(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
St Ursula Shrine1489
Gilded and painted wood, 87 x 33 x 91 cm
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges
The carved and gilded shrine in the form of a small church containing the relics of St Ursula is decorated with paintings on all four sides. The two lateral sides each feature three scenes from the life of St Ursula, while the two narrower ends show the saints and the 11,000 virgins, the Virgin and Child and the donors. The decoration of the shrine occupies a central position in Hans Memling's wide-ranging oeuvre and demonstrates both his outstanding qualities and his limitations as an artist. His energies are devoted above all to the portrayal of single figures in graceful poses, to the realistic observation of detail, and to an exquisite palette which is often reminiscent of miniature painting. Although Memling is a narrator, dramatic climax is foreign to his temperament even in a scene of martyrdom. He lacks depth of expression and the ability to convincingly "stage-manage" crowd scenes. Instead, he provides a wealth of inexhaustibly varied details which together "add up" into the overall composition. A comparison with Carpaccio's more or less contemporaneous treatment of the St Ursula legend is particularly illuminating.
Memling was clearly familiar with Cologne at first hand, as demonstrated by his accurate portrayal of the city skyline in the background, showing the unfinished cathedral, the distinctive tower of Great St Martin's church and, on the left, the church of St Cunibert.
Dirk De Vos, the leading modern expert on Memling, has related how thoroughly the artist researched this work, visiting the places that he was to paint in order to get the buildings exactly right. The Rhine itself acts as a unifying thread running through the different episodes in the cycle. "On one side of the reliquary", writes De Vos, "the ships are coming from the north, and cast anchor on the left bank, so that the town is on their right. On the other side, the ships are sailing towards the north, running along the right bank as they advance downstream, and thus the city is to their left. Everything is so finely observed, that one can reconstruct the angle from which the artist viewed the city with great precision, proof that Memling really did make drawings from the viewpoints he had chosen for his pictures of the ships at rest on both legs of their journey."' Rarely has an artist gone further in the pursuit of pictorial truth, a feat that is all the more astonishing given the very small size of the pictures.