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  BRUGES: The Memling Museum


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(Picture courtesy of the Stedelijke Musea Brugge)

About Hans Memling (1435/40(?) - 1494)

Hans Memling is considered one of the most important 'Flemish primitives', although he was born in the German city of Seligenstadt, near Frankfurt. There are not a lot of precise details known about him and his life. He was most probably influenced by the painting school of Cologne and by the painter Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels. In 1465 Memling is mentioned for the first time in the city books of Bruges. In 1480 he is considered to belong to the group of wealthy inhabitants of the city. He married Anna de Valkenaere and had three children with her. He died in Bruges on August the 11th 1494 and was buried in the local St.Gilles church. 

The reason why some of his most beautiful paintings were made for the St. John's Hospital has given rise in the 19th century to a legend about his arrival in Bruges. Hans Memling might have been a soldier in the army of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy. When he arrived severely wounded in Bruges he was taken care of by the sisters and brothers of the Hospital. To reward them he made the paintings that are still to be seen in the Memling Museum.

This museum is part of the St.John's Hospital complex. Inside, the old hospital infirmary can be visited as well as the old pharmacy. In the former chapel of the Hospital six paintings by Hans Memling are exposed.

One of the masterpieces is the Shrine of St. Ursula. The wooden shrine, which contains the relics of St. Ursula, looks like the earlier metal shrines that were produced in the preceding centuries. In six bow-arched panels, Memling tells the history of Ursula. The two front panels show St.Ursula accompanied by 10 virgins, each representing 1.000 virgins (see picture below) , and Our Blessed Lady in the presence of two hospital sisters (Jossine van Dudzele and Anna van den Moortele). Memling made the shrine before 1489. It replaced an older shrine which is still in the St. John's Hospital)

The legend of Saint Ursula.

Ursula, a princess from Brittany in France, was asked by the King of England to marry his son. She accepted on one condition, namely that she would be allowed to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome accompanied by 11.000 virgins. The trip goes over the city of Basel and the Alps until the entire company reaches Rome, where they are received by Pope Cyriacus. On the way back, the entire group is stopped in Cologne by the Huns and killed because they do not want to abandon their Christian faith.


The other masterpiece is the 'Altarpiece of Saint-John the Baptist and Saint-John the Evangelist', made in 1479 and painted for the main altar in the church of the hospital. In the central panel is the Holy Virgin holding the child Jesus on her lap. Jesus puts a ring around the finger of Saint Catherine of Sienna. The woman sitting on the right of the Holy Virgin is Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The left side panel shows the story of Saint John the Baptist who was decapitated by order of Salome. The right side-panel illustrates the Apocalypse as told by Saint-John the Evangelist.

The four other works are smaller, but certainly not less in value. There are two more religious triptychs: 'The adoration of the Magi' made in 1479 and 'The lamentation of Christ'  from 1480.

Two smaller paintings also show that Memling was a great portrait painter. In 1480 Memling made the 'Woman's portrait' or a.k.a. the 'Sibylla Sambetha' which shows an anonymous woman in typical late 15th century clothes (see top of page). The other portrait is not anonymous and is called 'Diptych with Our Blessed Lady and Maarten van Nieuwenhoven' from 1487. Maarten van Nieuwenhoven was a member of a rich and important Bruges family. He is shown here at the age of 23. Later he became Lord Mayor of Bruges.

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