and Joseph are on their way to Bethlehem.
On the right panel is Portinari’s wife Francesca Baroncelli and their daughter Margarita. They are accompanied by Saint Barbara with the pot of ointment, and Saint Margaret with the cross, book, and dragon. Behind them, a peasant directs the Magi to Bethlehem.
Van der Goes follows the old tradition of the hieratic scale that depicts the most important figures as tallest, with the rest of the figures reduced in size according to their significance. In this scene Mary, Joseph, and the three shepherds are the tallest. Ranks of angels in decreasing scale are dressed in plainer clerical garments. The angels’ garments represent the various liturgical vestments worn by priests who administer mass. Mary and Joseph adore the Christ child, who is not in a manger, but who lies on the ground on an aureole (golden rays) that shines from his body and keeps him warm.
The three shepherds fall to their knees in astonishment and adoration. For the first time the shepherds are depicted realistically, with rustic clothing and coarse features. Their hands are gnarled and rough. Their individual facial features display their understanding of what they have been called to witness. The portrayal of the three shepherds was a innovation; as a result, van der Goes’s painting stands out from all others of his time.
In the background a Romanesque church (round arches) is beginning to deteriorate. In front of the church is a partial stone wall, and a large gray classical column supports the roof of the stable that shelters the ox and the ass. The church and broken wall symbolize the decline of Old Testament law with the birth of Jesus. The column symbolizes the New Testament that begins with His birth. Mary was said to have leaned against a column while she gave birth. The ox, looking up, symbolizes the Gentiles who will accept Christ. The ass, head down eating, symbolizes the Jews who do not recognize Christ.
The work is done with oil paint, a significant new medium invented by Northern painters. Oil paint gave artists the ability to paint textures. particularly noticeable in Joseph’s red cloak and the rich brocade garments worn by the group of the highest-ranking angels at the lower right. In contrast, the other angels are robed in simpler garments. Above the ox and ass are two angels: one beautifully robed in gold, but the other emerging from the shadows robed in dark colors. It is generally agreed this dark angel represents Satan. However, the angel’s head is bowed with hands clasped in prayer. The meaning remains ambiguous.
Flemish painters were not yet skilled in depicting human anatomy and they were just learning about linear perspective. Oil painting set them apart, and van der Goes and others employed symbolism to strengthen their message. The still-life at the front of the painting is not placed there accidentally, nor is Joseph’s single wooden sandal that he has removed because he is standing on sacred ground.
The wheat sheaf represents fertility, renewal, and abundance. A sheaf of wheat was often present at births because it was thought to ease labor. Bethlehem was called the house of wheat because wheat was the major commodity for exchange. A clear glass of pure water holds three red carnations. Carnations symbolize fidelity, and red symbolizes blood: Christ will fulfill his mission. The columbines were thought to resemble birds. White columbines symbolize doves and purple is the symbol of royalty. The white and purple violet scattered on the ground symbolize modesty and humility.
The alborello (lusterware ceramic) was used in apothecary shops to hold herbs, spices, and other healing compounds. It is decorated with bunches of purple and yellow grapes. Three of the flowers in the alborello are iris, and three symbolizes the Trinity. Iris is also called sword lily, and Mary will feel as if a sword pierced heart at Christ’s death. The two other flowers are tiger lilies, and their brown spots represent drops of blood. The five flowers symbolize the five wounds Christ received on the cross. The Flemish artists of this period incorporated numerous symbols in their paintings. Nothing in a painting simply filled a space.
When van der Goes’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” was placed in the Portinari family chapel in Florence in May 1483, the citizens of Florence were enthusiastic. Francesco Sassetti commissioned Dominico Ghirlandaio, the most popular artist in Florence, to paint an “Adoration of the Shepherds” for his family chapel in the Church of Santa Trinita. Sassetti, like Portinari, was a wealthy banker. He managed Medici family banks in Avignon, Lyon, and Geneva, and he was an advisor to both Piero and Lorenzo de Medici. Ghirlandaio painted portraits of Francesco Sassetti and his wife Nera de Corsi on the wall on either side of the open space where the “Adoration of the Shepherds” would be painted. Under the Sassetti portraits is the inscription “Anno Domini 1480, 25 December,” the date the contract was signed. At the time, Ghirlandaio was painting the three walls of the chapel with scenes of the life of St Francis of Assisi.
Ghirlandaio’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” (1485) (65.7’’ x 65.7’’) (fresco) repeated the poses of the three shepherds from the van der Goes scene, with one exception. The dark-haired shepherd leading the others is Ghirlandaio’s self-portrait. With his left hand he introduces Jesus to the shepherds, and to the viewer. His right hand touches his heart. The shepherds are rustic, copying van doer Goes’s startling innovation. The shepherds appear to understand and absorb the significance of the event they are witnessing. One shepherd holds a lamb in his arms, a symbolic reference to Christ as the Lamb of God.
As in Saint Bridget’s vision, the Christ Child lies on an edge of Mary’s robe, placed on the ground, His head cushioned by a sheaf of wheat. His head also leans against the Roman sarcophagus that contains straw, because it serves as the manger. Ghirlandaio links symbolically the birth and the death of Christ. Ghirlandaio/shepherd points directly at Jesus but also at the garland carved on the sarcophagus. Ghirlandaio was the artist’s nick-name, and it meant garland-maker. He put himself into the scene close to Jesus, and the garland serves as a type of signature.
The Latin inscription on the front of the sarcophagus contains an ancient prophesy by the Roman Fulvius (63 BCE): “While Fulvius, augur of Pompey, was falling by the sword in Jerusalem he said: the urn that covers me shall bring forth a god.”
Ghirlandaio connects the fall of the pagan Roman world to the birth of Jesus. The two Corinthian pilasters of the old world support a newly built wooden stable roof. The old making way for the new also was painted in the background. His hand on the sarcophagus, Joseph looks over his shoulder to see the procession of the Magi as they pass under a Roman triumphal arch. Above the Magi is the shepherds’ pasture.
Ghirlandaio has imagined two distant towns. At the far right, the most distant city is Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock visible. The central town represents Rome with its Towers of Milizie and the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian, and a church that resembles the Duomo of Florence (Santa Maria della Fiore). It is thought that in combining the city of Rome and Florence, Ghirlandaio was proposing Florence as the new Rome. To support this idea, the gray Roman pilaster bears the date 1480, the date of the commission. The pilaster is a compositional element positioned above the Jesus’ head.
In the foreground are terra cotta tiles. The Italian word sassetti means “small rocks.” A goldfinch sits nearby on a book. The goldfinch has yellow feathers with black tips and a splash of red on its head, symbolizing the crown of thorns and drops of blood. Jesus’ gold halo is striped with red in recognition of His destiny. But here, He looks out at the viewer as an innocent new born child.
Giorgio Vasari, author of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550, and 1568), wrote about Ghirlandaio’s “Adoration of the Shepherds”: “He painted in tempera, as a companion to this work, a Nativity of Christ which must excite the wonder of every thinking man, introducing his own portrait and some heads of shepherds, which are considered divine.”
The idea that common shepherds would have understood and reacted emotionally to the birth of Jesus opened a new and exciting avenue for artists of the Renaissance. Prior to this introduction of Flemish painting to Italy, very little exchange of style or technique had taken place. This interaction between van der Goes and Ghirlandaio, and these paintings, was recognized then and now as the most significant development in art of the 15th Century.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.