Scholarly attention to Hugo van der Goes has increased in recent years, and the present book, a revised and expanded version of the author’s 1999 doctoral dissertation written at Columbia University, makes an important contribution to the literature on the artist. Koster’s subject is Hugo’s great Portinari Altarpiece in Florence; her aim, as she states, is to “consider every facet” of the triptych. The book discusses the patronage of the altarpiece, its complex imagery, its relationship to the Devotio Moderna, and its Florentine context, all issues that previous scholars have addressed at length. Two avenues of Koster’s research, however, break exciting new ground. She has discovered the Portinari archive housed in the Archivio di Stato in Florence, which preserves the final will of the triptych’s patron, Tommaso Portinari. While the will does not mention the altarpiece, installed years earlier, in 1483, on the high altar at Sant’ Egidio in the Maria Nuova Hospital complex in Florence, Koster interprets the documents to challenge the long-held belief that Tommaso died in financial ruin, arguing that he was buried in front of the triptych in his family’s chapel. Furthermore, and most interesting for our understanding of Hugo, Koster conducted a technical study of the altarpiece which offers fascinating insights into the triptych’s evolution. Highlights of the findings as well an analysis of Tommaso’s will were published earlier in The Burlington Magazine(“New Documentation for the Portinari Altar-piece,” 2003, vol. 145, pp. 164-179). The book is accompanied by a CD-Rom which provides color photographs, infrared reflectography and x-radiographs.
After the completion of her dissertation, Koster commissioned x-rays and infra-red-reflectography (IRR) of the triptych from Maurizio Seracini and his staff at Editech in Florence, a project supported by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The IRR scans reveal extensive underdrawings which show that Hugo made fundamental compositional changes as he worked on the altarpiece. For instance, the Christ Child, now lying parallel to the sheaf of grain in the foreground in a powerful Eucharistic reference, was initially placed at an acute angle to the grain. The IRR scans help identify significant motifs that had previously gone unnoticed, such as Saint Margaret’s shoe resting in the shadowy mouth of the dragon, and an open wooden gate placed between the kneeling Tommaso and the sacred scene in the central panel, comparable to the opened door in the left wing of the Master of Flémalle’s Merode Altarpiece (for Lynn Jacobs’s description of this object as a door and her view of it, similar to Koster’s, as a threshold between the earthly and heavenly realms, see her article, “The Miraculous Threshold in Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece,” Tributes in Honor of James H. Marrow: Studies in Painting and Manuscript Illumination of the Late Middle Ages and Northern Renaissance, ed. Jeffrey F. Hamburger and Anne S. Korteweg, Turnhout, 2006, pp. 261-270).
The author identifies several stages of underdrawing in the altarpiece, which she analyzes to explain some of the tripych’s most unusual features, such as the reversed placement of the female saints in the right panel, and the shifts in scale between the donors and their patron saints. In the first stage of underdrawing, there were no children; in the second stage, Hugo added all three, a fact which explains why Saint Margaret stands with Maria Portinari while Mary Magdalene appears with the young daughter Margherita instead of the other way around. Initially, Koster argues, both saints served only as Maria Portinari’s patrons; when Hugo added the daughter in a later stage he did not revise the positions of the saints. Koster likewise suggests that the change in scale between the patrons and the saints has to do with Hugo’s adjustments of the figures to the painted head of Tommaso Portinari, which was executed independently on a separate support and applied to the panel. She further observes that the Annunciation on the closed shutters employs a more detailed, even underdrawing, suggesting that Hugo had assistance in executing these panels, although the artist himself certainly designed them. In this chapter, which reconstructs Hugo’s working process with great insight, Koster makes an impressive contribution to our understanding of fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting, shedding new light on an already well-studied triptych and providing new data for further research. Her work joins other important technical examinations of Hugo’s paintings (see Rainald Grosshans, “IRR-investigation of the panel paintings by Hugo van der Goes in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie,” in: Jérôme Bosch et son entourage et autres études; Colloque pour l’étude du dessin sous-jacent dans la peinture, Colloque XIV , 2001, Louvain, Dudley, MA, 2003, pp. 235-249).
Other chapters place the Portinari Altarpiece in various contexts, such as the ideals of the Devotio Moderna. While Koster’s focus is on the Portinari Altarpiece, several scholars including Diane Wolfthal, Bernhard Ridderbos, and Susan Koslow have already linked the principles of this religious movement to Hugo’s works, particularly his canvas paintings, the Monforte Altarpiece, and the Death of the Virgin. The Portinari family’s interest in the Devotio Moderna, however, remains unknown. In another chapter the author reviews in detail the triptych’s complex imagery, adding her own interpretations and disagreeing with some previous views, for instance with M. B. McNamee’s generally accepted identification of the Christ Child as the officiating priest. She convincingly suggests that the devil’s rare – and barely visible – appearance in a Netherlandish Nativity scene juxtaposes Christ’s healing humility with Satan’s sinful pride. Generally, she argues against the idea that Hugo’s famously troubled emotional states directed his choice of visual imagery.
Koster further examines the critical reception of the altarpiece, the life of Tommaso Portinari, the history of the church of Sant’ Egidio, and aspects of contemporary Florentine devotion, including the career of Fra Angelico, which presents general parallels to that of Hugo. Three appendices present the documents, the Uffizi restoration record, and a section on artistic responses to the Portinari Altarpiece in the North (to which we might add the heart-shaped placement of the Virgin’s hands in Geertgen tot Sint Jans’ Night Nativity in London).
However, questions still remain. We do not know, for instance, the precise date of the execution of the altarpiece, and some of its imagery continues to elude us. Koster’s work will undoubtedly open new avenues of debate and inquiry about this beautiful and compelling work by one of the greatest artists of Northern European painting.
SUNY at New Paltz