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Title: Memlinc
Author: Weale, W. H. James, Weale, J. Cyril
Language: English
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*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Memlinc" ***

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    MASTERPIECES
    IN COLOUR
    EDITED BY - -
    T. LEMAN HARE

    HANS MEMLINC
    (?) 1425-1494


    IN THE SAME SERIES

       ARTIST.                     AUTHOR.
    VELAZQUEZ.                S. L. BENSUSAN.
    REYNOLDS.                 S. L. BENSUSAN.
    TURNER.                   C. LEWIS HIND.
    ROMNEY.                   C. LEWIS HIND.
    GREUZE.                   ALYS EYRE MACKLIN.
    BOTTICELLI.               HENRY B. BINNS.
    ROSSETTI.                 LUCIEN PISSARRO.
    BELLINI.                  GEORGE HAY.
    FRA ANGELICO.             JAMES MASON.
    REMBRANDT.                JOSEF ISRAELS.
    LEIGHTON.                 A. LYS BALDRY.
    RAPHAEL.                  PAUL G. KONODY.
    HOLMAN HUNT.              MARY E. COLERIDGE.
    TITIAN.                   S. L. BENSUSAN.
    MILLAIS.                  A. LYS BALDRY.
    CARLO DOLCI.              GEORGE HAY.
    GAINSBOROUGH.             MAX ROTHSCHILD.
    TINTORETTO.               S. L. BENSUSAN.
    LUINI.                    JAMES MASON.
    FRANZ HALS.               EDGCUMBE STALEY.
    VAN DYCK.                 PERCY M. TURNER.
    LEONARDO DA VINCI.        M. W. BROCKWELL.
    RUBENS.                   S. L. BENSUSAN.
    WHISTLER.                 T. MARTIN WOOD.
    HOLBEIN.                  S. L. BENSUSAN.
    BURNE-JONES.              A. LYS BALDRY.
    VIGÉE LE BRUN.            C. HALDANE MACFALL.
    CHARDIN.                  PAUL G. KONODY.
    FRAGONARD.                C. HALDANE MACFALL.
    MEMLINC.                  W. H. J. & J. C. WEALE.
    CONSTABLE.                C. LEWIS HIND.


           _In Preparation_

    J. F. MILLET.             PERCY M. TURNER.
    ALBERT DÜRER.             HERBERT FURST.
    RAEBURN.                  JAMES L. CAW.
    BOUCHER.                  C. HALDANE MACFALL.
    WATTEAU.                  C. LEWIS HIND.
    MURILLO.                  S. L. BENSUSAN.
    JOHN S. SARGENT, R.A.     T. MARTIN WOOD.

               AND OTHERS.


    [Illustration: PLATE I.--OUR LADY AND CHILD.

              (Frontispiece)

    Right panel of a diptych, painted in 1487 for Martin van
    Nieuwenhove. It is now in Saint John’s Hospital, Bruges.]



    MEMLINC

    BY W. H. J. & J. C. WEALE


    ILLUSTRATED WITH EIGHT
    REPRODUCTIONS IN COLOUR

    [Illustration: IN SEMPITERNUM.]

    LONDON: T. C. & E. C. JACK
    NEW YORK: FREDERICK A. STOKES CO.



    CONTENTS


    Chap.                                            Page

       I. Hans Memlinc                                 11
      II. Early Days and Training                      19
     III. Earliest Works                               25
      IV. Characteristics of His Early Works           31
       V. The Maturity of His Art                      36
      VI. Masterpieces and Death                       53
     VII. Effacement and Vindication of His Types      66



    LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


    Plate                                                  Page

       I. Our Lady and Child, 1487                 Frontispiece
             (Saint John’s Hospital, Bruges)

      II. Adoration of the Magi, 1479                        14
             (Saint John’s Hospital, Bruges)

     III. Saints Christopher, Maurus, and Giles, 1484        24
             (Town Museum, Bruges)

      IV. Portrait of Nicholas di Forzore Spinelli,
          holding a medal                                    34
             (Antwerp Museum)

       V. Portrait of Martin van Nieuwenhove, 1487
         (companion to I.)                                   40
             (Saint John’s Hospital, Bruges)

      VI. One Panel of the Shrine of Saint Ursula, 1489      50
             (Saint John’s Hospital, Bruges)

     VII. Portrait of an Old Lady                            60
             (Louvre, Paris)

    VIII. The Blessed Virgin and Child, with Saint
          George and the Donor                               70
             (National Gallery, London, No. 686)



MEMLINC



I

HANS MEMLINC


Already, before the advent of the House of Burgundy, Bruges had
attained the height of her prosperity. From a small military outpost
of civilisation, built to stay the advance of the ravaging Northmen,
she had developed through four short centuries of a strenuous
existence into one of the three leading cities of northern Europe.
Born to battle, fighting had been her abiding lot with but scant
intervals of peace, and as it had been under the rule of her long line
of Flemish counts, so it continued with increased vehemence during the
century of French domination that followed, the incessant warring of
suzerain and vassal being further complicated and embittered by
internecine strife with the rival town of Ghent. But she emerged from
the ordeal with her vitality unsapped, her industrial capabilities
unabated, her commercial supremacy unshaken. Her population had
reached the high total of a hundred and fifty thousand; she overlorded
an outport with a further thirty thousand inhabitants, a seaport, and
a number of subordinate townships. The staple of wool was established
at her centre, and she was the chief emporium of the cities of the
Hanseatic League. Vessels from all quarters of the globe crowded her
harbours, her basins, and canals, as many as one hundred and fifty
being entered inwards in the twenty-four hours. Factories of merchants
from seventeen kingdoms were settled there as agents, and twenty
foreign consuls had palatial residences within her walls. Her
industrial life was a marvel of organisation, where fifty-four
incorporated associations or guilds with a membership of many
thousands found constant employment.

The artistic temperament of the people had necessarily developed on
the ruder lines, in the architectural embellishment of the city, the
beautifying of its squares and streets, its churches and chapels, its
municipal buildings and guild halls, its markets and canal
embankments. “The squares,” we are told, “were adorned with fountains,
its bridges with statues in bronze, the public buildings and many of
the private houses with statuary and carved work, the beauty of which
was heightened and brought out by polychrome and gilding; the windows
were rich with storied glass, and the walls of the interiors adorned
with paintings in distemper, or hung with gorgeous tapestry.” But of
the highest forms of Art--of literature, of music, and of
painting--there was slender token. The atmosphere in which the
Flemings had pursued their destinies was little calculated to develop
any other than the harder and more matter-of-fact side of their
nature. True, here as elsewhere, and from the earliest period of her
history the great monastic institutions which dotted the country had
done much for the cultivation of Art, as the remains of wood
sculpture, mural paintings, and numerous illuminated manuscripts amply
testify. But no great school of painting had arisen or was even
possible, so true is it that the development of the artistic instincts
of the community require the contemplative repose and fostering
inspiration of peace. In the truest sense of the term the Flemings
were not a cultured artistic race: they had certainly a high standard
of taste, but their artistic sense was appreciative rather than
creative--even so, a notable advance for a nation of warriors and
merchants.

    [Illustration: PLATE II.--ADORATION OF THE MAGI.

    This, one of the master’s finest works, was painted in 1479 for
    Brother John Floreins, Master of Saint John’s Hospital, Bruges,
    where it may be seen.]

With the succession of the House of Burgundy to the French domination
an entirely new era was ushered in. If the ambition of this new line
of princes was unbounded, equally so was the success which attended
its pursuit; their authority increased by leaps and bounds, and soon
their court had become the wealthiest and most powerful in Europe. The
high notions they entertained of their own dignity brooked no compeer
in the pomp and glitter of their state. The display the guild and
merchant princes and foreign representatives were capable of they
should outdo: the splendour of their sovereignty should blur the
brilliancy of mere civic ostentation. But while they revelled in the
outward show of their supremacy, they viewed with jealous eye the
great wealth and large measure of liberties enjoyed by their subjects.
Their needs were great, the resources of the people commensurate; and
in the alternate confiscation and resale of these liberties they found
a remunerative source of revenue. But if the dukes were arrogant and
unscrupulous, their subjects were no cravens, and civic shrewdness
often proved more than a match for ducal craft. A fine sense of
humour, however, suggested the policy of keeping these lusty burghers
fully diverted the while they were not being bled or chastened: hence
the constant recurrence of pacifications and triumphal entries, of
regal processions and gorgeous tournaments, of public banquets and
bewildering revels. It was an era of pomp and pageantry unparalleled
in history, the success of which required the services of the highest
talents of the day--the foremost artists to enhance its magnificence,
the leading writers to chronicle its marvels.

It was Duke Philip III. who requisitioned the services of John van
Eyck and showered on him bounty and patronage, and if his reign had
proved as uneventful as it was the reverse, Philip’s name would still
survive in the reflected glory of this prince of painting. The
declining days of the great duke, stricken with imbecility, certainly
offered no inducement to foreign artists on the lookout for court
patronage. But with his death, on the 15th of June 1467, the entire
prospect was changed. Charles the Bold now succeeded to the dukedom:
his solemn entry into the Flemish capital took place on Palm Sunday of
the year following--an occasion marked by brilliant jousts and
tournaments--and his home-coming with his bride, Margaret of York,
some three months later. These events, the marriage festivities
notably, called for a great array of talent, and among the leading
artists engaged in planning and executing the magnificent decorations
indulged in we find Peter Coustain and John Hennequart, the ducal
painters; James Daret and Philip Truffin of Tournay; Francis Stoc and
Livin van Lathem of Brussels; Daniel De Rycke and Hugo Van der Goes of
Ghent; Govart of Antwerp; and John Du Château of Ypres. And here Hans
Memlinc enters on the scene, already then a master-painter and
accomplished artist, but of whom no previous record, of whose lifework
no earlier trace, has been discovered.



II

EARLY DAYS AND TRAINING


As to where and when Memlinc was born, where he served his
apprenticeship, and with whom he worked as a journeyman no documentary
evidence has yet been discovered, and no one can confidently assert;
but there exists a sufficiency of presumptive evidence to warrant
certain conclusions with the help of which to construct a working
biography. It appears probable that the family came from Memelynck,
near Alkmaar, in north Holland, and settled at Deutichem, in
Guelderland; and, on the strength of an entry copied from the diary
kept by an ecclesiastical notary and clerk of the Chapter of Saint
Donatian at Bruges during the years 1491 to 1498, that they
subsequently removed to the ecclesiastical principality of Mainz. The
subject of this monograph is likely to have been born, at some date
between 1425 and 1435, either at some place within that principality,
or at Deutichem previous to his parents’ removal. From our knowledge
of the guild system which obtained in the middle ages throughout the
north of Europe with but slight variation in the conditions of
training and apprenticeship, and taking into consideration besides the
typical characteristics of Memlinc’s work, it appears probable that he
served his apprenticeship at Mainz, and afterwards worked at Cöln as a
journeyman, and this opinion is confirmed by the outstanding fact that
in all the wealth of architectural embellishment in which his pictures
abound the only town outside Bruges whose buildings are faithfully
reproduced is this noted centre of art. That he should have travelled
thither for the especial purpose of securing an accurate background
for the first, fifth, and sixth panels of the Shrine of Saint Ursula,
and not have cared to obtain as faithful settings for the incidents of
the second and fourth panels ascribed to Basel, or for that of the
third panel located at Rome, will scarcely stand the test of
criticism. A study of these panels evidences an intimate acquaintance
with the architectural beauties of Cöln, a knowledge obviously
acquired at first hand during a period of his life devoted to Art.
The master under whom he worked was in all probability the Suabian,
Stephen Löthener, of Mersburg, near Constance, who had settled in Cöln
before 1442, and died there in 1452. It is presumable that Memlinc may
not have completed his studies at the time of that painter’s death. In
the circumstances one can but conjecture as to where he completed the
necessary training before attaining to the rank of a master-painter.
Vasari and Guicciardini both assert that Memlinc was at some time or
other a pupil of Roger De la Pasture (Van der Weyden), and, as this
master returned from Italy in 1450, he may have come across Memlinc at
Cöln and engaged him as an assistant. It is, however, quite possible
that Memlinc stayed on at Cöln until Löthener’s death in 1452 and then
went to Brussels, doubtless passing by Louvain and possibly working
for a time under Dirk Bouts. Certain it is, judging from the many
points of similarity in their work, that Memlinc came under Roger’s
influence for a space sufficiently long to leave a strong impress of
that master’s methods on his art. Memlinc’s contemporary, Rumwold De
Doppere, has left it on record that he was “then considered to be the
most skilful and excellent painter in the whole of Christendom”; and
if Memlinc had left nothing to perpetuate his fame but such gems as
the Shrine of Saint Ursula, at Bruges, the “Passion of Our Lord,” in
the Royal Museum at Turin, that remarkable altarpiece, “Christ the
Light of the World,” in the Royal Gallery at Munich, or even, as
Fromentin suggests, only those two figures of Saint Barbara and Saint
Katherine in the large altarpiece at Bruges, he would need nothing of
the reflected glory of his alleged master to enhance his renown.
Always assuming Memlinc to have stood in this relation to De la
Pasture, Sir Martin Conway came to a happy conclusion when he wrote
that Roger’s greatest glory is that he produced such a pupil--“that
Memlinc the artist was Roger’s greatest work.”

    [Illustration: PLATE III.--SAINTS CHRISTOPHER, MAURUS, AND
    GILES.

    This, the central panel of an altarpiece, painted in 1484 for
    William Moreel, Burgomaster of Bruges, is now in the Town
    Gallery at Bruges.]



III

EARLIEST WORKS


The first painting to bespeak his industry is now supposed to have
been the famous triptych of the Last Judgment in the Church of Saint
Mary at Danzig, commenced after 1465 and finished in 1472 or early in
1473.

Few pictures have evoked more controversy or been coupled with the
names of more artists than the Danzig triptych. The entry in a local
church register of 1616 which asserts that it was painted in Brabant
by John and George van Eichen, an ascription varied at a subsequent
period by substituting the name of James for John, carries no more
weight than usually attaches to popular traditions, and was generally
disregarded by the connoisseurs and experts who have debated the
question for more than a hundred years. The names of Albert van
Ouwater, Michael Wohlgemuth, Hugh Van der Goes, Hubert and John van
Eyck, Roger De la Pasture, and Dirk Bouts have all been canvassed with
more or less assurance. Memlinc’s name was first associated with the
work in 1843, by Hotho, whose opinion met with wide acceptance, a
notable convert to his view being Dr. Waagen, who in 1860 declared the
triptych to be “not only the most important work by Memlinc that has
come down to our time, but also one of the masterpieces of the whole
school, being far richer and better composed than the picture of the
same subject by Roger De la Pasture at Beaune, though that master’s
influence is still perceptible,” though two years later he recognised
in the figures the influence of Dirk Bouts; and in 1899 Kämmerer as
emphatically declared that “no one who is acquainted with Memlinc’s
authentic works can possibly doubt that this picture is the work of
his hand.” In the absence of contemporary documentary evidence, and
with the donors of the picture still unidentified, confronted moreover
with the fact that in its composition the Danzig triptych differs
altogether from Memlinc’s authenticated paintings, many experienced
judges still hesitated to admit the claim put forward in his behalf.
But the recent discoveries made by Dr. A. Warburg leave little room
for doubt. In the fifteenth century there was a considerable Italian
colony at Bruges, and the powerful Florentine firm of the Medici,
whose ramifications extended over all Europe, had a branch
establishment there in the name of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici, the
acting manager of which from 1455 to 1466 was Angelo di Jacopo Tani,
who, after serving as bookkeeper of the firm’s agency in London, had
been transferred to Bruges in 1450. Tani may have taken Memlinc into
his household with a view to the production of the triptych under his
own eye. The absence of Memlinc’s name from the guild registers of the
period lends probability to the theory that he was employed by Charles
the Bold, for ducal service exempted painters settling in Bruges from
the obligation of purchasing the right of citizenship, and of becoming
members of the local guild. It is presumed that Tani engaged Memlinc’s
services at some date after 1465 to paint or, if the work had been
commenced by some other painter, to complete this picture. While the
dexter shutter, representing the reception of the elect by Saint Peter
at the gate of Heaven, can only have been designed by a pupil of
Löthener, it is equally certain that the upper portion of the central
panel must have been designed by some one who had worked under Bouts
or De la Pasture. In 1466 Tani visited Florence, and there married
Katherine, daughter of William Tanagli. As their portraits and arms
are on the exterior of the shutters, these cannot have been commenced
before they were both in Bruges, some time in 1467, the date inscribed
on the slab covering a tomb on which a woman is seated. The technique
and colouring of the entire work are Netherlandish, and in the opinion
of the most trustworthy critics are certainly the work of Memlinc. The
painting completed, it was, at the commencement of 1473, despatched by
sea to Florence, but the vessel bearing it was captured by
freebooters, and the picture as part of the prize carried off to
Danzig.

The patronage of the agent of the Medici was of course of incalculable
advantage to a rising artist, and doubtless it served to secure for
Memlinc the interest of Spinelli of Arezzo--whose portrait, now in the
van Ertborn collection at the Antwerp Museum, he painted in the
latter half of 1467 or the beginning of 1468, when this Italian
medallist was in the service of Charles the Bold as seal engraver--and
to bring his growing reputation to the notice of the ducal court. The
negotiations for the hand of Margaret of York, begun in December 1466,
and unduly protracted owing no doubt to the mental incapacity of Duke
Philip III., were of course resumed at the expiration of the period of
court mourning after his death on 15th June 1467. Following the
example of his father, Charles may have commissioned Memlinc to
accompany his ambassadors to the English court for the purpose of
securing an up-to-date portrait of his intended consort. In the
circumstances Memlinc would certainly have made the acquaintance of
Sir John Donne, for the Donnes were ardent Yorkists high in the royal
favour, and moreover the brother of Sir John’s wife, William, first
Lord Hastings, filled the office of Lord Chamberlain to the king. But
the triptych in the Chatsworth collection, though the outcome of this
meeting, could not have been executed at the time, as the period of
Memlinc’s visit would have been restricted to carrying out the ducal
instructions. An opportunity for the necessary sittings was afforded
later, when Sir John Donne, accompanied by his wife and daughter,
journeyed to Bruges in the suite of the princess to assist at the
wedding celebrations in July 1468. The omission of the sons from the
family group in the triptych is sufficiently accounted for by the fact
that they were in Wales at the time.



IV

CHARACTERISTICS OF HIS EARLY WORKS


To the art student these earliest of Memlinc’s paintings--the Donne
triptych in particular--are replete with interest. In the first place,
they attest the powers then already at the painter’s command as an
exponent of his art, and they further serve as a standard of
comparison by which to judge his afterwork. Memlinc was pre-eminently
a religious artist, deeply imbued with Scriptural lore and well versed
in hagiography, a fund of knowledge sublimated in the beautiful
mysticism of the school of Cöln which had early subjugated his poetic
temperament. His conception of the Madonna, based on a fervent
appreciation of the purity, the tenderness, and the majesty of her
nature was deeply rooted, and it led him to evolve the definite type
which he presents to us in the Chatsworth picture, to which he
faithfully adheres henceforth, at times enhancing its beauty--as
witness the triptych in the Louvre and the altarpiece of Saint John’s
Hospital at Bruges--until his ideal culminates in that marvellous
embodiment of her supreme attributes preserved to us in the Van
Nieuwenhove diptych. The Divine Infant, it is true, may not appeal to
one in the same way as do the charming pictures of infant life in
which the southern artists excelled. Whatever may be said of the fine
men and intellectual women of the race, the northern type of babyhood
cannot by any stretch of courtesy, apart from a mother’s loving
weakness, be described as graceful. Still Memlinc’s conceptions of the
Infant Saviour rank high in point of intellectuality, of
expressiveness of eye, of grace of movement and charm of expression.
The Donne triptych besides, from the point of view from which we are
now considering it, is a valuable asset for the study of the
impersonations of saints whom we find constantly recurring in his
paintings: to wit, Saint Katherine and Saint Barbara--(Fromentin’s
enthusiastic appreciation of these figures in the large altarpiece at
Bruges has already been quoted)--Saint John the Baptist and Saint John
the Evangelist, and Saint Christopher. The same may be said of his
angels. Taken from another standpoint, these early paintings of
Memlinc are invaluable testimony of his rare gift for portraiture. It
was a gift which may almost be taken as the specific appanage of the
fifteenth century painters of the Netherlandish school. Some, like
John van Eyck, used it with scrupulous exactitude, scorning to veil
the palpable truth that at the moment and usually obtruded itself on
his painstaking eye; others, and Memlinc prominently of their number,
loved rather to seize on the fitful manifestation of the inner man and
to idealise him. Both artists, taking them as types, were honest and
true to their art, notwithstanding that the resulting truth in each
case is deceiving, except we have very particular information
regarding the individual portrayed. In any event, the Tani and
Spinelli portraits are fine examples of the class, though perhaps Sir
John Donne’s appeals to us more because of the fuller knowledge we
have of the man. And finally, both the Antwerp and the Chatsworth
paintings afford us beautiful examples of Memlinc’s art as a landscape
painter, and in this respect certainly it may be safely asserted that
he never produced better work.

    [Illustration: PLATE IV.--NICHOLAS SPINELLI OF AREZZO.

    Nicholas Spinelli, born 1430, was in 1467-68 in Flanders, in the
    service of Charles the Bold as seal engraver. He died in 1499 at
    Lyons, where this portrait was acquired by Denon. He is depicted
    holding a medal, showing a profile head of the Emperor Nero,
    with the inscription “NERO CLAVDius CÆSAR AVGustus GERManicus
    TRibunicia Potestati IMPERator.” It was bought from the heirs of
    Denon by M. van Ertborn, who bequeathed it to the Museum at
    Antwerp.]



V

THE MATURITY OF HIS ART


From the consideration of these three works executed in the sixties we
pass on to a decade of more notable achievement. The public rejoicings
which had inaugurated the new reign were already dimmed to
recollection in the disquieting civil and national complications that
ensued, culminating in the disastrous battle of Nancy on 5th January
1477, in which the ducal troops were put to rout and Charles himself
lost his life. He was succeeded by his only daughter, Mary, who on
19th August of the same year by her marriage to Maximilian, son of the
Emperor Frederick IV., brought Flanders under the rule of the House of
Austria, and thus involved the Flemish burghers in that lamentable
struggle which, after many alternations of fortune, was one of the
chief causes that led to the downfall of Bruges. Memlinc, as a
newcomer without rooted interests or strong political bent, wholly
wrapt in his art, naturally steered clear of political entanglements,
though ready enough on occasion to take his share of the public burden
which the fortune of war imposed, as witness his contribution to the
loan raised to cover the expenses of the military operations against
France. But his placid disposition shrank from the heat and ferment of
public life, though his sympathies no doubt were all with the burghers
and guildmen with whom he associated, among whom he found the most
liberal supporters of his art to the exclusion of court patronage, and
from whose womankind he selected a helpmate. Memlinc married later in
life than was the custom of his day, when it was usual for craftsmen
to take unto themselves a wife at the expiration of their
journeymanship, after they had established their competence, paid the
indispensable guild fees, and taken the no less essential vows to bear
themselves honestly and to labour their work as in the sight of God;
for it was only at some date between 1470 and 1480, when already a man
of middle age, that he led Anne, daughter of Louis De Valkenaere, to
the altar. It is impossible to determine the year, but on the 10th of
December 1495 we find the guardians of the three children of the
marriage acting on their behalf in the local courts in the winding-up
of their father’s estate, which at any rate proves that the eldest at
that time must have been still a minor, or under the age of
five-and-twenty. Apart from his wife’s dowry, of which we have no
knowledge, Memlinc’s circumstances were then already much above the
ordinary, for in 1480 out of the 247 wealthiest citizens only 140 were
taxed at higher rates, and it is on record that in the same year he
purchased a large stone house and two smaller adjacent ones on the
east side of the main street that leads from the Flemish Bridge to the
ramparts, in a quarter of the town much affected by artists, and
within the Parish of Saint Giles, beneath the spreading trees of whose
peaceful God’s acre he was to find an abiding resting-place some
fourteen years later, by the side of his old friend the miniaturist
William Vrelant, who predeceased him by some thirteen years, to be
joined there in after years by many another eminent artist, such as
John Prévost, Lancelot Blondeel, Peter Pourbus, and Antony Claeissens.

That he was a busy man the record of works that have come down to us
from this decade alone amply testifies. The “Saint John the
Baptist,” in the Royal Gallery at Munich (1470); the exquisite little
diptych “The Blessed Virgin and Child,” in the Louvre, painted (_c._
1475) for John Du Celier, a member of the Guild of Merchant Grocers,
whose father was a member of the Council of Flanders; the panel in the
National Gallery, which we reproduce; the magnificent altarpiece in
the Royal Museum at Turin painted for William Vrelant (1478); the
famous triptych executed for the high altar of the church attached to
the Hospital of Saint John at Bruges (1479); and the triptych “The
Adoration of the Magi” presented to the Hospital by Brother John
Floreins (1479), all belong to this period: while with the year 1480
are associated the portraits of William Moreel and his wife, in the
Royal Gallery at Brussels; that of one of their daughters as the Sibyl
Sambetha, in Saint John’s Hospital; the marvellous composition in the
Royal Gallery at Munich, “Christ the Light of the World,” painted to
the order of Peter Bultinc, a wealthy citizen of Bruges and a member
of the Guild of Tanners; and the triptych “The Dead Christ mourned by
His Mother,” in Saint John’s Hospital--let alone the numerous other
works attributed to him but not authenticated or which have been lost.
The bare record, however, conveys but a feeble idea of the immensity
of the labour this output involved.

    [Illustration: PLATE V.--MARTIN VAN NIEUWENHOVE.

    The companion of the painting reproduced in Plate I., and is in
    the Hospital of Saint John.]

The panel in the National Gallery, which may be ascribed to 1475,
arrests our attention for the moment. It presents to us the Blessed
Virgin and Child in attitudes closely corresponding to those in the
earlier Donne triptych, but both are more pleasing figures in respect
of pose, the attitude of the Madonna in particular being less
constrained and the expression happier and more natural. The figure of
the angel too has gained in gracefulness. The donor under the
patronage of Saint George appeals to one as a living personality. Of
these two figures a lady critic complains that they are
“characteristic examples of Memlinc’s inability to depict a really
manly man”; and she endeavours to give greater point to this criticism
by contrasting the painter’s methods with those of John van Eyck,
wholly of course to the disadvantage of the former. In the present
case the identity of the donor remains a mystery: he may not have been
the really manly man the idealist would require, and also he may have
been the man of reverent and sweet disposition revealed to us in this
portrait. It is for the softening and idealisation of the face from
the reality, however, that fault is commonly found with Memlinc as a
portrait-painter. But, after all, what is this idealisation of the
subject but the highest aim and truest concept of art? It is no
difficult matter for the competent painter to produce a counterpart of
the outward flesh with all its peculiarities, even to the last wrinkle
and the least significant blemish, and be awarded the palm for “stern
realism”; but to conceive the inner soul of the man, to seize and fix
that conception on panel or canvas, surely that is the higher art? It
is true that in the men whom Memlinc portrayed there is a marked
similarity of expression, arising obviously from the fact that they
are usually pictured in an attitude of devotion, and that in the frame
of mind this attitude imposed they suffered some loss of workaday
individuality. But surely it is not to Memlinc’s discredit that his
clients were of the devotional order? Nor is the criticism of the
Saint George as mild and effeminate any more to the point; for when
the appeal is from Memlinc to Van Eyck one is forcibly reminded of the
votive picture of the Virgin and Child by that master in the Town
Gallery at Bruges, in which we have the donor under the patronage of a
Saint George whom for sheer inanity of expression and utter
awkwardness of demeanour it would be hard to beat. And yet in neither
instance, we may safely assume, was the figure the type the artist
would have created for the valiant knight of the legend. Apart from
this, a careful study of Memlinc’s many works will reveal to the most
exacting a sufficiency of evidence that his art was equal to any
demands that might have been made of it; of his preference for the
milder and more religious type of man, however, there can be no doubt.

It were idle to speculate as to the length of time Memlinc devoted to
the production of his pictures, seeing the meagreness of the data
afforded us for the purpose. His peculiar technique, however, which
avoided the accentuation of light and shade, and thereby simplified
the scheme of colouring, lent itself to rapid execution. Even so,
paintings like the altarpiece in the Royal Museum at Turin and that in
the Royal Gallery at Munich must have made heavy calls on his time
through a number of years. As examples of the powers and wealth of
resource of the artist these masterpieces stand almost alone. The
architectural setting of the former, a wholly imaginary Jerusalem, is
so contrived as to assist in the most natural manner the precession of
the Gospel story from the triumphal entry into the Holy City to the
Resurrection and the manifestation of Christ to Mary Magdalene. As
without conscious effort the eye is guided along the line of route
followed by the Redeemer, one treads in imagination in the Divine
footsteps through the hosannahing multitude in the extreme background
on the right, and turning to the left arrives at the Temple steps in
time to witness the casting out of the buyers and sellers; descending
thence and bearing gradually towards the right a turn of the street
leads one to the scene of the Last Supper, which Judas has already
left to confer with the priests under a neighbouring portico as to the
betrayal of his Master; and eventually one arrives at the Garden of
Olives, to be confronted in rapid succession with the Agony and the
picture of the sleeping disciples, the rush of armed men, Judas’
traitorous kiss and Peter in the act of striking at Malchus. Following
the multitude for some little distance one reaches the heart of the
city, where the successive incidents of the Passion are grouped each
under a separate portico showing on to a spacious courtyard in the
very centre of the panel--Christ before Pilate and his expostulating
wife, the Flagellation, the Crowning with thorns and mocking of Our
Lord, Christ before Herod and the Ecce Homo, with the preparations for
the Crucifixion going on the while in the open courtyard. These
completed, the mournful procession passes under a palace gateway into
the forefront of the picture, bears to the left and issues through the
city gate, where the Mother of Christ, the beloved disciple, and the
holy women have gathered together, into the open country, where at the
foot of the hilly way that skirts the city walls Simon of Cyrene comes
forward to relieve the fallen Saviour in the burden of the Cross;
presently the procession is lost to view at a bend of the road only to
reappear on the slopes of Calvary, which is triplicated here for the
purpose of re-enacting the three scenes associated with it--of the
Nailing to the Cross, of the Death of Our Lord, and of the Descent
from the Cross. Lower down on the left we assist at the Entombment and
at the Deliverance of the Just from Limbo, and further away we
witness the Resurrection and, in the far background, the manifestation
of Our Lord to Mary Magdalene. Viewed as a whole it is a marvel of
composition enhanced by a brilliancy of colouring, and every scene in
it a delicately finished miniature. Apart from the architectural
setting, the three Calvaries, and the duplication of the Holy
Sepulchre imposed by the necessity of representing both the Entombment
and the Resurrection, the most captious can discover nothing to abate
the enthusiastic admiration which this altarpiece excites, or one’s
wonder at the masterful manner in which Memlinc has succeeded in
developing the story of the Passion in some twenty scenes
necessitating the introduction of considerably over two hundred
figures, apart from the animal and bird life that supplements them,
within the narrow compass of a panel only fifty-five centimetres high
by ninety centimetres in breadth! The extreme corners of the
foreground are filled in with exquisite portraits of the donors, the
miniaturist William Vrelant and his wife, for whom one feels that
Memlinc has tried to excel himself in this masterwork.

Scarcely less surprising as a composition is the story in bright
luminous colours told in the Munich altarpiece, a work of considerably
larger dimensions (80 by 180 centimetres), commonly described as “The
Seven Joys of Mary,” but for which the more appropriate title has been
suggested of “Christ the Light of the World.” It is the story of the
manifestation of Our Lord to the Gentile world in the persons of the
Wise Men from the East, closely correspondent, as was Memlinc’s wont,
to the Gospel narrative and Christian tradition, except perhaps in
this one respect, that the artist’s innate love of moving water has
suggested to him the original conceit of depicting the departing Magi
as setting sail for their distant homes across the boundless waters.
This portion of the background and the greater wealth of surrounding
landscape greatly relieves the architectural setting, which is not so
overpowering as in the Turin altarpiece. The composition too, as
becomes the subject, is teeming with the joy of life in varying
aspects. Here we have the gay cavalcade with streaming banners
galloping along the road to Bethlehem, there the shepherds peacefully
tending their flocks on the grassy slope, their watch beguiled by the
strains of a bagpipe; here the scene at the Manger, all love and
devotion, and the running stream nigh by at which the horses are being
watered the while the Magi are making their act of adoration, there
the kings with their retinues triumphantly riding away over the rocky
heights; anon we have the sequence of miracles that attended the
Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt--the wheat that grew and ripened
in a day, the date-palm bending to offer its fruit to the Virgin
Mother resting beneath its shade while the unsaddled ass grazes as it
lists and Joseph fetches water from a neighbouring spring; elsewhere
the risen Christ appearing to the fishing apostles, and far beyond
across the waters in the background the setting of the sun in all its
glory. Every scene that lends itself to the treatment has its beauty
enhanced by the beauties of Nature. The one sorrowful incident in the
whole story, the Massacre of the Innocents, is a mere suggestion of
this cruel episode. Memlinc’s nature shrank from the interpretation of
evil, and in this particular instance has admirably succeeded in
commemorating the incident of the massacre without involving it in any
of its horror. A pleasing innovation may also be noticed in the
treatment of his portraits of donors, Peter Bultinc and his son being
introduced as devout spectators of the scene presented in the stable
at Bethlehem, which they humbly contemplate through an opening in the
wall. “The more one examines this picture, the greater one’s
astonishment at the amount of work which Memlinc has lavished on it,
at the exquisite beauty of the various scenes, the marvellous
ingenuity displayed in separating them one from another, and the skill
with which they balance and are brought into one harmonious whole.”

    [Illustration: PLATE VI.--MARTYRDOM OF SAINT URSULA.

    This forms the eighth panel of the famous shrine, completed in
    1489 for the Hospital of Saint John at Bruges, where it may be
    seen. The archer is a portrait of the celebrated Dschem, brother
    of the Sultan Bajazet, taken prisoner at Rhodes in 1482, copied
    from a portrait in the possession of Charles the Bold.]

The Turin altarpiece was completed not later than 1478, in which year
William Vrelant gave it to the Guild of Saint Luke and Saint John
(Stationers); the Munich one at any rate some time before Easter 1480,
at which date the donor presented it to the Guild of Tanners. But
already then Memlinc had undertaken the triptych in the Hospital of
Saint John painted to the order of its spiritual master, Brother John
Floreins, acknowledged to be technically the most perfect work he
completed before the end of 1480; and also the larger triptych for the
high altar of the Hospital church.



VI

MASTERPIECES AND DEATH


Meanwhile the contest in which the burghers of Bruges had become
involved through the disputes between the States of Flanders and
Maximilian over the guardianship of his son, was precipitating the
decay of the town which the relentless forces of Nature had long since
decreed. As early as 1410 the navigation of the great haven of the
Zwijn had become impeded, and so rapidly had the silting up advanced
that before the close of the century no vessel of any considerable
draught was able to enter the port of Damme. Entirely engrossed in the
safeguarding of the remnant of their privileges, no serious effort was
made to combat the mischief, and in the end Bruges found herself
absolutely cut off from the sea. On the other hand, in the enjoyment
of peace and the greater security it engendered, Antwerp was slowly
asserting herself and gradually attracting to her quays the merchant
princes from the littoral of the Zwijn; and as commerce imperceptibly
gravitated towards the city by the Scheldt the foreign consuls one by
one forsook the doomed emporium of the Hanseatic League. Memlinc,
pursuing the even tenor of his life, continued to produce with
unabated ardour and undiminished skill, and with this period--the last
fourteen years of his life--is associated the most celebrated of all
his works, the marvellous Shrine of Saint Ursula, the gem of the
priceless collection preserved to this day in the old chapter-room of
Saint John’s Hospital. When this masterpiece was first undertaken we
are not in a position to say, but it was completed in 1489, and on the
21st day of October in that year the relics for whose safe keeping it
had been designed were deposited within it. But to the eighties belong
other memorable productions. In 1484 was finished the interior of the
altarpiece for the Moreel chantry in the Church of Saint James, now
housed in the Town Gallery at Bruges; in 1487 was painted the portrait
of a man preserved in the Gallery of the Offices at Florence, and also
was completed the wonderful diptych for Martin van Nieuwenhove, whose
portrait we reproduce as the finest example of Memlinc’s work in that
particular department of art; and in 1490 the finishing touches were
put to the picture in the Louvre of the Madonna and Child, to whom
saintly patrons are presenting the family of James Floreins, a younger
brother of the donor of the triptych picturing the Adoration of the
Magi which, as we have seen, was completed in 1479.

But work, which always spelt happiness to Memlinc, meant something
more to him in this decade of his career. Death in 1487 robbed him of
his wife. One pictures to oneself the bereaved artist seeking solace
from the grief of his widowed home in intensified application to his
art. The refining discipline of sorrow was exercising its softening
influence on a nature of whose religious fervour and deep piety his
life-work is an abiding testimony. Absorbed in the production of the
Shrine of Saint Ursula, does not the instinct of human sympathy
suggest to us the artist spending himself in this inimitable work for
a monument of his love worthy of the memory of the helpmate who had
devoted her life to enhance the happiness of his own, herein seeking
and finding surcease of the sorrow that now overshadowed his life, the
burden of work balancing the burden of grief? And what a monument! So
familiar is the legend and the unique interpretation of it he has left
us, one feels it would be a work of supererogation to dwell on the
story. But the treatment, viewed by the light of Memlinc’s
bereavement, discloses fresh beauties in every panel. Critics have
dwelt on the unreality of the death scenes in this shrine. Memlinc, as
we have had sufficient occasion to observe, shrank from the painful
expounding of evil. But for him death had no terrors: it was but the
passing over to the ineffable reward of a well-spent life, and this
innate feeling he conveys to us in the placid acceptance of death by
Saint Ursula and her virgin band as but a stepping across the
threshold to everlasting bliss. These critics, on the contrary, look
for the betrayal of fear and anguish, for the manifestation of human
suffering: but, like the martyrs of the early Church, we find these
victims of the ruthless Huns not alone meeting their death in a spirit
of resignation, but welcoming it with abounding peace and a joyful
self-surrender, strong in the hope and faith of the hereafter: as the
artist himself was wistfully looking forward to the day and the hour
that would reunite him there to the one he had loved best on earth.

Turning to the other works of this period which we have mentioned, the
Moreel altarpiece arrests our attention. Apart from the particular
friendship which linked him with William Vrelant and the brothers
Floreins, few men were more likely to attract him than the donor of
this painting. The great-grandson of a Savoyard, Morelli, who had
settled in Bruges in 1336, William Moreel, a member of the Corporation
of Grocers, after filling various civic offices, was elected
burgomaster of Bruges in 1478, and again in the troublous days of
1483. His standing is sufficiently attested by the record that in 1491
only ten of his fellow-citizens were taxed at a higher rate. Able and
strong-willed, a capable financier and ardent politician, he was ever
foremost in defending the rights and liberties of his country, and to
such purpose that Maximilian, who had imprisoned him in 1481, refused
when he made his peace with the States of Flanders, on 28th June 1485,
to include him in the general amnesty. He retired to Nieuport, but
returned to Bruges in 1488 and was chosen as treasurer of the town,
and in July 1489 was presented by the magistrates with the sum of £100
in recognition of services rendered. Reference has been made to the
independent portraits of Moreel, his wife, and one of his daughters.
In the triptych under notice the whole family are gathered together,
the father and his five sons, his wife Barbara van Vlaenderberch and
their eleven daughters. The donor’s head is probably a copy of the
Brussels panel, assuming that at the time it was painted, Moreel was
still in prison; while that of his wife, more careworn and aged, bears
testimony to the anxiety occasioned her by her husband’s confinement.
This painting, too, will afford the critics who love to find fault
with the Flemish school for its alleged inability to do justice to the
winsomeness of child life an opportunity of reconsidering their
judgment by the light of the Infant Jesus whom Saint Christopher is
bearing across the ferry, and once more we are met in every portion of
the picture with brilliant exemplifications of the artist’s special
aptitude for interpreting the beauties of Nature.

Scarcely less attractive, and in some respects even more interesting,
is the celebrated diptych associated with the name of Martin van
Nieuwenhove. Here we have a departure from Memlinc’s usual
practice, which was to present the Blessed Virgin and Child in an open
portico, the artist picturing them in a room amply lighted by windows,
the upper portions of which are adorned with pictures in stained
glass, while the lower halves, mostly thrown open, reveal inimitable
scenes of country life; moreover, a convex mirror at the back of Our
Lady reflects the depicted scene of the interior. The donor belonged
to a noble family long settled in Bruges, evidently a man of great
promise, for after being elected a member of the Town Council in 1492,
he was chosen burgomaster in 1497 at the early age of thirty-three.
Unfortunately he passed away in the prime of life a short three years
later. The painting dates from 1487, and the portrait is Memlinc’s
masterpiece in that branch of art.

    [Illustration: PLATE VII.--AN OLD LADY.

    This fine portrait, with its companion, was formerly in the
    Meazza collection at Milan, dispersed in 1884. It was exhibited
    at Bruges in 1902 (No. 71), since when it has been purchased by
    the Louvre, where it is now to be seen. The companion portrait
    is in the Berlin Museum.]

The panel in the Louvre ranks equally with this production, its chief
feature being the marvellous grouping of the donors and their family.
James Floreins, younger brother of John, the spiritual master of Saint
John’s Hospital, belonged to one of the wealthiest of the Bruges
guilds, the Corporation of Master Grocers, among whose members (John
Du Celier and William Moreel to wit) Memlinc found such generous
patrons of his art. He had married a lady of the Spanish Quintanaduena
family, who bore him nineteen children: the eldest son, a priest, is
represented in furred cassock and cambric surplice, and the second
daughter in the habit of a Dominican nun. This picture is another but
wholly different departure from the setting usually affected by the
artist in his presentment of the Virgin and Child. The throne here is
erected in the middle of the nave of a round-arched church, a
rood-screen of five bays shutting off the choir. The north transept
porch, is adorned with statues of the Prophets, the south portal with
others of the Apostles. The difficulty of grouping so large a family
in the circumscribed space about the throne is obviated with
consummate skill, the father and two eldest sons on the one side, and
the mother and two eldest daughters on the other, being placed well in
the foreground, while the younger members of either sex are disposed
in the aisles, the upstanding figures of Saint James the Great and
Saint Dominic beside the throne filling the void on either side which
this arrangement entailed. Even here, with the limited opportunities
the architectural setting affords, Memlinc will not be denied his
predilection for landscape ornamentation, two delightful glimpses of
country life enchanting the eye as it wanders down the transepts and
out on to their porches.

If in these pages attention has perhaps been somewhat too exclusively
devoted to the portraits of men left us by Memlinc, obviously enough
because of the greater interest they excite by the stories known of
their careers, it must not be supposed that he proved himself less
skilful as a portrayer of women. As a rule the wives of the donors in
his pictures are of the homely type, but they appeal to us none the
less as typical examples of the womankind of a burgher community in
which the virtues of the home were cherished and sedulously
cultivated. Two exceptionally fine specimens of male and female
portraiture, which most likely belong to this period, are the bust of
an old man in the Royal Museum at Berlin and that of an aged lady,
recently acquired by the Louvre for the very substantial sum of
200,000 francs. If, as has been suggested, these are portraits of
husband and wife, it is regrettable that they should have strayed so
far apart, but the latter we have selected for illustration as
perhaps the best available example to demonstrate Memlinc’s aptitude
for the interpretation of the dignity of old age in woman.

More amazing perhaps than the magnitude of the work Memlinc achieved
is the dearth of information concerning him that has been vouchsafed
to us. Until 1860 nothing whatever was known of the story of his life,
and what has been since discovered is almost entirely due to the
painstaking researches of one or two individuals. These revealed the
fact of Memlinc’s marriage, the name of the woman he chose for his
wife and that of her father, the fact that she bore him three
sons--John, Cornelius, and Nicolas--the year of his wife’s death, the
record of house property bought by him, the date of his own death and
his place of burial, and this is the sum total of the material at our
disposal, apart from his paintings, with which to build up his
biography. The Shrine that is his masterpiece once completed, the only
other dated work of which we have any knowledge is the polyptych
altarpiece which hangs in the Greverade chantry of the Cathedral at
Lubeck. This bears on its frame the date 1491; but the execution of
the painting is very unequal, and it appears probable that the
greater part is the work of pupils. Perhaps Memlinc felt that he had
lived his life, and was content to lay aside palette and brush in the
consciousness that he had given the world of his best. May-be, too, as
the years began to tell, there grew a yearning for the privacy of home
life in more intimate communion with the motherless children from whom
he himself was soon to be parted. All too speedily the end came, for
he passed away on the 11th of August 1494, at a ripe old age
considering the average length of days meted out to man in his time.



VII

EFFACEMENT AND VINDICATION OF HIS TYPES


Bruges, the scene of his stupendous lifework and his home for nearly
the last thirty years of his life, was fast settling down to utter
stagnation and the general poverty it superinduced. One needs to
realise the measure of her decay to understand the possibility of such
a personality as Memlinc’s fading from the public memory. True, he had
founded no school to perpetuate his art and cherish his name and
reputation. Twice we find mention of apprentices in the register of
the Guild of Painters--a John Verhanneman, inscribed on 8th May 1480,
and a Passchier Van der Meersch, in 1483. Neither attained the rank of
master-painter. Nor is it known that any of the three sons inherited
their father’s talent or followed his profession. However, we remember
that Rumwold De Doppere, writing of his death in the year it
occurred, asserted that he was “then considered to be the most skilful
and excellent painter in the whole of Christendom,” while Van
Vaernewyck, as late as 1562, tells of the houses of Bruges being still
filled with paintings by Memlinc among other great artists. And yet so
completely was he forgotten within a century of his death that Van
Mander, when preparing his biographies of Netherlandish painters
(published in 1604), could only learn that he was in his day “a
celebrated master who flourished before the time of Peter
Pourbus”--that is, before 1540! Neglect and disdain followed speedily
on forgetfulness, and the scattering of his priceless works commenced.
The magnificent picture of the Passion of Christ in the Turin Museum,
which adorned the altar of the chapel of the Guild of Saint John and
Saint Luke in the Church of Saint Bartholomew until 1619, was then
removed to a side wall, and five years later sold to make room for an
organ! The no less famous painting “Christ the Light of the World,”
which graced the altar of the chapel of the Guild of Tanners in the
Church of Our Lady until 1764, was then removed to the house of the
dean, who a few years later sold it to a picture-dealer at Antwerp
for 20 _l._! And so these masterpieces were made the sport and spoil
of picture-dealers and traffickers in curiosities. Under Spanish rule
further toll was levied on the art treasures of Bruges, and of what
escaped the vulgar vandalism of the Calvinists, whose utter inability
to create was only equalled by their senseless capacity for
destruction, the French revolutionaries, whose sense of the beautiful
in art not all their irreligion had sufficed to stifle, claimed a
considerable share. Fortunately the ultimate defeat of Napoleon made
restitution in a measure possible, and so the Moreel triptych, seized
on 23rd August 1794, and the Van Nieuwenhove diptych, carried off in
the same month, were recovered in 1815. Still the fact remains that
Bruges at this date possesses only seven of Memlinc’s works. The
remainder are dispersed among the galleries of the Continent--in
Brussels and Antwerp; in Paris; in Madrid; in Rome, Florence, Turin,
and Venice; in Vienna and Buda-Pesth; in Berlin, Frankfort, Munich,
Danzig, Lubeck, Hermannstadt, and Woerlitz; and at the Hague; while
England boasts of three pictures, two in the National Gallery and one
at Chatsworth.

Although Memlinc founded no school, the masters of his day and
others who settled in Bruges in the sixteenth century were to a very
appreciable extent influenced by his art. Gerard David, Albert
Cornelis, Peter Pourbus, and the Claeissens all felt its impress, and
if the traditions of the old school survived in Bruges to a later
period than in other centres, and well into the seventeenth century,
it was mainly through the instrumentality of these painters. In
contrasting the lives of mediæval and modern artists one cannot escape
a feeling of regret that the former should so utterly have neglected
the literary side of their calling. What a revelation to us would have
been the discovery of the personal recollections of but one of these
great masters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and what a
world of trouble they would have saved the art students of after
generations! But seemingly the demand for this class of literature had
not then arisen, while the craving for notoriety which would have
compelled an effort of this description was altogether foreign to the
single-minded nature of a school whose art was to its exponents
something more than the realisation of worldly ambition or the
satisfaction of a vulgar lust of gain. There could have been no
hankering after either in the type of man revealed to us by the
lifework of Memlinc. And so it was that with the reawakened interest
in mediæval painting which made itself manifest in the nineteenth
century the services of the archæologist had to be requisitioned.
Difficult indeed would it be to exaggerate the immensity of the task
imposed upon him. The sifting from the mass of popular fiction which
had gathered round Memlinc’s name the few grains of truth embedded in
it, the ceaseless delving among municipal and ecclesiastical archives
for a chance record of some incident in his career, the slow process
of authenticating the genuine from the ruck of doubtful and spurious
works associated with his name, half a century of unswerving devotion
to the task has not yet brought us within measurable reach of its
accomplishment. Every day, so to speak, brings to light some new fact,
often compelling a revision of conclusions which in its absence were
sufficiently justified.

    [Illustration: PLATE VIII.--OUR LADY AND CHILD, SAINT GEORGE AND
    THE DONOR.

    This painting, formerly in the Gierling collection, was
    purchased by Mr J. P. Weyer of Cöln for 450 thalers, and at the
    sale of his pictures in 1862, by Mr O. Mündler for 4600 thalers
    for the National Gallery.]

Thus it happened that the identification of the donors of the “Last
Judgment” at Danzig, in 1902, led to the recognition of this earliest
example of Memlinc’s art. And so no doubt will it happen again, each
fresh discovery amplifying the knowledge necessary to remove doubt as
to the authenticity of attributed works. But even so, what an advance
from half a century since, when the personality of the painter was but
the sport of idle legend, and loomed vaguely on the horizon in the
distorted outlines of a loathsome caricature! If dearth of information
is a powerful incentive to the imagination, then the evolution of the
Memlinc legend goes far to establish its potency. An obscure
seventeenth-century tradition had it that Memlinc painted a picture
for the Hospital of Saint John in grateful recognition of services
rendered to him by the Brethren of that charitable foundation: from
which indeterminate report grew a tale of a dissolute soldier of
fortune spared from the shambles of the field of Nancy dragging his
wounded and diseased body to the Hospital gates, and beguiling the
weary hours of a long convalescence there in the production of a
masterpiece of painting in token of his gratitude. As an unconnected
story for the amusement of simple-minded folk the fable is not without
merit of a sort, but what a libel on the Christian artist who
transcends all the painters of his age in the interpretation of deep
religious feeling, and the shaping of whose whole life must have been
a novitiate to this end! We have travelled a long road since the days
when this preposterous legend was exploded. True, the exhumation of
Memlinc’s individuality from the burial-ground of lost memories has
been a slow and arduous process; but the rich store of knowledge now
at our command is an abundant testimony to the patience of the experts
who have garnered it.

It is not given to us to be all swayed in the same way or to the same
extent by Art in any of its forms; but few who have been led to
contemplate the masterpieces of the Netherlandish school will fail to
pay the tribute of admiration these wonderworks evoke, and bear
testimony to their educational value. For Hans Memlinc it is not
claimed that he surpassed in each department of his art all the other
painters who helped to build up the fame of the Netherlandish school:
in some material respects his methods differed widely from theirs, and
he elaborated a technique distinctly his own. It is not likely to be
imputed that his sedulous avoidance of the marked contrasts of light
and shade was a confession of inability to realise their treatment,
though possibly he may be thought by some to have weakly followed the
line of least resistance. Of course, Memlinc, like every other great
artist of his age, had his limitations. His knowledge of anatomy
naturally was not equal to the exact requirements of science, the pose
of his figures not absolutely conformable to the ideals of the
dilettante in respect of grace of carriage or correctness of
deportment. Though critics contrast the simplicity of his art with the
grandeur of style of Van Eyck, commonly with some predilection for the
latter, yet it is possible for one to be subjugated by it and still
feel to the full the fascination of the tender beauty inherent in the
former. In his conceptions of the great mysteries of the Christian
faith, in the characterisation of the many saints he portrayed, and
above all in his varied presentation of womanhood he certainly
excelled. In the “Last Judgment” at Danzig we have probably the least
successful of his great efforts. The conception is not original,
though admittedly one of the finest produced up to that time; also it
is his earliest extant work, and in the style of a master from whose
controlling influence he had not yet emancipated himself. But the
fault lies rather with the subject. Many an artist has laboured at it,
not always perhaps from choice; but the painter has yet to be born
who will produce a convincing picture of that unrealised tragedy. Any
attempt that falls short of conveying to the mind and soul of man the
awe-full warning it should express necessarily bears the stamp of
failure; and when, as too often is the case, it but provokes a smile
by reason of its incongruity, the effort it cost stands unjustified.
Not that Memlinc’s conception errs conspicuously in this sense: but it
lacks conviction, and not all the beautiful work it exhibits can close
our eyes to the fact.

To the up-to-date art critic of the weekly press, steeped in
modernity, all this grand religious art of the middle ages is but as
the dead ashes of a fire that once glowed but has now lost its warmth;
or, to vary the simile, he contemptuously relegates it to the
scrap-heap of antiquated material as the useless remains of a “dead
language”; little bethinking himself of the great underlying truth he
was unconsciously voicing. For just as all succeeding literatures
found their spring and inspiration in the magnificent literatures
enshrined in the great dead languages of Rome and Greece, so likewise
has modern art, unconsciously if you will, but none the less
assuredly, derived the essence of its loveliness from the mediæval
art it affects to despise. Art of any kind to be great must have
realised its greatness through the vivifying power of the art that had
gone before. _Ex nihilo nihil fit._ The impellent craving after
realism of the materialistic school of to-day is but a perverted form
of the love of truth which was the keynote of all mediæval art, its
cult of the sensuous but a depraved phase of a love of the beauty in
virtue and godliness which characterised the latter: the great touch
of faith is wholly wanting. In art as in all things human there is no
finality; but the while Bruges subsists, though she were utterly
bereft of all her picturesqueness and the wealth of architectural
beauty that endears her to the artist mind, so long will that
treasure-house of Memlinc’s art, the small chapter-room in the
Hospital of Saint John, continue to exercise its educating influence,
and so long, because of it, will the old Flemish capital, though shorn
of all its pristine glory, continue to be one of the most cherished
shrines of the art pilgrims of the world.

The plates are printed by BEMROSE & SONS, LTD., Derby and London

The text at the BALLANTYNE PRESS, Edinburgh





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