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Hans Memling Photo

Hans Memling

Early Netherlandish Painter

Born: c. 1435–40 - Seligenstadt, Germany
Died: August 11, 1494 - Bruges, Belgium
Movements and Styles:
Northern Renaissance
Hans Memling Timeline

Summary of Hans Memling

Hans Memling was one of the most prominent and productive Netherlandish artists of the later fifteenth century. Drawing from a variety of sources including Rogier van der Weyden, Robert Campin, and Jan van Eyck, Memling formed part of the second generation of Northern Renaissance painters (also known as the Flemish Primitives), who further developed the realistic representation of human figures, architectural constructions, and landscapes. Where van der Weyden often heightened the emotional impact of his paintings and simplified and stylized his sitters’ features, Memling’s work tends to be more placid and serene, and his depiction of figures more naturalistically detailed, if still flattering. As one nineteenth century writer poetically commented, “imagine…a privileged spot, a sort of angelical retreat…where simplicity, gentleness, and supernatural mildness grow like lilies — and you will have an idea of the unique soul of Memling, and the miracle he works in his pictures.”

Memling was one of the most prolific portraitists of the time; about one third of his output was independent portraits or diptychs, and additional likenesses appear as part of larger works. One of his most characteristic contributions was the use of a landscape background either viewed out a window or entirely outdoors. He developed this format further than his contemporaries and used it more consistently, perhaps prompted, as Paula Nuttall suggests, by his many Italian patrons, who appreciated the clarity and detail of Flemish landscape painting. In addition to portraits, the rest of his production was quite varied, ranging from devotional diptychs and standard altarpieces to extensive narrative paintings, a huge, multi-panel altar, and a carved and painted shrine.

Accomplishments

  • Memling worked in a highly detailed, illusionistic style, and he was particularly skilled at creating coherent, three-dimensional visual spaces that linked together separate components of his paintings and served as realistic settings for his figures, as well as helping the viewer engage more fully with the image.
  • Memling’s work emphasized balanced, harmonious compositions and restrained, graceful figure types, a style that appealed to a broad range of patrons in Bruges in a period when the city was one of the major cultural and economic centers of Europe.
  • Memling did not hold an official role in the painters’ guild of Bruges and did not receive commissions from the city or the Burgundian court, unlike most other successful artists of his time; instead, he seems to have relied on the wealthy and powerful merchants, bankers, and clergy who lived in or visited the city to support his career. These patrons also helped spread Memling’s innovative ideas throughout Europe.

Biography of Hans Memling

Hans Memling Photo

As with many artists of the period, little is known of Hans Memling’s life with much certainty. He was born near the German town of Seligenstadt, west of Frankfurt, mostly likely between 1435 and 1440, and his first documented appearance in the historical record was not until 1465, when he purchased citizenship in Bruges. The details of his life in the intervening years are largely unknown. One or both of his parents died in 1450 or 1451, possibly in a plague that struck the Middle Rhine and Cologne region in those years. Memling may have already begun his early artistic training by that time, and he seems to have continued it — if perhaps only briefly — in Cologne, a major trade and artistic center. This would account for certain parallels in Memling’s earliest works with the paintings of the most prominent artist in Cologne, Stefan Lochner, who had also just died in 1451. Even if he did not apprentice with Lochner himself, he seems to have developed familiarity with the artist’s paintings or perhaps with the drawings produced by his workshop.

Important Art by Hans Memling

Triptych of Jan Crabbe (c. 1467–70)

This triptych has been dismantled and its components scattered (the outer, reverse side of the wings, depicting an Annunciation with the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, are in the Groeninge Museum, Bruges), and perhaps as a result its condition has suffered, particularly in the center panel. It nonetheless represents a prime example of Memling’s early work, painted shortly after his arrival in Bruges. The painting was commissioned by Jan Crabbe, twenty-sixth abbot of Ter Duinen Abbey in Koksijde, near Bruges, shown kneeling in prayer at the foot of the cross. Crabbe was a powerful Cistercian monk whose financial ties with bankers like the Medicis and political alliances with the Burgundian court and the Holy Roman Empire enhanced his own and the abbey’s status. He may have initially intended to place the triptych in his family chapel; his mother, Anna Willemzoon, accompanied by Saint Anne, appears on the left, and his nephew or half-brother Willem de Winter is shown with Saint William on the right. In the central panel, assembled around the crucifixion, are the swooning Virgin Mary supported by Saint John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene kneeling and clutching the base of the cross, and Crabbe accompanied by his patron saint, John the Baptist, and by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian order.

In addition to demonstrating that Memling’s artistic reputation was sufficiently established to attract prominent patrons, this triptych also reveals his already evident skill in portraiture, particularly in the depiction of Anna Willemzoon, whose aged features are recorded faithfully but compassionately. The composition — as well as its underdrawing — also point to Memling’s still-close links to van der Weyden’s workshop. In its use of a continuous landscape to unite the panels, its background cityscape, the proximity of the donor to the sacred figures, and the relative distribution of figures around the central crucifixion, the Crabbe triptych clearly echoes Rogier’s Crucifixion Triptych (1443–45; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Where Rogier’s figures openly express their grief with visible tears and dramatic expressions, however, Memling’s are far more muted and restrained; even Crabbe seems absorbed in his own concerns rather than in the scene before him.

Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin (1471–74)

Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin (1471–74)

This portrait is a typical example of Memling’s use of a landscape backdrop, but it is unusual in being one of his only works to feature details that may be emblematic of the sitter’s identity. These include the Roman coin or sestertius that bears the image of emperor Nero, the pair of laurel leaves at the bottom edge of the image, and the prominent if somewhat incongruous palm tree in the background. While other identifications have been proposed, the most likely connection is with Bernardo Bembo (1433–1519), whose personal emblem consisted of a wreath of laurel and palm leaves. Bembo was a Venetian scholar and collector of both paintings and antique coins who served as an ambassador to the Burgundian court in Flanders between 1471 and 1474. While there, he surely saw portraits by Memling of other Italian sitters, perhaps prompting him to commission one of his own.

Bembo was called to Florence in 1475, and since he is likely to have brought this portrait with him, it helps explain Memling’s impact on several Italian artists. Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Medal of Cosimo de’ Medici (c. 1475; Galleria degli Uffizi) features a similar landscape backdrop and an even more prominently displayed medal, while Giovanni Bellini’s later depiction of a young man (c. 1505; Royal Collection, Hampton Court), as Barbara Lane notes, is the only one of his portraits to place the sitter before a landscape, and may in fact portray Bembo’s son, Pietro. Similar links may even extend to Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474-78; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC), in which the young woman is placed before a landscape with her shoulders turned at an angle to the picture surface — a configuration Memling used in this and other portraits, but one of the first known examples in Italian art. Since Leonardo painted Bembo’s palm and laurel leaf emblem on the reverse of his portrait (presumably at the scholar’s request), it further supports the idea that Bembo was one of the vehicles by which Memling’s approach to portraiture was introduced into Italy.

Triptych with the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1478)

Triptych with the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1478)

The central panel of this triptych, which was made for an unknown patron, depicts the Adoration of the Magi, while the left panel presents the Nativity, and the right panel shows the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The composition is clearly indebted to Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Columba Altarpiece (c. 1455; Alte Pinakothek, Munich), commissioned for Saint Columba’s church in Cologne, although Memling introduced numerous variations. There is little agreement on the date of Memling’s altarpiece. Similarly, it is not clear how Memling became familiar with Rogier’s painting; Lane suggests persuasively that the younger artist may have seen the altarpiece in Cologne in his early travels and subsequently relied on the related drawings and patterns that were circulated from Rogier’s workshop. The presence of an old woman in the Presentation wing who appears to be based on the same model as Anna Willemzoon in Memling’s early Triptych of Jan Crabbe adds further complexity to the question.

While the central group of the Virgin, Child, and kneeling king follow Van der Weyden’s precedent very closely, Memling’s variations in the rest of the work reveal further nuances of his relationship to the older artist. Most noticeably, he replaced Rogier’s Annunciation in the left wing with a Nativity, thereby shifting the thematic focus from Mary’s role toward that of the Christ Child, as Till-Holger Borchert notes. Memling also introduced Gothic architecture in the right wing, rather than the Romanesque building style in the other two panels (a style Rogier used throughout the Columba Altarpiece), which underscores the transition from the Old to the New Church initiated by Christ’s birth. Borchert also suggests that Memling took Rogier’s innovative concept of showing both the exterior and interior of the temple in which Christ is presented, in his middle and right panels, as a challenge which he matched in the Prado triptych with an equally original conception. Here, two different views of the same structure are presented in the left and center panels: the Nativity in the left wing is framed by and viewed through one of the round-arch windows seen in the background of the center panel, as if the whole building had been turned ninety degrees counterclockwise from one scene to the next.

Finally, as historian Jeff Bowersox notes, Memling’s portrayal of one of the Magi as a Black man drew on a practice that had only recently begun to emerge, particularly in art from the region around Cologne, where Memling is likely to have trained. The Prado triptych thus helped solidify this practice in Netherlandish and later art.

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees

"Hans Memling Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sarah Lees
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First published on 09 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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