MILLE REGRES - JOSQUIN  / NARVAEZ 


PAULA BAR-GIESE SOPRANO - HANS MEIJER-VIHUELA

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‘The finest painter in the whole Christian world’
Hans Memling and His Art


  


On 11 August 1494, the painter Hans Memling was buried in Bruges. The notary of the St Donaas Church noted in his diary that ‘the finest painter in the whole Christian world’ had died that day. Of the painters known collectively as the ‘Flemish Primitives’ (a name invented in the early nineteenth century to denote fifteenth-century painting in the Southern Netherlands), more work by Memling has come down to us than by anyone else. Almost one hundred paintings bear his name. On the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of his death in Autumn 1994, some thirty of these are being brought together in Memling's own city for the first time since 1939.

 

We know nothing about Memling's personality, and the historical information available about his life is extremely sparse. The most important thing which is known about him with any certainty is that he was registered as a citizen in the ‘poorterboek’ (burgher book) of Bruges on 30 January 1465. The record refers to him as ‘Jan van Mimmelinghe’, and also gives his father's name (Herman) and his place of birth, Seligenstadt in Germany.

Seligenstadt is situated east of Frankfurt am Main, and to the south of that town there is a village called Mümling, from which the painter took his name. Although his baptismal name Johannes is given in the burgher book as ‘Jan’, he was also known in Flanders under his German first name, Hans. He must have been at least twenty-five years old at the time when he was registered as a burgher (citizen), so it is assumed that he was born between 1435 and 1440. Virtually nothing is known about his life in Bruges, either. We know that he owned a few houses there, married and took on apprentices. In 1467 he was Master of the Guild of St Luke, and in 1473 or 1474 he entered the elite ‘Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Snow’. When he died he left three underage children.

 

Since Memling appeared in Bruges almost immediately after the death of Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, it is generally assumed that Memling had until that time been a pupil of this master. It is not known when and by what route he found his way to Brussels. Art historians agree that Van der Weyden was an important influence on Memling's art, but he probably took his first painting lessons in the German Rhineland. One of the most famous works we have by him, and certainly the most unique, is the St Ursula Shrine which is now in the St John's Hospital (Memlingmuseum) in Bruges. The scene depicted on this shrine is set in Cologne, and the background to it is so realistic - with the famous Cathedral under construction - that it is concluded that Memling must have lived and worked in Cologne for some time.


Flemish painting in the fifteenth century was recognised even in its own time to be special and of high quality. Quite apart from the technical innovations which these painters introduced, they also succeeded in breathing a realism and warmth into their paintings which still gives their works the directness of photographs even today. The most significant innovation was that these painters no longer worked directly onto the walls of churches and other buildings, but painted on wooden panels. This meant that their works could be moved around and sold.

They also perfected their oil-based paints and the associated painting technique, which gave their work a special shine and durability. Among these Flemish Primitives the great names are the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Dirc Bouts, and Hans Memling. Probably the best place to look for the roots of these painters' technique and their characteristic style is in the art of miniature painting (book illumination), which already by the end of the fourteenth century had reached a remarkably high level and taken on its own character in Flanders.

Among these painters, Hans Memling is known mainly as a master of bourgeois taste, which is probably why art historians often do not rate him as highly as, for example, Van Eyck or Van der Weyden. However, it is very questionable whether this is a fair judgment (and it is to be hoped that this new exhibition will also result in a greater appreciation of his work). Perhaps the current view is partly determined by the fact that so much of Memling's work has come down to us. For of course he was a craftsman, working to commission and having to take into account his donors' wishes, which were not always very original.

For instance, the many paintings of the Madonna and Child which are ascribed to Memling are essentially a reflection of the fact that the fifteenth century saw the flowering of the veneration of the Virgin Mary, and particularly among the wealthy burghers in the cities. Fortunately a few of these Madonnas by Memling have come down to us in their original form, as part of a diptych or triptych. The best-known and certainly the most beautiful example is the diptych which is also to be found in the St John's Hospital in Bruges, where a total of seven of Memling's works are housed.

The left-hand panel of this diptych shows a representation of Mary with the Child on a cushion on the table in front of her. On the right-hand panel we see the young Maarten van Nieuwenhove in adoration before the Virgin. According to a note on the frame, the subject of the portrait is twenty-three years old, which dates the diptych to 1487. Maarten van Nieuwenhove was a member of one of the rich merchant families in Bruges, and a few years later became mayor of the city. The contrast between the serene detachment of Mary and the self-conscious but also affectionate admiration with which the young Van Nieuwenhove regards her, is like the contrast between heaven and earth. And yet the whole still forms a single painting.

To emphasise this unity, Memling has placed both figures in the same space, a room with open windows looking out onto a green landscape. The olourful tablecloth and the bright red material of Mary's cape continue into the right-hand panel, where Maarten is seated at the same table as the object of his adoration. The bright red cape also recurs strongly in the stained glass window on the right above Maarten, in which his patron saint is slicing his cape in two with a sword. Similarly, there is a stained glass version of the Van Nieuwenhove coat of arms on the left behind Mary. And as if to make the two panels completely inseparable, there is a round mirror hanging on a closed window below that family coat of arms, in which the whole tableau is repeated in silhouette.

There is a comparable diptych in Chicago, though this time the donor is unknown to us, as well as an equally comparable triptych from 1487, whose central Madonna is now in Berlin, while the two side panels are in the Uffizi in Florence. This triptych was probably commissioned by Benedetto Portinari, a member of a Florentine banking family which also did good business in Bruges. Here too we see the donor on the right-hand panel, while the lefthand panel depicts his patron saint (Sanctvs Benedictvs).

Paintings of this kind were first and foremost an expression of devotion. By having himself immortalised in this way, the donor would henceforth be constantly in worship before the Holy Virgin, and under the protection of his or her patron.

The most fascinating portrait by Memling is of an unknown young woman, dated 1480 on the frame. The woman is looking out of the panel as if through a window. Her hands are folded and seem to be resting on the frame of the painting - a trompe l'oeil effect which was to become very popular among later portrait painters. She is dressed in stylish earthy colours, interrupted by a broad, white collar, above which part of a bright red bodice can be seen. Her evident wealth is further emphasised by the seven gold rings with precious stones on her fingers and the golden chain with a cruciform gold pendant set with green stones and pearls.


The totally impassive serenity with which she looks at the observer must have made a deep impression soon after this portrait was created, even though that impression may have been different from what we now perceive. In the sixteenth century someone added a cartouche in the black background at the top left bearing the words Sibylla Sambetha quae et Persica, An: ante Christ: Nat: 2040 (The sibyl Sambetha, the Persian, in the year 2040 bc). And to emphasise that this was not just a Persian beauty, a long text was added at the bottom of the frame, probably by the same person, explaining that she is a ‘wicked monster’. Fortunately, when it comes to art everyone is free to judge for themselves.

 

Lauran Toorians

Translated by Steve Judd.

 

Memlingmuseum

Mariastraat 38 / 8000 Bruges / Belgium

tel. +32 (0) 50 33 99 11

Opening hours: 9.30 a.m. - 5 p.m. (closed on Wednesdays)




St. Ursala Reliquary” (1489) by Hans Memling

 

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