Progression of Art
Triptych of Jan Crabbe
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.
Oil on oak panel - Musei Civici, Vicenza (center panel) and Morgan Library and Museum, New York (wings)
Portrait of a Man with a Roman Coin
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.
Oil on oak panel - Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
Triptych with the Adoration of the Magi
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.
Oil on panel - Prado Museum, Madrid
This grand triptych was commissioned by prominent Bruges politician, merchant, and banker Willem Moreel, and his wife Barbara van Vlaenderberch, or van Hertsvelde, for the altar of their family chapel in Saint James Church in Bruges. It is considered the first large-scale altarpiece to feature a group portrait of numerous family members. The central panel depicts Saint Christopher bearing the Christ Child on his shoulders while crossing a river, with Saint Maurus (who holds a crosier and open book) on the left and Saint Giles (identifiable by the arrow and deer) on the right. In the left panel, Moreel kneels in prayer, accompanied by his patron saint, William of Maleval, and the couple’s five sons. In the right panel, his wife appears beside her patron saint Barbara and eleven daughters. The two flanking saints in the center panel similarly relate directly to the donors, as the name Maurus is derived from the same root at Moreel, while Giles’s deer (hert in Dutch) connects with the name Hertsvelde. The continuous landscape that unifies the three panels features two large castles that may testify to the family’s wealth and status, and it further demonstrates Memling’s characteristic compositional inventiveness.
It is unusual in Flemish art for standing saints to feature as the primary subjects of an altarpiece, particularly centered on Saint Christopher. Just as the other four saints were included for their clear connections to the Moreel family, however, Saint Christopher — who was believed to protect against sudden death — surely also held particular significance. As Barbara Lane and other scholars have noted, Moreel was politically active in turbulent times, while his wife had already borne sixteen children (and had two more after this altar was completed), so both would have had reason to seek and be thankful for protection from Christopher.
Oil on wood panel - Groeninge Museum, Bruges
Christ Surrounded by Singing and Music-making Angels
These three large panels are the surviving upper portions of a monumental altarpiece commissioned in 1483 by Gonzalo de Cabredo, prior of the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria la Real in Nájera, Rioja, Spain. The lost central panel of the complete altar featured the Assumption of the Virgin, above which Christ in this work gazes down at Mary as she ascends to the kingdom of heaven. Documents published by Bart Fransen indicate that the altarpiece had not been completed by Cabredo’s death in 1486, but its completion was overseen — at great expense — by his successor, and the altarpiece finally installed in the abbey church in 1494. The span of eleven years between commission and installation probably reflects several factors, including the need for the monastery to collect sufficient funds to pay for the work and its transport from Bruges, as well as the efforts of Memling and his assistants to complete the largest polyptych of his career.
Christ’s crown and liturgical vestments indicate his role as both king of heaven and high priest, echoing (as Barbara Lane notes) Jan van Eyck’s depiction of Christ in the Ghent Altarpiece (1432; Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent), while the large glass globe he holds as Salvator Mundi (savior of the world) recalls the orb held by Christ in Rogier van der Weyden’s Braque Triptych (c. 1451; Musée du Louvre). The angels are dressed in the vestments of various attendants at a Mass, and those in the side panels each play musical instruments that are depicted in careful detail. Since the scene takes place in heaven, framed by celestial clouds, Memling used the almost-archaic convention of a flat gold background, contrasting with the detailed realism of his figures and their clothing and accoutrements.
Oil on panel - Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove
This devotional diptych, one of only two by Memling to survive intact in its original frame, is also one of his most carefully devised spatial compositions. The figures are depicted at half-length in a luxurious domestic interior, with views of the landscape and a bridge on what may be Minnewater lake in Bruges visible through the windows. The whole room is reflected in reverse in a convex mirror behind the Virgin, which, on close inspection, shows the Virgin facing the viewer straight on with the donor in strict profile, indicating that the donor is facing at a ninety-degree angle to the Virgin. This configuration can be approximately recreated when the diptych is opened to a certain angle. There are even grid lines in the underdrawing of the donor portrait that (according to Dirk de Vos) Memling probably used to help work out the spatial relationship between the two panels. The unity of the space is further reinforced by the continuation of the Virgin’s red robe from the left to the right-hand panel.
The sitter is Maarten van Nieuwenhove, who came from a prominent family of Bruges. He is identified in the inscription on the frame, which also gives his age as twenty-three at the time this portrait was created; he later became a city councilor, captain of the civic guard, and burgomaster of Bruges. Memling included the Van Nieuwenhove coat of arms in the stained-glass window behind the Virgin Mary, as well as on the clasp of the book in front of the donor, further emphasizing the connection between the two figures. Van Nieuwenhove’s patron saint, Martin, appears in the stained-glass behind him, while two roundels beside the Virgin depict Saint Christopher and Saint George, presumably chosen by the sitter as protectors.
The pose of the Virgin and Child is closely comparable to that in the Triptych of Benedetto Portinari (1487; Staatliche Museen, Berlin, and Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) which Memling painted the same year. This similarity recalls Memling’s frequent practice of repeating popular compositions, often at the request of the patron. Since the portion of the stained-glass window with Van Nieuwenhove’s coat of arms was painted over a plainer window the artist had initially painted, it is clear that Memling first set out a general composition that he later adapted to suit his patron. The care with he did so, creating a fully conceived three-dimensional Flemish room in which the sacred figures appear in material form to the young man who kneels in prayer before them, reflects both the strength of Van Nieuwenhove’s private devotion and his wealth and social status, which is spelled out in the details of his surroundings.
Oil on panel - Saint John's Hospital, Memling Museum, Bruges
Saint Ursula Shrine
The St. Ursula Shrine is a carved and gilded wooden reliquary with painted side panels and round roof inserts, designed to look like a more common metal reliquary. It was commissioned by the Hospital of Saint John, probably at the request of the hospital master Jan Floreins and intended as a container for the relics of Saint Ursula and other relics, which would be shown publicly just once a year on her feast day. The shrine takes the form of a miniature Gothic chapel, resembling and perhaps inspired by other Gothic buildings and churches in Bruges. Saint Ursula’s role as a protector against certain illnesses made her an appropriate subject for the church’s reliquary.
The six side panels depict episodes in Ursula’s life. According to the story, she was the daughter of the Christian king of Britain, and her beauty and virtue led the pagan king of Anglia to desire her as the bride for his son. In hopes of dissuading the prince, Ursula accepted on the condition that she first be allowed to make a three-year pilgrimage to Rome, accompanied by eleven thousand English virgins. Eventually, she was martyred for her faith as she and her companions traveled through Cologne. Memling condensed the story into six scenes: arrival in Cologne, arrival in Basel, arrival in Rome, leaving from Basel, the martyrdom of the pilgrims in Cologne, and the martyrdom of Saint Ursula. Each except the Roman scene takes place on the banks of the Rhine river, and Memling’s carefully accurate depiction of Cologne’s cathedral in two panels may support the idea that he trained in that city early in his career, but it is also likely that he made a special trip there in order to complete this reliquary. The narrow end panels depict Saint Ursula protecting the virgins under her cloak, and the Virgin and Child accompanied by two kneeling nuns, who may be figures involved in the commission of the work or may simply represent members of the hospital community.
The roundels on the roof are of lesser quality and were probably painted by Memling’s assistants, at a period when he and his workshop were completing several other major commissions, including the monumental Nájera panels (1483–94; Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp). The narrative and visual continuity of the side panels, however — linked by views of the Rhine riverbank which must have been devised on the site — and the illusionistic depiction of the standing saints on the end panels within Gothic chapels, as if they presented a view into the interior of the reliquary itself, are characteristic of Memling’s innovative conception of visual space.
Gilded and painted wood - Saint John's Hospital, Memling Museum, Bruges