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Hans Memling

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Flemish painter, b. about 1430-35; d. at Bruges 11 August, 1494. This date was discovered in 1889 by Père Henri Dusart in a manuscript chronicle of the library of St. Omer, which adds that this painter, "the best in Christendom", was born at Mainz (oriundus Moguntiaco), and that he was buried in the church of St. Gilles. This valuable text destroys the celebrated legend of Memling, which relates that this great painter, a soldier of Charles the Bold, was wounded at the battle of Granson, and was cared for at Bruges by the Hospitallers of St. John. Through gratitude the injured soldier painted the marvellous pictures still to be seen there. Here in an "Adoration of the Magi" is seen his own portrait, wan and bearded, wearing an invalid's cap. It was said at Bruges that he desired to be buried in the convent which held so many of his masterpieces, but another tradition relates that he died in Spain at the Carthusian monastery of Miraflores near Burgos, where a picture ascribed to him is found. These two accounts of a pleasing hagiographical tint are therefore mere fables, evidently the tales of sacristans, inspired by the pictures which they endeavoured to explain. They did not arise until the middle of the eighteenth century (cf. Descamps, "Vies des peintres Flamands", 1758, I, 12). On the other hand, the researches of Mr. James Weale show Memling under quite a different aspect. The wretched and pitiable soldier of Charles the Bold received by charity into a hospital of Bruges becomes in reality an important burgher of that prosperous city. If he had no official station at the court, it was because circumstances no longer permitted; he had nevertheless property of his own, being in 1480 the owner of three houses, one of them "a large stone house" (domus magna lapidea), and figuring on the fiscal registers among the two hundred and forty-seven highest taxed citizens. At this time he married Anne de Valkenære (d. 1487), by whom he had three sons, Jean, Cornelius, and Nicholas. With a studio filled with pupils, he received commissions from the chief citizens of the town, such as Moreel and Floreins, and his fame reached beyond Flanders. The "Anonyme" of Morelli, who wrote in 1521, seems to know but two Flemish painters; every picture of this school at Bergamo, Venice, Padua, which he does not attribute to Jan van Eyck he attributes to Memling.

The remainder of Memling's history is that of his works. The first certain date is 1467. In that year the painter executed the portrait, now at Antwerp, of the Italian medallist Nicolo Spinelli, then in the service of the Duke of Burgundy. The following year he executed the triptych of the Donne family, now at Chatsworth in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire. In fact Sir John must have formed part of the escort which accompanied Margaret of York at the time of her marriage with Charles the Bold. The following chronological list constitutes almost all our information: 1478, retable executed for the illuminator Guillaume Vrelant, now at the Academy of Turin; 1479, triptych of the "Adoration of the Magi", executed for Jean Floreins; triptych of the "Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine", with the "Life" of the two Saint Johns, both in the hospital of St. John at Bruges; 1480, retable for Peter Bultinc, now at the old Pinacothek of Munich; triptych of the Grocer's Guild, a lost picture; portraits of Guillaume Moreel and his wife (Museum of Brussels), and of their daughter Marie Moreel (the Sibyl Sambeth) in the hospital of St. John at Bruges; 1484, triptych of the Moreel family, at the Academy of Bruges; 1487, diptych of Martin van Nieuenhove, at the hospital of St. John at Bruges; portrait of a man in the Uffizi Museum, Florence; 1489, recovery of the shrine of St. Ursula, and placing of relics in this shrine; 1491, polyptych of the "Cathedral of Lubeck". By adding to these works several other pictures (the Louvre possesses the greatest number) we have a total of twenty exquisite paintings constituting the whole of Memling's authentic work. Some critics, like Kämmerer (Memling, 1899) have sought, without good reason, to augment this catalogue by adding to it other works by analogy. Another school, that of Würzbach, refuses to admit that all the works cited above are the works of a single author. They withdraw from Memling, the pictures of Munich and Turin; the "Reliquary of St. Ursula"; the polyptychs of Lubeck and Dantzig, allowing him almost nothing except the portraits and pictures of the hospital of St. John, the Triptych of Chatsworth, and two or three others closely related. Such a discussion cannot be entered into here, but even if Memling were the author of only the few pictures in the hospital of Bruges, none the less is he one of the most delightful geniuses of painting, and the keenest poet of the whole Flemish school.

Though he accomplished nothing comparable to Van Eyck's great painting, the retable of the "Mystic Lamb", there is in his work a rarer, nobler, and more touching quality. The general characteristics of Flemish painting are an unsurpassed technical perfection, a realism, a rigour in the study and imitation of facts, such as render it impossible to say whether this perfection is more the condition or the effect. As a craftsman Memling is inferior to none of his Flemish predecessors or imitators; he paints fabrics, velvets, flesh tints like Jan van Eyck himself. In sentiment he is far superior, or rather dwells in a finer atmosphere, for the price of the uncompromising realism of the Flemish is often ugliness and vulgarity. In some works of Jan van Eyck, as the "van der Pæle Virgin" at the Academy of Bruges, the mediocrity of the types, the absence of imagination and taste, in a word the flatness, reach a painful degree. The same is true of the subsequent works, such as the celebrated "Nativity" of van der Goes in the Uffizi of Florence, in which the power of the "study" is only equalled by the insignificance or the triviality of its taste, and of those of the entire school from Petrus Christus and the Master of Flémalle to the pretentious Thierry Bouts and the early works of Gérard David. All these works are strong in execution but weak in feeling. It is true that Roger Van der Weyden attempted to introduce passion into this realism, but his painful intensity most frequently results in a convulsive, distorted, affected style. Emotionalism runs riot with him, producing the effect of nervous strain or disease. In the midst of this powerful but inartistic school the work of Memling astonishes by its subtle grace and refinement. In execution equal to anyone of his contemporaries, he transfigured all that he touched. Through all his portraits shines the radiance of the soul within. Compare, for example, the St. William of the Moreel triptych, in his black armour, that wonderful type of Christian knight and soldier monk, with the awkward St. George of the "van der Pæle Virgin", that soldier so ill at ease in his role of saint, and measure the difference between the crudeness of Van Eyck and the psychological insight of Memling. This gift has made Memling the only Flemish painter who knew how to depict woman. He bestowed on her the same external luxury of draperies and attire, the same mantles, the same furs, the same wide skirts in majestic folds, with which the Flemish school in general loves to adorn her; but beneath this beautiful attire the Virgins of Van Eyck remain bourgeoises while those of Memling are young queens. His saints are princesses. He endows them with slender figures, white and graceful necks, sweet and long profiles, long drooping eyelashes, pure brows and clear temples, with that immaterial something which tolerates in its vicinity only virginal dreams and chaste thoughts. Whatsoever is too worldly in their grace he corrects by an ideal but natural atmosphere, by the familiar and serene charm of his landscapes. A delicate symmetry lends a mysterious rhythm to these peaceful compositions and dominates them with the harmony of unheard music. Angel lute players with blue and rose-coloured wings seem the expression of this unuttered song, the personified voice of the choir. Grace of figures, nobility and richness of decoration, serenity of landscapes, balancing of groups, melody of colours, lines, and sentiment all unite to produce a masterpiece of mystical poetry, pious romance, and supernatural beauty.

But all these things, it must be repeated, are almost inexplicable in the Flemish school, at once the most natural and the most commonplace. These characteristics have their origin elsewhere, and the very legend concerning Memling, the story of a man coming as a stranger to art by a special vocation, is an unhistorical attempt to account for this singularity. Mr. James Weale had already conjectured that Memling's name contained the key to the enigma and concealed the clue to the painter's origin; he thought that it was according to a frequent custom of the Middle Ages, the name of a country. As a matter of fact there was a borough called Memelynck near Alkmaar in Holland, and in the neighbourhood of Aschaffenburg in Germany there was another called Mumling or Momling. For a time it was difficult to decide which of these two was the painter's birthplace, but Père Dusart's discovery has definitely cut short all uncertainty. The solution of the problem is that Memling was a German from Mainz, as is shown by his exclusively German Christian name, Hans. Before taking up his residence at Bruges he studied art at Cologne, for northern Europe the home and fatherland of Christian art. Vasari and Guicciardini relate that Memling was the pupil of Roger Van der Weyden, but the only work of Memling's with a trace of Roger's influence is after a Pieta, in a church of Cologne. His "Reliquary of St. Ursula" again proves that he lived a long time in that city; the views of Basle and Rome are fancifully depicted, whereas in those of Cologne the slightest details of the cathedral then in course of construction, the steeples of the churches of St. Martin and St. Pantaleon are reproduced with a fidelity which shows that the author had grown up in the familiar shadow of these monuments. Memling's whole work breathes a spirit of poetry rarely found in the fifteenth century save in a few painters of Cologne and Sienna. His favourite themes are the devotions honoured in Cologne, the city of the Magi and of the Eleven Thousand Virgins. The mystical peace and beauty which surrounds his figures, those calm brows and clear temples are not met with prior to him save in certain works of the Rhenish school such as the "Adoration of the Magi" of the great Stephen Lochner or in his "Virgin of the rosebush". This alliance of German spirituality with Flemish technic, this infusion of soul, of the spiritual, the immaterial, into the school best able to paint the real, constituted the genius and the rôle of Memling. Through him the Flemish school was rescued from the shallow naturalism where for fifty years it had grown barren. Memling's influence was as great as it was beneficial. When we compare the early works of Gérard David, so harsh and brutal, such as the "Justice of Otto" and the "Marriage of Cana" of the Louvre, with those which were later executed under Memling's influence, we can estimate the service which the stranger, the "duitscher Hans", rendered to the country of his adoption. There is no doubt that he owes to it a practical skill which he would not otherwise have had but in return he brought it the spirit which revivified it. The works of the next generation show this more clearly; the "Mystical Marriage" of the Museum of Brussels and the "Deposition" of Antwerp by Quentin Metzys. And when we remember that of all the masters of his country it was Metzys whom Rubens esteemed most, we can understand the importance of the role played in the destinies of the Flemish school by the young painter from Aschaffenburg who taught it poetry and idealism.


CAREL VAN MANDER, Livre des Peintres (1604), ed. HYMANS (Paris, 1884); DESCAMPS, Vies des peintres flamands (1753); CROWE AND CAVALCASELLE, Les anciens peintres flamands, with notes and additions by RUELENS and PINCHART (1863); VITET, Études d'Art, III (1864); WEALE, Hans Memling (1865); FROMENTIN, Les Maîtres d'autrefois (1876); KUGLER, Handbook of Painting, ed. CROWE (1879); CONWAY, Early Flemish Artists (1887); KÄMMERER, Memling (Bielefeld, 1899); JAMES WEALE; Hans Memlinc (London, 1901); WYZEWA, Peintres de jadis et d'aujourd'hui (1908).

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APA citation. Gillet, L. (1911). Hans Memling. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Gillet, Louis. "Hans Memling." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Kenneth M. Caldwell. Dedicated to the memory of Don McGonigle.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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