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

Diptych of Maarten Nieuwenhove (detail)

1487
Oil on oak panel
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges

The spatial conception of the work is one of the most carefully devised that Memling ever realised in the portrait genre. What we see as we look through the frame from the real world is supplemented by the reflection in the convex mirror behind the figure of the Virgin, which reveals the precise appearance of the space encompassed by the painting. It also tells us how the artist positioned his subjects in relation to one another, and where his own vantage point was located. The frames seem to have been conceived as the two front windows of a small rectangular room that is enclosed by two more windows at the back and to the right, and a blind wall on the left. The latter is visible in the mirror, as are the beams of the timber ceiling.

Each figure is seated before a window, and leans forward onto a continuous window-sill or parapet covered with an Oriental carpet. On one side of this rests the cushion on which the Christ Child sits, on the other, the man's prayer-book. The reflection in the mirror shows him to be facing directly towards the Virgin, who sits squarely before the window. The three-quarter position in the right wing is thus the view of the man that the artist (and also the viewer) would have if he were to stand directly in front of the Virgin and turn his head to the right. The viewer is positioned as close to Mary as the portrayed man, but looks her straight in the face, while he sees her in profile. We can also see in the mirror that the man is kneeling and wearing a long cloak, and that the Virgin is sitting on a (stone ?) bench, with two little openwork arches. To her right is a chair on which another open. book rests on a blue cushion. Unlike its function in Van Eyck's work, the mirror here is not merely a symbol of Mary's purity; it also has an explanatory spatial purpose.




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