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

Last Judgment Triptych (open)

Oil on wood, 221 x 161 cm (central), 223,5 x 72,5 cm (each wing)
Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk

Although known to be an early work, this triptych is Memling's most monumental composition and one of his plastically most accomplished. A perfectly symmetrical, semi-circular line of bodies runs through the continuous space of all three panels, with the calm upward movement of the Reception of the Righteous into Heaven balanced by the turbulent Casting of the Damned into Hell on the opposite side.

Although it was one of Memling's first creations in Bruges, it already displays impressive mastery. The work was commissioned by Angelo Tani (1415-1492), the Florentine manager of the Medici bank in Bruges, for the altar of his newly founded chapel in the church of the Badia Fiesolana in Florence. The commission coincided with Tani's wedding in 1466 to Caterina Tanagli, with whom he is portrayed on the closed wings. The painting was completed before the birth of the couple's first daughter in 1471, and was dispatched to Porto Pisano via Southampton in 1473. But while the ship was still in Zealand waters, it was intercepted by a Polish warship operating on behalf of the Hanseatic League. The League was engaged at the time in a boycott of trade with England, the interim destination of the vessel carrying the altarpiece. The painting was taken to Danzig (Gdansk), where it was to remain.

The composition is a reformulation of Van der Weyden's Beaune altarpiece, with a number of noteworthy quotations and differences. Rogier's extremely wide, layered and hieratical image has been reduced, made narrower and clarified by diminishing the disproportionate relationship between the divine and earthly spheres. The central, monumental figures remain Christ and St Michael with the scales, and the bank of cloud is also paraphrased. The archangel dressed as a priest has, however, been transformed into a soldier. The Christ figure is as good as a copy - a remarkable and unique occurrence in Memling's oeuvre. If we throw in the strongly Rogierian style of the apostles' heads, it is almost impossible not to conclude that Memling saw the Beaune altarpiece with his own eyes.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.