Hans Memling was one of the formidable figures of Early Netherlandish Renaissance. He was German in origin as he born Seligenstadt, a town near Frankfurt. Memling was famous for his Flemish painting style that was streamlined by the great Rogier van der Weyden during the 15th century. In fact, Memling was one of Rogier’s students at the early stages of his career.
Hans Memling’s rise in popularity began during his late 20’s, when he pioneered some new styles in his approach to painting frescoes and altarpieces. He became a central figure of Flemish art at the height of his career that even after his death; his style became the source of inspiration of several artists that came after him.
Hans Memling was born around 1440 in Selingstadt, Germany. His earliest training in painting could have been supported by an unnamed master based in Cologne. Perhaps, it was through this master that Memling had an opportunity to foment collaboration with Rogier van der Weyden in an altarpiece that Weyden executed for Margaret of Austria. The records of this art work provided some evidence to the potential collaboration of Weyden and Hans, wherein the inventory description says that the center panel of the altarpiece was created by Rogier and its wings was by Hans.
In fact, Giorgio Vasari went on confirming such a claim by saying that Memling was either Weyden’s assistant or companion. It is believed that the collaboration of the two painters might have lasted until the death of Weyden in 1464.
Around the mid 1470’s, Memling began his earliest and successful painting Crabble Triptych. It consisted of a small number of panels where side panels depicted the Annunciation narrative, however, most parts of this triptych was separated over the centuries of which the Annunciation panel is now located in Bruges Groeninge Museum.
The Crabble Triptych represented the fundamental painting style of Memling. To be precise, the Annunciation panel showed some similarities to his succeeding works such as Columba Altarpiece in Munich. The two paintings almost had the same figures in which Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel was drawn with a fine and tranquil face consisting of thin lips, nose but big eyes and a narrow chin. Both paintings also had the same gestures and with the way Hemling painted the hair style of his figures share obvious resemblance, too.
Hans Hemling’s years of apprenticeship with Rogier’s presumably let him absorb the painting styles and techniques of his master. Art historians have found out through Infrared Reflectography that Hemling’s preparatory drawing of the Crabble Triptych share resemblance to Rogier’s drawings. They are almost identical that an ordinary art enthusiast could have been easily deceived at first sight.
Although, an artist adapting his masters styles is not uncommon in art, especially during the Northern Renaissance when painters needed to look for inspirations for starting out in their career and then later on they would develop their own style out of the commonly practiced ones.
Another point that the similarities between the drawings of Van der Weyden and Hemling suggests is the confirmation that the two artists indeed worked together. Van Der Weyden was in other words the designer-in-chief while Hemling provided the necessary assistance like making some modifications that his master needed to complete their works.
On the contrary, although the two artists worked together art historians believe that Hemling was never an avid follower of van der Weyden because at some point he wanted to develop his own style. For instance, the Annunciation painting was innovative overall because it looks seemingly alive painted in monochrome quality or Grisaille. Hemling obviously utilized a technique that was emerging at that time but this altarpiece was different from other Grisaille art works because of the application of colors to its various parts, in an effort to evoke life and animation.
Shortly after Rogier van Der Weyden died in 1464, Hans Memling settled in Bruges and became a citizen of the city. It wasn’t a bad decision as the Frankfurt native was successful in establishing his name and reputation all over the city, becoming an in-demand artist. In fact, he was contracted by the Hospital of Saint John to paint for them while also keeping himself busy with doing commissions by Bruges noblemen, merchants and some agents from the Medici family of Florence.
In 1467, Florentino Angelo Tani employed the services of Memling to paint a Last Judgment, which became a phenomenal hit during that time. It is an altarpiece that measures 220cm in height and 300cm in width, making it one of the largest altarpieces that Memling had ever painted. When Memling arrived at Bruges, his popularity was partly due to his association with Van der Weyden but after the Last Judgment was completed, he became his own painter with unique style.
The golden age of Memling’s career would be during the 1470’s. This was because at that time he was one of the 247 wealthiest citizens of Bruges which he was able to achieve off of commissions he received from his well-to-do art patrons, although he was never contracted by the city government.
At some point, Memling focused on painting portraits of his different clients. He had done several portraits and many of which are now under preservation by different museums. He was a successful portraitist because of his ability to apply his personal interpretation of the subjects on the paintings that his Italian contemporaries looked up to him.
Among those portraits, the Man with Roman coin was the most famous which he presumably painted around 1473-74. This portrait is far from the typical tempera theme of many portraits flourishing at that time because Hemling painted a landscape as the background of the man dressed in black while holding the Roman coin.
In 1487, still working as a portraitist, Memling did a series of commissions that re-established his mark in the Flemish art industry. His portraits improved a lot that it became very detailed from the figures to the landscapes. For example, in his painting of the Diptich of van Maarten van Nieuwenhove (1487) he used the spatial setting technique to balance the foreground and background to create an enhanced dramatic effect. Additionally, he also painted a Portrait of a Man and Triptych of Benedetto Portinari around the mid 1470’s.
After painting a series of portraits, Memling continued making altarpieces for St. John Hospital in Bruges. The latter part of the 1470’s was spent on painting a series of panels for the St. Ursula’s Shrine of the said hospital. This was then followed by a couple of stints with a Spanish client for whom he painted the monumental Retablo Mayor and the Passion Triptych for the St. Mary’s Monastery in Spain.
All of his masterpieces such as Retablo Mayor, Last Judgment and Passion Triptych were of international quality. For one, the Passion Triptych was destined to be placed at the Greverade family’s chapel in Lubeck Cathedral. This emotive altarpiece consisted of two pairs of wings and hinges so it can be moved to a certain angle.
The Retablo Mayor however was poorly documented. Art history researchers only retrieved three panels of the said altarpiece that feature Christ with Singing Angels which is now preserved at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. Also included in the three-set panel are the coronation of Mary’s Assumption with Saints Vitalis, Prudentius, Benedict and Agricola. Altogether, this altarpiece was presumable measured around 165cm in height and 670cm wide. With its enormous size, it is safe to assume that Hemling might have had the services of his assistants while finishing this Retablo Mayor altarpiece.
Hans Memling died on August 11, 1494 in Bruges. He was still at the height of his popularity during his later years, and he was a renowned painter overseas. Although this was the case, Memling was never buried in a graveyard meant for the nobility because he did not come from an aristocratic or oligarch family. Therefore, his remains were buried at St. Gilles’ Church.
After his death, he had a significant amount of followers that continued his legacy. Some of them went by the names Master of St. Lucy’s Legend and Master of St. Ursula’s Legend, and their art works are retrieved by the Groeninge Museum.