A Celebration of Hans Memlinc

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, August 1994 | Go to article overview
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A Celebration of Hans Memlinc


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


FEW cities have changed so little since the Middle Ages as Bruges, perpetuated within its canals by its silent lanes and bridges, the hush of its hospital and beguinage, and the murmured transactions of the belfry-shadowed Groote Markt. The ghost of Hans Memlinc, who died there five hundred years ago this month, would have no difficulty in finding its way around the entranced and entrancing Belgian city. High lone towers still rise from the Flemish plain: the belfry itself, the Cathedral of the Divine Saviour, and the Church of Our Lady. In the heat of the summer the citizens, as in a painting by Paul Delvaux, gather round the doors of their enigmatic long terraces. The murk of the Lower Chapel of the Holy Blood remains an arcanum for the dramas of the soul. In the Hospital of Saint John, still in use, the shrine of Saint Ursula glows with Memlinc's vision of her apple-bright handmaidens led to their doom by their own rapt-eyed gullibility and Saint Ursula's shining excess of zeal. An ancient stream still plays, crossed by diminutive foot-bridges, through the magic precincts of the Gruuthuse Manor. The grimmness of the Middle Ages has also left memories. Travellers buy daffodils or wayside aperitifs in a marketplace where the blood of princelings, burgomasters and magistrates more than once ran between the cobblestones. In that spiritual and brutal city Memlinc chose a retired spirituality until his death exactly five centuries ago on 11 August 1494. He shunned the ducal court and allied himself instead with the donors of his altarpieces: small bankers, armigerous traders, merchant grocers, stationers and master tanners, and others less rich, such as the nuns and brothers who tended the patients at the Hospital of St. John.

He was not a native of Bruges: few painters who worked there were. Like the Venetian painters of the time, they were attracted from outlying regions by the opportunities of a prosperous city. Jan van Eyck arrived from Liege and was probably born in Limbourg; Petrus Christus grew up in Tilburg; Dirk Bouts came from Louvain, Hugo van der Goes from Ghent, Gerard David from the region of Utrecht, Jan Prevost from Mons. Memlinc himself came down the Rhine from Germany. He was born in Seligenstadt, near Aschaffenburg, in the episcopal principality of Mainz. His family probably derived from the neighbouring village of Moemlingen, pronounced Moemlinken in the local Franconian dialect. His name is spelt Memlinc in most of the documents of his time which mention him. The date of his birth is unknown. It was probably nearer 1440 than 1430. He emerges in Bruges, having purchased the right of citizenship, iD 1465, the year after the death of Rogier van der Weyden, with whom he was associated in Brussels: Vasari. in his brief notes on the painters of the Netherlands, lists Memlinc as Rogier's `disciple' (discepolo). Not until 1467 was Memlinc listed as an independent master in the Bruges Guild of Painters, and he does not seem to have taken on any apprentices before 1480. He married Anne de Valkenaere at the earliest in 1470. Even if he was born in 1440, both his marriage and his enrolment in the painters' guild were, by the conventions of the time, unusually late.

Just a year after his acceptance by the guild, Memlinc painted the Triptych of Sir John Donne, now in the National Gallery in London, a work consummate in imagination and technique, outdoing any other produced in Bruges since the time of Jan van Eyck. He had nothing more to learn. His style was so firmly formed that he never changed it later. He also established in this picture his personal repertory of saints and angels. The four saints in the Donne Triptych reappear, changed only in posture, in the St. Catherine Triptych of 1479 in St. John's Hospital at Bruges. St. John the Baptist in the detached wing of a retable in the National Gallery in London replicates the saint, not only in the Donne Triptych and the two triptychs in the Hospital of St.

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