Hugo van der Goes in Berlin

Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, part of the Staatliche Museum, is currently hosting a breakthrough exhibition on the artistry of Hugo van Der Goes, a technically innovative 15th century painter of altarpieces with artwork in the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. Only a handful of Hugo’s paintings and drawings survive to our time and lack of documentation makes it almost impossible to piece together sources of his education or a comprehensive scope of his practice. Yet, based on what does survive, it is common knowledge that Van Der Goes was a formidable master who contributed immensely to the development of painting techniques, whose images preserved and helped define Christian iconography. He was an acclaimed artist with disciples across Northern Europe, rivalled in fame only by the brilliant Van Eyck, the artist of the Ghent Altarpiece.

Fig. 1. Photoshop reconstruction of the Monforte Altarpiece with central extension, Stephan Kemperdick, 2022

Hugo’s life was centered around the city of Ghent although it is very probable that he has travelled to Italy and Spain. A lifelong member of St. Luke’s Guild in Ghent, he was also a pious man who joined a monastery and became a lay brother during the last decade of his life. In the last two or three years, a breakthrough insight into the scope of Hugo’s mastery was (re)discovered when his amazing Monforte Altarpiece came to be restored and reconstructed in preparation for the Berlin exhibition. While it is crucial to appreciate and preserve masterpieces that make up the artistic legacy of Christianity, the reason I am writing about Hugo are the lessons artists and patrons can draw in our current times about commissioning new artwork, handling art owned by churches, and most importantly - undertaking restoration projects.

Fig 2. Hugo van der Goes, Monforte Altarpiece, ca. 1470/75, 170 x 263 cm Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen Berlin Photo: Dietmar Gunne

Preparation of the Hugo van der Goes exhibition called for a major restoration project of the Monforte Altarpiece which in turn has energized talents and expertise of numerous specialists in the field. Challenges faced by the curators, historians, and restorers involved in the exhibition should become a resource for learning how to approach art projects for and in our churches.

The Monforte altarpiece was painted in about 1475. The commission for a large triptych altarpiece originated in the Netherlands but was intended for a church in Spain. An almost immediate problem arose when the triptych arrived at its final destination, and it was discovered that the chapel is too small to house an altarpiece of that size. For this reason, the wings of the altar were clipped and removed. Architecture will pose certain obvious limits on the art that can be installed in the nave and in the sanctuary. It is absolutely crucial to make sure that altars, statues, paintings or reliefs are sized for the chapel or church interior where they will be permanently installed. Not only is it aesthetically and cognitively disturbing to put incorrectly sized art in a chapel. It can also be expensive to try and make it function well in an unsuitable space. Art that functioning well serves to preserve the Christian tradition, it edifies the senses both internal and bodily, and it increase of receptivity of the viewer to prayerful composure. This is all next to impossible if the art is of the wrong size. Or wrong style.

The Monforte altarpiece wings went missing almost as soon as they were removed from the altar. Based on the art historical studies and recent reconstruction work, Monforte Altarpiece is one of the greatest paintings of Northern Renaissance. Our common Christian legacy has been impoverished by the loss of altarpiece wings. This brings attention to storage and documentation – if any institution commissions art, provenance, technical information, as well as proper storage should all be secured as well. These are an integral requirement of being a steward of religious art

The misadventures of Monforte Altarpiece do not end there. In the 16th century the principal panel was cut from the top to make painting by another artist fit above it. This mutilation has seriously aggravated the condition of the main panel. It is never a good idea to cut, modify or restore art without professional consultation. I recommend conferring with at least three different specialists.  If a parish or a diocese finds itself with artwork that seemingly needs cutting, the solution is to move it to another location with more space. The solution is never to cut the art. Or to crowd it.

Fig 3. Hugo van der Goes, Monforte Altarpiece with reconstructed central extension, 247 x 263 cm, in the Hugo van der Goes exhibition, Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen Berlin, April 2023 Photo: David von Becker

I am not claiming that churches are museum but that historically lack of proper professional care, lack of practical experience with art, and lack of participation in disciplined art historical endeavors has been an obstacle for churches in undertaking successful art-related projects on a local diocesan and parish levels. Let the example of Monforte Altarpiece and the exemplary handling of the reconstruction by the Berlin Museum be a guiding light for projects that are undertaken locally and on a smaller scale. We often suffer knowing that some artworks have ended up in museums or private collections rather than in our churches, but if it were not for institutional professional care, how many of these works would have been lost, damaged, neglected? How many have been lost or neglected already? Art for churches constitutes a vital part of our common religious and spiritual heritage. This vital part requires study, attention and discerning care. Learning how to handle art evolves continuously and if in doubt, one should look to institutions that have had positive, successful, and continuous history of art preservation.

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