Friday, July 9, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: Mary's Flowers in the Portinari Altarpiece

Still Life in the center of the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, 1476-1479.

Flowers, in two vases next to a wheat chaff and surrounded by strewn violets, form the lower section of the frame for the image of the Infant Christ in this large triptych that now resides at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy. The iconography of this still life points to the underlying theme of this Nativity scene: the Virgin Mary and her relationship to Christ and Christ's relationship to us through His Passion.

The exquisitely painted flowers each have a meaning:
The lily was a symbol of Mary and her purity. The stalk represented her religous mind, the leaves her humility, and the flower her mercy. The lily, it was believed in the Middle Ages, had first grown from tears that Eve shed as she fled the Garden of Eden. There are two lilies here on one stalk, with the number two signifying Christ's dual human and godly nature.

Also in the vase are three irises, white and blue for purity and heavenliness and three perhaps for the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The iris was itself a symbol of light and hope, but its leaves, seven in number here, signify the seven sorrows of Mary:
The Prophecy of Simeon over the Infant Jesus. (Gospel of Luke 2:34)
The Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family. (Gospel of Matthew 2:13)
The Loss of the Child Jesus for Three Days. (Luke 2:43)
The Meeting of Jesus and Mary along the Way of the Cross. (Luke 23:26)
The Crucifixion, where Mary stands at the foot of the cross. (Gospel of John 19:25)
The Descent from the Cross, where Mary receives the dead body of Jesus in her arms. (Matthew 27:57)
The Burial of Jesus. (John 19:40)

The columbine in the clear glass, with the light shining through in the left of the glass, symbolizes the Holy Spirit, or the Divine Spouse.

The three carnations peeking out over the rim of the glass symbolize love, and their number symbolizes the Trinity. It was believed that the carnation first grew from the tears of Mary for Christ.

The violets symbolize faithfulness, humility, and chastity.

The meanings of these beautifully rendered flowers are part of the great symphony of van der Goes' painting, to which we are called as participants.

Portinari Altarpiece central panel.

The wheat chaff and the liturgical garb of some of the angels point to the Eucharist, in which we partake of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, who sacrificed his life for our sins in the Passion. The Passion is the invisible theme of the painting, as shown in the solemn visage of Mary, who foresaw Christ's Passion from the beginning, and the pious stance of Saint Joseph and the angels, as if in preparing to receive Holy Communion. The empty shoe before Joseph is a reminder of God's words to Moses on Mount Sinai before the burning bush: Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground."

Nevertheless, even though this painting is "hallowed ground," we, like the shepherds, are invited to join in this scene, which is not at our eye level or above us, but is slanted toward us, a beckoning to bear the sorrows of Mary for her Son and to join in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

You can see all panels of the Portinari Altarpiece here. Van der Goes painted the altarpiece in Flanders on commission for the Sant d'Edigio chapel in the Santa Maria Nuova Hospital in Florence, Italy.


Merisi said...

Thank you, Linda, for this fascinating guide to a treasure from the past!

Linda said...

Merisi, Thank you for your kind comment, and perpetual thanks for you beautiful and inspiring blog.