(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)

Scenes from the Passion of Christ

Oil on oak panel, 56,7 x 92,2 cm
Galleria Sabauda, Turin

This work is the first in a series of narrative paintings which came to represent an important aspect of Memling's oeuvre. It is a `simultaneous painting' and like the Munich Advent and Triumph of Christ belongs to the landscape-cum-architecture type. Jerusalem features at the centre of the painting as a condensed version of the circular lay-out of a medieval city. Most of the buildings are tower constructions with porticos in a pseudo-Romanesque style topped with domes. These are intended to evoke the exotic character of an Eastern city, while also creating a variety of settings for the action. The overall effect is that of a complex stage set.

The viewpoint is very high, as a result of which Calvary is visible above the city and a virtual bird's eye-view is given of the buildings at the bottom. Although consistent one-point perspective is rendered impossible by the varied position of the different buildings, the viewer retains a sense of perspectival unity and logic, from the foreground to the level of the towers, which are ranged squarely across the horizon. In addition to perspectival unity, there is also a spatial unity in the treatment of the scenes and unity of lighting. The latter, in particular, is a rare tour de force in the painting of the period, because the light source is located within the painting and is associated visually with the rising sun on the far right, so that the area located diagonally before it in the front left remains in shadow. Only the donors, who kneel in the corners before the entire spectacle, appear to be immune from this effect. The right-hand part of the architecture, down to a stretch of the crenellated wall at the front, has a pink glow and we see the first, still low rays of the sun reaching the brick gates in the left distance.

The Passion cycle is enacted in this setting with the addition of the Resurrection and several of Christ's appearances to his followers, but without the Ascension. This is the first time that Memling applied the spatial narrative structure that he was later to use on two other occasions (Munich and Lübeck) to present a Gospel cycle. The narrative meanders symmetrically from the rear left to the foreground and through the principal scene in the middle, before culminating on the right, once again in the distance. Calvary is set somewhat apart as the principal scene in the background. Christ's various appearances after his Resurrection are not particularly significant in iconographical terms, and are probably included as visual links running into the landscape. The painting enabled believers to visit the Holy Places in and around Jerusalem in their imagination. It is a kind of spiritual model of the crusaders' journey.

The donors have been identified as Tommaso Portinari, a Florentine banker in Bruges, and his wife Maria Baroncelli on the grounds of their resemblance to bust portraits of the couple painted by Memling.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 8 minutes):
Johann Sebastian Bach: St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 (excerpts)