(b. ca. 1420, Amiens, d. 1489, Valenciennes)
Scenes from the Life of St Bertin (detail)1459
Panel, 56 x 147 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Guillaume Philastre, Bishop of Toul and Abbot of St Omer, commissioned the artist in 1453 to paint the wings for an altar-shrine which he donated to the monastery church in 1459. Here this precious work remained until the French Revolution, when the shrine disappeared in the wave of iconoclasm, but the wings were saved.
As the altarpiece was destroyed, the original form it took remains uncertain. The central shrine appears to have been adorned with sculptures wrought in gold and silver. The two wings take the form of a predella, and the original outer surfaces (now at the back) are decorated with grisaille paintings. The artist's major work, however, was the coloured 'open' side extending across both panels, and dedicated to the life of St Bertin, the founder and patron-saint of the monastery church. In two series of five scenes, which are separated by ingenious architectural vistas, the life of the Benedictine monk is depicted from his birth to his death, including his induction, the construction of the new monastery, his miracles and his temptations. In this devout narrative the donor of the panels himself was bound to appear. He had himself portrayed kneeling with a chaplain and clearly identifiable by his escutcheon.
The detail reproduced here shows several monks, who have gathered in the cloister under a statue representing Saint John the Baptist - to hear a sermon. In the background is an early Gothic cloister, around the walls of which is a continuous painted fresco representing a dance of death. In the far background a young man can be seen leaning against a pillar and admiring the frescoes.
With their subtle use of light and shade and the brilliance of their colours, these panels rank among the finest surviving examples of early French painting. Simon Marmion came from Amiens and from 1458 onwards worked in Valenciennes. In his use of colour and rendering of detail, he modelled himself on Jan van Eyck; the natural ease with which he tells his story and the miniature-like quality of his painting reveals a master of book-illustration. What is particularly surprising is the apparently effortless way in which he overcomes the spatial problem of the cloister, integrating a background which consists of two distinct architectonic elements. This is one of the few pictures from this period that manage to convey both the interior of a medieval cloister and its wall-paintings.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the wings entered the collection of William II of Holland. They were eventually inherited by the Prince zu Wied, who sold them to the Berlin Gallery in 1905.