GOES, Hugo van der
(b. ca. 1440, Ghent, d. 1482, Bruxelles)
Adoration of the Shepherdsc. 1480
Wood, 97 x 245 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Hugo van der Goes painted this work in the closing years of his life, presumably a decade after the Monforte Altarpiece, after he had retired in 1478 into a monastery near Brussels as a lay-brother. The peculiar flatness of the faces and the contrived nature of the whole composition are symptomatic of his later period, in which transitory motifs also become prominent. Although this panel may lack the cohesion of the Monforte Altarpiece, one can still detect in it - particularly in the undignified intrusion of the shepherds - a bold and final attempt by a great artist, who was close to death, to break with accepted tradition in painting and strike out along a new path.
The Virgin and Joseph are kneeling - almost symmetrically placed - on either side of the crib which, viewed end-on, adds depth to the scene. Angels are crowding round behind the crib in order to be near the Child. Through an opening in the wall in the right background one has a glimpse of the shepherds in the fields, receiving the glad news. On the left side of the picture, two of them rush in, baring their heads as they enter. The entire scene is revealed to the observer by two prophets in the foreground, who draw the curtains back and create the illusion of 'unveiling' it.
The unusually wide yet shallow format of the picture has given rise to the suggestion that it may have been originally designed as a predella. But such an assumption would presuppose an altar of enormous dimensions, the existence of which could not have remained completely unknown. Besides, there is no evidence of predellas in Netherlandish painting, so for the time being the artist's purpose must remain a matter of conjecture.
In his Adoration of the Shepherds the painter created something that is far removed from his earlier work, the Monforte Altarpiece. There the composure and dignity of the kings and the natural simplicity of their bearing contrast sharply with the commotion and crowding of the later work, which gives the impression of being somewhat contrived. There is no doubt that the format prescribed by the patron presented the painter with problems of form which were not easy to solve.