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

Triptych of the Family Moreel

Oil on wood, 141 x 174 cm (central), 141 x 87 cm (wings)
Groeninge Museum, Bruges

Hans Memling came to symbolize late-medieval, mystical Bruges, not least because of the emergence in the nineteenth-century Gothic revival of a religious and nostalgic myth concerning his relationship with the city. A German by birth, who worked in Bruges from 1465 until his death in 1494, Memling belonged to the same generation as Van der Goes. In the aftermath of Van Eyck and Christus, he inspired a new generation of Bruges painters and invented a style that came to be regarded as characteristic of the city until well into the sixteenth century. Memling brought with him the aristocratic formal idiom and elegant arrangements of Van der Weyden, with whom he had undoubtedly collaborated in Brussels during his youth.

The Groeninge Museum has an important Memling, the Moreel triptych, painted in 1484 for the prominent Bruges family Moreel. It was designed for an altar in Saint James' Church dedicated to Saints Maurus and Giles. The ethereal, paradisiacal space that encompasses the three panels, in which slim, well-proportioned figures - motionless and expressionless - participate in a sort of communal salvation, is characteristic of Memling's idealizing mode of expression. It is also one of the first occasions on which a complete family is portrayed and thus marks the birth of the group portrait. The central panel depicts Sts Christopher, Maurus and Giles. The donors and their children are shown kneeling in the wings, in a landscape that extends from the central panel. The man is protected by St William of Maleval, the woman by St Barbara. The couple are Willem Moreel (who died in 1501), a prominent Bruges politician, and his wife Barbara van Vlaenderberch, or van Hertsvelde (died 1499). Willem Moreel, lord of Oostcleyhem, was burgomaster in 1478 and 1483, bailiff in 1488 and municipal treasurer in 1489. He was also active for a time in the grocers' guild and as a banker for the Banco di Roma. The couple were granted permission in 1484 to set up an altar dedicated to St Maurus and St Giles at St James' Church, and to prepare their tomb nearby. The donors' resemblance to authenticated portraits of the same couple in Brussels, and the fact that the painting is dated 1484 and clearly portrays St Giles with a monk identifiable as St Maurus, a follower of St Benedict, demonstrates beyond doubt that this was once the Moreel family altarpiece in St James' Church, and that it was specifically produced for this purpose. The couple had five sons and thirteen daughters.

The reverse side of the wings shows St John the Baptist (left wing) and St George (right wing).

The triptych is shown in its original frame.

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