When we look at a great piece of art, we are usually caught up in what we might call the “big picture” of the picture. A sculpture of the crucified Christ causes us to think about the meaning of His death on the cross, or a portrait bust of George Washington makes us think about his courage and resolve in the founding of this country. Yet sometimes we should take the time to appreciate the “little picture” in a work of art, and see what we can learn about ourselves in the process. So today, I’d like us to look at a Renaissance painting made up of both big and little pictures, but perhaps focus a bit on that aspect of it which asks us to consider the relationship between mothers and daughters. For this masterpiece does so simply by causing us to compare and contrast how a mother and daughter are dressed in the picture.
The magnificent, over-life-size Portinari Altarpiece, or more formally, “The Adoration of The Shepherds with Members of the Portinari Family, Accompanied by Saints Anthony, Thomas, Margaret, and Mary Magdalen”, is now in the Uffizi, but was originally created for the family chapel in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. It was painted around 1475 by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482) for Tommaso Portinari and his family. Tommaso was a financier with the Medici Bank in the Flemish city of Bruges for many decades; his wife, Maria Maddalena di Francesco Baroncelli, came from another prominent Florentine family (but more on them later.)
There are many fine details to admire in this work, from still life paintings of flowers in the foreground, to incredible levels of embroidery detail on the robes of the angels. Notice also how the tiny landscapes behind the figures feature other scenes from the Gospels apart from the Birth of Jesus. On the left, above St. Anthony Abbot’s bald head, we see the very pregnant Virgin Mary being assisted by St. Joseph as they come down a steep, rocky hillside into Bethlehem for the census, followed by the donkey on which the Blessed Mother had been riding. On the right, we see the Three Magi mounted on horseback on their way to Bethlehem, with one of them sporting a rather jaunty, white piece of headgear that looks like cowboy hat. The townsfolk are gathered nearby, with a child pointing in wonder at the luxuriously dressed foreigners, while one of the attendants asks a local the way to the stable.
The donors, i.e. Tommaso and Maria and their three children, kneel on either side of the Nativity scene, beneath the standing figures of their respective patron saints. The men of the family are dressed in expensive, but fairly simple costumes. It is rather the women of the family who draw our eye, and well they should, for these two Italian ladies are like haute couture fashion plates from the 15th century.
Signora de Portinari is not the curvy, full-figured woman we often expect to see in Renaissance paintings. She is elegantly dressed in a fitted, black velvet gown, with white fur cuffs and bodice detailing. She wears a wide, satin sash around her waist somewhat like a Japanese obi, a black veiled cap trailing diaphanous white silk, and a gold and jewel-encrusted collar necklace that probably cost the price of a house in those days. This is the only piece of jewelry she is wearing in the picture, other than her wedding ring.
To her left and set back a respectful distance behind, her beautiful daughter Margarita is also finely dressed. She wears a green silk dress with laced bodice, trimmed with matching dark green velvet. Her jewelry consists of a gold chain necklace with a jewel and pearl pendant, and a brooch pinned to the side of her cap. The young girl has magnificent strawberry blonde hair that cascades out very naturally from beneath her headpiece like a waterfall.
I think it is not unfair to observe that, unlike her daughter, Signora de Portinari is not exactly what we would consider pretty. Yet she is unquestionably a very elegant woman. If Coco Chanel had been a dressmaker during the Renaissance, she might well have dressed a lady exactly like this. Her high cheekbones, angular features, and slim figure would make her an ideal customer for many fashion designers even today.
In looking at the image of the mother and daughter kneeling together, one cannot help but wonder what the relationship was like between the two of them. Did the little girl turn out to be as fashionable and elegant as her mother? Or are we given a clue by Margherita’s tumbling, untamed hair that she had a bit of that hotheaded, rebellious streak, which we so often attribute to redheads? Did they argue about clothes, even as her mother picked out the finest clothes for her daughter to wear in formal settings, about what the mother wanted her to wear and what the daughter herself wanted to wear – something which mothers and daughters have argued about since time immemorial?
An open question in art history at the moment is why, when this painting for the hospital chapel was completed, it was not actually delivered until 1483. One theory is that the Portinaris were a bit too close to what was going on in Florence at the time. Not long after this piece was completed Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, a relative of the Signora de Portinari, was involved in the “Pazzi Plot” to overthrow the Medici family. He and another conspirator stabbed Giuliano de’ Medici, the brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, nineteen times while he was attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence one Sunday. Lorenzo, who was also attacked in the same assault, managed to escape, but Giuliano died on the floor of the cathedral. Many of the families of the conspirators were punished directly, or were found guilty by association.
Bernardo, who fled to Constantinople after the assassination, was later captured by the Turks and turned over to the Florentines. He was publically executed in Florence a year after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici – in fact, Leonardo da Vinci made a well-known, contemporary drawing of his corpse hanging from a rope. The final round of purges arising from the conspiracy took a few more years, so it is possible that the Portinaris thought it best for the family to lay low for a bit, rather than making a show of presenting a gigantic – and subsequently very famous and much-admired – work of art to the people of Florence.
However, despite the wealth and grandeur that you see in this painting, and despite whatever caution they may have exercised in their art donation, the Portinaris were eventually ruined. Tommaso made a number of bad investments on behalf of the Medici, which caused them to close the branch of their bank in Bruges. After several attempted comebacks, he ended up dying in a pauper’s bed at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, the very hospital for which he had commissioned this painting. His estate was left with so many debts, that his eldest son refused his inheritance, so as to free himself from his late father’s creditors. What happened to the stylish Signorina de Portinari, or to her daughter Margarita, I do not know. Perhaps a reader with greater knowledge of Italian history will be able to tell us in the comments.
What we do come away with in this picture, however, is not only an appreciation for a beautiful work of art, and a document of the styles and fashions of the time in which it was created, but also the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful consideration and discussion. The dynamic between mother and daughter is very unique, something which those of us with “Y” chromosomes can never fully understand. In works of art such as this, both mothers and daughters, as well as those who love them, can see a bit of their own relationships: what they were, are, and will be, in a timeless embodiment of that unique relationship.
The Portinari Altarpiece (Detail)