(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
Portrait of Gilles Joye1472
Oil on oak panel, 38 x 29 cm
The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown
Only the pale pink face of the man, who is dressed in a reddish-brown tabard with a grey fur collar, stands out from the uniform, blue-green ground. All that we see of his hands, clasped in prayer in the left corner, are the long, calligraphically painted fingers. He wears two rings on his ring finger - one with a blue stone and another with his coat-of-arms. The latter appears again on the left of the original, brown and black marbleised frame. A trompe-l'oeil inscription, seemingly comprising inlaid gilded metal lettering, appears at the top and bottom of the frame. It tells us that the portrait was painted in 1472 when the man was 47 years old.
This is the earliest dated portrait by Memling and serves as a crucial milestone for the dating of other portraits from this period, including the Moreel portraits and the donors in the Last Judgment [Gdansk]. The modelling of all these portraits is highly simplified and all the subjects have long, tapering fingers with oval nails.
The subject was positively identified as Gilles Joye (1424-1483) on the basis of an old inscription on the reverse and the coat-of-arms. Joye began his career as a canon in the chapter of Our Lady in Cleves (1453-1460), before taking a similar position at St Donatian's in Bruges (after 1463). He later became pastor at the Oude Kerk in Delft (1465- 1469), after which he was made clerk and Kapellmeister of Philip the Good (1462- 1469). He enjoyed some fame as a composer and settled in Bruges in the early 1450s. Despite the priest's pious demeanor, church records suggest a more colorful personality - he was reprimanded for brawling, using offensive language, and living with a woman.
It is unlikely that the portrait ever belonged to a diptych, because there are no traces of hinges on the still intact frame (although this was assumed to be the case by some scholars). This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that the sitter's coat-of-arms appears on the front and not on the reverse. The painting will ultimately have been commissioned to adorn his tomb in the sacristy of St Donatian's Church, during a period of his life when he was afflicted by illness. Perhaps the portrait was installed there immediately.