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

Portrait of a Man at Prayer before a Landscape

c. 1480
Oil on oak panel, 30 x 22 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague

The tightly framed composition of this portrait makes it one of the most compact images ever painted by Memling. The solid head occupies virtually the entire width of the painting, with more than half of the shoulders and hands cut off the edge. The sensation of extreme proximity is exceptionally strong. The viewpoint is so low that the flat landscape, with a little church in the distance, can barely be discerned above the subject's shoulders, while his head stands out monumentally against the sky. The broadly drawn, wispy clouds appear to be a later addition. The man wears a dark jacket lined with white fur, flecked with brown, and an asymmetrical collar over a red waistcoat. The wider right lapel is folded over, and if fastened would reach high above its counterpart. A small crucifix set with pearls hangs from a golden chain, half beneath and half on top of the collar. The young man in London's National Gallery has a similar piece of jewellery, which he wears in the same way. It must have been a common ornament, because a version of it also appears in the Bruges Portrait of a young woman and in the allegorical figure of a girl in New York. The man's devotion is evidently directed towards a lost representation, probably of the Virgin and Child.

When closed, this diptych would have displayed the coat-of-arms that is still to be found on the reverse. The man probably belonged to the Lespinette family (Franche-Comté). Since its auction (as a work by Antonello da Messina) in 1894, the painting has been accepted as a Memling. It is generally compared with his portraits from the 1480s, and shows a particular similarity in its modelling to the Bruges Portrait of a young woman of 1480.

It is understandable that some people should have been inclined to attribute this admirable portrait to Antonello, such is its precision and assurance of drawing and modelling of the face; but in the features, which are as though engraved, and the pointed steeple visible in the background, give a Flemish character of this picture.

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