BY Mimi Chu in Opinion | 25 AUG 18
Featured in
Issue 7

Who Commissioned Hugo van der Goes’s Vienna Diptych?

Recent insights from scholars suggest the famed work may have had a female patron

BY Mimi Chu in Opinion | 25 AUG 18

The title by which this diptych is now known – The Fall and Redemption of Man – functions like a stopgap for a work that no one understands. It suggests that this is a representation of Adam bringing sin and death to the world, paired with Christ ushering in a new creation. In fact, the work presents two preludes to these biblical turning points, where Adam and Christ are curiously passive. The figure of Eve dominates the centre of the left wing. Wide-eyed and silken-haired, she is depicted extending her arm into an apple tree in a gesture that both flaunts her lithe body and foreshadows the story of man’s first disobedience. On the right wing, a praying Virgin encroaches over the dead body of Christ. Positioned at the apex of a mass of teetering figures, her downward movement counterbalances the upward stretch of Eve’s inquiring arm.

Painted by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes for the private devotion of an anonymous patron in the late 15th century, the diptych is the only recorded instance of the Temptation of Eve being paired with the Lamentation of Christ. Its unusual mixture of themes has proved continuously hard to swallow. From the earliest point in its recorded history, the diptych’s panels have been disassociated from one another. In an archduke’s personal art inventory dating from 1659 – where the work is first documented – the Lamentation is described as if it’s an autonomous image, with Christ’s dead body serving as an independent theme for meditation. Later, the diptych was physically split: the Lamentation section was moved to the Gemaldegalerie in Vienna in 1780 and the Temptation followed some 20 years later, though it was hung in a different part of the collection.

Hugo van der Goes, Vienna Diptych, c.1479, oil on panel (diptych), each: 32 x 22 cm. Courtesy: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and Google Art Project

Even after the panels were redisplayed as a diptych in 1884, at Vienna’s Burgring Museum (they are now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum), they continued to lead detached lives. Art historians occupied themselves with making value judgements about which wing was superior, developing hypotheses about missing panels that would have completed the work and tenuously dating the wings to different points in the artist’s career – implying that they were conceived separately and only brought together as a last resort.

Scholars, collectors and publishers have been apologizing for the diptych’s nonconformity largely because they’ve never considered the identity of its original owner. That Eve’s Temptation has been so singularly paired with the Virgin’s Lamentation suggests the work was specifically designed for someone who identified with these two figures – most likely a woman. While nobody has fully investigated this possibility, details in and between the panels offer clues as to how she might have seen it. A snake-like figure on Eve’s left has been depicted with the soft facial features of a young woman. Gripping the tree and staring expectantly at Eve’s wandering hand, this creature attributes its female charms (as well as Eve’s) to the workings of the devil. A blue iris flower, commonly used to symbolize the Virgin’s pain, has been positioned in front of Eve’s genitals. Pointing towards the right wing and rhyming with the blue of Mary’s mantle, it imbricates Eve’s sex with the Virgin’s suffering. The faces of the main figures have been positioned on diagonals, directing our gaze from the serpent to Eve to the Virgin to Christ. Through identification with the mater dolorosa, the female viewer could guide herself away from sin and towards salvation.

Published in Frieze Masters, issue 7, 2018, with the title ‘Value Judgements’.

Main image: Hugo van der Goes, Vienna Diptych, c.1479, oil on panel (diptych), each: 32 x 22 cm. Courtesy: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and Google Art Project

Mimi Chu is a writer based in London, UK.