Richelieu wing – 2nd floor – Netherlands, 15th century – Room 5
“If Bruges,” writes M. de Wyzewa, “has attracted all the pilgrims of art for a century, if it appears to them as a kind of Assisi or Siena Flamande, perhaps it owes it less to its old churches and to its old houses, in the silence of its streets and its canals, than to this small room of the hospital Saint-Jean where the Shrine of Saint Ursula and the Virgins of Memling are sleeping.” The authentic works of Memling are rather few in number: Louvre museum is, with the Bruges hospital, the one with the most. The Virgin and Child between St James and St Dominic, represented here, is among the most beautiful.
In accordance with the protocol adopted by the Flemish painters following Jean Van Eyck, the Virgin sits on a throne forming a baldachin and holds her divine Son on her knees. At her feet, on the right, one sees the Donatrice and twelve women kneeling as her hands joined, and presented by St. Dominic. On the left, and in the same devout attitude, the Donor and seven men, presented by St. James in pilgrim costume. On each side of the throne one sees, in the blue sky, the houses and steeples of a city which must be Bruges, habitual residence of the artist.
By the workmanship and the composition, this masterful work is very similar to Van Eyck’s way: this one is perhaps superior to Memling by the technical execution, the modeling, the meticulous reproduction of the real objects; but from the point of view of the conception of religious subjects, all the advantage remains with the latter. All his soul passed in his works; he idealized, he glorified, he transfigured the models he had before him.
Let us listen to Fromentin in his eloquent comparison between the art of Van Eyck and that of Memling:
“Consider Van Eyck and Memling by the exterior of their art; it is the same art which, applying to august things, renders them with what is most precious. As regards processes, the difference is scarcely noticeable between Memling and Jean Van Eyck, who precedes him for forty years; but as soon as they are compared to the point of view of feeling, there is nothing in common between them: a world separates them. Van Eyck copied and imitated; Memling copies the same, imitates and transfigures. This one reproduced, without any concern for the ideal, the human types that passed before him. He dreams of looking at nature, imagines it by translating it, chooses what is most kind, more delicate in human forms, and creates, especially as a feminine type, an unknown being of election until now there, gone since. They are women, but women seen as he loves them, and according to the tender predilections of a spirit turned towards grace, nobility and beauty, pretty women with the air of saints, beautiful honest brows, temples limpid, lips without fold: a beatitude, a quiet sweetness, an ecstasy within that is not seen anywhere, all the adorable delicacies of chastity and modesty! What grace of Heaven had descended on this young soldier or on this rich bourgeois to soften his soul, to purify his eye, to cultivate his taste, and to open at the same time to the physical world and the moral world new perspectives?”
Forentin has been asked the same question for a very long time before Memling’s works, so ideal and so different in the sweetness of the expression of the works of Van Eyck and the Flemish painters of that period. And, the Flemish believer too, it was astonished that such a delicate flower could have sprouted among the brilliant but rather vulgar plants of Flemish painting.
The recent discovery, by a Jesuit scholar, of Father Durand of a manuscript from the archives of Saint-Omer, makes it possible today to resolve this question, which has hitherto remained unanswered. A simple sentence is enough to illuminate the obscurities of this problem. This sentence is here: “The eleventh of August (1494), died in our city master Hans Memmelinc, regarded as the most skilful and excellent painter of Christendom. He was born (in the principality of Mainz) and was buried in the Saint-Gilles church.”
Memling was not Flemish, but German. He had settled in Bruges, coming from those Rhenish lands which throughout the Middle Ages had been a living center of poetic and mystical reverie. But above all, he had studied in the venerable capital of religious art, and it is from Cologne that everything that he brings back into the old Flemish art comes in the right direction; the ingenuousness, the subtlety, the gentleness and especially the emotion that Van Eyck and his followers always ignored. Only Memling, living in Bruges, has translated his visions and emotions into the language of Flemish painters. “By associating Lochner’s sentiments with Van Eyck forms, he has renewed Flemish painting; he saved her also by snatching her from a naturalism where she was withering from year to year. ”
The Virgin and Child between St James and St Dominic belonged to the collection of the Count d’Armagnac; she entered the Louvre with the other paintings left by the Countess Duchatel, in 1878.
Height: 1.30 – Width: 1.57 – Figures size half-nature.