(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
St John Altarpiece (right wing)1474-79
Oil on oak panel, 176 x 78,9 cm
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges
The right wing features St John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos.
The scenes in the triptych dealing with St John the Evangelist are the following (in chronological order).
Memling intended to dedicate the entire right wing to the apocalyptic vision of St John the Evangelist, which meant that there was hardly any space left in the central panel to depict episodes from the life of the saint chronologically. The small scenes are thus shown one above the other, in no particular order.
According to his legend, St John was first immersed in boiling oil and then banished to the island of Patmos (we see him embarking on the boat). Upon his return to Ephesus, he raised Drusiana from the dead (first capital), baptised the converted philosopher Crato (in the domed building at the very back) and drank unharmed from the poisoned chalice (second capital). These scenes are given a Roman setting with the Colosseum in the background.
The vision of the Revelation or Apocalypse is presented in the right wing with a spatial and dynamic unity that precisely follows the key moments of the text. Banished to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, St John sits with a book on his lap, and dips a pen into an ink-pot, his pen-knife at the ready. He stares upwards, where his visions take shape in the air, on the water and on the adjoining land, in what was for its time a new and unique total spectacle. God appears beneath a stone canopy supported by columns, wearing a red and green robe. He has a greenish glow about his face and hands and is surrounded by a rainbow. Seven lamps burn around the canopy and flames shoot from the rainbow. The twenty-four elders (only thirteen of whom are visible) are seated around the throne wearing golden crowns and dressed in white robes. The throne stands on a crystal surface in which everything is reflected. God is accompanied by four beasts covered with eyes and with six wings: one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a man and one like an eagle. The vision of heaven as a whole is enclosed in a second circular rainbow.
The subsequent vision of the Lamb and the sealed book is incorporated in the first. God's right hand rests on a book with seven seals. An angel at the front of the scene points to it and addresses John. A lamb with seven horns and eyes holds the book between its front paws. Memling took another detail - `Each of the elders had a harp. .. and they were singing a new song' (Rev. 5:8-9) - and adjusted it slightly, giving them a variety of musical instruments. The Lamb then breaks six seals, one after the other, causing the four horsemen to appear arid unleashing cosmic disasters. The sequence of the horsemen, each on a little island, reads from left to right: a white rider with a crown on a white horse who looses off an arrow to his rear; a knight in black armour armed with a sword on a light brown horse (the text refers to a red horse); a figure with a long robe on a black horse, carrying a pair of scales; and a pale brown horse ridden by Death, followed by a burning monster's head, in whose mouth human bodies shrivel. Memling did not include the breaking of the fifth seal. The breaking of the sixth seal causes an eclipse of the sun and the stars to fall from the sky. Rich and poor flee into caves. The natural phenomena can be witnessed high above in the sky, while to Death's right we see the figures of a slave, a king and a freeman hiding in rocky crags. When the seventh seal is broken, seven angels are given seven trumpets. Memling included this episode at the top of the circular rainbow. The trumpets are handed out by an arm that emerges from behind a cloud in the topmost corner. Another angel kneels before an altar at the bottom of this mandorla. He spreads incense from a golden censer towards the figure of God. Glowing coals lie on the altar, which he will shortly throw to the earth, causing peals of thunder and earthquakes.
Memling also included the following events, each announced by one of the trumpets, in a series of increasingly distant and small scenes: hail and fire rain upon the land, and the grass burns, the burning mountain is hurled into the sea and destroys the ships, and a star falls like a torch from the heavens into the rivers and springs, poisoning them. The latter can be seen on the right-hand edge. A corpse lies alongside a rectangular well. An eagle soars high in the sky. The peninsula to the right features the star with the key of the shaft of the abyss, from which smoke rises and locusts emerge in the form of winged horses with crowned human heads, women's hair, lions' teeth, scorpions' tails and iron breastplates. One of the horses is ridden by a black, demonic figure with the fool's crown. This is Abaddon, the angel of the abyss. A group of cavalrymen wreak death and destruction opposite. The soldiers wear red and grey armour, and ride animals with fire-breathing lions' heads and tails with serpents' heads. They are led by four angels in armour who stand on the bank. Behind them appears a gigantic angel, one foot on the water, the other on the land, his legs like fire, his body wrapped in cloud, his face as yellow as the sun, with a rainbow above his head and a small book in his hand. Memling also followed the biblical text word-for-word for the remainder of the portrayal: the seven thunders are represented as explosions above the angel, who lifts his right arm to heaven to hand over John's book, while the author stands a small distance away, his hands raised. The final scenes relate to the Woman and the Dragon and the creation of the blasphemous Beast. The Virgin Mary appears high in the sky, holding her Child beyond the reach of the red, seven-headed dragon. The latter's tail sweeps the stars from the heavens (the same falling stars from previous disasters in Memling's portrayal). The Dragon is vanquished by Michael to the right, and below pursues Mary, who now has wings. Finally, on the horizon of the sea, the Dragon confers its authority on a seven-headed beast with the body of a leopard that rises from the waters.