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The Monforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes
“A pilgrimage is a journey, assigned by God. It brings the pilgrim, not only to a physical place, but also out of himself and into the presence of God. All else falls away. There is only the child, his Father, and eternity...”
Fr Svetozar Kraljevic OFM
The Monforte Altarpiece is an oil on oak panel painting of the Adoration of the Magi by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes. The altarpiece was originally the central panel of a triptych with movable wings that are now lost.
The principal narrative is pilgrimage and the search for God, reflecting not just the journey made by the Magi but also that of the artist in his later years, accompanied by an assortment of other pilgrims, painters and priests who impacted on his life in some way.
Hugo carefully crafts a composition of several themes, weaving and skilfully blending narratives to produce a telling masterpiece of iconography.
Arnolfini Portrait Mystery

from Flanders to Galicia

Some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” they asked. “We saw his star as it rose and we have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2 : 2

The painting takes its name from Monforte de Lemos, in northern Spain, where it was housed in the town’s College of Our Lady of Antigua.It was sold to the State Museum of Berlin in 1913 to raise funds to extend the college facilities. The site previously served as a university and seminary founded by Cardinal Rodrigo de Castro (1523-1600) towards the end of the 16th century. He was a great grandson of the Ist Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez Osario (†1483).


Iconography evidence reveals the painting was commissioned specifically as an altarpiece for a church or chapel located in Montforte de Lemos, most likely the Dominican monastery of San Vincento do Pino adjacent to the Castle of the Counts, and probably to commemorate Beatriz Enriquez de Castella (1398-1455), wife of the first Count of Lemos. The commission also coincided with the rebuild of the castle after it was damaged during the Great Irmandiño War (1467-1469). A fire later damaged the monastery and this was rebuilt during the 16th century. It may have been at this point that the painting was moved to another location, possibly the Convent of Santa Clara in Monforte Lemos, founded in 1622  by Caterina de la Cerda y Sandoval following the death of her husband Pedro Fernández de Castro (1576-1622) and VII Count of Monforte. In 1633 Caterina professed as a Poor Clare, taking the name Caterina Conception as the convent was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. 


Hugo’s painting was eventually placed in the chapel of the college of Our Lady of Antigua, possibly as a gift from its founder Cardinal Rodrigo de Catsro who may have inherited the artwork via his family connection to the 1st Count of Monforte de Lemos. A copy of the work has replaced the original now kept in the Gemäldergalerie, Berlin.

time moves on


As to when the painting was completed, art historians generally date the work c1470, although Till-Holger Borchert places it between 1473-1477. However, there are historic narratives in the painting for it to be attributed thereafter, even as late as 1482, the year put at Hugo’s death. If Hugo did die that year then it is feasible the Montforte Altarpiece was one of his last paintings. Besides the historic references supporting this hypothesis are three figures in the scene portraying Hugo as “close to death”.

the artist


Not a lot is known about the life of Hugo van der Goes. There is no certainty about his birthdate or when he died exactly. It is assumed he was born in Ghent around 1440 and died in 1482 at Auderghem near Brussels. Sometime after 1475 Hugo entered cloistered life as a lay brother but continued to paint. It was later claimed by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk serving with Hugo in the Roode Klooster, that the artist suffered with a psychological illness and on one occasion attempted to self-harm. Incidents surrounding this traumatic episode late in Hugo’s life are alluded to in the painting, supporting Ofhuys’ account later chronicled around 1510.

missing parts


The Monforte Altarpiece had two wing panels attached that are lost, and the main centre panel was cut down in size at some time in its history. However, there is a small-size copy of the original centre section housed at the Museo Baroffio in Varese, Italy. Although some elements have been altered the replica does complete the picture, so to speak, and provides further information about the structure of the building in which the scene is set. The work is attributed to “a follower of Hugo van der Goes” and dated at the end of the 15th century. Apart from being a copy in reverse, the painting is connected for another reason and probably explains why the replica is located where it is.

temples and towers


The ruined building is a standard backdrop for Nativity and Adoration scenes. It represents the ruined Temple of Solomon. The grey stone section behind the fence is the Second Temple (also destroyed), while the newborn infant Jesus signifies the sanctuary that was destroyed and raised up again in three days – his death and resurrection (John 2 : 19). The golden-colour building at the rear represents the rebuild of the Monforte castle and probably its monastery wing damaged during the Irmandiño War.


The castle’s main tower – which still survives – is known as the Torre dl Homenaje, the Homage Tower, which the local people were made to rebuild after the uprising and then swear allegiance and do homage to the 1st Count of of Monforte de Lemos. Hence the association with the scene based on the biblical passage from Matthew’s Gospel (2 : 12) when three men from the East made their way to Bethlehem seeking the infant king of the Jews and to do him homage.


That the scene is linked to the Monforte Tower of Homage is borne out by Hugo in the way he cleverly combines a group of figures to refer to the coat of arms of the 1st Count, alongside those of his wife, that were set into the rebuilt tower in 1480. One of the titles attributed to the Virgin Mary is Tower of David. Stonemasons marks, including the Seal of Solomon, are also inscribed on the tower.


by Hugo van der Goes 

housed at Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Oil on oak, 242 x 147 cm


by  a follower of Hugo van der Goes 

housed at the Museo Baroffio, Varese

The Homage Tower and castle grounds of Monforte de Lemos.

guiding stars

The magi followed a star and when it halted over the place where the child was they knelt down and offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The three men are traditionally known as Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar and also referred to as wise men or kings. In Christian art they are usually depicted representing the three ages of adult man.


The celestial star positioned in the upper part of the painting’s missing section shone not only as a guide to lead the Magi to Jesus, but also served as sign to reveal one of many themes threaded in the presentation: that of influential guides and lights, be they heavenly planets, patron saints, clergy, friends and family, or even pagan deities, in the search for wisdom and truth. The figures are paired to highlight their special relationship and also to demonstrate how each pairing interweaves and impacts on other groups travelling on its pilgrimage journey through life.


Although there are parts of the painting that point to Hugo’s struggle with depression as he approached the end of life’s journey, it also reveals he is at peace and paying his own tribute and homage to people who have helped him on his way.

saintly ways of the cross



End of life is another connecting theme in the painting, particularly sudden death caused by murder and execution, so creating martyrs and saints and pilgrimage destinations. The Holy Land, Rome, Canterbury, Cologne and Santiago Compostela are all alluded to in Hugo’s painting.


It is feasible the artist may have visited the Spanish shrine dedicated to St James the Greater. Monforte de Lemos served as an important stop-off for pilgrims, where facilities and protection were provided, most likely by Dominicans during Hugo’s time but prior to that by a dedicated group of Hospitallers known as the Order of St James of Altpascio, founded in northern Italy in the late 11th century and also known as the Knights of Tau.

According to the American historian Ephraim Emerton, in Santiago Compostela the Tau symbolised thaumaturgy. In this context, a sign representing St James as a miracle-worker.


The Tau Cross features on many of the old buildings in and around Monforte de Lemos and is incorporated in the town’s official coat of arms. Hugo has also shaped the white cloak placed on Joseph’s right shoulder to suggest he is bearing the Tau Cross.

presenting the pilgrims


Hugo has applied multiple identities to the main figures in the scene. At surface level, from left to right, is the traditional line-up of Joseph and the Virgin Mary, the new-born infant Jesus, the three Magi, Melchior, Caspar (and a kneeling servant) and Balthazar. In this narrative the other figures are generally presumed to be servants and shepherds.


The Magi and two of the servants are also portrayed as heads of state at the time. Lining up with gifts for the Infant King are (left to right): Pope Sixtus IV, Frederick III and Holy Roman Emperor, his son Maximilian I, and Ludovico (the Moor) Sforza who was Regent of Milan. Behind Ludovico is his young nephew and Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Sforza.


Hugo has also grouped the ‘Three Kings’ and the figure of Joseph to represent the Four Latin Doctors of the Church: Joseph as St Ambrose, Melchior as Pope St Gregory the Great; Caspar as St Jerome, and Balthazar as St Augustine. This is qualified by the liturgical colours of their ‘vestments’ worn by priests for celebrating Mass. Ambrose wears Rose, Gregory wears Red, Jerome is in Black (his attribute, the kneeling ‘lion’ alongside, is draped in Purple), while Augustine is robed in Green.


clothed in splendour


The focus on the distinct coloured vestments also serve a purpose: to highlight the cloth manufacturing industry of Bruges and Florence. In his book The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice, Luca Molà writes:


“In the second part of the fifteenth century, the silk industry, driven as usual by Italian entrepreneurs, pressed its triumphal march further north, reaching Flanders. It found fertile ground in Bruges, a city that specialised in the production of a light fabric in which silk was mixed with other fibres. This ‘satin of Bruges’ was of considerable renown in European markets during the Renaissance, and in 1496 its manufacturers were numerous enough to found a guild of its own.”



The drape also represents a nun’s wimple. This relates to a second identity Hugo has given to St Joseph, and other figures in the picture, that of St Ambrose and the female religious order named after him, the Romite Ambrosians founded by Caterina Moriggi and approved by Pope Sixtus IV in 1474. Blessed Caterina was given permission by the Franciscan pope at the request of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, to erect a monastery under the rule of St Augustine, on a mount above Varese in Italy. The sanctuary still stands and the mount is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Sacro Monte di Varese. It’s a two kilometre climb to the top of the mount. There are stations erected along the path depicting the Way of the Cross.

It is at this point a connection to the replica painting of the Monteforte Altarpiece can be made. The copy is housed in the Museo Barrofio which is located beside the S. Maria sanctuary at the summit of the mount above Varese. The copy painting, along with much of the art treasures in the museum, was donated by Baron Giuseppe Baroffio Dall’Aglio (1859-1929).

temples and threads

There is another vestment allusion in this section of the painting which connects to Florence and its famous baptistery of San Giovani: the gold strands on the floor beside the large stone. They refer to a famous set of gold-embroidered liturgical vestments designed and produced by another Florentine artist Antonio Pollaiuolo between 1466 and 1479. The vestments depict the Life of St John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence. They were for use in the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, situated next to the Battistero di San Giovani. Nineteen of the embroideries survive in various condition, but not the vestments.


Just as Pollaiuolo embroidered the life of the Baptist on vestments, so Hugo van der Goes paints a variety of narratives on his panel, threading and fusing a tapestry of themes and events which relate to a key period in his life. “Clothes maketh the man” and so Hugo spins, measures and cuts the cloth to drape his figures who, like the infant Jesus, were all born naked into the world. The garments are designed to be admired and to express the wearer’s status in life, but Hugo also uses them to depict the measure of the man and what fate has in store, revealing possibly that the artist may have had a fatalist temperament which contributed to his instability and uncertainty in later life.


This self harm attempt probably explains Hugo’s inclusion of the quatrefoil and its reference to the Sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham’s hand was held back from killing his son Isaac by an angel’s intervention. Likewise when Hugo made what is said to be a suicide attempt he was prevented from doing so by the group of monks he was travelling with after visiting Cologne. This excursion or ‘pilgrimage’ was likely to have been to Cologne Cathedral which houses the Shrine of the Three Kings and where there is a reliquary said to contain their bones. Also displayed in the cathedral at the time was Rogier van der Weyden’s triptych known as the St Columba Altarpiece (Cologne Cathedral is dedicated to St Columba). Its central panel portrays the visit of the Magi. Van der Weyden’s painting may also have served as inspiration for Hugo’s version of the Adoration of the Kings. 

Another pointer to the Florentine cloth industry is the gold ciborium placed on the large stone in the foreground. In this instance its quatrefoil shape relates to a design feature that frames a series of panels on a set of bronze doors of the Battistero di San Giovani in Florence. This particular set of doors was commissioned by the Arte di Calimala, the cloth importers guild, and made by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the famous Florentine goldsmith and sculptor. A trial panel was commissioned by the guild who specified it should depict The Sacrifice of Isaac within a quatrefoil surround.


This biblical narrative, also known as the Binding of Isaac, is found in the Book of Genesis 22. God sends Abraham to the land of Moriah and asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac. After making an altar and binding his son, an angel appears and prevents Abraham from taking Isaac’s life and a ram is used as the sacrifice instead.


So in this scenario we see why Hugo has depicted the Infant Jesus staring directly at the ciborium on a stone altar, and why he is seated on a white cloth that features the outline of a ram in its folds. The Child is portrayed as the Redeemer, the unblemished Lamb of God.


on this rock


The large stone and its close proximity to the kneeling Pope is also there to correlate a passage from Scripture with a specific business arrangement between the Medici bank and Pope Sixtus IV; the trade of alum, a compound essential for tanning and especially fabric industries to stabilise dyes and brighten colours. 


The Scripture reference is the apostle Peter’s profession of faith and Christ’s response: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” (Matthew 16 : 13- 20). Peter: (Cephas in Greek, meaning ‘rock’).


For Sixtus IV it was the anticipated fortune to be made from mining the alum discovered in 1461 at Tolfa in the Papal States, and not the spiritual dimension of the Church that was of prime importance to the Pope. In 1473 he entered into a business arrangement with the the Medici for them to manage the mines as well as the distribution and sale of the alum in exchange for some of the Church’s debts and a share of the profits to enable him to expand the Papal States. But the arrangement was never satisfactory or as profitable as first anticipated and for both the Pope and the Medici bank their faith placed in this particular rock resulted in tragic consequences just five years later and did nothing to build the reputation of the Church or the fortunes of the Medici Bank.


A close inspection shows the rock smeared in gold dust and gold veins running through it – another reference to gilt and the gilded ciborium, and all is not what is seems to be. 


Another feature to be found in the stone is a reference to the time when Christ was about to make his triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19 : 35-40). His disciples “joyfully began to praise God at the top of their voices for all the miracles they had seen. They cried out: Blessing on the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Some Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Master, check your disciples”, but he answered, “I tell you, if these keep silence the stones will cry out.”


And on the left edge of the stone is a facial feature ‘crying out’. It’s placed to align with the rose-coloured gown given to ‘Joseph’. Rose vestments are worn by priests on only two Sundays in the liturgical year – the fourth Sunday in Lent, and the third Sunday in Advent (Guadete Sunday). Both are considered days of celebration during the austere periods of Lent and Advent in preparation for Easter and Christmas. Gaudete is also a sacred Christmas carol derived from a medieval song of praise. The opening stanza is:


Gaudete, gaudete!

Christus est natus

Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!


A similar ‘crying out’ or singing motif shows up on the white drape covering Joseph’s right shoulder. This can be understood as a second voice or harmony to suggest the style of plainsong known as the Ambrosian Chant.

full and short measures

When Hugo van der Goes suddenly became agitated on his journey back from Cologne, he kept insisting that he was a lost soul and bound for eternal damnation. He made an attempt to self harm – some say to commit suicide. Whatever, his actions revealed a sense of deep despair and hopelessness. 


Hugo expresses this fatalistic notion in his painting, alongside the belief that life is determined by celestial signs, just as the rising star followed by the Magi signalled the birth of the infant king of the Jews. But astrology was not just for men from the East. Pope Sixtus IV, Frederick III, Maximilium I and Ludovico Sforza, all used the services of astrologers in decision making and to determine their future plans.


Moriah, the place where God determined a sacrifice be made of Isaac, also links to Hugo’s idea of fatalism. ‘Moriah’ is a pun on ‘Moirai’ or ‘Moerae’, the three goddesses of Fate in Greek mythology who “controlled the mother thread of life in every mortal from birth to death.” The three Moirai are Clotho who spins the thread of life from her distaff onto the spindle; Lachesis who measures with her rod the thread of life given to each person; and Atropos who cuts the thread of life with her shears.


The Virgin Mary is sometimes depicted in paintings spinning wool with a distaff and spindle. This iconography is based on a passage from the Protovangelium of James which describes how Mary was chosen to spin the ‘true purple’ for the temple veil and the scarlet cloth for the serving priest. In Hugo’s painting, the thread of life is spun from the Infant Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ seated on Mary’s lap. Her purple garment defines her as the ‘Temple of the Lord’.


The serving priest is the kneeling figure in scarlet representing both Pope Sixtus IV and Pope St Gregory the Great. Prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth whose husband Zechariah was the principal serving priest at the Temple. However, he was unable to fulfil his duty after being struck dumb because he doubted the angel who told him his barren wife would conceive a child. His place was taken by Samuel. For Zechariah read Sixtus IV and for Samuel, St Gregory the Great. For Clotho, the “mother thread of life”, read Mary, Mother of God.


The scarlet figure of Pope Sixtus IV dominates the central section of Hugo’s painting. This is not without reason and is explained later. The remnant or what is left of the pontif’s life is the trailing length of cloth. It is measured out by the pointed foot of Emperor Frederick III, as if to suggest he has the measure of the Pope. The boot is shaped as a snake’s head and this is part of another theme in the painting associated with the Three Fates that links to the men from the East and pagan belief and worship. The Holy Roman Emperor is presented in the role of Lachesis.


The third Fate, Atropos, is illustrated  by combining the figures of Maximilian I and Ludovico Sforza. At first glance is appears that the sword close to the hem of the red robe belongs to the standing figure of Ludovico. In fact it hangs from the waist of Maximilian. The sword is there to cut the thread of life, hence its placement next to the hem of the Pope’s garment, and also alongside the fringe of the green overcoat worn by Ludovico. Notice the shortened length of the front compared with back of the garment trailing on the floor.


The pommel on the sword’s grip is a pointer to an unexpected death in the life of Maximilian, while his left knee is positioned next to the deadly nightshade plant, whose latin name is shared with the Third Fate, Atropos!  Together with the white edge of the scarlet robe (hem-lock) Hugo presents a lethal poison for cutting the thread of life.

Observe the ‘keystone’ symbol that ‘cuts’ through the fringe of the garment, a reference to the hypocrisy and vanity displayed by the scribes and Pharisees recorded in Mathew’s Gospel (23 : 1-12), and to Jesus being the keystone rejected by the builders (1 Peter 2 : 6). It also refers to Moriah as the place where Solomon built his temple on the plan of a trapezoid shaped as a keystone.

• More to follow...

The ciborium is a reference to a panel below depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac, commissioned by the Florentine cloth guild in a competition to create a set of bronze doors for the Florence Baptistry. Lorenzo Ghiberti (above) created this particular panel and eventually the doors which later became known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’.

His name is John... one of the embroidered vestments depicting the life of John the Baptis, designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo.

Left: Adoration of the Kings, centre panel of the Columba Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden, Alte Pina Kotheck, Munich.

Christ in the Virgin’s Womb, depicting Mary spinning thread with a distaff and spindle.

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