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

Monforte Altarpiece

c. 1470
Oil on wood, 150 x 247 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The most brilliant work from the early period of van der Goes is the Monforte Altarpiece, named after the town in which it was housed, in a college belonging to a group of Spanish Jesuits, before being subsequently transferred to the Berlin museum. It is a large-scale triptych, of which only the central panel, a long horizontal rectangle, has survived to the present day. A group of hovering angels have been amputated from the top of the panel, and the two wings have disappeared. The theme of the surviving picture is the adoration of the Magi.

The Three Kings and their followers come upon the Virgin, the Holy Infant and Joseph amid the ruins of a palace. A group of villagers observe this extraordinary scene through a gap in the wall. The figures, both actors and witnesses, are all shown on the same scale, whether humble or magnificent. They are neither reticent nor exalted, but react to the event in their various ways, surprised or self-conscious. In the background we can see a few women, some cottages and a river besides which the Kings' horses are waiting. In the foreground, symbolic flowers - the lily and columbine - and a pottery vessel are depicted with great care. A tiny squirrel is running along one of the beams above the opening through which the villagers observe the scene. Van der Goes has given free rein to his imagination, both in the composition and in his handling of paint, deploying the splendidly rich colours that are so characteristic of his art, mixing blazing reds with the most delicately nuanced shades.