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Memling Hans

(b Seligenstadt, 1430–40; d Bruges, 11 Aug 1494).

South Netherlandish painter of German origin. Together with Dieric Bouts I and Hugo van der Goes, he was one of the most important exponents of the new artistic developments that flourished in the southern Netherlands in the 15th century in the wake of Jan van Eyck, the Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden. Their principal innovation was to apply optic realism to devotional or mystical subjects. Although Memling lived in the turbulent period of transition from the Burgundian ruling house to that of the Habsburgs, little of this is evident in his work. His commissions were almost exclusively from rich burghers in Bruges (bankers, merchants and politicians) or churchmen and the occasional aristocrat. Often they were foreigners, especially Italians, who had political or financial connections with the town, whose central economic position was to last only a few decades longer. They had Memling paint their portraits, bust or full length, in devotional paintings or on altarpieces for their chapel in Bruges or back home. He seems not to have received official commissions (from the town council or court). An exceptional proportion of this oeuvre has survived. Besides about 20 altarpieces, often in several panels and of considerable size, there are about 15 individual paintings of the Virgin and Child, for which the side panels with figures or donor portraits are missing, another 20 paintings depicting saints or various themes from the Gospels and more than 30 portraits (some in the form of a diptych with a Virgin and Child ).



(Encyclopaedia Britannica)


born c. 1430/35, Seligenstadt, near Frankfurt am Main
died August 11, 1494, Bruges

Memling also spelled Memlinc leading Flemish painter of the Bruges school during the period of the city's political and commercial decline. The number of his imitators and followers testified to his popularity throughout Flanders. His last commission, which has been widely copied, is a Crucifixion panel from the “Passion Triptych” (1491).

Memling, born in the region of the Middle Rhine, was apparently first schooled in the art of Cologne and then travelled to the Netherlands (c. 1455–60), where he probably trained in the workshop of the painter Rogier van der Weyden. He settled in Bruges (Brugge) in 1465; there he established a large shop and executed numerous altarpieces and portraits. Indeed, he was very successful in Bruges: it is known that he owned a large stone house and by 1480 was listed among the wealthiest citizens on the city tax accounts. Sometime between 1470 and 1480 Memling married Anna de Valkenaere (died 1487), who bore him three children.

A number of Memling's works are signed and dated, and stillothers allow art historians to place them easily into a chronology on the basis of the patron depicted in them. Otherwise it is very difficult to discern an early, middle, and late style for the artist. His compositions and types, once established, were repeated again and again with few indications of any formal development. His Madonnas gradually become slenderer and more ethereal and self-conscious, and a greater use of Italian motifs such as putti, garlands, and sculptural detail for the settings marks the later works. His portraits, too, appear to develop from a type with a simple neutral background to those enhanced with a loggia or window view of a landscape, but these, too, may have been less a stylistic development than an adaptation of his compositions to suit the tastes of his patrons.

A good example of the difficulties of dating encountered by scholars is the triptych of “The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors” that Memling executed for Sir John Donne (National Gallery, London), which until recently had been dated very early—around 1468—because it was believed that the patron commissioned the work while visiting Bruges for the wedding of Charles the Bold (duke of Burgundy) to Margaret of York and that he died the following year (1469) inthe Battle of Edgecote. It is now known that Sir John lived until 1503 and that it is probably his daughter Anne (born 1470 or later) who is portrayed as the young girl kneeling with her parents in the central panel, thus indicating that the painting was commissioned about 1475.

Memling's art clearly reveals the influence of contemporaryFlemish painters. He borrowed, for example, from the compositions of Jan van Eyck, the famed founder of the Bruges school. The influence of Dirck Bouts and Hugo van der Goes can also be discerned in his works—for example, in a number of eye-catching details such as glistening mirrors, tile floors, canopied beds, exotic hangings, and brocaded robes. Above all, Memling's art reveals a thorough knowledge of, and dependence on, compositions and figure types created by Rogier van der Weyden. In Memling's largetriptych (a painting in three panels, generally hinged together) of the “Adoration of the Magi” (Prado, Madrid), one of his earliest works, and in the altarpiece of 1479 for Jan Floreins (Memling-Museum, Brugge), the influence of Rogier's last masterpiece, the “Columba Altarpiece” (1460–64; Alte Pinakothek, Munich), is especially noticeable.Some scholars believe that Memling himself may have had a hand in the production of this late work while still in Rogier's studio. He also imitated Rogier's compositions in numerous representations of the half-length Madonna with the Child, often including a pendant with the donor's portrait (the “Madonna and Martin van Nieuwenhove”; Memling-Museum, Brugge). Many devotional diptychs (two-panel paintings) such as this were painted in 15th-century Flanders. They consist of a portrait of the “donor”—or patron—in one panel, reverently gazing at the Madonna and Child in the other. Such paintings were for the donor's personal use in his home or travels.

Most of Memling's patrons were those associated with religious houses, such as the Hospital of St. John in Bruges, and wealthy businessmen, including burghers of Bruges and foreign representatives of the Florentine Medicis and the Hanseatic League (an association of German merchants dealing abroad). For Tommaso Portinari, a Medici agent, and his wife, Memling painted portraits (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) and an unusual altarpiece that depicts more than 22 scenes from the Passion of Christ scattered in miniature in a panoramic landscape encompassing a view of Jerusalem (Galleria Sabauda, Turin). Such an altarpiece, perhaps created for new devotional practices, became very popular at the end of the 15th century. His best known work with extensive narration is the sumptuous Shrine of St. Ursula in the Hospital of St. John. It was commissioned by twonuns, Jacosa van Dudzeele and Anna van den Moortele, who are portrayed at one end of the composition kneeling before Mary. This reliquary, completed in 1489, is in the form of a diminutive chapel with six painted panels filling the areas along the sides where stained glass would ordinarily be placed. The narrative, which is the story of Ursula and her 11,000 virgins and their trip from Cologne to Rome and back, unfolds with charm and colourful detail but with little drama or emotion. Other patrons of the same hospital commissioned Memling to paint a large altarpiece of St. John with the mystical marriage of St. Catherine to Christ as the central theme (Memling-Museum, Brugge). Elaborate narratives appear behind the patron saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist painted on the side panels, while the central piece is an impressive elaboration of the enthroned Madonna between angels and saints (including Catherine) that one finds in innumerable other devotional pieces attributed to Memling.

Because Memling's work was so strongly influenced by thatof other painters, it often has been harshly dealt with by 20th-century critics. Yet in his own lifetime he was acclaimed. Recording his death, the notary of Bruges described him as “the most skillful painter in the whole of Christendom.”

James E. Snyder



The Presentation in the Temple

National Gallery of Art, Washington


Virgin and Child Enthroned with two Musical Angels

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City


Virgin and Child in a Landscape

Collection Rotschild, Paris


Triptych of Jan Crabbe

Museo Civico, Vicenza



Groeninge Museum, Bruges



c. 1470
Museo del Prado, Madrid


Wings of a Triptych

c. 1470
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Adoration of the Magi

c. 1470
Museo del Prado, Madrid



Tommaso Portinari and his Wife

c. 1470
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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