als ich kann

In the judgement of posterity - and no doubt also in that of contemporaries - the most refined representative of Ghent painting in the later 15th century was not Joos van Wassenhove, alias Justus van Gent, but his friend Hugo van der Goes, who, as we know, financed his journey to Italy. We have far more biographical information on Hugo van der Goes than of Justus van Gent; and the difference is more than quantitative. Goes is the earliest Northern European painter whose mental state is a matter of written record. This is because he had the misfortune to die insane. 

He had retired to a monastery, the Roode Clooster near Brussels, and a memoir written long afterwards by a fellow monk describes some of the symptoms of his illness. After spending several years there as a novice, he fell ill on his way home from a visit to Cologne and died not long afterwards, in the year 1482. The affinity between genius and madness is an issue to which modern students of artistic psychology attach great importance, so it is not surprising that an artist who lends himself to discussion of the phenomenon seems more approachable and even begins to look like a modern personality.

I should stress that the evolution that I shall try to outline does not agree with the chronology, or rather chronologies, given in the Goes literature. Not that I have any desire to presnet my own chronology as the one true way to salvation; this is rather more a case of Jan van Eyck's motto, 'As best I can' (als ich kann).

Otto Pächt

Why is this such an absolute masterpiece? Aside from the obvious Eyckian character of the left panel of this diptyque, van der Goes' Satan belies a humanity and a depth comparable to Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost. And for the late 15th century, when representations were considered excessively evidential and so potentially dangerous, this is no mean feat. 

William Blake writing about John Milton said that he was nothing other than "a true poet & of the Devils party without knowing it." Cecil B. DeMille was the most famous producer of early (20s-40s) Biblical Sword-and-Sandal films, who was a devout protestant and called the bible "the source of all drama - and the lexicon of human behaviour, good and bad." One critic pointed out, however, that "Mr DeMille's real interest is in the wicket Romans... with the enthusiasm of an artist... he paints the manifold nature of their sins, their cruelties, their decadent luxuries."