(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
Diptych with the Allegory of True Love1485-90
Oil on oak panel, 43 x 18 (each)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
The left panel is in New york, the right in Rotterdam. Many commentators found it difficult to accept that these two panels were actually companion pieces until a plausible explanation for this double allegorical work was proposed. It was, however, evident that they belonged together in one way or another because of the matching dimensions and architectural settings.
The vanishing point for the perspective construction of both paintings is located on the line separating them. That means, taking account of Memling's consistent logic in this respect, that they cannot have been intended as the wings of a triptych, but were conceived as continuous scenes, separated only by their frames. We can no longer determine whether the diptych was fixed or folding. The panels are very thin, which might indicate that they had a painted rear which was subsequently sawn off. The woman holds a carnation in her hand, which is a long-established symbol of marriage. The white horse, on which a grinning monkey sits, bends down to drink, while the brown horse turns its head towards the woman. The horse, which is often used in both art and literature as a symbol of love, appears here in a double role. The white one with the monkey - the symbol par excellence of sinfulness, lust and selfishness - is the bad lover who is concerned only with self-gratification (slaking its thirst), while the brown horse gazes faithfully and unselfishly at its mistress.
The physiognomy of the woman correspond with Memling's anonymous female type, which is to be found in both saints and angels. This fact alone indicates the purely emblematic character of the representation. What is more, if this figure had had a male portrait as a companion piece it could not have appeared in a left wing. The young woman is dressed in the manner of the Burgundian Court in the 1470s with a high hennin or `steeple' headdress and long train, which might place the allegory even more clearly in the realm of chivalry and courtly love.