(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
Oil on wood, 191 x 84 cm
The influence of Van der Weyden's Virgins is evident in the figure of the maid helping her mistress Bathsheba from the bath and wrapping a robe around her naked body. The similarity to van der Weyden's type of Madonna is so striking that scholars were previously inclined to attribute this large painting to him. Not only is this picture unusual for featuring a nude outside a religious context (they usually appeared only in depictions of the Fall or the Last Judgment), but it is significant for revealing a number of features which have helped to define Memling's significance for 15th-century painting.
Memling constructed a narrative space in this work which is exemplary for northern European painting. On the back wall of the bathroom a window is open, revealing a roof terrace: "And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon." This is the description of events in the Second Book of Samuel (chapter 11), prior to the king committing adultery and murder. Below the palace is a portal leading into a church on which a wall relief can be seen depicting the death of Bathsheba's husband, the Hittite Uriah, whom David sent to certain death in battle. Beside the portal projects an apse on whose wall can be seen painted sculptures of Moses and Abraham as representatives of law.
The painting is divided into a dominant scene in the foreground and a secondary scene, subordinate to this, in the background. This background narrative is of the traditional pattern, that of painted church sculpture. Memling was not so much concerned with the biblical story - which may have served as justification of a nude figure - as with the translation of a biblical motif into a domestic setting in 15yh-century Flanders. Moreover, the upper left-hand corner has been added at a later date, probably in the 17th century. The original corner piece, now in the Chicago Art Institute, shows David giving a messenger a ring for Bathsheba.