GOES, Hugo van der
(b. ca. 1440, Ghent, d. 1482, Bruxelles)

Calvary Triptych

Oil on wood, 250 x 216 cm
Cathedral of St Bavo, Ghent

Although his working life was very short - a mere fourteen years - it was long enough for Hugo van der Goes to establish himself as a major innovator with a powerful creative imagination. There are fifteen altarpieces and paintings by his hand that are known today. Amongst them is the Calvary Triptych, long attributed to Justus of Ghent (Joos van Wassenhove). Most experts now agree that it must be the work of Van der Goes.

The central panel of the triptych depicts Christ nailed to a tall cross, with the two thieves to either side of him, tied to their gibbets. They are surrounded by a crowd of figures and horsemen, and the city of Jerusalem is visible in the background. This panel is an impressive work of its own right, but the two panels to either side, which draw their subjects from the book of Exodus, are in many ways even finer.

In the left wing, we see Moses beside a great rock that marks the limits of the foreground area. He is plunging a branch into the bitter waters of Marah to sweeten them, so that the Israelites could slake their thirst. Mothers are giving their children to drink, an old man holds out a bowl to his grandson, and another man is sipping the precious liquid from his cupped hand.

The right wing depicts the episode of the brazen serpent. The people of Israel are marching through a steep-sided valley. Moses has climbed up onto a rocky promontory above them, his stick in one hand. There he complains to Jehovah that the people will not obey him any more, whereupon Jehovah turns his stick into a snake before the eyes of the astonished crowd. The people of Israel, saved by Moses, are used here to prefigure the destiny of the Christian Church, whose people have been saved by Christ.

In the background, the clouds drifting across the sky link the vast landscape into one continuous sweep stretching across all three panels. Shadows are suggested by areas of saturated colour and by the use of cross-hatching. Van der Goes's drawing is precise, taut and incisive. His palette is bright and vibrant, giving a strong sense of real open-air light. Along with more forthright tones, he delights in blending together delicate colours such as moss green and olive green, wine red, different gradations of blue, and soft pink.