Hugo van der Goes (ca. 1430/1440 – Auderghem 1482) personified other generation and a different artistic style. Van der Goes was likely born in Ghent or in the vicinity of Ghent (current Belgium) around the year 1440. It was in this city that he obtained the title of master from the painters’ guild of Ghent in 1467. Ten years later in 1477 at the peak of his career, he suddenly decided to close down his workshop in Ghent and entered the monastic community of the Rood Klooster (the Red Convent) near Auderghem (now in Brussels) in order to become a lay brother. While in the monastery, he fell into an acute depression and declared himself to be damned. Unsuccessfully, he later tried to commit suicide but after a short recovery he died in the Rood Klooster. His stay in this monastery is known through the chronicle of the monk Gaspar Ofhuys written up in Latin some time between 1509 and 1513. According to this chronicle, van der Goes at first tried to continue painting and received visits from friends. In 1482 after a visit to Cologne he believed himself doomed and wanted to commit suicide. The prior calmed him by making him listen to music while he painted in the intervals of his crises of anxiety. He died mad no long thereafter in 1482. Throughout his career, Hugo van der Goes left some masterful portraits, but was best known for the work that is considered as his masterpiece, the great triptych of the “Adoration of the Shepherds” also known as the “Portinari Altarpiece“.
It was painted ca. 1475 and now kept in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This painting was commissioned by the Italian banker Tommaso Portinari for the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, where it was sent in 1483 when van der Goes had already died. Although this triptych excels for its technique and the preciousness in which details were executed as well as for the intensity with which angels and shepherds participate in the scene, this painting lacks some of the spiritual vibration that presided over the old and perhaps quieter creations of Jan van Eyck and Van der Weyden. This fact can also be noticed in other Van der Goes’ “Adoration of the Kings” also known as the “Monforte Altarpiece” (ca. 1470, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).
Even so, the “Portinari Altarpiece” is one of the great works of painting that caused stupor in its time, first in Bruges and then in Florence, where after its arrival in 1483 played an important role in the development of realism and the use of color in Italian Renaissance art. Never before had the Virgin been portrayed in Flanders or anywhere else, as a woman with such disconcerting and human form, and at the same time refined and rustic, all throbbing. In front of her the wonderful group of the three shepherds, who pounce in a gesture of adoration, is internally broken up by their distinctive and individualized characterizations. The oldest one smiles with a gesture that softens his face worked by years; the youngest one -incarnation of doubt- denies the gesture of his hands with the cold skepticism of his gaze; while the mature one shows such excitement that borders on madness.
From this same generation was Hans Memling (ca. 1430 – 11 August 1494), born around 1430 in Seligenstadt (near Aschaffenburg, middle Rhine region of Germany) and resident in Bruges since around 1446, where he died in 1494. While in the Netherlands, he spent time in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels. His portentous gifts as colorist and the happy inventiveness that he showed up to the end of his life (see for example the scenes full of charm of the oil on panel inserts of the St. Ursula shrine, ca. 1489, with its delicately finished miniatures, the variety of its landscapes and costume, the high quality of its details, etc.), earned him important clients, between them wealthy patrons such as bankers, merchants, politicians, clergymen, and aristocrats.
For some of these patrons, Memling painted enduring masterpieces: for the Old St. John’s Hospital in Bruges (where many of his works are kept), for great bourgeois citizens like Willem Moreel, for Italian bankers like Tommaso Portinari, etc. What is typical of Memling is his absorbed inner world, his somewhat elegiac feeling, sweet, kind, never dramatic, which penetrates the viewer to the deepest. The great period of Memling’s artistic production was around 1480, when he owned three houses in Bruges, and paid his share of the war contribution imposed by Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, as one of the 140 richest bourgeois in the city. To this period belong the fantastic “St. John Altarpiece” (ca. 1479, Old St. John’s Hospital, Bruges), and several extraordinary portraits such as the so-called “Sibylla Sambetha” (1480, Old St. John’s Hospital, Bruges), and those included in the “St. Christopher Altarpiece” (also known as “Moreel Triptych”, 1484, Groeningemuseum, Bruges) in which the donor, his wife Barbara van Hertsvelde and their children were portrayed.
Memling’s portraits, in particular, were popular in Italy. His distinctive contribution to portraiture was his use of landscape backgrounds. This style of portrait pioneered by Memling influenced the work of numerous late-15th-century Italian painters, including important masters as Raphael. His works “Scenes from the Passion of Christ” (ca. 1470, Galleria Sabauda, Turin) and “Advent and Triumph of Christ” (ca. 1480, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) are excellent examples of the habit in Flanders art of representing a cycle of subjects on the different planes of a single picture, where a wide expanse of ground is covered with incidents from the Passion in a form common to the Passion plays of those days.
In discussing the art of the last great Flemish masters one cannot speak certainly of fall or decadence, because some essential elements still remained in full force, or even increased in intensity, though its initial activating spiritual principle tended to fade away. The Van Eycks, Campin and Van der Weyden were simultaneously technicians, creators and clairvoyants. Their successors didn’t reach to those heights: they were painters who filled the panels with admirable images, but whose charm was achieved mainly by the skill and perfection with which their works were executed. What was left from the Flemish school was its technical mastery.
Thus was Dieric Bouts (ca. 1415 – 6 May 1475), Dutch painter born in Haarlem, who later, around 1457, moved to Leuven where he married and died in 1475. If in his first paintings it is observed an undeniable decrease of the spiritual intensity that shined in the works of the first great Flemish painters, on the other hand as a compensation, there’s in them a psychological refinement that is patented not only by the fineness of the facial features, but also in the elegant naturalness of attitudes and in the admirable way in which the characters move or rest within the natural environment that surrounds them. Bouts was, as other artists of the time, greatly influenced by Jan van Eyck and by Rogier van der Weyden, under whom he may have studied. Dieric Bouts was among the first northern painters to demonstrate the use of a single vanishing point* (as illustrated in his “Last Supper”, 1464–1467, St. Peter’s Church, Leuven). His figures were usually disproportionately long and angular, but his paintings appeared highly expressive, well designed and rich in color, with particularly good landscapes. These same artistic features were seen in the compositions (sometimes symbolic) of a Dutchman who never left Holland: Geerten tot Sint Jans (ca. 1465 – ca. 1495), or Gerard of the Death of St. Jhon, probably born in Leyden around 1465 and died in Haarlem, apparently, before he was 30 years old.
The artistic changes were more evident in the works of the next generation of painters from the Lower Countries, whose activity lasted until the early years (or until the first decades) of the 16th century, such as Gerard David (ca. 1460 – 13 August 1523), also a manuscript illuminator, known for his brilliant use of color, and Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) born in Leuven. Both showed a determined interest in shading expressions and giving their compositions naturalness and monumentality at the same time. Gerard David is, above all, a characteristic painter of homemade Madonnas, evoking a motherhood totally concentrated in raising the little boy.
Instead, Matsys in some of his works of religious themes emphasized or exaggerated the expressive intention in faces and attitudes. It seemed he sensed the tumult of spiritual concerns that preceded and accompanied the outbreak of the Reformation. It is not surprising that during his residence in Antwerp he related to humanist magistrates, among whom was the humanist Pieter Gillis who put him in contact with Erasmus in 1517. In other works, however, he pointed to a direct influence of Leonardo, whose works he knew (and even copied some) during the trip he made to Italy. His most well known satirical works include “The Ugly Duchess” (ca. 1513-1515, National Gallery, London), A Portrait of an Elderly Man (ca.1513-1515, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris), and “The Money Changer and His Wife” (1514, Louvre, Paris), all of which provide reflections on human nature, individual character, feeling and society in general. Matsys also painted religious altarpieces and triptych panels, the most famous of which was originally built for the Church of Saint Peter in Leuven and that now is kept in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Antwerp). Matsys’ firmness of outline, clear modelling and thorough finish of detail were influenced by van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Memling and Bouts. Quentin Matsys became a cult figure during the 17th century in Antwerp and is considered as one of the founders of the local school of painting which climaxed with the works of Peter Paul Rubens.
The Prado Museum has a large landscape painting by Matsys which represents “The Temptations of Saint Anthony”, with the holy hermit subjected to the torture of the cuddly caresses of three beautiful female devils dressed with great luxury and accompanied by a devil disguised as a horribly expressive celestine. The landscape background is majestic, something that denoted a new sensibility in Dutch art. The landscape of this masterpiece wasn’t by Matsys, but a work of an exquisite painter of landscapes and who collaborated with him, the first great landscape artist of the Lower Countries, Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480 – 5 October 1524).
Patinir was a pioneer of landscape as an independent genre and he was the first Flemish painter to regard himself primarily as a landscape painter. He effectively invented the world landscape*, as a distinct style of panoramic northern Renaissance landscapes which represents his important contribution to Western art. Patinir often let his landscapes dwarf his figures. His immense vistas combined observation of naturalistic detail with lyrical fantasy. His landscapes used a high viewpoint with a high horizon. In his paintings of landscapes, Patinir used a consistent and effective color scheme, which was influential on later landscape painting: the foreground was dominated by brownish shades, while “the middle ground was painted a bluish green and the background a pale blue, thus creating an effective sense of recession into the distance.
Ecce Homo: (From Latin meaning “behold the man”). The Latin words used by Pontius Pilate in the Vulgate translation of the Gospel of John, when he presents a scourged Jesus Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before his Crucifixion. The scene has been widely depicted in Christian art, where is a standard component of cycles illustrating the Passion and Life of Christ.The usual depiction shows Pilate and Christ, the mocking crowd and parts of the city of Jerusalem. Beginning in the 15th century, devotional paintings began to portray Jesus alone, in half or full figure with a purple robe, loincloth, crown of thorns and torture wounds, especially on his head. Similar subjects but with the wounds of the crucifixion visible (Nail wounds on the limbs, spear wounds on the sides), are termed a Man of Sorrow(s) (also Misericordia).
Hortus conclusus: (From Latin meaning “enclosed garden”). It is both an emblematic attribute and a title of the Virgin Mary in Medieval and Renaissance poetry and art, suddenly appearing in paintings and manuscript illuminations about 1330. Artistically it included one of a number of depictions of the Virgin in the late Middle Ages developed to be more informal and intimate than the traditional hieratic enthroned Virgin adopted from Byzantine icons, or the Coronation of the Virgin theme. Germany and the Netherlands in the 15th century saw the peak popularity of this depiction of the Virgin, usually with Child, and very often a crowd of angels, saints and donors, inside the garden. Often walls, or trellises close off the sides and rear, or it may be shown as open, except for raised banks, to a landscape beyond.
Vanishing point: A point on an image at which receding parallel lines seem to meet when represented in linear perspective
World Landscape: (Translation of the German Weltlandschaft). A type of composition in Western painting showing an imaginary panoramic landscape seen from an elevated viewpoint that includes mountains and lowlands, water, and buildings. The subject of each painting is usually a Biblical or historical narrative, but the figures comprising this narrative element are dwarfed by their surroundings. The world landscape first appeared in painting in the work of the Early Netherlandish painter Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480–1524). The compositional type was taken up by a number of other Netherlandish artists, most famously Pieter Bruegel the Elder. There was a parallel development by Patinir’s contemporary Albrecht Altdorfer and other artists. Although compositions of this broad type continued to be common until the 18th century and beyond, the term is usually only used to describe works from the Low Countries and Germany produced in the 16th century.