Sunday, March 3, 2013

The selfishness of bankers has its uses

Tommaso Portinari
Although he lived many centuries ago, Tommaso Portinari would have been right at home in the world of 21st century banking.  Sent to the rich Flemish towns to represent the interests of the Florentine bankers, the Medicis, he became enamoured with the ostentatious culture  at the Burgundian court in Brussels.  Republican Florence had never seen the likes of this sort of public display of extravagance. Portinari used Medici money to become the main lender to the Burgundian Duke.  When the Duke defaulted on his repayments, Portinari took out huge loans on behalf of the Medici, and extended this money to the Duke in the form of further credit. When the Duke defaulted again, the Medicis found themselves bankrupted in the Lowlands. Portinari was sent for and found himself before the courts, as the Medicis naturally wished to get their money back. Portinari fought his case for four years, and although he was found guilty of mismanagement and ordered to pay back what he had lost, he never did actually make any repayments.  Throughout this, he personal amassed great wealth. In true 21st century style, he was a risk-taker, but only with other people’s money. He had all the qualities that we look for in modern bankers – avarice, greed and a complete lack of shame; in other words, he had what it takes to succeed in organisations like Barclays, the UBS, Bank of America, HSBC and other financial institutions whose leadership tries to make a quick profit for themselves, come what may. Just last week the Royal Bank of Scotland announced losses of 1.1 billion pounds (to be paid by the British tax-payer), while the execs of the company, for their good work, have decided to pay themselves 950 million pounds in bonuses (to be paid by the British tax-payer). Shameless, but rich!

But Portinari had two qualities that made him different from the executives who today lead the likes of Barclays, UBS, Bank of America and HSBC. For one thing, as far as I know, he never got involved in criminal activity. Unlike the HSBC for instance, he never knowingly laundered money for terrorists and Mexican drug dealers; unlike Barclays and the UBS, he never illegally cheated in the international lending market; unlike the UBS and Bank of America, he didn’t lie when it came to taxes. So maybe, after all, he would have had some problems fitting in in today’s banking culture.

Another thing that set him aside from the business school graduates who ru(i)n our financial world today: he had excellent taste. His interest in the arts resulted in a number of masterpieces, the greatest being the Portinari Alterpiece by Hugo van der Goes, housed today in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Portinari Altarpiece
Hugo van der Goes was a Flemish master who lived from 1440 to 1482. Born in Ghent, he was a lay monk in the order of the Red Cloister. His conviction that he was damned led him to sometimes use violence against himself, and he may have died as a consequence of a particularly vicious bout of banging his own head against a brick wall.  His mental instability, and his membership of a religious order, however, didn’t keep him out of the limelight, and he was one of the most famous and feted  artists of the age.  While living in Bruges, Tommasso Portinari commissioned van der Goes to paint the altarpiece.

It was the largest Flemish triptych ever painted. Portinari had it shipped to Pisa and from there it took 16 men to carry it to Florence. Its arrival in Tuscany was like an aesthetic assault from the North and its influence was felt in the work of a number of Italian renaissance artists. Today it hangs opposite Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus – two masterpieces, but very different from each other.

Van der Goes depicts the birth of Jesus, as revealed in the vision of St. Bridget of Sweden: “Mary took off her cloak and veil, let her hair loose, knelt in prayer; suddenly the new-born lay in front of her in a shaft of light”. In other words, no placenta or blood needs to be included, or any other reminder of what an actual birth involves.  Instead, the baby simply appears lying on the ground.
Portinari Altarpiece: Central panel
 But Mary doesn’t look all too happy.  The ground around baby Jesus has been beaten flat, a bit like the ground upon which villagers beat or thresh the wheat.  And of course, the symbol of Jesus is bread, that is, wheat. Some day in the future he will take bread and say: “This is my body”. So what we are seeing here is not so much a birth scene, but a sacrificial scene.  This baby will be sacrificed, and the mother somehow knows it. This baby will grow to be a man, will become God incarnated in the body of man and on the eve of his ultimate sacrifice he will announce that the bread is his body, and he will order his friends to “take it and eat it”. So, what van der Goes has painted is not just a birth scene but a sacrificial scene that is almost cannibalistic. This baby will be eaten in the form of the blessed Eucharist. In fact, the Portinari Altarpiece shows us the first ever sacrament of the blessed Eucharist. If we are in any doubt, look at the angel who stares back at us and use his hand to welcome us to partake.  He is dressed in the robes of an archdeacon and his robe bears the words “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” – “Holy, Holy, Holy”, the words recited at mass when blessing the bread that will become the body of Jesus, and will then be eaten by the congregation.
Portinari Altarpiece: detail
 If we need further evidence, immediately below the baby Jesus we find what Belgian art historian Dirk de Vos has described as “the most beautiful still life ever painted’. 
Portinari Altarpiece: detail
The bundle of corn, of course, represents bread, the body of Jesus. In front of it stands a Spanish albarello with a design of vines and grapes (the blood of Jesus) holds flowers – white lilies (the purity of Mary) and red lilies (the future suffering of Mary). In the clear glass with water we see columbines (Christ’s love) and carnations (Christ’s suffering) and along the floor we find a scattering of violets, representing Mary’s humility.
Portinari Altarpiece: detail
Above the baby, his mother Mary's hands, loosly joined, form the shape of a heart. These are the exact centre of the picture. Around the centre various objects are arranged in perfect balance: Joseph, on the left, is balanced by the group of shepherds on the right; the white angels in the lower left are balanced by the blue angels above; the seraphim in the lower right are balanced by the flying angels in the upper left; the mother and child form the hub of a giant cartwheel that encircles them. The entire left of the picture  is dark, the right half is light; darkness and light meet at Mary. Mary is, literally, the bridge between the dark and the light, between the human and the divine, between the profane and the sacred – she is the mother of God. In the portal of the palace above her head we see a harp, the symbol of the House of David, so she is of noble blood, and so is Jesus, descended from the King of Israel.

Of course this painting has a lot more to it, and I haven’t even mentioned the side panels. But it should be clear that Van der Goes has given us a painting that is not only beautiful, but incredibly rich in meaning. He himself was a torn soul. He has left us no self-portrait. But I think this central panel is the closest we have to a self-portrait. It represents Van der Goes’ agonized mind, a mind devoted to all that is holy and good while being tormented by the wickedness that he sees within himself and the conviction that he deserves damnation rather than salvation.  It is no wonder that Mary does not greet the birth of her child with joy, but rather with ambiguity, suspecting the pain that is stored in the future.

Without Tomasso Portinari’s wealth and vanity we would never have had this marvelous work of art. Which goes to show, in the great scheme of things, that the selfishness of bankers might have its uses after all.


  1. Very cool stuff! Tommasso Portinari commissioned van der Goes to paint the altarpiece and of course Portinari had it shipped to Florence. I know Italians might not have been used to van der Goes' work, or that of his northern contemporaries, but were the locals horrified? I am interested in the term "aesthetic assault from the North".

    Where do you think van der Goes' work was most influential on Italian renaissance artists?

  2. The reception for the painting in Florence was very positive, not least because it was a huge oil painting, a technique still uncommon in Florence at that time. The painting had a direct influence on Ghirlandaio, which can be clearly seen in his Adoration of the Sheperds in St. Trinita. In my recent visit to Florence this was the last painting that we looked at - it is a beautiful work. Van der Goes even gets mentioned by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists - not many northerners do! Thanks for your comment Hels.