Hugo van der Goes (active 1467-1482) was the most powerful Flemish painter of the second half of the 15th century. His "Portinari Altarpiece" is one of the most intensely beautiful masterworks of all time.
Hugo van der Goes was greatly indebted to the artistic heritage of his predecessors Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden; yet so acute was his visual perception, so talented his draftsmanship, and so original his understanding of the problems of artistic form that his compositions anticipated many principles that came to fruition in the baroque period. Furthermore, the religious symbolism that resides, disguised, in the countless natural forms and objects in the Portinari Altarpiece reveals his astonishingly erudite knowledge of scholastic philosophy and mystical texts.
Van der Goes's origin and early training are unknown. He became a master in the Ghent guild of painters in 1467, the painter Justus of Ghent being one of his guarantors. Between that year and 1475 Van der Goes assisted in the decoration of Ghent and Bruges for such events as the wedding of Charles the Bold to Margaret of York. The artist was made dean of the guild in 1474. Four years later he quit Ghent, then in the throes of political upheaval, for the solace of the Red Cloister monastery near Brussels. Continuing to paint as a privileged brother, he received distinguished visitors, such as Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Returning in 1481 from a trip to Cologne, Van der Goes suffered a fit of melancholia. A fellow brother, Gaspar Ofhuys, documented the illness and recorded that the artist died in the monastery the following year.
Van der Goes never signed or dated a painting, so attributions have had to be made on the basis of the one work, the Portinari Altarpiece, that is authenticated (by Giorgio Vasari). Its date of about 1474-1476 has been presumed on the basis of the number and ages of the children of the donors on the wings of the triptych.
Earlier in style, and possibly Van der Goes's first known work, is the little diptych with the Fall of Man and the Lamentation. The self-consciously nude figures of Adam and Eve recall the ones on the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers; the rhythmic composition of the distraught figures in the Lamentation derives from the form world of Rogier van der Weyden. Different from both is the expression of Van der Goes's personal feeling of the tragedy of the drama of the Fall and Redemption.
The huge panel Adoration of the Magi, the surviving central portion of the Monforte Altarpiece, probably dates about 1472. The concept is one of serene grandeur, with a monumental feeling that is unique in the dozen works attributable to Van der Goes. The composition is resplendent in descriptive details, superb in lighting, and rich in color.
The Portinari Altarpiece is a giant triptych, 18 feet across when opened. Its theme is the adoration of the newborn Child by Mary, Joseph, 3 memorably individualized shepherds, and 15 attending angels. It was commissioned by Tomasso Portinari, the representative of the Medici in Bruges. Tomasso kneels in the left wing with his sons Antonio and Pigello; in the right wing are his wife, Maria, and their daughter Margherita. Looming large behind them are their name saints: Anthony and Thomas, Margaret and Mary Magdalen. Deep within a magnificent winter landscape the procession of the Magi approaches. The Annunciation, in monochrome, is seen when the wings are closed. The central scene is a spectacular drama of opposites reconciled: open and closed space, large and small figures, natural and supernatural light, divine and human forms. Masterfully painted textures are subordinate to an overall feeling of heightened realism and grandeur in an intense moment of revealed Christian truth.
Van der Goes's large Death of the Virgin was painted in the monastery about 1481. Christ materializes in a burst of rainbow light to receive the soul of his dying mother, while the assembled Apostles press against her bed, each intensely experiencing as an individual his personal loss. There has rarely been expressed in Christian art so moving a statement of the temporal and the eternal life.
A study of Van der Goes is in Max J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, vol. 4: Hugo van der Goes (1969). For an interesting essay on the nature of Van der Goes's illness see Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born under Saturn (1963).