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

Triptych of Jan Floreins

Oil on oak panel, 46,3 x 57,4 cm (central panel), 48 x 25 cm (each wing)
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges

This little triptych is a smaller version of the large altarpiece on the same theme in the Prado, which was painted seven years earlier. Even more so than in that work, Memling took as his basis for the architectural setting the principal scene of Rogier van der Weyden's Columba altarpiece. The action unfolds in a rectangular ruin divided in the middle by a double arch into a foreground and background space.

Here too, the donor kneels on the far left behind a low wall. The stereometric planning and consistency with which Memling sets down his architectural features is characteristic. As in the Prado triptych, he locates the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi in the same building, but this time at a totally different angle and in another room, as if he had used a model that he could simply change around. In both paintings, the Child is born in the back room of the stable, with the ox and the ass. The stable of the Magi scene is shown from the rear in the left wing of the Floreins triptych. Every element tallies: the pilasters, the corbels, the beams, the little transverse roof and the hole in the thatching. The perspective of the left wing has two vanishing points with a viewpoint shifted to the right. That of the central panel is frontal, with a viewpoint moved slightly to the left, as is the case in the Columba altarpiece. Despite this, Memling placed the Virgin in the middle, directly in front of a column.

His architectural interest is also apparent from the right wing. This Presentation in the Temple is set in the southern part of the crossing of the former Cathedral of St Donatian. The line-of-sight is directed towards the portal of the north transept, with the beginning of the ambulatory on the right. Bruges' Romanesque principal church would indeed have been an ideal choice for the part of the biblical Temple. Like the Prado triptych, the Adoration of the Magi is constructed symmetrically in the older Cologne style with the Virgin at its centre. Scholars rightly emphasised the heightened humanism of this scene, and its greater intimacy with the viewer in comparison to the Prado altarpiece. This Joseph is an affected witness to the Nativity, while the formal, prayerful pose of the Madrid Virgin and angels has given way to a joyful, hand-spreading gesture, expressive of surprise and wonder. The Christ Child in the Adoration of the Magi roguishly seeks eye contact with the viewer. One end of the eldest king's cloak is painted over the frame.

The triptych is authenticated, dated and identified by an original inscription, on the original frame, and thus forms a key element (more so even than the St John altarpiece) in the reconstruction of Memling's oeuvre, and knowledge of his name and signature. The patron is Jan Floreins, also known as Van der Rijst, a member of the monastic community of Bruges' St John's Hospital. He is dressed in a black habit, and kneels behind a low wall of the ramshackle stable in Bethlehem reading a book, most likely the passage dealing with the Wise Men from the East in St Matthew's Gospel. The figure 36 (his age) is carved into the stone alongside his head. A youth in worldly costume stands behind him.

Jan Floreins belonged to the de Silly family, who were known as the lords of Rijst thanks to an alliance with the Brabant Van der Rijst family. He was born in 1443, and joined the religious community of St John's Hospital in 1472, before becoming master in 1488. He apparently held that position until 1497, and probably died in 1504 or 1505. His initials and the arms of his family appear on the frame of the reverse of the wings. The presence of the youth behind Jan Floreins has not yet been explained.

The myth of the sick Memling who portrayed himself wearing a patient's bonnet and peering through the window on the right of the central panel arose during the eighteenth century. The prophetess Anna who looks at the viewer in the right wing seems to be intended as a portrait. The boy on the far right of the central panel, next to the Moorish king, who looks directly at us, and who can have no iconographical function in that position, also appears to be a portrait.

The Three Kings were invoked, amongst other things, against falling sickness and death without benefit of the last sacraments. They were also the protectors of pilgrims. Their portrayal was thus a natural theme for a hospital. St Veronica too was the protectress of those who died suddenly. The destination of the altarpiece is unknown, but Jan Floreins is likely to have installed it on a side altar of the hospital chapel. The detailed inscription with the donor's name is, after all, intended to be read by everyone.

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