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

St Ursula Shrine

Gilded and painted wood, 87 x 33 x 91 cm
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges

The St Ursula Shrine was the first Memling work to be identified as such in a historical text. Although commissioned for St John's Hospital, it has neither an inscription nor a signature, unlike the St John altarpiece and the Floreins triptych, both of which were ordered for the same institution. This might be explained by the fact that the shrine was not on permanent display, but was shown only on the feast-day of St Ursula. Unlike the paintings, which also focus attention on the donors and the maker, this is a purely liturgical object.

Memling's care for detail and constant concern for harmony are part of his predilection for a classical style. These aspects of his art are given their finest expression in the St Ursula Shrine. Memling was commissioned to decorate a new reliquary, to which the saint's remains were to be transferred on 21 October 1489 during a grand ceremony in the chancel of the church of the hospital of St John. (The relics would seem to have previously been kept in a small 14th century chest, which has also survived).

The new shrine was made of wood, based on a model in precious metal. It is in the form of a house or chapel, the pack-saddle roof of which is set with painted trompe-l'oeil "tondi". The decoration of pinnacles, gables, crockets, finials, interlacing and statuettes in niches, is in the finest flamboyant Gothic style. The six arched openings in the sides take the place of stained glass windows, and recount six episodes from the life of the saint as recorded by Jacques de Voragine in The Golden Legend Ursula was a Breton princess. She agreed to marry Eree, son of the pagan King of England, on the condition that he convert to Christianity. She was subsequently martyred for her faith at the hands of the Huns.