On May 28th, 1483, a painting arrived in Florence, one which would send shock waves through the city’s community of artists.
The painting, which took the form of an altarpiece (c.1475), was the work of a Flemish artist, Hugo van der Goes (c. 1440-1482). It had been commissioned by Tommaso Portinari (1424-1501), a long-serving agent of the Medici bank in Bruges and was destined for the church of Sant' Egidio. Sant' Egidio is part of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, which was founded by Folco Portinari, an ancestor of Tommaso, in 1288. Folco Portinari was interred in the church in front of the high altar.
Florentine artists were not only bowled over by the size of the altarpiece, which measures (when open) 2.5 m by 3 m (8 ft by 10 ft), but also by the Flemish painter’s attention to detail.
The Portinari Altarpiece is made up of three panels, a type of painting known as a triptych. The central panel depicts the Adoration of the Child. In the foreground is a beautifully observed still life, which is full of symbolic references. For instance, the three red carnations (known as nail flowers) refer to the nails of the Cross, while the sheaf of wheat and the grapes on the earthenware jar are references to the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
The donor, Tommaso Portinari, appears in the left wing, with two of his sons, Antonio and Pigello. The trio are dwarfed by Saint Thomas and Saint Anthony Abbot, the name-saints of the father and his eldest son. Pigello was added at a late stage in the painting of the altarpiece and does not have a name-saint. In the background we see Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem.
Tommaso's wife, Maria Baroncelli, appears in the right wing, with their eldest daughter, Margherita. They are accompanied by their name-saints, Mary Magdalene and Margaret. In the background we see the three Magi.
Tommaso Portinari married Maria Baroncelli in 1470; she was fourteen, he was forty-six. The first of their ten children, Margherita, was born a year later.
When the wings of the altarpiece are closed we see an image of the Annunciation, painted in grisaille. On most occasions, apart from Sundays, feast days and special celebrations, the altarpiece would have been closed and the images of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel would have been all that was visible. At the time the altarpiece was made, it was customary in the Netherlands to paint grisaille imitations of sculpture on the exterior of altarpieces.
The Portinari Altarpiece is now on display in the Gallerie degli Uffizi.