Hans Memling

Hans Memling (ca. 1440-1494), a German-born painter active in Flanders, was one of the most graceful, charming, and technically brilliant of the early Netherlandish masters.

Hans Memling was born in Seligenstadt, a hamlet near Frankfurt. His early training probably took place in Cologne, though by 1465 "Jan van Memmelynghe" was recorded as a citizen of Bruges in the Lowlands. It is conjectured that, previous to entering the painters' guild at Bruges, Memling spent time as an apprentice in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels. The evidence for this association, however, is far from conclusive and does not prove a master-pupil relationship. Nothing further is known concerning the artist's early professional training.

From the first Memling displayed the highest standards of technical proficiency and pictorial sophistication in his work. The full corpus of his paintings, in fact, represents a single standard of perfection in which one can discover little stylistic change or development. His earliest known painting, for example, the Chatsworth Triptych, commissioned by the English lord Sir John Donne of Kidwelly in 1468, displays a surprising maturity of style. Blending a figure style derived from Rogier van der Weyden with compositional motifs and other details from Jan van Eyck, Memling created the prototype of the rational and balanced design upon which he so often relied throughout his long and active career.

Memling's search for rational order and compositional equilibrium, however, often obscures his truly progressive outlook and the many innovations found in his work. In such early paintings as the Scenes of the Passion he combined a bold, panoramic vista with unprecedented narrative detail. In his most famous work, the Shrine of St. Ursula, he further developed this closely observed anecdotal genre.

The Triptych of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (1479) represents Memling's highest achievement as a painter. In this work he skillfully combined compositional stability with great pictorial variety. Sparkling colors and luminous surfaces interact with solid, plastic forms and broad spatial recessions to create one of the great masterpieces of 15th-century Netherlandish painting.

As a portraitist, Memling further revealed his originality. The Diptych of Martin van Nieuwenhove contains a unique elaboration of the interior setting, and the famous portrait Man with a Medal is the first northern figure posed entirely against a landscape background.

When he died, Memling was one of the hundred wealthiest citizens of Bruges. He was also, in the words of a contemporary, "the most accomplished and excellent painter of the whole Christian world."


Further Reading on Hans Memling

The major books on Memling are in German. Short accounts of his life and work are in two works in English: Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character (2 vols., 1953), and Margaret Dickens Whinney, Early Flemish Painting (1968). A brief monograph on Memling is Maur Guillaume-Linephty, The Shrine of St. Ursula (1939).