article 38: A Wee Baffin Regarding the Trinity Altarpiece, Edinburgh

While clearing out old photos on my iPad to make way for the new, I came across this close-up Naoko made of the famous “Trinity Altarpiece” by Hugo van der Goes, kept at the National Museum in Edinburgh. It shows (aside from the inevitable reflections from the protective glass) the very human hand of an angelic organist, who is playing from a plainchant manuscript of the vesper hymn “O lux beata Trinitas,” a text piously ascribed to St. Ambrose.

This incredible masterpiece of late Gothic art was described in the accounts, with notable Scottish reticence, as a “burd” – middle English for “board” – when it was presented to Trinity Collegiate Church (which formerly stood on the site of Waverley Station) on 17 May 1516 by John Stewart, Duke of Albany and regent of Scotland. His Grace was doing the honors for the actual donor, the late Edward Bonkil, sometime Provost of the church. The delay since the decease of van der Goes (1482) and Bonkil (1496) is difficult to explain. The outer panels of these two wings of a triptych (the central panel is lost) were partly completed by assistants. Perhaps they took their time; shipping from Flanders was slow....and the duke may have wished to keep the impressive work in his own chapel for awhile before departing for France, where his sister-in-law married a nephew of Pope Leo X in a ceremony at Amboise with decorations provided by Leonardo da Vinci. Van der Goes’ most famous work (and the source of all other attributions), the Portinari Altar in the Uffizi, also arrived in Florence post mortem, after a delay of some eight years.

The two inner panels, seen when the doors were open, show King James III of Scotland with his son James, and his queen, Margaret of Denmark, with their patron saints – all looking toward the lost central panel. The right outer panel, visible when the doors were closed, shows Bonkil worshipping the Holy Trinity on the left-hand panel, accompanied by the angel at the organ and the blower behind it, who is obviously of lower rank. It is doubtful whether a Seraph, Cherub, Throne, Dominion, Principality, Power or Virtue (the highest ranks) would have condescended to execute such a mundane task; let us assume that the organist is an Archangel, and the blower a simple Angel. The Archangel Sandalphon is heaven’s music director and patron of earthly musicians; perhaps we see him/her here, in shrunken form – for he/she is said to be tall enough to reach heaven from the Earth.

One would like to know how van der Goes obtained likenesses of Bonkil and the Scottish royals. For the latter, copies of official portraits might have been easily obtained, but the splendid face of the donor can only have been the result of a sketch from life. Bonkil was a wealthy merchant; was he in Flanders on business, where he found the work of van der Goes to his liking and commissioned his magnificent gift?

But enough already with the amateur theology and art history. Early keyboard performance practice is something I know a little more about, and what caught my eye the other day was the exactitude with which the hand over the keyboard is rendered. The fourth finger hovers close above A4; the tip of the fifth is barely visible next to it, above B4. The third is withdrawn, claw-like, ready to strike A4. The second is in the process of striking G4. The four fingers are pressed close together, and the thumb dangles free.

All these aspects together could have provided a perfect illustration for the instructions in the earliest detailed book of keyboard instruction to have been preserved: Fray Tomás de Santa María’s 1565 Arte de Tañer Fantasia. It may seem farfetched to connect the Burgundian Netherlands ca. 1475 with Valladolid some 80 years later, but Burgundy and its Flemish dependencies were the center of European culture while van der Goes flourished, and the influence of Flemish organ building and performance was already resonating and would soon become dominant in Spain.

The text of the Gregorian chant is as accurately depicted as the hand. The beginning, on the text “O lux” (and what finer word for a painter than “light”?), runs (ligature) g-a g f e f (a slight variant of the standard Solesmes text). Judging by the look on the organist’s face, he/she seems to have gotten the cue to begin, and the second finger looks a fraction of a second from striking the first note. Going down to the f, the old fingering (see especially Hans “von Konstanz” Buchner) would require crossing the third over the second.

What organist did van der Goes ask to show him the exact hand position for the ancient hymn’s opening? Since 1477 the painter had been living as a lay brother in the prestigious Rood Klooster near Brussels. The model might have been his own chapel’s organist – or it might have a member of the nearby court of the most sought-after heiress of the age, Marie of Burgundy, whom Emperor Maximilian eventually won. The greatest of her musicians was Antoine Busnois, who besides being a master polyphonist, was undoubtedly expert on keyboards as well. I would like to think van der Goes made a sketch of Antoine’s right hand.

Possibly the most curious feature of the painting is the gesture of the organist’s left hand. I first thought it might be operating a lever controlling the two large (bourdon?) pipes on the left side of the organ, but on closer inspection it is seen to be resting on Bonkil’s shoulder; it seems to be shoving him, none too softly, either out of a too-close proximity to the celestial performer or a bit closer to the representation of the Holy Trinity to their left.

That this Catholic work survived the iconoclasms of John Knox and his Calvinist henchmen is little short of a miracle like the ones the so-called “Flemish Primitives” loved to depict. Could it be that the dour crew realized it was too fine a thing to simply destroy as a papist shibboleth, and sold it, as thrifty Scots would? On the other hand, Trinity was a royal establishment, and its altarpiece may have simply reverted to the Stewarts, since it was inventoried in 1617 at Oatlands Palace in Surrey, the residence of Queen Anne of Denmark, the long-suffering wife of King James VI of Scotland / I of England.

Hugo van der Goes died after a brief, severe period of depression and a suicide attempt. An old chronicle says he was worried about having time left to finish the work he was committed to; another says “a painter from Ghent” was driven mad by his attempts to equal van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Lamb”. This was surely taking a sense of responsibility and artistic perfectionism too far.

August 3, 2021

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