(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
Portraits of Willem Moreel and His Wifec. 1482
Oil on oak, 39 x 29,7 cm (each)
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
It is in the area of portraiture that Hans Memling appears to have been the most successful, for which a vast patrician clientele existed in Bruges. He paints his models with an exactness, a precision and a concern for detail which bring them strongly to life. This applies to these two devotional portraits, attributed to him and which can be dated to around 1482.
The man and woman, represented in half bust, face each other in an attitude of prayer. Both are positioned in a gallery opening onto a wide landscape. The man is wearing a purplish garment trimmed with fur under which a black doublet with a rising collar is to be seen. A black 'cornette' is hanging from his right shoulder. The woman wears a purplish dress with a low V-shaped neckline, edged with a black border typical for the 1470/80s. Around her neck she wears a transparent linen veil or 'gorgerette'. Above her drawn-back hair, her short truncated 'hennin' is covered with a fine veil which falls down over her shoulders. Her necklace consisting of a double row of chain-links is decorated with a pendant containing a pearl and two precious stones. On her left little finger she wears two rings. The top of a golden belt buckle is also visible, just under her chest.
The sitters are identified by their coats of arms and inscriptions on the back of the two panels as Willem Moreel and his wife Barbara van Vlaenderberch, alias de Herstvelde. Willem Moreel, Lord of Oostcleyhem, was one of the richest citizens of Bruges where he was a spice trader. He was also a banker for the Bruges branch of the Banco di Roma. Between 1472 and 1489 he was successively a counsellor, then burgomaster, bailiff and treasurer of the city. He had five sons and thirteen daughters from Barbara van Vlaenderberch. In 1484 the couple also commissioned Hans Memling to paint a large altarpiece (Bruges, Groeningemuseum) for their chapel in the Bruges church of St James, on the side panels of which their entire family is represented.
Originally these two portraits were part of a triptych, of a type intended for meditation and private devotion, the central element of which was a religious subject, probably here a Virgin and Child. The painting probably folded flat and had three equally sized panels. The man's coat-of-arms is featured on the rear of the woman's portrait, and will thus have been visible on the outside of the closed case. The exchange of escutcheons will, however, have been intended primarily as a kind of eternal link between the two portraits. Memling applied a similar procedure to the wings of the Last Judgment.