(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
St John Altarpiece1474-79
Oil on oak panel, 173,6 x 173,7 cm (central), 176 x 78,9 cm (each wing)
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges
The symbolic gesture whereby Jesus places a wedding ring on the finger of St Catherine of Alexandria caused this altarpiece to be identified for many years as the Mystic marriage of St Catherine. Nevertheless, it is clearly dedicated to the Virgin and the two St Johns. Together with the Gdansk Last Judgment and the Lübeck Passion, this is one of the three biggest triptychs that Memling ever painted. The three altarpieces are also distributed evenly throughout his career, and hence serve as crucial milestones in the development of his oeuvre. The St John altarpiece is dated 1479, and is thus located precisely half-way between the Gdansk (1467) and Lübeck (1491) triptychs.
The central panel focuses upon a Sacra Conversazione, a gathering of saints around the Virgin. However, the narrow vertical openings between the columns reveal a continuous landscape with ruins and buildings in which small episodes from the lives of the two male saints are enacted. The two wings each depict episodes from the lives of the standing figures of the two St Johns on either side of the Virgin. The left wing features the Beheading of St John the Baptist and the right wing St John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos. In addition to these realistic portrayals, the carved groups on the two capitals above each saint also depict key moments from their lives.
The composition of the triptych as a whole is not only ingenious in narrative terms, with the different components interlocking spatially and thematically; it is also new in many respects as far as the portrayal of the Virgin Mary in heaven and the Apocalypse are concerned. The iconographical forebears of such a grouping of saints sitting and standing around an enthroned Virgin are few and far between. The only extant examples are, in fact, the Virgo inter Virgines from the circle of the Master of Flémalle in Washington and a similar composition, this time set in a room, by Rogier van der Weyden, several fragments of which have survive. They are not, however, comparable in formal terms. This clear monumental composition, with two symmetrical standing male saints and two sitting female saints, forming a tetramorph around the Virgin, must have seemed very new. As is the case with the architecture, Memling appears to have developed here upon Jan van Eyck's Virgin with Canon van der Paele. The Apocalypse is new too. There is no sign of any other representation prior to Memling in which the Book of Revelation is played out before St John's eyes in its entirety in a single, undivided painting. Only in the Beheading of StJohn the Baptist did Memling prefer to paraphrase a Van der Weyden composition (St John altarpiece, Berlin, Staatliche Museen). However, the stylised terseness and enclosed character of the latter give way here to dramatic action in the open air, with a high degree of realism.
In view of the historical circumstances and iconography, there can be no doubt whatsoever that this triptych was painted for the High Altar of the chapel of St John's Hospital. An old inscription on the bottom member of the frame gives the date 1479 and the name of the artist Johannes Memling. With the exception of the Floreins triptych in the same hospital, this is the only work by Memling to be authenticated by an original (in this case subsequently overpainted) inscription. The donors were also identified. Jacob de Ceuninc was initially recorded as a monk at the hospital in 1469-70, and later as bursar from 1488 until his death in 1490. Antheunis Seghers was first mentioned in 1455-56 and appears to have been master from 1461 to 1465, bursar from 1466 to 1468, and then master again from 1469 until his death in 1475. Agnes Casembrood was first recorded in 1445-46, and subsequently appears as prioress from 1459 to 1463, and again from 1469 until her death in 1489. Clara van Hulsen makes her initial appearance in the records in 1427-1428, and died in 1479. Given that these are evidently intended as portraits, the altarpiece must have been ordered before the death of Antheunis Seghers in 1475, which means that its production may logically be linked with the expansion of the chapel's apse in 1473- 74 though we lack details of Jacob de Ceuninc and Clara van Hulsen in those years.
The altarpiece is, of course, dedicated to the patron saints of St John's Hospital. The central portrayal of the Virgin might relate to the hospital chapel's long-standing and close links with the chapter of the almost adjacent Church of Our Lady. The two female saints, Catherine and Barbara, were frequently invoked in adversity. Their presence in the hospital context has frequently been explained in terms of their symbolising respectively the contemplative and active life of the hospital's monastic community.