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Friday, June 21, 2013

Hans Memling

Passion Altarpiece, 1491, Lubeck Cathedral, Hans Memling

Hans Memling Self-portrait,
ca. 1470
Several weeks ago I dealt with Netherlandish painters and the fact that some of the best were quite anonymous. As a result, art historians and come to refer to them as "The Master of...." (04-29-13). Fortunately, the top tier, the cream of the crop, of these Northern Renaissance artists such as Rogier van der Weyden, Robert Campin, and the van Eyck brothers are definitely not anonymous. Hundreds of examples of their works exist. Also belonging to this list of artists is Hans Memling. The only problem with his work is that he was so strongly associated with his mentor, Rogier van der Weyden, even working together with him on the same commissions, that art historians have sometimes found it difficult to distinguish between them. As I discovered in trying to choose examples of his work to display here, there are well over a hundred pieces which have survived, mostly portraits and altarpieces, and all so intriguing in their own way as to make the choice quite difficult.

Last Judgment, 1466-73, Hans Memling
If you like your painting literal, hard-edged, religious, and highly detailed, you'll love Memling. His portraits are a bit rigid in pose but exquisite in detail and in capturing the character of the subject. Though Netherlandish, there is a no-nonsense German quality to his painting (he was born in Germany). His polyptych Passion altarpiece (top) is typical of his work of this type, though more elaborate, with its seven folding panels, than most. (The two flanking panels on each side are full-length portraits.) Even more dramatic is Memling's Last Judgment from 1466-73. Even Michelangelo didn't take that long; moreover, Memling is no Michelangelo. Memling knew his scripture though, the saved being welcomed into Heaven on Jesus' right, the damned being literally thrown into hell on his left. Memling seems to have relished the opportunity to paint nude figures without fearing damnation himself.

The Advent and Triumph of Christ, 1480, Hans Memling
Though Memling left behind some twenty paintings confirmed in their attribution (as well as several children and a sizable estate) quite a number of works said to be by Memling are questionable, most based on circumstantial and stylistic evidence. His earliest portrait was from 1467 but some attributions have been recorded as early as 1463. The difficulty in dealing with Netherlandish painting (more often referred to as Flemish) is that they have far more similarity than differences as to the various artists' work. That, coupled with the tendency of second-tier artists to be anonymous, yet quite accomplished in their work, is what keeps art historians up at night.

Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, 1485, Hans Memling.
Though a triptych, it's definitely not an altarpiece.
Memling painted it for the Loiani family of Bologna.

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