1902 Encyclopedia > Hans Memling

Hans Memling
German-born Early Netherlandish painter
(15th century AD)

HANS MEMLING, a painter of the 15th century, whose art gave a passing lustre to Bruges in the period of its political and commercial decline. Though much has been written respecting the rise and fall of the school which made this city famous, it still remains a moot question whether that school ever truly existed. Like Rome or Naples, Bruges absorbed the talents which were formed and developed in humbler centres. John Van Eyck first gained repute at Ghent and the Hague before he acquired a domicile elsewhere, and Memling, we have reason to think, was a skilled artist before he settled at Bruges. Yet if the question should be asked where the maimer of Memling was shaped, and where he acquired the skill which he displayed at Bruges, we shall be greatly at a loss to reply. The annals of the city are silent as to the birth and education of a painter whose name was inaccu-rately spelt by different authors, and whose identity was lost under the various appellations of Hans and Hausse, or Hemling and Memling. But no other city of the Nether-lands has vindicated the right which Bruges had no means of proving. Travellers who came to Bruges were only told that Mending's masterpieces were preserved in the hospital of St John. In one of these pictures it was said a portrait of the artist might be discovered; on the sculptured orna-ments of a porch enframing one of its subjects an incident of the master's life might be traced,—his danger as he lay senseless in the street, his rescue as charitable people carried his body to the hospital. The legend grew too. It came to be told how the great artist began life as a soldier who went to the wars under Charles the Bold, and came back riddled with wounds from the field of Nancy. Wandering homeward in a disabled state in 1477, he fainted in the streets of Bruges, and was cured by the Hospitallers. Unknown to them, and a stranger to Bruges, he gave tangible proofs of his skill to the brethren of St John, and showed his gratitude by refusing payment for a picture he had painted. Unhappily the legend refutes itself. The portrait of Memling is a myth ; the carvings of the capitals of the porch represent the ordinary incidents attending the reception of patients at an hospital. Memling did indeed paint for the Hospitallers, but he painted not one but many pictures, and he did so in 1479 and 1480, being probably known to his patrons of St John by many masterpieces even before the battle of Nancy.

Memling is only connected with military operations in a mediate and distant sense. His name appears on a list of subscribers to the loan which was raised by Maximilian of Austria to push hostilities against France in the year 1480. When he signed this list his position was that of a resident at Bruges who had probably lived there long enough to acquire a large practice and its advantages in the form of lands and tenements. In 1477, when he is said to have fallen, and when Charles the Bold was killed, he was under contract to furnish an altarpiece for the guild chapel of the booksellers of Bruges; and this altarpiece, now preserved, under the name of the Seven Griefs of Mary, in the gallery of Turin, is one of the fine creations of his riper age, and not inferior in any way to those of 1479 in the hospital of St John, which for their part are hardly less interesting as illustrative of the master's power than the Last Judgment in the cathedral of Dantzic. Critical opinion has been unanimous in assigning the altarpiece of Dantzic to Memling, and by this it affirms that Memling was a resident and a skilled artist at Bruges in 1473; for there is no doubt that the Last Judgment was painted and sold to a merchant at Bruges, who shipped it there on board of a vessel bound to the Mediterranean, which was captured by a Dantzic privateer in that very year. But, in order that Memling's repute should be so fair as to make his pictures purchasable, as this had been, by an agent of the Medici at Bruges, it is incumbent on us to acknowledge that he had furnished sufficient proofs before that time of the skill which excited the wonder of such highly cultivated patrons; and thus we come to admit without much difficulty the possible truth of a report made by a chronicler of the 16th century that Memling had sittings from Isabella, consort of Philip the Good of Burgundy, in the year 1450.

It is characteristic that the very oldest allusions to pictures connected with Memling's name are those which point to relations with the Burgundian court. The inven-tories of Margaret of Austria, drawn up in 1524, allude to a triptych of the God of Pity by Boger van der Weyden, of which the wings containing angels were by " Master Hans." But this entry is less important as affording testi-mony in favour of the preservation of Memling's work than as showing his connexion with an older Flemish craftsman. For ages Roger van der Weyden was acknowledged as an artist of the school of Bruges, until records of undisputed authenticity demonstrated that he was bred at Tournai and settled at Brussels. Nothing seems more natural than the conjunction of his name with that of Memling as the author of an altarpiece, since, though Memling's youth remains obscure, it is clear from the style of his manhood that he was taught in the painting-room of Van der Weyden. Nor is it beyond the limits of probability that it was Van der Weyden who received commissions at a distance from Brussels, and first took his pupil to Bruges, where he after-wards dwelt. The clearest evidence of the connexion of the two masters is that afforded by pictures, and parti-cularly an altarpiece, which has alternately been assigned to each of them, and which may possibly be due to the joint labours of both. In this altarpiece, which is a triptych ordered for a patron of the house of Sforza, we find the style of Van der Weyden in the central panel of the Crucifixion, and that of Memling in the episodes on the wings. Yet the whole piece was assigned to the former in the Zambeccari collection at Bologna, whilst it was attributed to the latter at the Middleton sale in London in 1872. At first, we may think, a closer resemblance might be traced between the two artists than that disclosed in later works of Memling, but the delicate organization of the younger painter, perhaps also a milder appreciation of the duties of a Christian artist, may have led Memling to realize a sweet and perfect ideal, without losing, on that account, the feeling of his master. He certainly exchanged the asceticism of Van der Weyden for a senti-ment of less energetic concentration. He softened his teacher's asperities and bitter hardness of expression.

In the very oldest form in which Memling's style is displayed, or rather in that example which represents the Baptist in the gallery of Munich, we are supposed to contemplate an effort of the year 1470. The finish of this piece is scarcely surpassed, though the subject is more important, by that of the Last Judgment of Dantzie. But the latter is more interesting than the former because it tells how Memling, long after Roger's death and his own settlement at Bruges, preserved the traditions of sacred art which had been applied in the first part of the century by Roger van der Weyden to the Last Judgment of Beaune. All that Memling did was to purge his mas-ter's manner of excessive stringency, and add to his other qualities a velvet softness of pigment, a delicate transparence of colours and yielding grace of slender forms. That such a beautiful work as the Last Judgment of Dantzie should have been bought for the Italian market is not surprising when we recollect that picture-fanciers in that country were familiar with the beauties of Memling's composi-tions as shown in the preference given to them by such purchasers as Cardinal Grimari and Cardinal Bembo at Venice, and the heads of the house of Medici at Florence. But Memling's reputation was not confined to Italy or Flanders. The Madonna and Saints which so lately passed out of the Duchatel collection into the gallery of the Louvre, the Virgin and Child of Sir John Donne at Chiswick, and other noblespecimens in English and Continental private houses show that his work was as widely known and appreciated as it could be in the state of civilization of the 16th century. It was per-haps not their sole attraction that they gave the most tender and delicate possible impersonations of the "Mother of Christ" that could suit the taste of that age in any European country. But the portraits of the donors with which they were mostly combined were more characteristic, and probably more remarkable as likenesses than any that Memling's contemporaries could produce. Nor is it unreasonable to think that his success as a portrait painter, which is manifested in isolated busts as well as in altarpieces, was of a kind to react with effect on the Venetian school, which undoubtedly was affected by the partiality of Antonello da Messina for trans-Alpine types studied in Flanders in Memling's time. The portraits of Sir John Donne and his wife and children in the Chiswick altar-piece are not less remarkable as models of drawing and finish than as refined presentations of persons of distinction; nor is any differ-ence in this respect to be found in the splendid groups of father, mother, and children which fill the noble altarpiece of the Louvre. As single portraits, the busts of Burgomaster Moreel and his wife in the museum of Brussels, and their daughter the Sibyl Zam-betha in the hospital of Bruges, are the finest and most interesting of specimens. The Seven Griefs of Mary in the gallery of Turin, to which we may add the Seven Joys of Mary in the Pinakothek of Munich, are illustrations of the habit which clung to the art of Flanders, of representing a cycle of subjects on the different planes of a single picture, where a wide expanse of ground is covered with incidents from the Passion in the form common to the action of sacred plays. The time came, no doubt, when the players took their cue from the painters, as in the Ghent procession, which was formed on the model of Van Eyck's Adoration of the Lamb. But in Memling's days there were still some original " players," and the public was not averse to seeing illustrations of their work. In the first period of the development of Belgian art too, when the Flemings assigned more importance to carved work than to painting, and yet refused to accept sculpture without colour, it was natural that the sculptor should multiply incidents on bas-reliefs which were coated with tinting in the semblance of nature. Memling's pictures imitate reliefs so far as they abound in variety of episodes, and are marked by absence of contrast in light and shade or want of toning by gradations of atmosphere. Yet with all these peculiarities his works are very pleasant to the eye, because they are always graceful and quiet.

The masterpiece of Memling's later years, a shrine containing relics of St Ursula in the hospital of Bruges, is fairly supposed to have been ordered and finished in 1480 after the painter had become acquainted with the scenery of the Rhine. This shrine is one of the most interesting monuments of mediaeval art in Flanders, not only because it is beautifully executed, but because it reveals some part of the life of the painter who produced it, and illustrates the picturesque legend of Ursula and her comrades. The delicacy of finish in its miniature figures, the variety of its landscapes and cos-tume, the marvellous patience with which its details are given, are all matters of enjoyment to the spectator. There is later work of the master in the St Christopher and Saints of 1484 in the academy, or the Newenhoven Madonna in the hospital of Bruges, or a large Crucifixion with scenes from the Passion, of 1491, in the cathedral of Liibeck. But as we near the close of Memling's career we observe that his practice has become larger than he can compass alone ; and, as usual in such cases, the labour of disciples is substi-tuted for his own. The registers of the painters' corporation at Bruges give the names of two apprentices who served their time with Memling and paid dues on admission to the guild in 1480 and 1486. These subordinates remained obscure.

It would be easy to form a long list of pictures by Memling in the galleries of Berlin, Florence, London, Madrid, Paris, Rome, and Vienna, and pieces equally remarkable in many private collections of England and the Continent. These have all been described, and are widely known. The present notice must be closed with the admission that pictures tell more of Memling's life than records. The date of the master's death is not better certified than that of his birth. This much, however, is certain. The trustees of Memling's will appeared before the court of wards at Bruges on the 10th of December 1495, and we gather from records of that date and place that Memling died a short time before, leaving behind several children and a considerable property. (J. A. C.)

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