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Hans Memling

1465 - 1494

Flemish Artist



Madonna and Child with Angels - National Gallery of Art

Hans Memling was formerly called Memlinc, also Memmlinghe Hans Memling was formerly called Memlinc, also Memmlinghe

Hans Memling was formerly called Memlinc, also Memmlinghe ; his name too was usually commenced with an H, a mistake for the gothic M. Of this master but scanty record has been handed down to us. One account says that he was born at Constance in 1439. He was a pupil of Rogier van der Weyden. In 1477-78, he is known to have been living at Bruges; in 1480 he contributed to a loan raised for the Emperor Maximilian, and about the same time purchased a house in the Rue St. Georges, at Bruges, where he died in 1495.

On entering the Hospital of St. John at Bruges, the visitor will be told that in 1477 a wounded soldier (probably from the battle of Nancy) was brought into the Hospital of St. John. He was a middle-aged man, thrown into a warlike career after a fretful youth; before becoming a soldier, however, he had been a painter; the love of art returned to him during the leisure hours of a long convalescence, and being grateful for the care bestowed on him, ami satisfied with the peaceful quiet of the house—where he was also retained by his love for a young sister—he passed several years, paying for his board by his work. This is how the fact of his finest works belonging to the Hospital of St. John is accounted for. There they were painted, and there they have always remained in spite of wars; conquests, and pillage, which explains their wonderful state of preservation after nearly four centuries; and they will doubtless remain there yet for ages, if the poor hospital continue still to defend its treasure proudly from wealthy amateurs and royal museums, whose brilliant offers would, however, have enabled its custodians to convert its brick walls into a marble palace.

The legend 'of Memling has now disappeared with so many other traditions. Authentic documents have proved, as we have already stated, that he was simply a citizen of Bruges, where he died in 1495. So we shall have to leave the romance and come to his works. The most celebrated in the Hospital of St. John is the Reliquary of St. Ursula, a piece of gilt carving ornamented with engravings and paintings, and intended to contain relics. The reader must imagine a small oblong Gothic chapel, only two feet in height from its base to the top of its pointed roof; the two facades, if we may venture to use architectural words, the side walls, and the roofing, form, by their golden borders, frames for Mending's paintings, which are the frescoes for this miniature temple. On one of the gable ends is painted the Madonna, scarcely a foot in height; on the other, St. Ursula, holding in her hand the arrow, which was to be the instrument of her death, and covering under her ample robes a number of young girls, which makes her resemble somewhat the pictures of the "Old Woman who lived in a Shoe," so famous in nursery rhymes. Ten young girls may be counted under her mantle, and as the saint herself makes the eleventh, the painter has doubtless intended them to represent symbolically the eleven thousand virgins. (It is as well to remark that the legend of the eleven thousand virgins rests on the error of a chronicler of the Middle Ages. The tomb of St. Ursula and her companions at Cologne bore this inscription: "Sancta Ursula, xi . M.V." Instead of reading "Sancta Ursula, xi Martyres Virgines," Siegbert read and reported "xi millia virginum.") The two sloping parts of the roof each contain three medallions; on the two centres St . Ursula is painted, in one of them, among her companions, whom she seems to be leading on to the glory of martyrdom; in the other, kneeling between the Father and the Son, who are crowning her, whilst the Holy Spirit hovers over her head. The medallions on each side contain angels, who form a celestial concert . On the two sides of the reliquary, which are divided into six compartments in the form of Gothic arcades, the whole legend of the Virgins of Cologne is represented. On one side, their departure from that city, their arrival at Bale in large round boats, then their entrance into Rome, and reception by the Pope at the gates of a temple ; on the other, their departure from Rome, taking the Pope with them, their return to Cologne, and, lastly, their martyrdom by arrows, lances, and swords, at the hands of the Hun soldiers.

In the six painted chapters of this legend there are certainly—without counting the microscopic personages in the background—two hundred figures introduced, of which the largest, in the foreground, are not more than four inches in length. It is needless to say that the painter has transported the history of St. Ursula from the fourth to the fifteenth century; the buildings, landscapes, costumes, and armour all belong to his ov/n time. We may easily recognise a number of portraits. Ursula and her band are beautiful Flemish girls, fair, graceful, and elegantly dressed; and Memling certainly could not have had much difficulty in finding so many charming models in a town at that time richly populated, and which counted the beauty of its women amongst its chief titles to glory—"formosis Brtiga puellis." In reading this short description, one might well believe that the painting of Memling on this reliquary of St. Ursula is nothing but a ckcf-d'a-itvre of patience and minute perfection in the details; but this is far from being the case. As a whole, it is a great and noble work, full of grandeur, vigour, and religious sentiment . To form an idea of this wonderful work, the reader should imagine pictures of sacred history conceived in the highest style of Fra Angelico, and painted in the finest execution of Gerard Dow. But Memling has not merely left miniature paintings, and this reliquary (dated 1480) is not the only treasure of the Hospital of St. John.

In the preceding year, Memling completed a work which is no less celebrated, and is in the largest proportions then used, half-life size. This is a triptych closed by shutters. On the central panel is represented the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine. As in the glorified Virgins of Francia or Perugino, the Madonna is seated under a magnificent dais, with her feet resting on a rich Flemish carpet, which produces a wonderful effect through its colouring and perspective. Two angels are at her side, to wait on her; one holds a book, of which she is turning over the leaves, whilst the other is playing on a small organ. The Virgin of Sienna, richly dressed, is receiving on her knees the nuptial ring from the Bamlino. The history of the two St. Johns forms the subject of the paintings on the wings; that on the left is the Beheading of John the Baptist before Herodias; and that on the right is St. John the Evangelist at Patmos, beholding the visions of the Apocalypse. Lastly, on the outside of the wings, there are excellent portraits of two Brothers of the Hospital, with the symbolical portraits of their patron saints, James and Andrew, and of two Sisters of the order, with their patron saints, Agnes and Clara.

This large composition is unanimously pronounced to be the masterpiece of its author. Here, indeed, may be found all his greatest qualities, from a calm majesty in the arrangement to a wonderful delicacy of touch. However, we must give it one rival, if not in importance, at all events in perfection. In the same year, 1479, Memling painted the different compartments of a triptych, much smaller than the last, as the figures are only from eight to nine inches in height: on the left is the Nativity; on the right, the Presentation in the Temple; in the centre, the Adoration of the Magi; below is the following inscription written in Flemish: "This work was done for brother Jan Floreins, alias Van der Riist, brother of St. John's Hospital, at Bruges. Anno 1479." "Opus Johannis Memling." In the left part of the central panel, at a window, is seen the kneeling figure of Jan Floreins, dressed in black. It is a charming head of a man in the prime of life: the figures 36, written above him on the wall, apparently indicate his age. Opposite, the face of a peasant, looking in at a window, is supposed to be a portrait of Memling; he has a short beard, thick hair, and his face, though rather weary-looking, is full of gentleness and intellect .

This is not all that the grateful patient left to the Hospital of St. John. We may also find in it a Descent from the Cross, where the figures are quite small, a Sibyl Zambeth, that is to say, the portrait of a Flemish lady in that costume, and also the portrait of a young man worshipping a Madonna.
Memling is represented in the small museum of Bruges by a Baptism of Christ; in the museum of Antwerp, by an Annunciation, a Nativity, a Glorified Virgin, etc.; in London, by several pictures in private galleries; and by four in the National Gallery, the Virgin and Child Enthroned in a Garden • the Madonna and Infant Christ • St. John the Baptist and St. Lawrence Deacon, and a Portrait of himself in the WynnKllis collection.


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