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Portinari Altarpiece is a triptych painting by Hugo van der Goes that dates back to 1475 and depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds. Nowadays, it is stationed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Explanation:

The Portinari Triptych was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, who was a financier close to Medici’s family at the time and worked at the Bruges branch of Medici Bank. The painting commemorated his success and was installed in the Portinari family chapel in Florence.

The left wing of the triptych depicts him and his two sons with their protectors St Thomas and St Anthony, and the right wing shows his wife Maria Baroncelli with her daughter accompanied by Mary Magdalene and St Margaret. The scenes behind them form the prelude to the central Nativity.

The central panel of the triptych shows three shepherds falling to their knees before the Child Jesus. The Child lies near the Virgin on the ground, surrounded by kneeling angels and the aureole of golden rays. The central piece celebrates the birth of the Christ Child but also highlights the humility of the surrounding characters.

In the background, Hugo van der Goes stages related to the main scene – Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem, the shepherds visited by the angel, the Three Kings on the road to Bethlehem. In the foreground, two vases of flowers and a sheaf of wheat refer to the Eucharist and the Passion.

The wheat is an allusion to the Last Supper, and the vine leaves and grapes refer to the wine. Flowers in the vases – white irises are a symbol of purity, while orange lilies are a reference to the Passion; finally, purple irises and columbine stalks symbolize Virgin Mary’s seven sorrows. As a whole, the scene prefigures the later Salvation, achieved through Christ’s death.

Hugo van der Goes is considered to be one of the most authoritative painters of the late 15th century. Still, the Portinari Triptych is the only work his contribution to is confirmed, as his early life is undocumented. This triptych also became one of the most significant paintings produced by a Flemish artist in the 15th century. Central panel’s height is 253 cm, length 304 cm, with each of the wings being 253 x 141 cm.

The triptych is regarded as one of the greatest paintings of the Renaissance era, mostly because of the innovations Hugo van der Goes introduced to his representation of this biblical scene. Firstly, he portrayed the Child Jesus without a crib, lying on the ground and surrounded by all other characters. Secondly, he depicted the shepherds in a very realistic way – their faces were common men faces, with all the rough, rustic features and unhidden, unholy anxiety and adoration they showed for the Child Jesus.

They looked exceptionally sharp in comparison to other idealized conventional characters in the painting. Additionally, the painter grouped the main characters diagonally, while usually, they were grouped around a specific focal point. All mentioned above was not a typical pattern for biblical scenes representations in art and made the Portinari Triptych one of the greatest works of art of the era.