(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
The Virgin Showing the Man of Sorrows1475 or 1479
Oil on oak panel, 27,4 x 19,9 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
This iconographical type, in which the Man of Sorrows (Christ displaying his wounds to the faithful) is supported by the Virgin, is not a common one. It is, in fact, a conflation of the Marian Pietà, in which the Virgin cradles her dead son in her lap, and the Trinity Pietà, in which God the Father holds the recently crucified Christ before him. It is an emblematic representation intended as the object of meditation rather than the portrayal of an episode from the Gospels. Similarly, the Arma Christi in the background should be interpreted as signs of the Passion. Several emblems are included, in addition to obvious attributes such as the Cross, on which hangs the dark-purple robe from Christ's Mockery; the post from the flagellation with its rope, rods and flails; the cane and sponge, the spear, the hammer and nails. Looking from top to bottom, we see: on the left, Peter with Caiaphas' servant-girl, Judas with the purse around his neck, Annas and Caiaphas, the hand which struck Jesus, the fist that punched him, and another hand with closed fingers; on the right, Pilate and Herod, a hand making the obscene fica gesture, a head in profile (customarily one of the soldiers who mocked or spat at Christ), a hand that has pulled out some of Jesus' hair, and a stamping foot.
Apart from a few copies, there is one larger version that is worthy of particular note (Granada, Capilla Real). This might be a copy of a second version of the same theme, also designed by Memling. A third Memling Man of Sorrows is also known, in which the figure of Christ makes the same gesture with his right arm as the Granada type.
It is assumed that the painting belonged to a triptych. It has been established with near certainty that the Angel with a sword in London's Wallace Collection is the right wing of this triptych, and that the recently discovered Angel with an olive branch in the Louvre is a fragment of the left wing.
The date on the column capital is no longer clearly legible. The last numeral is particularly badly abraded, which gave rise to a variety of readings in the past.