(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
Oil on oak panel, 28,6 x 21,3 cm
Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Cologne
The composition of this little work is clearly a reprise of the central panel of the Bladelin triptych (Berlin, Staatliche Museen) by Van der Weyden. It has, however, been simplified and the proportions of the figures with respect to the architecture made more natural. The angels have been omitted and the stable transformed into a realistic architectural fragment, according to Memling's custom, with a spatial function that transcends the field of view of the painting. All the typological and iconographical ingredients of the earlier example are otherwise present. We know that this presentation of Mary, dressed in white and suddenly and painlessly praying to her new-born Child, derives from the 'Revelationes' of St Bridget of Sweden (fourteenth century). The way Joseph, holding his candle, is overwhelmed by the divine light also derives from that source, as does the pillar on the left which Mary saw during the birth and which symbolises Christ's flagellation. Memling also retains in his composition the cellar entrance at the front, which might be an allusion to the cave in Bethlehem where Christ was born.
It is generally accepted that the painting should be ascribed to Memling and dated to around 1470. The figures do indeed retain the rather stocky frame and rounded physiognomy of the earliest works. Mary is identical to the Ottawa Virgin, which dates from 1472. The little painting also closely resembles the Nativity in the left wing of the Prado triptych in terms of style. A date of around 1470-72 would thus appear likely.
The painting, in all probability, have been the central panel of a small triptych with donor wings on either side, or possibly an iconography that was also inspired by the Bladelin triptych. It must have been located in or around Bruges, because it was copied towards the end of the fifteenth century in a small tondo located in St John's Hospital in Damme.
The painting is in its original frame.