THE PORTINARI ALTARPIECE

6 April 2010

For some unknown reason, The Portinari Altarpiece keeps popping into my head.  Quite why this should be so is beyond me; I really can’t explain it. I studied this work years ago, and probably the last time I even thought of it was over a decade ago.

[Picture of The Portinari]

My my, how the mind works.

I remember that Tom Portinari worked as a banker for the Medici family in Bruges for many years before commissioning this work from Hugo Van der Goes for a church in Florence. Maybe the Bruges connection is the clue; we saw the movie “In Bruges” not long ago, and Ruth and I have visited the place a couple of times. Would that be enough?

In any case, this work is pretty important to me.  It was the first time for a lot of things — my first tryptich, the first work that I encountered where I had to determine characters depicted by their “attributes”, the first artwork that I had studied that showed events using a weird 3D language (events in the past were depicted smaller and in the distance), the first time I had come across sponsors in the work and loads more firsts (these are the main ones I can recall).

It was finished in the late 1470s, and is about the “Adoration of The Shepherds“.  Mary has just given birth to the baby Jesus — she did so standing up and leaning against a pillar.  This is something altogether forgotten about today.

The scene is supposed to be based on a vivid dream of St Bridget, who saw the baby lying bare on the ground (as opposed to being in a manger).

It was usual for sponsors to be included in paintings — even though they were never at the events shown. As main sponsor, the Portinari family males were painted on the left-hand panel (father and two sons), and the right-hand side (the lesser side), is the mother and her daughter.

The patron saints are there with their attributes — the spear gives away St Thomas, the book and dragon has to be St Margaret, the bell is St Anthony, and as ever, Mary Magdalene, has her wee jar of ointment or oils.

  • I went to the Uffizi a few years back with Mike, Franco and Jenny (before I was married) — but I was hurried through the Palazzo Vecchio and the big square room mainly filled with Botticellis (including The Birth of Venus) and so did not get as long as I would have liked to meet and greet this great work of art.

I always intended visiting it again, but time has gone by and I have not as yet done so — to my deep regret.  Oh, how could I have been rushed? But then, it would have taken at least a full morning after all, it’s about 6 metres long by about two and a half metres high — it’s a full wall for heaven’s sakes!  A great painting in all respects.

One of the most charming things about this work is that it was always intended to be an altarpiece (the church of Sant’Egidio), and so in the foreground is painted flowers in vases that would have seemed like real flowers on the actual altar!  I remember that the orange lilies are supposed represent “The Passion”, while the wonderfully painted white irises represent Mary’s “Purity”.

It is choc-full of such symbols, hidden codes and meanings, representations, and Christian religious art language, and yet it is painted in a Dutch, Flemish, style for Italians.

Anyone interested in art history, religious effects on culture, semiotics, language and more, would have to study this immense work of art.

If you can get to see it, take it.  I know I will!

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