Friday, 20 May 2011

The Symbolism of Flowers in the Portinari Altarpiece- by Hugo van der Goes



Hugo van der Goes - Portinari Altarpiece (1475)
The Portinari altarpiece is a religious triptych commissioned by Tommaso Portinari. The overall composition depicts the Adoration of the shepherds, but in today's short post we will just be looking at the still life within the central panel.

At the heart of the foreground within the central panel lies two vases of flowers, next to which lies a sheaf of wheat. The symbolism of the wheat, is of the Last Supper where Christ broke the bread (also symbolic of the Eucharist). The white lilies in the vase next to the kneeling angel represent purity and the immaculate conception, the orange lilies are symbolic and allude to Christ's "Passion" later in life; and the purple iris flowers and columbine stalks in the second vase correspond to the "Seven Sorrows of the Virgin." Which are:
  1. The Prophecy of Simeon
  2. The Flight into Egypt
  3. The loss of Christ in the temple
  4. Mary finds Jesus on the route to Calvary
  5. Jesus dies on the cross- and act of redemption for the sins of humanity
  6. Mary accepts the body of the lifeless Christ into her arms
  7. The body of Christ is laid to rest in the tomb
It can therefore be argued that this poignant scene of the nativity (birth) of the Christ child prefigures the salvation for humanity attained through his inevitable death.


Other notable imagery and symbolism within the composition

The structure in a derelict and ruinous state in the background of the painting is the palace of David.
The three types of flora and fauna, the lilies, the columbine stalks and the sheaf of wheat in addition to the three panels of the altarpiece relates to the holy trinity and four was the number which was the number of man (that is man had four limbs, elements, seasons and stages of life). Further symbolism of the number seven relating to the columbine stalks are the seven sacraments, seven sins, seven virtues and also seven symbolised an eternal joining of man and God.
The discarded show to the left of the kneeling angel in white, is a symbol of respect, whereby a person would remove their shows upon entering holy ground as a sign of respect. The shepherds who are receiving the announcement of Jesus's arrival in the background are now at the heart of the central scene: where figures are repeated within a composition this is known as continuos narrative - which is a key narrative device used to engaged, convey the story and carry the painting's message across to the spectator.

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