Paper delivered at the Art History Sessions of the 66th Annual Meeting of the College Art Association of America, Washington, D. C. , 1978

The Impact of the Modern Devotion on Hugo van der Goes's Death of the Virgin

In 1863, the Belgian historian Alphonse Wauters published a startling revelation: that the great Ghent painter Hugo van der Goes had experienced a disastrous episode of insanity around 1480. This information was discovered by Wauters in “The Chronicle of the Red Cloister,” written by Gaspar Ofhuys, prior of the monastery in the early sixteenth century. Ofhuys had known van der Goes personally, having taken vows at the same time as the painter.

According to the chronicler, Hugo van der Goes became demented while returning from a trip to Cologne with a party of fellow monks. Shortly before reaching Brussels, Hugo, without any prior signs of distress, suddenly erupted. He insisted that he was a lost soul, that he was doomed to perdition, and tried to commit suicide. His brothers had to forcibly restrain him from violently taking his life. When the travellers finally attained Brussels, treatment for Hugo was ready. The prior of the Red Cloister had arranged for the appropriate remedies-- music therapy and performances. Unfortunately, these proved ineffective and van der Goes returned to the Red Cloister incapacitated. Remission occurred some time after his return but we do not know whether it was complete. About a year after this incident the artist was dead.

Wauters' remarkable discovery did not have any immediate impact upon historians but it did impress painters. Emile Wauters, Alphonse's nephew, caused a sensation in 1872 with his painting of Hugo van der Goes Undergoing Treatment at the Red Cloister (Fig. 1). And as early as 1873  Vincent van Gogh referred to this painting in a letter to his brother Theo. On at least two further occasions the Dutch artist likened his own appearance to that of Hugo's as recreated by Wauters, and identified emotionally with the fifteenth--century painter.

It was not until the early twentieth century, when, after the Bruges exhibition of Netherlandish Primitives, in 1902, that Hugo van der Goes's oeuvre was firmly established and its development delineated. At this juncture van der Goes's malady was invoked as an explanatory agent in discussions of the style and content of his paintings. Today, the connection is implicit in most of the literature, the general assumption being that the progress of his pyschosis is traceable in his art. Accordingly, the paintings assigned to the period soon after his admission to the Ghent Painter's guild in 1467, for instance, the Berlin Adoration of the Magi do not manifest signs of distress, whereas traces of the incipient stages of Hugo's breakdown are noted in works produced during his middle period, that is prior to Hugo's entry into the Red cloister, as for example, the shepherds in the Portinari Altarpiece . Those paintings placed at the conclusion of his activity are believed to reveal either the imminent onset of pyschosis or the after--effects of illness. The paramount examples of this phase are the Berlin Nativity and The Death of the Virgin in Bruges (Fig. 2). It is in the latter work that historians have perceived the most pronounced manifestations of his mental disorder.


In this painting, Hugo did not pursue many of the the painterly aims that were so prominent in his other work. His monumental Renaissance manner enriched by sensuous color, textural specifics, and embellishments, was restrained by a deliberate "primitivism," comparable to that adopted by his former mentor Joos van Ghent, in his Urbino altarpiece The Communion of the Apostles (Fig. 3). Perhaps a similar problem gave rise to an analogous solution. Certainly the change in Hugo's painting is very pronounced. Line rather than tone defines form, setting is virtually eliminated, and space and volume are contracted, flattened onto the plane. Only the foreshortened bed and the Virgin's body provide spatial cues. But there is one concern that links this painting with van der Goes's other works, the remarkable depiction of the actors. Individualized physiognomically, each saint's action is also particularized. The motions of their minds activate, restrain, compel, and urge their bodies, limbs, and faces to assume revelatory expressions. Van der Goes's creative imagination has generated characters with a sentient core. The astonishing variety Hugo realized in the painting brings to mind Giotto's Navicella (Fig. 4), Alberti's paradigm for the quality "variety," a necessary element in a convincing narrative. Alberti commented on this work: "the Navicella in which our Tuscan painter Giotto put eleven disciples, all moved by fear seeing one of their companions walk on the waters, because he represented each figure with its face and action indicating a disturbed mind, so that each had its own diverse movements and attitudes." Perhaps the simillarity is merely fortuitous. Still, might we not entertain the possibility that Hugo, who was familiar with Italian art and Albertian principles, vied with the earlier master's achivement, by transforming his contemporary manner into a less progressive tongue, so that syntax and vocabulary would be comparable?

Whether Hugo was actually influenced by Italian art when designing The Death of the Virgin may never be known conclusively, but certainly connections with his own milieu can be established. The confluence of two religious movements, complementary in nature--The Windesheim Congregation, Hugo's own Order, and the Cistercians, the group that commissioned the altarpiece--can be discerned in The Death of the Virgin.

Let us first examine the original situation of the altarpiece and review briefly some of the aesthetic principles of the Cistercian Order, since it was for this religious society that Hugo painted the Death of the Virgin. A well-established provenance indicates that the altarpiece was installed in the Abbey of the Dunes (Figs. 5, 6 ), a Cistercian monastery once located on the seacoast south of Bruges. Though the monastery experienced a period of decline after very rapid growth, it was still, in the fifteenth century, a vast complex with religious, economic, and political power. During the period when Hugo received the commission the reigning abbot was Jean Crabbe (Fig. 7). Presumably, he was the donor. After encountering stiff resistance from the Burgundian house, which insisted that Crabbe's election be put aside so that James of Portugal, later Cardinal of Portugal, could be installed as abbot, Crabbe had a successful career, presiding as president of the Council of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian and advancing to the position of Vicar General of the Cistercians.

Although the altarpiece's placment in the church is not known, a hypothesis can be proposed which is made plausible by circumstantial evidence. Around 1400 Abbot Jean Maes consecrated a memorial chapel dedicated to Mary for the abbots of the monastery. The subject of the altarpiece suits this situation, because it references both the function of the chapel and its dedication.

Although the theme of Mary's death was drawn from Mariological cycles, it was not associated with the illustrations of the Office of the Dead, but its connection in the popular imagination of the late Middle Ages with "the art of dying well," an issue of exceptional interest at this time, was firmly established. Mary's death was considered the model all Christians aspired to. Painless and protected from assaults of the devil, Mary relinguished her soul willingly and without fear. Van der Goes stressed the notion of the triumph over death and the devil through death itself, by depicting Christ appearing to Mary in her last conscious moments (As you can see, her eyes are still open.) Christ as saviour raises his hands in benediction and displays the wounds that evidence his sacrifice (Figs. 8, 9 ). His appearance to Mary during the greatest trial of mortal man gives her comfort and answers her faith. And by extension the viewer also gains spiritual support as he is shown the fulfillment of the promise made to the faithful. With Christ present, death is not to be feared.

In addition to a conceptual relationship, physical evidence supports the proposed placement of the altarpiece in the Maes chapel. The chapel's Mariological dedication apparently determined its important embellishments, such as the great rose pattern of the tiled floor and its windows. A glass fragment indicates that their dominant color was blue (Fig. 10), the altarpiece’s predominant hue. Blue may signify hope and perserverance, two of the Virgin's cardinal virtues; therefore, it is often associated with her.

As for the aesthetic principles of the Cistercians, these can be characterized as a preference for simplicity and austerity. This taste determined all aspects of their religious life, from architecture to liturgy. Citation of two rules governing the manufacture and appearance of ritual objects provides a distinct idea of their aesthetic bias. No crosses fashioned of precious material were permissable; wooden ones alone could be used. Vestments were to made of wool or linen without any decorations fashioned with silk, silver, or gold thread. By the fifteenth century, the strict rules were not scrupuously enforced. Chretien de Hondt, thirtieth abbot of the Dunes, for example , could now worship in cozy comfort and sartorial splendor, without provoking censure. But despite this update in manners, the Cistercian ideal was still very real. Jean Crabbe applied to van der Goes because, as a fellow monk, albeit of a different Order, van der Goes would have been especially sensitive to the fundamental tenets of the Cistercians and would have been able to emobody them in his painting. Moreover, these beliefs overlapped with those of the Windesheim Congreagation, Hugo's Order.

The Windesheim Congregation and its lay counterpart the Brethren of the Common Life, constituted what has been called by Steven Ozment "the strictest form of late medieval monastic pietry and reform." These communities practiced the ideals of the Modern Devotion as formulated by Gerard Groote in the mid-fourteenth century. Central to their belief was a rigorous austerity modeled after Christ's human nature. Humility, self-abnegation, and a cultivated rejection of the world were expressed in their writings, incorporated in their discipline, and practiced fervently by the adherents of the Modern Devotion. To perfect their spiritual condition, meditation and self-examination were recommended, indeed required. Meditation was not limited to a specific period of time. Rather, a subject was chosen from Christ's life and Passion and the Four Last Things, which the devotionalist was expected to ruminate on during an entire day. Introspection or self-examination, the first stage in preparation for confession, did not necessarily lead to the celebration of that sacrament. Its function as employed by the Devotionalist, was to continually make him aware of his sins so that he could act to purify himself of spiritual taint.


As part of Hugo van der Goes's life, these devotional practices must have affected him consciously and subconsciously. The effect of the latter obviously cannot be assayed but the action of the former can be observed as it had a marked impact on the Death of the Virgin  (Fig. 11 ). In particular, it effected an original departure from the iconographic tradition of the apostles. This tradition was established in Byzantine art, where the theme of the death of the Virgin ( the Dormition) was first depicted (Fig. 12). The apostles appeared as a massed group of restrained mourners, several vested with ritual responsibilities. This iconography was adopted in the West, remaining in effect until the fourteenth century. At that time, especially in northern Europe, the apostles were disposed in new arrangements necessitated by repositioning of the bed from parallel to  the picture plane (Fig 13) to oblique. Not uncommonly two or more apostles appear at the foot of the bed. A variety of actions were assigned to them: reading, praying, mourning, and celebrating the liturgy. But no matter how varied the behavior, the apostles interacted and expressed common concerns. In van der Goes's painting this is not the case. The apostles are gathered in close physical proximity but they do not interact or act in unison, except Peter, vested as priest, and another apostle who holds the candle of the dying, a ritual object used in the performance of the Commendation of the Spirit (Fig. 14). The apostles are self absorbed, emotionally isolated. Emotions and thoughts are experienced privately and in silence. Their grave faces, contracted brows, and compressed lips drawn ever so slightly down at the corners, convey a sense of inner rather than outer focus. This impression is further communicated by the device of having the apostles gaze in various directions (Figs. 15, 16).

The interiority of experience central to van der Goes's portryal of the apostles corresponds to the devotional exercises advocated by the Modern Devootionalists. In fact, the apostles seem to embody the very qualities that the Devotionalists considered essential for effective mediatation: sinlessness, fervor, humility, silence, and withdrawl.

It is not only the apostles' faces and attitudes but their gestures as well which communicate introspection. Their hands speak a language no longer fully comprehensible to us. Undoubtedly each gesture has a specific meaning or meanings determined either by rhetoric, ritual or by other convetions. The apostles who join their hands in prayer need no explanation. But how, for example, are we to understand the significance of St. John's left hand (Fig. 17) . The palm side is exposed to view, the thumb is bent and the forefinger held free. This gesture cannot be explained by reference to ritual or rhetoric, but it does seem to relate to certain late medieval devotional practices that employed the hand as a mnemonic device. Jean Mombaer, one of the most prolific Windesheim authors, devised a hand psalter as an aid to prayer (Fig. 18). He fixed on the inner face of the left hand twenty-eight systematically organized  pious thoughts that were to be ticked off with the right thumb at the appropriate moment during the recitation of the Psalms. Similar in design is the Hand as the Mirror of Salvation, a Netherlandish woodcut dated 1466 (Fig. 19). As in former example, pious thoughts are arrayed on the inner side of the hand. Probably this hand was exployed like the hand psalter except that it was intended to prepare its user for spiritual cleansing and confession. The thumb and forefinger are identified respectively in the print as "the will of God" and "examination." If these identifications are applied to John's gesture, two ideas can be discerned in it. First, John is examining his conscience, perhaps trying to determine if doubt or lack of faith have taken root. Secondly, his thumb expresses recogntion that Mary's death is God's will.

Further study would probably lead to a fuller understanding of the gestures and their interrelationships. At present, I merely wish to call attention to the fact that they were consciously designed as expressive agents and their significance originates either specifically from the circle of the Devotionalists or generally from devotional practices of the late Middle Ages.

In this paper, the widely accepted belief that a simple connection exists between Hugo van der Goes's mental illness and the stylistic and iconographic novelties apparent in The Death of the Virgin have been questioned. Examination of the painting in its historical context indicates that explanations based upon the artist's pyschopathology are not required for understanding the unique features of this work and by extension other late paintings associated with it. This approach does not deny the importance of the individual sensibility that governs creative processes and imprints its character on the completed work. But this sensibility or personal vision is structured by specific cultural elements. In van der Goes's case, Renaissance artistic traditions were informed by the religious beliefs and devotional practices of his ambience. The Modern Devotion particularly influenced his perceptions and attitudes. In turn, van der Goes's pyschopathology prior to the onset of pyschosis undoubtedly helped to create a new pictorial vision in which the ideals of the Modern Devotion could be communicated.

Figure 1                               Figure 2


 Figure 3                   Figure 4


Figure 5                   Figure 6


Figure 7

Figures 8,  9

Figure 10

Figure 11                                                 


Figure 12                  Figure 13


Figure 14

Figures 15, 16


Figure 17

Figure 18               Figure 19


Susan Koslow, “The Impact of Hugo van der Goes’s Mental Illness and Late-Medieval Religious Attitudes on the Death of the Virgin,” in Healing and History, Essays for George Rosen, ed. Charles E. Rosenberg (New York: Neale Watson Academic Publications, 1979), 27-50.

For Gaspar Ofhuys' Chronicle concerning Hugo van der Goes see assaph-art/assaph4/articles_assaph4/dolev.pdf


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