Hans Memling
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Hans Memling

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209 pages
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Description

Little is known of Memling’s life. It is surmised that he was a German by descent but the definite fact of his life is that he painted at Bruges, sharing with the van Eycks, who had also worked in that city, the honour of being the leading artists of the so-called ‘School of Bruges’. He carried on their method of painting, and added to it a quality of gentle sentiment. In his case, as in theirs, Flemish art, founded upon local conditions and embodying purely local ideals, reached its fullest expression.

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Date de parution 15 septembre 2015
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EAN13 9781783107612
Langue English
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Exrait

Author: Alfred Michiels (extract)
Translation: Sarah Whorton and Andrew Byrd

Layout:
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© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
© Confidential Concepts, Worldwide, USA
Image-Bar www.image-bar.com
© The National Gallery, London, Illustration 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5

No parts of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright on the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers.
Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to establish copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.

ISBN: 978-1-78310-761-2

Editor ’ s Note
Out of respect to the author’s original work, this text has not been corrected or updated, particularly regarding attribution, dates, and the current locations of works. These were uncertain at the time of the text’s first publication, and sometimes remain so to this day.
The information in the captions, however, has been updated.
Alfred Michiels



Hans Memling
CONTENTS


Foreword
I. Memling ’ s Origins and Beginnings
II. Memling between History and Legend
Popular Traditions
First-hand Information
III. Memling ’ s Old Age and Genius
IV. Memling ’ s Major Works
Works Conserved in Belgium
Works kept outside of Belgium
Memling the Miniaturist
GOSSAERT
MABV
MABUSIUS
V. Master Memling, between Influences and Authentications
The Students of Memling
The Authentic Works of Memling
BRUGES
ANTWERP
BRUSSELS
THE HAGUE
LONDON
CHISWICK
SHREWSBURY
BERLIN
MUNICH
LÜBECK
VIENNA
TURIN
FLORENCE
PARIS
ENGRAVING
Works attributed to Memling
False Attributions
The Lost Paintings
Index
Notes
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man , c. 1470.
Oil on oak panel, 33.3 x 23.2 cm .
The Frick Collection, New York.


Foreword


On approaching Bruges, one notes a tall tower with a warlike aspect that dominates the roofs of the city, and seems more like the dungeon in a fortress than a church’s bell tower. But it is the bell tower of Notre Dame. No statues, mouldings, or engravings embellish this imposing mass. It proudly thrusts out its heavy walls, grave as the thought of death, bare and sad like the outside of a prison. Flocks of jackdaws fly around, calling their short loud cries, and they settle on the roof along with a row of mystical birds. The Northern sun whitens the edifice with its pale light, the Netherlands’ misty horizon covering it with its bright lines. From the top of the tower, one can perceive from afar the ocean’s tides. And, in a natural way, this scene inspires poetic sentiments and plunges its spectator into deep meditations. For any Dutch art lover, the picturesque town of Bruges is full of marvelous surprises. Even if its attractions cannot rival those of grander and more magnificent European towns, Bruges, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was the central and most important market of the cities of Hanse, home of merchant princes. Unfortunately, all this has changed; Bruges is no longer classified as an area of wealth and commercial importance. At one time houses were full of paintings by Memling and other great artists, which today are dispersed throughout the entire world. Bruges was only able to preserve a few pieces from its great masters.
Near this pious retreat, under the bell tower’s shadow, looms another sanctuary that governs and protects the word of God. It carries the name of St John’s Hospital. We do not know during what period it was founded, but was already in existence in the twelfth century. Around the year 1397 the monks there adopted the Rule of Saint Augustine. Dedicated to their vows of easing human suffering, their first priority dictated that they only see people from Bruges and Maldeghem. Nuns also took their place at the bedsides of the suffering and murmured words of consolation. Although the building has since become a museum, it has changed little. It is Gothic in style, full of gables and tarasques – mythical beasts half dragon and half-fish – and admits light through ogee windows. The sick awaited the end of their hardships there, under the pointed-arch vaulting. A calm, covered courtyard, fresh lime blossoms, and a single pond where ducks dabbled, occupied the space between the sickrooms. A small number of convalescents rested in the fresh air on fine days, full of gentle and profound melancholy with past anguish left behind them, hope of full recovery enlivening them with its magic visions.
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man , c. 1472.
Oil on oak panel, 35.3 x 25.7 cm .
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.


It is at the heart of the hospital church (the buildings were separated during the nineteenth century) that the famous Shrine of Saint Ursula (Illustration 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ), created in 1489, can be found, and where other masterpieces produced by Hans Memling shine. Carefully kept for more than five centuries, gleaming in all their primitive radiance, their grace suddenly enchants the traveler and transports him into an era that is no more. He finds himself on the current of the eternal river, floating far from our time into older generations and onto other monuments, onto a shore that humanity has always avoided. Morals, costumes, passions, and beliefs, forever frozen under the artist’s paintbrush, have found themselves transported into our modern age. A gentle and tender light illuminates the paintings, a profound silence reigns around the spectator; murmurs coming from outside serve to increase its poetic emotion: the wind sighs as it brushes against the crosses, swallows twitter as they skim over the rooftops, while the city rumbles from afar like a river through the mountains. In one’s mind, these noises mix together and, dominated by the genius of memory, we can maybe imagine that we hear again the voices of days gone by.
— Why did these paintings belong to a hospice?
This is an inescapable question that plagues art historians, who can not respond to it in a satisfactory manner. A fog which seems to have enveloped so many Flemish masters, has wrapped itself around Memling and has hidden almost all knowledge of his existence. An impenetrable mystery surrounds him: we understand and admire his talent, but we know almost nothing of his life; several vague traditions and a few dry notes make up his story. Even his name was the subject of dispute for a long time, and the correct spelling of his name was not established until the beginning of 1861. [1]
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man from the Lespinette Family , c. 1485-1490.
Oil on wood, 30.1 x 22.3 cm .
Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man Holding a Letter,
c. 1475. Oil on wood, 35 x 26 cm .
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.


I. Memling’s Origins and Beginnings


Far from linking itself to a unique movement, the art of northern Europe, on the periphery of the Italian quattrocento , progressed rapidly and constantly. If the work of certain artists seems to offer similarities, fundamental differences are nonetheless notable in the works of great masters of this period such as Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441), Rogier Van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464), Hugo Van der Goes (c. 1440-1482) and Hans Memling (c. 1433-1494), each distinguishing himself in his own manner from the “Old School” or the “New School.” And if the Flemish fifteenth century can at times be perceived as a simple sketch for the full flowering of the seventeenth-century art of Rembrandt (1606-1669) or Vermeer (1632-1675), it is a no less unique and rich era. The last decades of this tumultuous period were particularly marked by artist migrations beyond the borders of the Netherlands, which, carrying the glory of Dutch art, also marked, in a sense, the end of the “Old School.” Hans Memling was one of these men. And among the great names mentioned, it is that of Hans Memling of which Bruges can be the most proud.
However, a century after his death, the country that had been so rich in his works had been completely forgotten, so much and so well that in preparing his Book of Painters ( Het Schilder-Boeck) , a precious collection of Dutch and German biographies from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, published in 1604, Carel Van Mander (1548-1606) stated only that Hans Memling was a major master during his time, before the period of Pieter Pourbus (c. 1523-1584), that is, before 1540. According to Mander, Memling was born in the town of Bruges [2] , while Jean-Baptiste Descamps (1714-1791) thought him to be from Damme. However, one could never doubt that he was not of German origin. The consensus with which all authors and documents call him “master Hans”, suffices to prove this: Hans is the Teutonic form of the word Jean: in the Netherlands one says Jan, a monosyllable pronounced Yann, the English sound “j” being unknown in Germanic languages. There is a diminutive form Hanneken . [3] Marc Van Vaernewyck categorically affirms this elsewhere: “In Bruges,” he says, “not only the churches but specific buildings are decorated with paintings from master Hugues, from master Rogier and from Hans the German.” [4] If Bruges does not seem then to have been the hometown of renowned painters, its location, the quality of life it offered and the opportunity of the art market, nonetheless attracted a large number of artists over the course of the first half of the fifteenth century.
The most famous, and those whose works have been preserved, were without a doubt the brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. Hubert, the elder, lived there at the beginning of the century, and then moved to Ghent, while Jan lived in the town in 1425, from May to August. Then, in 1431, he moved there permanently and stayed there until he died in 1441. Peter Christus, a native of Baarle and student of the Van Eycks, also lived in Bruges, where he died in 1473 or 1474. It is also highly probable that the Memling family also came to live there. In addition, the artist’s mother could have quite possibly been Flemish and the character inscribed on his paintings supports this theory. It is the discovery of an inscription in the Bruges citizens’ register dating from 20 January 1465, under the name of Jean Van Mimnelinghe, son of Hamman, born in Seligenstadt, in Germany, which finally confirmed his Germanic origins. It is probable that Memling was already a major painter when he moved to Bruges: the fact that he was not recorded in the register preserved by the Bruges Painters Guild, demonstrates that he could have certainly practiced his art without constraint.
Memling’s birth must have been, at the latest, in 1435. An anonymous traveler, whose notes were published by Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891), had seen in 1521, at Cardinal Grimarni’s, a self-portrait of Memling in which he appeared to be seventy years old.
If death had taken him in 1494, one must report his birth at least in the period around 1424. But when one traces his image in the mirror, he is fat and has a rosy face, indications of good health: therefore it would be very risky to think that he painted this image in the same year as his death. Thus, it appears more likely that he had not yet reached the end of his life, so we can then fix 1430-1435 as the approximate year in which he was born. So we shall adopt the middle year 1433 in order to not have him marry too late in life the woman who would accept him, and with whom he would have three children.
If Memling was raised within Dutch traditions, his apprenticeship as a painter and the identity of his master raise more questions. As he was only eight years old when Jan Van Eyck died in the month of July 1441, one can hardly suppose that he had learned the art of painting under that master’s direction; their works present, in addition, fundamental differences. Nonetheless, he must have met Van Eyck sometimes in the streets of the city, in churches, in public meetings and during holidays, and examined his superior talents with precocious instinct. He helped, with all probability, at Van Eyck’s funeral under the vault of Saint Donat; an emotional crowd gathered around the artist’s humble coffin as the organ played, sending into the nave its sublime grief. The priests, celebrating the requiem mass, sang these beautiful lyrics: “Let whoever comes from the earth return to the earth, let whoever comes from God return to God!”
However, very early, Francesco Guichardin (1483-1540), Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and Filippo Baldinucci (1624-1696) ranked Memling among the students of Rogier Van der Weyden. [5] Vasari mentions a “Ausse, disciple of Rogier;” [6] Guichardin calls him “Hausse”, and Baldinucci “Ans di Brugia.” If the information acquired throughout the centuries and the “kinship” of certain works from the two masters seem to confirm this link, the notable stylistic differences between Memling’s early works and Van der Weyden’s late paintings at times render this hypothesis improbable. And even if his style shows more resemblance to Van der Goes’, the fact that the two men belong to the same generation can argue against a master-pupil relationship.
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Man,
c. 1480-1485. Oil on wood, 26.7 x 19.8 cm .
Kunsthaus Zürich, Zurich.
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), Portrait of the Young Pietro Bembo,
1504-1505. Oil on canvas, 54 x 39 cm .
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man, c. 1465-1470.
Oil on wood, 41.8 x 30.6 cm . Städel Museum, Frankfurt.
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Man before a Landscape, c. 1475-1480. Oil on wood,
26 x 20 cm . Gallerie dell ’ Accademia, Venice.


In the hotel of Margaret of Austria, one could see during the sixteenth century a triptych whose centre panel had been painted by Van der Weyden and whose side panels had been done by a pupil. The piece in the middle represents the Virgin holding the dead Christ in her arms; on the interior side of the panels two angels are moved to pity; on the outside, following a pattern already established, the Annunciation is traced in grey. [7] Memling’s paintings prove that he was influenced by Rogier Van der Weyden at a time when the older artist was practicing his “second style.” Thus we can believe that Memling left Bruges in order to come to Brussels to work under Rogier’s direction.
Not only did Van der Weyden teach him how to use pencil and paintbrush, but he also taught him the art of oil painting. Descamps claims, however, that Memling did not want to employ this new method, and he always continued to thin his colours with egg white and plant gum. Tempera was then the most commonly employed technique, with these materials carefully mixed in more or less large quantities. The addition of honey, vinegar, or beer then allowed one to change the thickness of the body already obtained; the paint ended up like a coloured varnish, having the double advantage of giving the subject its tone and vigour and preserving the tempera from the harmful effects of the air. For a long time this error found resonance, yet never was this opinion more false nor did it delude the reader more. How would a man so skilled, a man so passionate about beauty, who appreciated so much, have looked down on an admirable means of standing by an ancient procedure? This hypothesis only offers little substance and is refuted elsewhere by facts. It is true, however, that certain of Memling’s canvases, no doubt influenced by his Rhineland apprenticeship, were first started with tempera and then completed in oil. Thus, the master accentuated the principal lines of his composition, painted the rest in infinite delicacy, while his colours, following an unchangeable rule, proved to be so fine that the original drawing seemed to show through it.
However, this flimsy information hardly gives us a sense of the graceful colourist, and so we escape from the new and find Memling again in the notes from the anonymous traveler mentioned earlier. This time, the anonymous tourist admired, at the residence of Cardinal Grimani, a work by Memling’s brush depicting Isabelle of Portugal, wife of Philip the Good, on which one can read the date of 1450. This painting proves that the Duke of Burgundy, connoisseur to the end, held the artist in the highest opinion; otherwise he would not have entrusted such an important task to him and would not have let him reproduce his wife’s face, which had been painted for the first time by Jan Van Eyck himself. In the new image, the princess was seen a little smaller than she was in nature. [8] She had lost the brightness of her early days: twenty two years had passed since the head of the Bruges school had reproduced her features in all their splendour. What is twenty two years, when one thinks about it? It was one drop in the limitless abyss of eternity. This short space of time nonetheless sufficed to exhaust the soul and shrivel up the body; it embraces all the fertile years of life, almost all our moral existence; and however much time still wanting to abridge it, we do not repeat with bitterness: “Lord, Lord, take this chalice away from me!” Isabelle deserved to pose in front of a superior artist: she was a rare woman. She certainly was for the Duke of Burgundy, as she helped in many circumstances to make judgements, speeches, and activities, as a valiant companion and a skilled auxiliary. A prime minister could not have done better, or have been more useful to his monarch. In 1434, while they resided together in Dijon, the duke, forced to go to Flanders to take care of serious business, made Isabelle the Governor of Burgundy in his absence. It was a turbulent era in which men hardly had time to rest. As soon as Philip the Good left, the sound of a trumpet, the noise of arms, and the neighing of horses rang out in the dukedom: the discontented men and adversaries of the prince believed they would have better luck with a woman. Isabelle immediately convened every last one of her subjects, who rode into the countryside and forced the rebels to surrender. Such a brilliant debut inspired the duke with full confidence in the talents of the princess, whom he employed thereafter as an elite agent, especially in negotiations, in which she demonstrated great dexterity.
She had a sober beauty that conveyed her spirit: the noble, intelligent, and serious character of her figure left an impression on her listeners, increasing the eloquence and the subtlety of her discourse. In 1436 the women of Bruges implored her for help in resolving disputes with their husbands. During the year 1435 she contributed to the Arras Congress specifications which saved the monarchy from a perilous situation. Around 1437 she ruled on the marriage of the heir of Penthièvre, which ended the long quarrel between the older and younger branches of the house of Brittany. The Duke of Orleans, prisoner of the English since the battle of Azincourt in 1415, was freed after twenty-five years of exile, and had a happy union with Marie of Clèves, princess of Burgundy. A special biography of Isabelle by De Barante, too often overlooked and almost forgotten, inspires the deepest interest in its readers. Practical medicine, following the usage of the era, was one of her family occupations. Very charitable, she took care of the poor and the sick herself through her many pious works. When age lessened her strength, she moved to the chateau of Nieppe, near Hazebrouck, which she had decorated in advance, and where she stayed until her death in December 1471, at nearly seventy-five years of age. She had been born in Evora, in Portugal, on 21 February 1397. In the absence of information about her character, we could be led to believe that she communicated her ardour and her elation to her only son, but this seems not to be true. But by what odd whim of nature did such a wise and practical couple give birth to Charles the Bold?
Perhaps Philip the Good and Isabelle asked Memling for the triptych that Margaret of Austria owned, which, in the central panel, depicts the Virgin and her Son, Adam and Eve on the sides, and Saint John and Saint Barbara on the other flap. [9]
Hans Memling, The Canon Gilles Joye , 1472.
Oil on wood, 37.3 x 29.2 cm . Sterling and
Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown.
Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of Jan de Leeuw , 1436.
Oil on panel, 25 x 19 cm . Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man , c. 1480.
The Royal Collection, London.
Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of a Man (Self-Portrait?), 1433.
Oil on wood panel, 26 x 19 cm . The National Gallery, London.


The portrait of a young man, which first adorned M. Aders’ collection, and then that of the poet Rogers, and which is now found in the National Gallery in London, for many centuries passes as Memling’s effigy. A critic from the Outer Rhine having hazarded this guess, everyone else repeated it by faith alone. It is an admirable work. We see a half-dressed figure in a relatively poor unfurnished room; his head is lost in the shadow that enters the room at an angle through the window pane, which is outlined behind him. He is still young and has badly-combed blond hair. He does not squint, unlike the engraving published by Passavant, but looks straight in front of him, with the expression of a man who is dreaming; his hands are humbly posed one on top of the other. The features of the stranger also have a plebian form, which designates him as a son of the people, as one born in the gloomy streets where the lower classes congregate. His large, regular brow, his pensive air, suit a man of talent, but his nose is a vulgar design, his cheekbones are prominent, and his large mouth with dull lips, a bony jaw and an unrefined chin compose an ensemble that classes his figure amongst inferior stock. His outfit corresponds to these indications also. This alleged Memling wears simple dress of fairly common material and the colour of wine sediment; a hat of the same fabric covers his head, while his straight and poorly-fixed hair seems without oil or fragrance.
There is, however, a charm that surrounds him. What is he thinking about in these evening shadows? Is he looking at the pale, sad landscape with the nuances of autumn, that the viewer discovers through the window? He seems to see nothing, not even the empty room where he is seated; one could say that his imagination is travelling further away, lost in his own thoughts. The man who gave him this dreamy expression so perfectly was, without the slightest doubt, a poet from the same era as the artist. And it deserves an equal account of the delicacy of its inspiration. The brush is fine, clean, and yet rich: the colour only has sweet and soft tones. A natural light envelops the objects. The great masters from Holland did not draw anything more exquisite, even two centuries later.
Does this painting truly show us Memling’s portrait? The extract given by historian Johann David Passavant (1787-1861) about the figure depicted is interesting: “This young man,” he says, “seems a little sickly and wears an outfit from St John’s Hospital in Bruges. His hair is chestnut brown, the hat and outfit a dull purple; the sleeve on the right arm is split. On the right, in the upper corner, one sees the number 1462. This must be the portrait of Memling himself, and he must have been at St John’s hospital.” The work is certainly painted in Memling’s style and is worthy of him. If one admits “that it represents himself, his injured arm and the vintage will indicate the era when he was staying at the hospice. One knows that two paintings by his hand, owned by the former establishment, date from 1479, that is to say, that they were executed seventeen years later.” [10]
What free assumptions, what errors and contradictions in so few lines!
Firstly, the mysterious young man is not wearing hospital garb, but the outfit and the cone-shaped hat truncated in the style of Philip the Good; his robe is even of a beautiful material and an elegant colour.
Hans Memling, Tommaso di Folco Portinari (1428-1501),
estimated date 1470. Oil on wood, 44.1 x 33.7 cm .
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Rogier Van der Weyden, Philippe de Croy, Seigneur de Sempy. Oil on panel, 49 x 30 cm.
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.
Hans Memling, Two Donors (fragments of an altarpiece with the Virgin and Child),
c. 1475-1480. Oil on wood, 44.7 x 32.4 cm ;
44.5 x 32 cm . Muzeul Na ţi onal Brukenthal, Sibiu.


If there is a slit in the right sleeve, a button closes it: this was another custom of the time, as we will soon prove. The position of the figure hides the opening on the other sleeve. One could have hardly cut the right sleeve to care for a wound.
Even though Memling worked in the hospice in 1479, as Passavant clumsily recalls, he would not have been wearing a patient’s gown in 1462; one cannot believe that he suffered from an injury for seventeen years and lived so long on public charity.
Finally, the young man has a calm air about him, but does not seem at all sick.
This portrait, then, must not represent Memling and must not be at Saint John’s hospital, as affirmed by the former director of the Frankfurt Museum. [11] It cannot show us Memling’s image, for the excellent reason that it is Pieter Van der Weyden that we are seeing. Passavant himself published an engraving, as we have already had the occasion to mention. Let us compare the characteristics of Rogier Van der Weyden, engraved by Jerome Cock, [12] with the engraving of the German historian, and we will note that there are striking similarities in the two heads. It is the same forehead, large and regular, the same eyebrows, the same rather timid eyes, the same facial structure, the same voluminous nose squared at the tip, the same rosy cheeks, the same sharp jaw, and the same shape of the mouth and the chin. [13] The resemblance is so strong that we could believe that we were seeing Rogier himself in his youth. The father had painted his own image in 1462, following Morelli, on a small board, where he is shown just to the bottom of his chest. Is it not probable that he painted in the same year the bust of his son on a board of the same size? [14] The stranger seems to be around twenty-five years old; Pieter Van der Weyden, born in 1437, was just this age in 1462. The father, like the son, wears a tunic or smock with slit sleeves, whose openings are closed by buttons. The two figures have the same expression of rustic naivety. Either we must renounce all reasoning, or we must admit that the second portrait depicts Pieter Van der Weyden, and it lets us know the great man’s son a little better, as he lived in the greatest obscurity. [15] The same painting, through its admirable execution, gives the greatest honour to Rogier Van der Weyden’s paintbrush, showing him to us as a dignified member of this glorious school in which painting was just one form of poetry, having charm, elevation, and delicacy.
In summation, we hardly know what features nature gave to Memling, and if we search for his image, we must not forget that he was rather large and had a rubicund colouring, that is to say, that his face had almost no mystical characteristics, like the gentle and dreamlike expressions seen in his paintings.
If one listens to Morelli, Memling, in 1470, painted a diptych in which on one panel is Saint John seated in a landscape and accompanied by a lamb, and on the other panel, Mary with the Christ Child, also seated in the middle of the countryside. The date is subject to doubt (l ’ anno 1470, salvo il vero).
The very well-known triptych The Last Judgment , today preserved at Gdańsk, also dates from this period. Commissioned by the Florentine merchant Jacopo Tani, the work is a witness, in addition, of the popularity which Memling could have enjoyed in Italy.
Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Young Woman,
after 1446. Oil on wood p anel, 29 x 22 cm .
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin.
Hans Memling, Maria Portinari (Maria Magdalena Baroncelli, born in 1456),
estimated date 1470. Oil on wood, 44.1 x 34 cm .
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


However, from the portrait of Isabelle, painted in 1450, to the triptych executed by Memling in unison with his master, we know nothing positive about his life and works; this date of 1470 appears to us vaguely in the fog, as a mysterious number. What events coloured the existence of this soft colourist, like the shadows which passing clouds throw on a forest? What works did his paintbrush consecrate? We do not know. As carefully as we search for him, we lose sight of him for thirty years. Did he reside in Brussels, near Rogier Van der Weyden, his master, until he died in 1464? Because the early registers of the Corporation of Saint Luke, in the administrative centre of Brabant, have been destroyed through unfortunate circumstances, this precious source of information has dried up. And the accounts of the Dukes of Burgundy, who certainly gave Memling work, do not mention him anywhere! A quarto register of the bishop’s archives in Bruges, where payments were recorded, gives a reason to believe, however, that he lived as a tenant, in 1466 and 1467, in a house that later became his property, on Pont-Flamand Street, then named Lupanar Street ( Wulhuustrate ) . Here is the article translated exactly:
“On Lupanar Street, across from Pont-Flamand, Oriental section; Saint-Nicolas Day.
John Goddier.
Paid to Mandert for the years 1466 and 1467.
John Van Memlync.”
John Goddier (or Goudier) was the owner of the residence, which he later sold to the famous painter. This administrative note proves, then, that Memling resided in the town of Bruges. His biography nonetheless becomes a little clearer much later in 1477, and from this moment, legend mixes with history; even better, history and legend do not contradict each other on any point. History begins the biography, legend continues it, and when legend quietens down, history takes over again; it seems to have waited until its poetic rival completed its story. Whether we like it or not, we must follow this order. Popular tradition is much more interesting when it mixes with the sort of painter bound to the Netherlands.
A historian with the name of Kämmerer expressed the possibility that an artist from Cologne, known under the name of “Master of the Glorification of the Virgin”, could have been the young Memling. Raising a question that he affirmed in his thesis, the historian leans on the principal work by the Master, Brigittenkirche , preserved at the Cologne Museum after which it was named. According to Kämmerer, several saints and, more specifically, Saint Ursula, had a certain resemblance to Memling’s type of figures.
The discussion around its attribution started with the detailed treatment of four canvases by the anonymous artist: the work already mentioned, the high altar of Saint Goar, The Adoration of the Child of God by Mary, Joseph and the Angels in Berlin, The Adoration of the Magi , and a Madonna and Child , surrounded by angels playing music. The most interesting and strangest work is that of the high altar of Saint Goar: in the centre the cavalry are depicted, on the left the delivering of the keys, on the right Saint Sebastian and Saint Catherine, and, on the outside, the Annunciation.
Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman ( “ Sibylla Sambetha ” ) , 1480. Oil on wood,
46.5 x 35.2 cm . Hospitaalmuseum, Bruges.
Hans Memling, Portrait of an Old Woman,
c. 1470-1472. Oil on wood, 35 x 29 cm .
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Rogier Van der Weyden , Portrait of a Woman , c. 1460. Oil on panel,
34 x 25.5 cm . National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Hans Memling, Virgin and Child ,
c. 1475-1480. Oil on wood, diam.: 17.5 cm .
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


II. Memling between History and Legend


Popular Traditions
The House of Burgundy, so powerful and so brilliant since the end of the fourteenth century, slid towards its ruin, when it could have consolidated itself forever. Charles the Bold succeeded the prudent and wise Philip the Good. This unfortunate prince portrayed himself as a poet turned away from his path. Noble instincts, signs of human greatness, which one does not find in Louis XI, that cunning and perfidious monarch, one finds in his antagonist. As a young man, he liked the view of the ocean; he walked on abandoned beaches, dreaming of the murmur of tides and breeze: the divine image of infinity exalted his heroic soul. Fishermen frequently saw him follow their dinghies, full of secret thoughts. In order not to be disturbed from his reading he had a high tower constructed at Gorcum. There, in the presence of Wahal, near this location by an arm of the sea, he devoured stories of fearless men and old books of chivalry. In his studies he showed great promise; he was then courteous and gentle, because his intelligence did not yet have excessive strength, and he was intoxicated with the ideal and with contemplation; the depths of his spirit carried themselves on the depths of immensity. In his dreams there mixed pious sentiments and a particular devotion to the Virgin. One notes, said one of his biographers, that he had angelically clear eyes.
Later, when he lived in the mountains, he became passionate about them. It was another infinity. His imagination enjoyed following the clouds and the limitless blue of the sky over the white mountain peaks, domes a-glittering. The colossal size and the majestic forms that they unfurled matched his enthusiasm and the spirit of his heart. Music must have also charmed him: the obscure and gentle magic of calm sounds puts even the strongest souls to sleep. When Luther could not master his restlessness, he played his flute; he played a soft and tranquil harmony, whose notes appeased the storm of his thoughts. Charles the Bold needed this placid influence. He naively let himself by nurtured by melodious accords, and the tempest stilled in his breast.
His body was as robust as his spirit. He had strong arms, long hands, solid legs, vigourous kidneys: he struck down the roughest jousters and seemed indefatigable. He spoke smoothly, debating for long periods and ending as the firm champion in battles of logic.
A man made like this must have been naturally brave. Where did the fear come from? It was more proper to defy peril than to avoid it. Also, he never gave any indication of fear; he despised death, and he cried out, like Caesar in Shakespeare: “Danger knows full well / That Caesar is more dangerous than he: / We are two lions litter’d in one day, / And I the elder and more terrible.”
Love of order and justice must have also played a part in his temperament. As soon as the old Duke died, his heir changed the pace of his joyous home. “More large communal tables,” said Jules Michelet (1798-1874), “where the officers and Lords ate with the Master, were created. He divided them into different tables where, at the end of the meal, they filed in front of the prince, who noted the absentees; the absentee lost one day’s wages. No other man was more exact, more laborious, etc.” [16] He was a jurist: the rules of human conduct that thought discovered, deepened and showed as necessary, he wanted followed strictly; he did not allow deviations or modifications. These terms were also meant for the lower classes: the hoi-polloi , in order to please him, had to submit entirely and rigorously to the yoke of the law. Here, as with everything, he pushed to the extreme. His rigid and inflexible intelligence was as bold as his bravery. Hence his own extreme irritability; resistance, delays, uncertainty or lack of success shocked him personally; they wounded the very bottom of his audacious, valiant, and despotic nature. Why did events not obey him like his subjects did? He gave orders, and everything seemed possible to him, but for the foundering of his plans. If he encountered weak-willed opposition and the battle was prolonged, he became enraged; he castigated his adversaries. Impatience and pride pushed him to cruelty.
Seeing him after a defeat, you could not judge him by his countenance. During the siege of Neuss, a tiny town, the obstinate courage of the villagers made him beside himself with anger. In his fury, he did not want to rest; he slept in a chair in full armour, thus increasing his exasperation. He forgot only one thing, that the use of crafty methods brought success and doubled one’s strength. His will was so strong, so imperious, that he did not calculate his plans: it seemed that everything must bend before this type of power. But, by the same excess, it became dangerous; ardour, exaggerated and blind, disarmed the prince: it dissolved against obstacles, not like the sea that weakens and sweeps along the rocks, but like the sailor pushed by the waves, whose ship breaks apart against the cliffs.
After the battle of Granson, having drawn back to Lausanne, he experienced unbelievable tortures. His forced inaction, shame and thirst for vengeance stabbed him with a thousand stingers. He remained “in the city, but in his camp on the peak that looked out onto the lake and the Alps. Alone and wild, he left his beard long; he had said that he would not cut it until he saw the Swiss. Finally, he let his doctor, Angelo Catto, see him. The Duchess of Savoy came to console him, bringing silk from her home to dress him; he remained devastated, in as much disorder as Granson had caused.” [17] Following Morat, it was endless despair. How does one bear such complete ruin? He, the bravest of the brave, the imperious master, chivalrous and poetic soul, fled, ran with his head to the ground! Everything evaded him, honour, power, victory! The world laughed, his enemies triumphed. For such a haughty spirit, to yield was to die. A moral blindness struck him, vertigo seized him: a little later, he died pitifully, victim of his own enthusiastic exaggeration and heroic stiffness.
Martin Schongauer, The Holy Family ,
1475-1480. Oil on panel, 26 x 17 cm .
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Hans Memling, Virgin and Child , c. 1467.
Oil on oak panel, 40 x 29 cm . Royal Museums
of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
Anonymous, Virgin and Child,
between 1460 and 1500. Oil on oak panel, 29 x 18 cm .
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.


Charles the Bold’s elevated tastes, his brilliant education, his fastidious love, stimulated him to encourage the arts. He had a large number of sumptuously-decorated manuscripts made, which the Burgundy library still possesses. After Granson and Morat, the Swiss found beautiful objects in his tent; people who visit Berne still admire them. His vehemence began the Netherlands’ misfortune and the fall of the Bruges school, but during his reign everything was under his protection. It is believed that Memling was one of the official painters whom he brought to his wars, and who followed him for most of his life. [18]
The “Official Painter” status signified for Memling membership in Charles the Bold’s court. These opulent and luxurious surroundings were not without influence on the painter and, in consequence, on the treatment of his paintings. We can see the artist’s predilection for the costly and valuable fabrics in which he often dressed his female figures.
The archives of the St Luke Corporation in Bruges allow us to confirm the status of the painter: the name Memling is only found one single time. He could not have been a student because the list of members starts in the year 1453, but as a painter he must have been registered, according to the statutes, when he publicly exercised his profession in the city. Only one single reason could have exempted him from this, that of the position of Official Painter to royalty. This advantage that he obtained has an unwelcome consequence for us: it does not allow us to know during what period he lived in the commune after leaving Brussels, where Rogier Van der Weyden was living, or which students were in his workshop. There is no doubt that he helped to shape many eminent pupils, whom we cannot now name without substituting conjecture for positive proof. Be that as it may, everything seems to confirm the popular tradition that Memling was present on 5 January 1477 at the Battle of Nancy and was obliged, like others, to flee over the snow-covered fields.
Shortly after this cruel defeat, a man of a certain age entered Bruges by the gate that led towards Damme. He was pale and walked along slowly; an illness seemed to deplete his strength, his tattered outfit advertised his poverty. A white blanket of snow hid the dirt from the streets and the roofs of the houses; a black sky unfurled itself over the city, and the wind groaned sadly through the streets. The traveller stopped from time to time, as if nearly fainting, then continued his march. His friends no longer recognised him, or seeing him in such unfortunate circumstances, turned away from him. What was he to do? What resting place to choose? Which charitable heart to implore? The unfortunate man headed towards the hospital, this sanctuary of virtue. He had barely rung the bell of the Saint John monastery when he fell, nearly fainting, to the ground. The monks carried him to one of their rooms, examined him, saw that he was suffering from a wound and lavished their care on him. He had battled his suffering for days; but months of care reinvigourated him, spring chased away the groups of clouds that whitened the plains of the sky. The traveller recovered his health little by little; he spoke of his art, of his paintings, and the great Memling was recognised.
As soon as he was well enough to work, he asked for paint-brushes. Brother Jan Floreins Van der Riist, an amateur painter, procured all the necessary instruments for him. With one hand still unsteady, the poor artist painted several pieces, which he presented to the hospice in recognition of the care that they had given him. At the hospital the remains of Saint Ursula and her Companions were kept in an old reliquary, in fairly poor condition. One day the painter brought up to Jan Floreins the idea of making it a sparkling reliquary, where one could place these relics from another era…but what happened? What cloud came to obscure our view? Lines, colours fading little by little… It is the legend that does not remember and one must ask history for more ample information.
An important but curious fact, although minor, seems to be a witness in favour of popular tradition. In the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine , one of the paintings that St John’s Hospital possesses, four columns align behind the Virgin’s throne; the chapters on the left represent an angel who announces the birth of Saint John the Baptist to his father Zachariah, then the fulfillment of the prediction. The chapters on the right depict a man who has fallen in the street, to whom someone offers a drink, then he is transported to the hospital on a stretcher. These two miniatures that unfurl almost unnoticed, and discovered by accident, have such a close relationship with the story of the artist that they seem to confirm it. Does Memling not appear to have wanted to recount the sad and curious episode of his arrival at the monastery? It is difficult to believe that such a perfect coincidence was an accident.
Hans Memling, Benedetto Portinari Triptych (central panel), 1487. Oil on wood, 41.

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