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

Christ Giving His Blessing

Oil on oak panel, 38,1 x 28,2 cm
Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena

Memling painted a slightly different version of this composition in 1481. The type can be interpreted iconographically as the merging of the 'Vera Effigies' and 'Salvator Mundi'. It comprises a frontal portrayal of the face of Christ in a manner that had become standard in fifteenth-century art, having been established as early as the thirteenth century by a description contained in the so-called Letter of Lentulus. The best-known example of this theme was executed by Jan van Eyck. The figure is transformed by Memling into a Salvator Mundi giving his blessing, but without the attributes of his power. He does not hold a crossed orb in his hand or wear a coronet on his head, but is presented in the form of a portrait, as a human being standing in a window, his left hand resting on the frame. He is the counterpart of the Man of Sorrows, the suffering Christ, as depicted by Memling in Genoa. In fact, the dark blue-green background and dark brownish-purple robe render the latter a kind of agonised metamorphosis of the Pasadena Christ.

The immediate typological precursor of this presentation is the Master of Flémalle's Salvator Mundi (Philadelphia, John G. Johnson Collection) in which the fingers of the left hand are also just visible above the edge. Christ himself, the form of his robe and the position of the hand with which he gives his blessing are a development on the Jean de Braque triptych by Rogier van der Weyden. Although created at a much earlier date and less robust and more transparent in its execution, the Pasadena version is readily comparable with Memling's Christ with musical angels in Antwerp. The rounded, almost sculptural features, the softly flowing hair of the beard and moustache, the fingers with their round tips in almost the same position of blessing, are all very similar. The underdrawing of the Pasadena work reveals that the hand making the blessing was designed on the panel itself. Several of its contours do not match the painted form at all, and the latter was itself corrected several times, even after the dark brown colour of the robe had already been painted around the fingers. The ring and little finger were originally drawn closer together, and the forefinger and index finger were more bent. Christ's hand in Antwerp is more or less the finished result of the Pasadena version, though in a more elongated form.