The appearance of this exquisite Nativity scene by an anonymous early follower of Hugo van der Goes can be hailed as an important discovery, which testifies to the influence exerted by this genius of the Northern Renaissance on late 15th and early 16th-century Netherlandish painting.
This composition is believed to derive from a lost original by Hugo van der Goes, in which the artist reworked on a smaller scale his celebrated masterwork The Adoration of the Shepherd now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. In the present panel, the Berlin composition has been cleverly reduced and adapted to an engaging half-length format, perfectly suited for private devotional purposes: through a ‘zooming’ effect, the holy figures are brought closer to the viewer, who can partake in the intimacy of the family and the rejoicing of the shepherds at this miraculous birth (S. Ringbom, Icon to narrative: the rise of dramatic close-up in fifteenth-century devotional painting, Doornspijk, 1984). In the Berlin panel, the rustic yet profound devotion of the shepherds is conveyed by their rushing unceremoniously into the stable that shelters the Holy Family. Their naïve enthusiasm is retained in the present work through their eloquent expressions and gestures of surprise which contrast with the peaceful and hieratic stances of the Virgin, Joseph and their angelic retinue. In the central foreground, as the visual and narrative climax of the scene, the body of Christ Child is lying inside the humble manger, exposed as a sacrificial offering on an altar, meant to evoke his impending martyrdom for the salvation of mankind. The symbolic intricacy at work in this panel is characteristic of Hugo’s work.
This subtle composition is known through four surviving versions of varying quality. First is a panel in the collection of the Earl of Pembroke (Wilton House), previously believed by Friedländer to be an autograph work by Hugo, an attribution that is no longer accepted (M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, Leyden and Brussels, 1969, IV, pp. 70-1, no. 16, pl. 25; rejecting this attribution: Winkler, Das Werk des Hugo van der Goes, Berlin, 1964, pp. 212-213, fig. 172; E. Dhanens, Hugo van der Goes, Antwerp, 1998, pp.161-2). Other, weaker and later versions include a panel in the Ruede collection in Riehen (Switzerland); one in the Muzeum w Nysie in Nysie (Poland); and finally one sold at Bonham’s, London, 8 December 2010, lot 27. This constitutes a relatively small number of replicas, in contrast with other of Hugo’s half-length narrative scenes, such as the Descent from the Cross, which exist in over 200 copies. As such the present panel is a genuine rarity, especially considering its quality, as it is undeniably, along with the Wilton House version, the most accomplished surviving example of this composition. The sculptural quality of the figures, the minute details and subtle modeling of the faces and hands suggest that the artist behind this Adoration was an early and gifted follower of Hugo, who would have had a comprehensive knowledge and profound understanding of his art.