You may suspect that Hugo van der Goes (?-1482) is not entirely Scottish. That is true; he was one of the masters of early Flemish art and never set foot in Scotland. This altarpiece was commissioned in the 1470s for Trinity Collegiate Church in Edinburgh but made in the Low Countries. Yet it is claimed as one of the masterpieces of Scottish Renaissance art, which tells us much about Scotland and its relationship to Europe.
It originally comprised a central panel, now lost, with two double-sided outer panels, folding out to show or cover the main image inside. Outside, its patron, Sir Edward Bonkil, kneels before a vision of the holy Trinity – God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Ghost – while an angel plays the organ. The insides of the folding panels show St Andrew presenting James III and his son, later James IV, and St Canute presenting Queen Margaret of Denmark. James III was the first great Renaissance Scottish king, and his son (after a brief early act of treason that led to his father’s death) went on to be the greatest Scottish patron of the arts, and particularly of Scottish Renaissance literature, before losing to the English at Flodden.
The Northern Renaissance in what is now Belgium and the Netherlands is not as well-known as that of Italy. But painters such as van Eyke, van der Weyden, and Memling are every bit the equal of Italian artists, and Hugo van der Goes was in the first rank, known for works such as the Portinari altarpiece in the Uffizi, Florence, and his later Death of the Virgin in Bruges, which shows his skill for introducing psychological realism to religious subjects.
His early life is very uncertain; his date of birth is variously given between about 1420 and 1440, possibly in Ghent although this is supposition. Records indicate he became a master painter in Ghent in 1467; he became dean of the guild in 1474. At the time, Flanders was flourishing through trade across the North Sea and with mainland Europe, which included strong trading links with Scotland: despite the prominent lamb of God in van Eyck’s masterpiece, much of Europe’s wool came from Scotland. The Trinity altarpiece was commissioned in the 1470s around same time as van der Goes’s best-known work, the Portinari altarpiece.
The artist had a short but successful career, mainly painting religious subjects. Even in the Renaissance, descriptions often over-emphasise the troubled genius of great artists, but contemporary sources show his long history of mental illness, albeit largely due to the account of a monkish rival. He was reportedly was driven to despair by his failure to equal van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, and in 1481 he seems to have suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide. His last few years were spent as a lay resident in Rood-Klooster, an Augustinian priory near Brussels, where he died in 1482.
Trinity Collegiate Church, Edinburgh, was founded around 1460 by Queen Mary of Gueldres, wife of James II and later regent to their son James III, in memorial to her late husband. A collegiate church is one staffed by a group of ministers or priests, living together but not by monastic rules. Not completed until the mid 16th century, it served as the burial place of Mary until 1848.
The altarpiece shows Sir Edward Bonkil (or Boncle), the first Provost of Trinity Collegiate Church, who probably paid for it; he had also donated an organ to the church, which is depicted or alluded to alongside Bonkil’s portrait. The image of Sir Edward is one of the earliest portraits of a Scotsman, particularly unusual for not being a member of royalty. Its commissioning becomes more explicable by suggestions that he was related to Alexander Bonkil, a Scottish-born merchant who lived in Flanders and became an envoy for its Burgundian rulers. Sir Edward probably travelled to Flanders to be painted by the master, although there is no surviving record of this.
As you will see, a number of tenuous threads of evidence are offered to prove a Scottish connection with van der Goes; clearly it is important to Scottish art history to prove that this altarpiece was more than just a generic work sold Europe-wide, but rather created by a man with knowledge of and affection for Scotland. So we know that in Bruges, van der Goes knew Alexander Bening, apparently a Scottish painter, whom Goes proposed for membership of the painters guild and who married a Catherine van der Goes, probably his sister or niece; Bening may have illuminated the Book of Hours of Maximilian I. Other Benings or Binnings worked as painters in Scotland in the 16th century, so it may have been a substantial dynasty.
At the time, Scottish art was amateurish in comparison to the Flemish studio system, and for any major work buyers would look abroad: hence the masterpieces of 15th century “Scottish art” in Duncan Macmillan’s Scottish Art 1460-2000 include, alongside this altarpiece, illustrated Books of Hours from Flanders, and the mace of St Salvator’s College, St Andrews, which was produced by a Parisian goldsmith.
This early history is largely based on supposition and there is no firm evidence linking it to van der Goes. One of the reasons for the comparative lack of acclaim for North European art may be its poor record-keeping. It was largely made in Flanders, certainly by Goes’s workshop, possibly by van der Goes himself. It was however completed in Edinburgh, possibly by one of Goes’s assistants and maybe local craftsmen; it was in Edinburgh that the faces of James and Margaret were added in a much cruder style.
Even its function is contested: it is sometimes claimed to be an organ cover for the instrument provided by Bonkil, but the identification as an altarpiece is far more likely, notwithstanding the missing central panel. King James III and Queen Margaret of Denmark would be unlikely to kneel to an organ, but only to Jesus.
Van der Goes is known both for his deep religious commitment, and for his realism, shown in the naturalistic detail of the Portinari altarpiece and the Death of the Virgin where rather than showing the disciples as characteristic types with conventional attributes, he depicts their individualised faces gathered at Mary’s deathbed and reacting to her passing. The Trinity altarpiece combines a brilliantly real depiction of its patron Bonkil with a wonderfully unreal vision of the holy Trinity. Bonkil is captured in a realistic three dimensional way, his face carefully shaded, and the folds of fabric and furs thrown over his arm expertly depicted. In contrast, his holy vision is highly stylised: the perspective is impossible, with Jesus’s body held at an unnatural angle, and the globe at the bottom would roll off the sloping floor and into the abyss below.
This vision of the Trinity is according to Duncan Macmillan not typical of Flemish art in its absence of realism or everyday details, and probably was dictated by Bonkil. It shows an immediate, unmediated access to religious truth. The organ is similarly depicted in an unusual, old-fashioned way, in gold rather than paint. This differs from the contemporaneous nativity scene of the Portinari altarpiece, which is full of Flemish detail and naturalistic figures, born from a desire to represent Biblical truth through everyday situations. The Trinity Altarpiece is a much more ideal or intellectual vision.
The work’s subsequent history is sad but not untypical. From the 1540s there was a wave of iconoclasm in Scotland: the destruction of holy images and church decorations spurred on by Protestant belief. The Protestant reformists opposed the power of the Catholic church, motivated partly by new intellectual ideas from Europe, partly by anger at the Catholic church’s wealth and power, and partly from the support of the newly Protestant England which was afraid of an invasion by the Catholic French through Scotland.
The Protestants justified their actions by the Ten Commandments, specifically the vague rule (first or second depending on your denomination) which bans any “graven image” and making any likeness of anything in Heaven, on earth or in the sea. The result was the widespread destruction of religious art in Scotland in the decades of violence around the Reformation of the 1550s, and another wave accompanying the religious wars of the 1630s and 1640s.
Even though the directness of Bonkil’s vision, unmediated by any priest or saint, is closer to Protestant doctrine than much Renaissance art, the altarpiece was still deemed unacceptable. The central panel, which would probably have shown Jesus and Mary, was destroyed. It seems what spared the rest of the Trinity altarpiece was the depiction of the king and queen on two panels: it was acceptable to destroy images of God, but defacing royalty was another matter, something no monarch would allow.
Iconoclasm was not a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, with similar violence occurring in the Netherlands and Germany – another reason why Flemish art is now less well known than that of Italy, which survived intact under unbroken Catholic rule. In recent years many artists have called for the total destruction of the art of the past, most famously the Futurists and Dadaists in the early 20th century. But this most radical act of art criticism was carried out to establish a very different form of utopia, one founded not on aesthetics but direct contact with God.
The final indignity suffered by the altarpiece and its church was not due to religion, but commerce and development: in 1848 Trinity Church was demolished to make room for Edinburgh’s new Waverley Railway Station, its decorations removed, and Mary of Gueldres reburied at Holyrood. Shortly before its destruction, it was photographed by the pioneering Edinburgh photographers Hill and Adamson. There were plans to rebuild the church elsewhere but these were only partly realised.
The altarpiece is now owned by the Queen but loaned to National Gallery of Scotland. Its journey from Belgium to Scotland and its near destruction at the hands of the religious extremism that ran through much of Northern Europe both add to its story as the first great work of Scottish painting. Of course, in one way it is not particularly Scottish, yet it shows not only the Scottish royal family with their symbols but also an enterprising Scottish patron whose internationalism has remained a theme of Scottish art throughout the centuries.
It might have gone to Italy like the Portinari altarpiece, but its great differences from that work do probably reflect a Scottish sensibility or at least show its patron Sir Edward Bonkil’s personal ideas on religion and art. It carries in its missing panel a sign of all that is lost, but its remaining panels show the ambition and openness of Renaissance Scotland. It is these reasons, and this history, as much as its extraordinary skill, that mark it as great Scottish art.