(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
The Donne Triptychc. 1475
Oil on oak, 70,5 x 70,5 cm (central panel), 70,5 x 30,5 cm (wings)
National Gallery, London
A native of Germany, Hans Memling became the leading painter in Bruges. Many pictures from his large workshop were exported to Italy, where his mode of painting landscape backgrounds, with hazy distant hills and individual leaves highlighted on the trees, influenced, among others, Perugino. Just such a background can be seen in this small altarpiece painted for the Welsh nobleman and courtier Sir John Donne, who is shown kneeling to the Virgin's right in the centre panel. The Christ Child on her lap is blessing him, and his two name saints, John the Baptist, holding a very realistic Lamb of God, and John the Evangelist, are pictured on the shutters. In the somewhat less honorific position at the Virgin's left kneel his wife Elizabeth and their oldest child, Anne. The two female saints are Catherine, presenting Sir John to the Virgin, and Barbara behind Lady Donne. Catherine's identifying wheel and Barbara's tower wittily appear as realistic incidents in the distant landscape behind them - the former as a millwheel in the water, with the miller loading a sack of flour on his donkey nearby. Angels play music and amuse the Child, who is crumpling the pages of his mother's book, by offering fruit - motifs often used in paintings from the Memling shop. The mode is at once homely and grand, in keeping with the architecture, part Netherlandish domestic and part-Italianate palatial, and simultaneously pious and sunny.
Sir John and Lady Donne are shown wearing Yorkist collars of gilt roses and suns from which hangs the Lion of March pendant of King Edward IV. The altarpiece may have been commissioned when Sir John was in Bruges in 1468 for the marriage of Margaret of York, Edward's sister, to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, or possibly on a later trip to nearby Ghent.
The reverses of the shutters depict St Christopher and St Anthony Abbot painted in tones of grey to resemble stone statues.