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.

When Your Mom Is A (Renaissance) Bae

When we look at a great piece of art, we are usually caught up in what we might call the “big picture” of the picture. A sculpture of the crucified Christ causes us to think about the meaning of His death on the cross, or a portrait bust of George Washington makes us think about his courage and resolve in the founding of this country. Yet sometimes we should take the time to appreciate the “little picture” in a work of art, and see what we can learn about ourselves in the process. So today, I’d like us to look at a Renaissance painting made up of both big and little pictures, but perhaps focus a bit on that aspect of it which asks us to consider the relationship between mothers and daughters. For this masterpiece does so simply by causing us to compare and contrast how a mother and daughter are dressed in the picture.  

The magnificent, over-life-size Portinari Altarpiece, or more formally, “The Adoration of The Shepherds with Members of the Portinari Family, Accompanied by Saints Anthony, Thomas, Margaret, and Mary Magdalen”, is now in the Uffizi, but was originally created for the family chapel in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. It was painted around 1475 by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482) for Tommaso Portinari and his family. Tommaso was a financier with the Medici Bank in the Flemish city of Bruges for many decades; his wife, Maria Maddalena di Francesco Baroncelli, came from another prominent Florentine family (but more on them later.)

There are many fine details to admire in this work, from still life paintings of flowers in the foreground, to incredible levels of embroidery detail on the robes of the angels. Notice also how the tiny landscapes behind the figures feature other scenes from the Gospels apart from the Birth of Jesus. On the left, above St. Anthony Abbot’s bald head, we see the very pregnant Virgin Mary being assisted by St. Joseph as they come down a steep, rocky hillside into Bethlehem for the census, followed by the donkey on which the Blessed Mother had been riding. On the right, we see the Three Magi mounted on horseback on their way to Bethlehem, with one of them sporting a rather jaunty, white piece of headgear that looks like cowboy hat. The townsfolk are gathered nearby, with a child pointing in wonder at the luxuriously dressed foreigners, while one of the attendants asks a local the way to the stable.

The donors, i.e. Tommaso and Maria and their three children, kneel on either side of the Nativity scene, beneath the standing figures of their respective patron saints. The men of the family are dressed in expensive, but fairly simple costumes. It is rather the women of the family who draw our eye, and well they should, for these two Italian ladies are like haute couture fashion plates from the 15th century.

Signora de Portinari is not the curvy, full-figured woman we often expect to see in Renaissance paintings. She is elegantly dressed in a fitted, black velvet gown, with white fur cuffs and bodice detailing. She wears a wide, satin sash around her waist somewhat like a Japanese obi, a black veiled cap trailing diaphanous white silk, and a gold and jewel-encrusted collar necklace that probably cost the price of a house in those days. This is the only piece of jewelry she is wearing in the picture, other than her wedding ring.

To her left and set back a respectful distance behind, her beautiful daughter Margarita is also finely dressed. She wears a green silk dress with laced bodice, trimmed with matching dark green velvet. Her jewelry consists of a gold chain necklace with a jewel and pearl pendant, and a brooch pinned to the side of her cap. The young girl has magnificent strawberry blonde hair that cascades out very naturally from beneath her headpiece like a waterfall.

I think it is not unfair to observe that, unlike her daughter, Signora de Portinari is not exactly what we would consider pretty. Yet she is unquestionably a very elegant woman. If Coco Chanel had been a dressmaker during the Renaissance, she might well have dressed a lady exactly like this. Her high cheekbones, angular features, and slim figure would make her an ideal customer for many fashion designers even today.

In looking at the image of the mother and daughter kneeling together, one cannot help but wonder what the relationship was like between the two of them. Did the little girl turn out to be as fashionable and elegant as her mother? Or are we given a clue by Margherita’s tumbling, untamed hair that she had a bit of that hotheaded, rebellious streak, which we so often attribute to redheads? Did they argue about clothes, even as her mother picked out the finest clothes for her daughter to wear in formal settings, about what the mother wanted her to wear and what the daughter herself wanted to wear – something which mothers and daughters have argued about since time immemorial?          

An open question in art history at the moment is why, when this painting for the hospital chapel was completed, it was not actually delivered until 1483. One theory is that the Portinaris were a bit too close to what was going on in Florence at the time. Not long after this piece was completed Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, a relative of the Signora de Portinari, was involved in the “Pazzi Plot” to overthrow the Medici family. He and another conspirator stabbed Giuliano de’ Medici, the brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, nineteen times while he was attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence one Sunday.  Lorenzo, who was also attacked in the same assault, managed to escape, but Giuliano died on the floor of the cathedral. Many of the families of the conspirators were punished directly, or were found guilty by association.  

Bernardo, who fled to Constantinople after the assassination, was later captured by the Turks and turned over to the Florentines. He was publically executed in Florence a year after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici – in fact, Leonardo da Vinci made a well-known, contemporary drawing of his corpse hanging from a rope. The final round of purges arising from the conspiracy took a few more years, so it is possible that the Portinaris thought it best for the family to lay low for a bit, rather than making a show of presenting a gigantic – and subsequently very famous and much-admired – work of art to the people of Florence.

However, despite the wealth and grandeur that you see in this painting, and despite whatever caution they may have exercised in their art donation, the Portinaris were eventually ruined. Tommaso made a number of bad investments on behalf of the Medici, which caused them to close the branch of their bank in Bruges. After several attempted comebacks, he ended up dying in a pauper’s bed at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, the very hospital for which he had commissioned this painting. His estate was left with so many debts, that his eldest son refused his inheritance, so as to free himself from his late father’s creditors. What happened to the stylish Signorina de Portinari, or to her daughter Margarita, I do not know. Perhaps a reader with greater knowledge of Italian history will be able to tell us in the comments.

What we do come away with in this picture, however, is not only an appreciation for a beautiful work of art, and a document of the styles and fashions of the time in which it was created, but also the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful consideration and discussion. The dynamic between mother and daughter is very unique, something which those of us with “Y” chromosomes can never fully understand. In works of art such as this, both mothers and daughters, as well as those who love them, can see a bit of their own relationships: what they were, are, and will be, in a timeless embodiment of that unique relationship.


The Portinari Altarpiece (Detail)