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

Portrait of a Young Woman

Oil on oak panel, 38 x 26,5 cm
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges

With the exception of his devotional works, this painting is the only Memling portrait of an individual woman to have survived. At the same time, it functions as an exemplar of the well-to-do Flemish townswoman of the final decades of the fifteenth century. Her almost nun-like appearance, with her pale face and severely swept-back hair, starched, transparent headdress and dark clothes, is ornamented only by an olive-green belt, worn high, a wine-red chest-piece, and several rings and a necklace studded with precious stones. She poses in devout reverie against a darker void, her hands clasped primly together. The background is barely distinguishable now from her close-fitting, dark purple dress because its original bluish-green colour has darkened. The frame that surrounds her is marbled dark brown, with the date painted onto the imitation stone in the Eyckian manner, as if made up of inlaid gold or yellow metal letters.

An earlier example of this type of portrait, with the same background, frame and date is the Portrait of Gilles Joye, dating from 1472. The Portrait ofJacob Obrecht also has this type of marbling on its frame. The portrait is somewhat disfigured by a painted metal cartouche top left and a banderole with an inscription on the frame at the bottom, which identify the woman as the Sibyl of Persia (SIBYLLA SAMBETHA QUAE / EST PERSICA). Judging from the style, these were added in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The fingertips painted over the frame are original. This trompe-l'oeil technique is an example of a process frequently applied by Memling with the aim of breaking through into the real space beyond the picture plane. The painted strip on which the sitter's hands rest is not a window-sill, but is seemingly intended as a continuation of the frame.

The sitter of this celebrated portrait was identified in the 19th century as Maria, the second daughter of Willem and Barbara Moreel. However, later this identification was not generally accepted. The painting is also known as the Sibyl of Sambetha on account of an inscription on the scroll.

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