Reunited and It Flemish So Good

Beginning tomorrow, the Morgan Library in New York will reunite the components of a magnificent 15th century work of art, which have never been displayed together in America before. Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece is a rare opportunity to see the reassembly of an individual expression of faith achieved through the collaboration of priest and painter. At the same time, the show is another example of how Christian spirituality has been stripped of its meaning, and turned into an art market commodity.

Hans Memling (c. 1440-1494) was one of the greatest members of the so-called “Flemish Primitives”, a group of several generations of artists working in 15th and 16th century Flanders which included his teacher Rogier van der Weyden, as well as Jan van Eyck, Gerard David, Hieronymus Bosch, and others. Although a German a birth, after Memling moved to Brussels to study under van der Weyden, he rapidly absorbed the new technique of oil painting. This medium produced minutely detailed, jewel-like works, which made Flemish art of this period prized all over Europe.

The Triptych of Jan Crabbe was probably painted sometime between 1467-1470. Memling had just moved to Bruges in 1465, and while not large in size (about 2.5 feet tall and just under 4 feet wide when fully opened), the piece was nevertheless a major commission for the young artist. His patron was Jan Crabbe, the Abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of the Dunes in Koksijde, a town on the North Sea coast of Belgium. During Memling’s time the Abbey was a major spiritual center, although today it is a ruin, having been smashed to pieces by Protestant iconoclasts.

The details of the Triptych, and the presence of specific figures in it, demonstrate that this was intended to be a very personal piece for the Abbot. The central panel depicts the Crucifixion of Christ, witnessed by the kneeling Abbot Crabbe himself, as we can see on the right. The Abbot is accompanied by his patron saint, St. John the Baptist, as well as a Cistercian saint (probably St. Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian Order.) On the other side of the Crucified Christ we see the familiar Biblical figures of the Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Mary Magdalene.

The flanking interior wings of the Triptych show St. Anne with an old woman, Abbot Crabbe’s mother Anna Willemzoon, and St. William with a young man, who was probably the Abbot’s brother or nephew. We can deduce from the presence of these two saints, and the fact that Abbot Crabbe’s mother was named Anne, that his brother (or nephew) was named William. The exterior wings, when folded over the central panel, formed an image of the Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary on the right and the Archangel Gabriel on the left.

While the combination of religious imagery with family portraiture in works from this period was frequently found on public works of art, such as those commissioned by the aristocracy for local churches and cathedrals, the relatively small size of this particular piece suggests that it was something which Abbot Crabbe intended for his own use. Its limited dimensions meant that it could stand quite nicely on an average-sized desk or table, while still leaving plenty of room for reading, writing, or the resting of hands folded in prayer. The Abbot may well have used it when celebrating Mass privately in his cell.

In this commission, Memling would have had to work closely with the Abbott, not only in terms of deciding upon the subject matter, but also in getting the details right. The wonderfully realistic face of the Abbot’s mother, for example, is so direct and specific despite its small size, that we must assume that she sat for Memling when he was making preparatory drawings for the piece. The storm clouds gathering over Golgotha, and the charming view of a hilly, fortified Jerusalem behind – which is really the Flemish countryside – allowed the Abbot to imagine what the Holy Land must be like, even though he himself would never be able to visit there.

At some point in the 18th century, the Triptych was divided into its component pieces and sold. The central portion ended up in Vicenza, Italy, the inner wings in New York, and the outer wings in Bruges. Although the pieces have been brought together for exhibition before, this is the first time that this will take place in the United States. Because such events are extremely rare, this is all the more reason for you to drop in, should you find yourself in New York during the exhibition’s run. It is a great thing for art connoisseurs that the Morgan has managed to bring about this temporary reunification of some of Memling’s earliest known art.

That being said, regular readers know that I have a love-hate relationship with these kinds of shows. In seeing how this beautiful, deeply personal work of Catholic devotional art was chopped into pieces for the sake of greedy art collectors, I am reminded – perhaps appropriately given the subject matter – of Psalm 22:19: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” While both Hans Memling and Abbot Crabbe would be pleased to see their Triptych made whole again, albeit only temporarily, I suspect that they would be saddened to discover that it is no longer being used for the Christian purposes for which it was originally intended.

“Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece” is at The Morgan Library in New York from September 2, 2016 through January 8, 2017.

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