Hans Memling Lot 11
Hans Memling (Seligenstadt 1430/40-1494 Bruges)
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Hans Memling (Seligenstadt 1430/40-1494 Bruges)

The Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child

Hans Memling (Seligenstadt 1430/40-1494 Bruges)
The Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child
oil and gold on oak panel, circular
6 7/8 in. (17.4 cm.) diameter
Ricardo (Richard) Traumann Collection, Madrid.
Baron Laurent Meeus (1872-1950), Brussels.
with Agnew’s, London, from whom purchased by Captain and Mrs. Vivian Bulkeley-Johnson, Churchill, Oxon (The Mount Trust), 7 December 1950.
Anonymous sale; Christie’s, London, 1 December 1978, lot 111.
Private collection, Antwerp, from whom purchased in 2007 by the following, Anonymous sale [Property from a Private Collection]; Christie’s, New York, 25 January 2012, lot 23.
F. Winkler, Der Meister von Flémalle und Rogier van der Weyden. Studien zu ihren Werken und zur Kunst ihrer Zeit mit mehreren Katalogen zu Rogier, Strassburg, 1913, pp. 21-2 and p. 22 under note 3.
M.J. Friedländer, Die Altniederländische Malerei, VI: Hans Memling und Gerard David, Berlin, 1928, no. 51 (formerly Traumann Collection, present whereabouts unknown).
M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, VIa, Hans Memlinc and Gerard David, trans. H. Norden from Die Altniederländische Malerei, [Berlin and Leyden, 1928], New York and Washington, 1971, no. 51, [incorrectly listed in the 1971 edition as in the Cleveland Museum of Art].
F. Grossmann, ‘Flemish Paintings at Bruges’, The Burlington Magazine, IC, no. 646, January 1957, p. 4.
D. Sutton, ‘The Mount Trust Collection’, The Connoisseur, October 1960, p. 105, fig. 12.
J. Bialostocki, Les Musées de Pologne (Gdansk, Kraków, Warszawa), Les Primitifs Flamands, Brussels, 1966, p. 39, under no. 118, F; I b, no. 11.
G.T. Faggin and M. Corti, L’opera completa di Memling, Milan, 1969, p. 106, no. 72.
D. de Vos, Hans Memling: The Complete Works, Antwerp, 1994, p. 294, no. 82.
M.W. Ainsworth and K. Christiansen, From van Eyck to Bruegel, Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998, p. 236.
H. Mund, C. Stroo, N. Goetghebeur, H. Nieuwdorp, The Mayer Van den Bergh Museum, Antwerp. Corpus of Fifteenth Century Painting in the Southern Netherlands and the Principality of Liege, XX, Brussels, 2003, pp. 51-53.
T.-H. Borchert, Memling, Florence, 2005, p. 19.
B. Lane, Hans Memling: Master Painter in Fifteenth-Century Bruges, London and Turnhout, 2009, p. 331, no. B12, fig. 271, as ‘Hans Memling (?)’.
L. DeWitt, Hans Memling’s Virgin Nursing the Christ Child and the Early Netherlandish Tondo, Philadelphia, 2009, passim.
T.-H. Borchert, ‘Review, Hans Memling: Master Painter in Fifteenth Century Bruges’, The Burlington
Magazine, February 2010, pp. 102-3.
J. Scheel, Das altniederländische Stifterbild: Emotionsstrategien des Sehens und der Selbsterkenntnis, Berlin, 2014, pp. 366-7.
Brussels, Exposition d’Art Ancien, 1941-1942, no. 23.
Bruges, Musée Communal Groeninge, L’Art Flamand dans les collections britanniques, August-September 1956, no. 12.
Bruges, Groeningemuseum, Hans Memling: Five Centuries of Fact and Fiction, 12 August-15 November 1994, p. 136, no. 35 (catalogue by D. de Vos with contributions by D. Marachal and W. Le Loup).
Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, on loan, September 2007-August 2010.
Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Hans Memling’s Virgin Nursing the Christ Child and the Early Netherlandish Tondo, 19 December 2009-17 March 2010, fig. 2 (catalogue by L. DeWitt).
Bruges, Memlingmuseum, 2013-2014, on loan.
Rome, Scuderie del Quirinale, Memling. Rinascimento fammingo, 11 October 2014-18 January 2015, no. 18 (catalogued by T-H Borchert).
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Lot Essay

This exceptionally well-preserved tondo, depicting a graceful Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child set before a gilded background, has long been recognised as a work by the leading artist in Bruges during the last third of the 15th century, Hans Memling. Since its most recent appearance in public at the Memling exhibition in Rome in 2014-15, a light cleaning has allowed for an even greater appreciation of its immaculate surface. It is one of the last great devotional works by Memling still remaining in private hands.

Commonly regarded as one of the most important and influential painters of the Early Netherlandish School, Memling was born between 1435 and 1440 in Seligenstadt, a German city located between Frankfurt and Aschaffenburg on the river Main. He is recorded for the first time in 1465 when he acquired his citizenship in Bruges, as this was a necessary requirement to establish and run a painter’s workshop in that city. Memling’s remarkable artistic skills, his pious style and quiet and somewhat idyllic compositions greatly appealed to the religious institutions, to the secular guilds and to the wealthy families of Bruges as well as to members of the affluent international merchant community who resided – more or less temporarily – in the city, then still the unchallenged commercial centre of the Burgundian Netherlands.

It is not known precisely where or with whom Memling received his initial training, but his exceptional awareness of early 15th century Cologne painting and compositions strongly suggests that he might have been apprenticed in that city’s conservative environment. After completing his apprenticeship, the young painter, as some of his compatriots did, seems to have travelled to the Low Countries as a journeyman. In the Netherlands he presumably found work in the atelier of Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399-1464) in Brussels. The remarkable affnity of many of Memling’s compositions with works that were produced in Rogier’s workshop seems to support a later remark by Giorgio Vasari, who noted in his Vite de’ pittori that Memling was a pupil of van der Weyden. Throughout his subsequent career in Bruges, Memling repeatedly returned to motifs from Rogier’s repertoire in his own compositions, which strongly suggests that as a young painter he must have gained privileged access to his famous master’s model and workshop drawings during his stay in Rogier’s Brussels workshop.

Upon his arrival in Bruges Memling carefully began to study the paintings by Jan van Eyck (c. 1395-1441) in the city, whose authoritarian compositions became an important source of inspiration for the younger artist. By emulating van Eyck’s staggering optical effects and profoundly detailed realism, Memling created a unique and highly successful combination of prevalent Eyckian traditions and the normative empathy of the pictorial language that Rogier had introduced into Early Netherlandish painting. Memling’s painterly synthesis of these elements must have answered to the prevalent taste of the time, as he found many admirers among a remarkably heterogeneous clientele who commissioned altarpieces and portraits from his workshop to adorn their chapels and homes in Bruges or abroad, or who acquired devotional images for their private worship.

Memling’s tondo with The Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child sheds light on his devotional images. Despite its remarkable quality of execution, this circular Andachtsbild was presumably not commissioned by an individual patron; instead, such images were – for the painter’s own risk and profit – produced for the shop’s stock, and sold to interested clients who often used and displayed them in their private homes (See J. Held, ‘A Tondo by Cornelisz Engelbrechtsz’, Oud Holland, LXVII, 1952, p. 234). In contrast to the 16th century, when speculative production for the growing art market had become common, in Memling’s time this did not necessarily result in a weakening of quality or a decline in originality.

Some years earlier, Memling had painted another version of the composition (fig. 1) that corresponds in shape and size to the present panel but is entirely different in character (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). In this picture of circa 1475/80 the artist displayed the Virgin and Child in front of an idyllic landscape with trees and soft hills on the distant horizon (see M. Sprinson de Jesus in M.W. Ainsworth and K. Christiansen (eds.), From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998, no. 55). The Virgin, shown half-length, is clad in a blue dress with a decorated seam below a red mantle as her head is covered by a light white veil that is draped around her breast; with both hands, she tightly holds the suckling Child who is gazing to the right.

A third version of the composition, weaker in quality, was produced in Memling’s workshop at about 1490 (Antwerp, The Mayer Van den Bergh Museum) and shares certain similarities with the roundels of Memling’s famous Shrine of Saint Ursula (1489, Bruges, Memlingmuseum) that are commonly considered to be by the workshop. In the Antwerp copy, the landscape background was replaced with speckled gilding in order to add authority to the image. The Antwerp Virgin follows Memling’s version in New York - with the notable difference of switching the colours of the Virgin’s dress and mantle for purely decorative reasons - while the Christ child, directing his eyes towards the spectator, is similar to the child’s position in the present tondo.

The bright and charming tondo in the Metropolitan Museum as well as the copy in Antwerp contrast sharply with Memling’s gracefully solemn interpretation of the composition in the present lot. Here, the Virgin, wearing a blue dress with a grey-blue mantle, is placed in front of a gilded background speckled with red paint. Her shiny long brown hair, partly covered by the heavily pleated white cloth on her head, falls in curls over her shoulders, leaving her left ear visible. Turning her head to the left, she looks down at the nursing Child and with her left hand she closely grasps his back. The Infant, in turn, places his tiny hands on his mother’s breast and shoulder while directing his gaze to the beholder.

The underdrawing, made visible by means of infrared photography, was applied with a dry drawing medium (chalk) directly on the of ground preparation of the panel. The underdrawing is spontaneous and loose in character, with minor hatches along the shaded flesh tones. Although it is highly likely that Memling had a detailed preparatory drawing of the composition at his disposal, no signs of pouncing, tracing or other means of a mechanical transfer of the composition have been found. On the contrary the underdrawing of this small panel reveals a remarkable number of minor pentimenti as the painted surface altered the position of the Virgin’s fingers, the gaze of the Infant (fig. 2) and the exact placements of Mary’s nose and mouth, strongly suggesting the master’s hand in the final execution of the panel.

The painting’s surface, too, reveals Memling’s superb technical skills. In its carefully modelled surface and firm application of paint, The Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child is a striking example of Memling’s mature style of circa 1485-1494. The subtle brushwork as well as the typically rounded lips, the slightly dented bridge of the nose and the semicircular eyebrows of the Virgin’s face unmistakably link the small scale tondo to Memling’s masterpieces such as the Virgin and Child from the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove (1487), the Diptych of the Deposition (c. 1490, Granada, Capilla Real) and, in particular, to the stylistically similar Virgin and Child with two kneeling nuns as donors from the Shrine of Saint Ursula (fg. 3). When the present picture was on display at the Memlingmuseum between 2013 and 2014, it was possible to closely compare it to the Ursula Virgin and Child, underlining the exceptional quality of this tondo.

Given the quality of execution and the strong stylistic analogies with Memling’s documented works, it is surprising to note that in 1928, Max J. Friedländer (loc. cit.) first classified the tondo as a possible workshop replica. The connoisseur’s hesitation, no doubt, was based on the just observation that Memling’s painting was not only deliberately archaic in character but also was copying an older composition by a master of a previous generation (Winkler, op. cit.; Bialostocki, op. cit.; see also below for Memling’s iconography and pictorial sources).

In 1969, Giorgio T. Faggin (op. cit.) reinstated the small tondo among Memling’s autograph works and by doing so underlined its remarkable quality. It was also included in the scholarly 1994 catalogue raisonné by Dirk De Vos (op. cit.) who correctly observed that the painting – despite its intentional archaic appearance – displayed all the characteristics of Memling’s style and belonged to the mature later works of the artist. In 2003 Hélene Mund also acknowledged Memling’s authorship of the panel in her study on the Antwerp tondo (H. Mund et. al., loc. cit.) as did Lloyd DeWitt in his small catalogue comparing the tondo with the Metropolitan Museum’s version in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2009-2010. Barbara G. Lane’s 2009 study on the artist (op. cit.) listed the picture among the disputed works by Memling: she pointed to the sharp contours that she considered to be an unusual feature of Memling’s painting, failing to acknowledge the fact that in this painting the artist was intentionally emulating a much older style.

More than other works by the artist, the tondo with the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child is particularly fascinating because it reveals the painter’s striking ability to emulate pictorial prototypes of older masters and to incorporate them completely into his own style. It shows Memling’s conscious approach towards normative compositions of the past that in this particular case he had most likely first encountered in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden.

It has long been recognised that Memling’s ultimate source for this composition may have been the famous near-life-size depiction of the Virgin and Child in front of a brocade-hanging (fig. 5) that is one of three fragments from an ambitious winged altarpiece of circa 1425-1435 in the Städelmuseum, Frankfurt, after which the Master of Flémalle has been named.

Sometimes believed to be identical with Van der Weyden’s teacher Robert Campin of Tournai (c. 1370/5-1444) the works attributed to this master consist of panels produced by either Robert Campin or by various members of Campin’s workshop such as the young van der Weyden (for a summary on the recent controversy regarding the Master of Flémalle, see J. Sander, ‘Reconstructing Artists and their Oeuvres’ in The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden, exhibition catalogue, eds. S. Kemperdick and J. Sander, Ostfldern, 2008, pp. 75-93).

The Flémalle-Virgin in Frankfurt is arguably among the oldest interpretations by an eminent painter of the Flemish Ars Nova of an ancient Byzantine icon known as the Panhagia Glaktotrophousa (or Virgo Lactans) that became a popular devotional image in the Low Countries during the late fourteenth and early sixteenth centuries. When they initially arrived in the West, Byzantine or Italo-Byzantine icons often turned into objects of devout veneration since these exotic pictures were believed to be miraculous images. In some instances they were even thought to been painted by Saint Luke – patron saint of painters – himself, as the subject finds its textual roots in his Gospel: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts that nursed You’ (Luke, 11:27). Such was the case of the Italo-Byzantine Icon Notre Dame de grâce that was venerated in the abbey of Saint Sepulchre (today’s Cathedral) in Cambrai and was regularly quoted in Early Netherlandish representations of the Virgin. In 1454/55 the painter Hayne de Bruxelles was commissioned to produce no less than 12 copies of this holy image in oil, and the nursing Virgin on the Frankfurt panel may have been based on a similarly venerated icon. This devotional predilection explains the widespread circulation of bust-length versions of this Virgo Lactans in both rectangular and circular shape that were produced with minor variations in the Netherlands until the early sixteenth century. More than 30 versions survive that share the same composition with or without inscriptions, with left and right orientations in front of both gilded and monochrome backgrounds. All of them are approximately of the same size and were presumably based on circulating model drawings that were used to pounce or trace the composition. Taken as a whole, this evidence not only points to a popular demand of the devotional image, but also suggests that the common model itself held some significance.

It is unclear when exactly this composition and the tondo shape became popular. Earlier scholars such as Winkler and Friedländer assumed a lost circular version of the Frankfurt Virgin by the Master of Flémalle that they believed was most closely mirrored in a painting from the Johnson Collection (fig. 4) which shows the Virgo Lactans reversed and in front of a dark reddish background. While the Johnson painting arguably is very Flémallesque, its dating is far from sure. In fact, most of the surviving Flemish tondos depicting the Virgo Lactans seem to have been produced from the last decade of the fifteenth century, and this raises the possibility that Memling may have had a vital role in re-shaping this venerated image.

Memling’s exquisite painting is a particularly interesting interpretation of the ancient prototype because of its intentional archaism, evoked by the gilded background. This unusually conservative element undoubtedly underlined the authority of the venerated image. Not less significant is the fact that, in Memling’s picture, the Christ Child turns his gaze towards the beholder, which in combination with the Virgin’s uncovered ear, strikingly visualises the basic idea of Mary’s intercession that was theologically linked to the nursing mother and therefore to the Iconography of the Virgo lactans. In the Flémalle-Virgin from Frankfurt as well as in the earlier version in the Metropolitan Museum, the Child stares indifferently towards the mother. Remarkably, the present painting’s underdrawing reveals that the Child’s eyes were initially not directed towards the spectator, and that this significant motif –prominently present in most of the extant versions – was introduced only at the painting stage. This observation raises the provocative question: was it Memling, rather than the Master of Flémalle, who introduced this intercession-motif to Netherlandish tondos with the Virgo Lactans?

We are grateful to Till-Holger Borchert for his kind assistance in preparing this entry.

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