Hans Memling in Bruges,

Anna Koopstra,
Hannibal Books.


St John’s Hospital in Bruges, dating from the 12th-century, has a history of healing focused on the soul rather than the body.

By the time Hans Memling arrived in Bruges in the second half of the 15th-century, that meant the hospital had a clear role for the man who was described at the time of his death in 1494 as “the most accomplished and excellent painter of the whole Christian world”.

Opinion has since differed.  Art historians, comparing him unfavourably with the mighty Jan van Eyck, have concluded Memling learnt from his masters, but failed to evolve significantly over his remarkably consistent oeuvre of more than 90 surviving paintings.

He was, however, highly successful at delivering what his clients wanted.

In this superbly illustrated and compellingly written book to celebrate the refurbishment of the St John’s Hospital, now a museum, Anna Koopstra, curator of early Netherlandish painting, attributes his becoming one of the wealthier citizens of 15th-century Bruges to his consistency and his flexibility.

The results included the seven Memling works still on display at the hospital museum.  Of these, four were commissioned by nuns and friars for the spiritual health of the hospital patients.  Exceptionally, therefore, more than five centuries on, they are displayed in their original context.

Among the four commissions, the standouts are the St John Altarpiece and the St Ursula Shrine.

Dedicated to two St Johns – the Baptist and the Evangelist — the altarpiece is the largest of the commissions, meaning patients could see it from their beds when mass was celebrated.

Memling adds rich layers of meaning that demand closer inspection than the bed-ridden could have managed: while the transcendent religious events command centre stage, tucked away in the background, the worldly reality of Bruges life carries on.

In a reference to a major source of income for the St John’s Hospital, Memling depicts a giant wooden crane that was powered by men on a treadmill and was used for loading and unloading ships.  Beside it are wine barrels and a monk, exercising his right to measure imported wine, an important duty in mercantile Bruges, for which he would have been well paid.

The altarpiece was opened only for mass.  For most of the time, its glories were protected by side panels closed over it.  On their exterior that was on display daily, Memling depicted the two hospital nuns and two friars who commissioned the work.

The St Ursula Shrine is a bravura demonstration of Memling’s narrative skills.

St Ursula was reputedly a beautiful princess, who when sought for in marriage, accepted her suitor on condition she made a three-year pilgrimage to Rome accompanied by 11,000 virgins on 11 ships.

The wedding never happened.  Ursula and the virgins were attacked by Huns in Cologne.

Memling tells all this on the sides of a reliquary that takes the form of a miniature gothic chapel, embellished with carved filigree painted gold.

Some of Memling’s critics have noted a lack of dramatic emotion, but the beauty and serenity with which Ursula endures the Huns’ arrows was arguably more appropriate in a hospital context, and, as Koopstra has convinced us, Memling knew his clients.

Apart from friars and nuns, they included some of the wealthy burghers of Bruges.

One of the prized Memlings in the hospital museum today is the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove – a city councillor and mayor of Bruges.

It challenges those who accuse Memling of a lack of innovation with a background that links the religious and the worldly and is a far cry from the plain backdrops that had prevailed.

Memling’s detailed artistry in which nothing is random links the panel depicting van Nieuwenhove, his hands clasped in prayer, with the panel featuring the object of his devotion: Mary and the baby Jesus.

The two frames are connected as the cloth beneath Jesus’s feet is matched by that beneath van Nieuwenhove’s prayer book, and by reflections in a mirror, echoing the work of van Eyck.

Behind Mary, a stained-glass panel features van Nieuwenhove’s coat of arms.  Infrared photography has revealed that was a later addition, presumably at the behest of the client, who apparently saw no contradiction between piety and a desire for worldly status.  The purpose of great art was to serve both.

Barbara Lewis © 2024.