by MEMLING, Hans (b. ca. 1440,
Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges
Oil on oak panel, 52 x 41,5 cm (each)
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges
The left panel shows the Virgin and Child, while the right is the portrait of the donor Maarten van Nieuwenhove, a nobleman in Bruges. This work dates from the same year as the Benedetto Portinari triptych and is closely related to it in terms of style and typology. With the exception of the example in Chicago, it is the only portrait diptych to survive intact.
In the Virgin of the left wing, the features of the Virgin in van der Weyden's Columba Altarpiece can be seen, with her slightly tilted head and soft facial features almost frozen in gentle humility. In Memling's picture the Virgin and Child seem more animated, their gestures more natural. Christ, depicted in a pose similar to the same figure in van der Weyden's work, reaches eagerly for the apple held by his mother. This gesture expresses the acceptance of his later Passion, which was necessary to redeem humanity from original sin (symbolized by the apple).
This panel shows Memling's mastery of a rich vocabulary of allusions in the Flemish tradition of a van Eyck. As in the Arnolfini Marriage, a convex mirror hangs on the wall behind the Virgin and captures the entire scene. We can see the nobleman at prayer and the Virgin at his side. His holy vision has become a reality through the painter's art, which, in a metaphorical sense, is a witness to the event. The form of the diptych separates the levels of meaning: the sacred images of the Virgin and Child are on one side and a secular portrait of the donor on the other. However, these levels of meaning are embedded in a unified and domestic space which envelops both panels - a real room in the house of a prosperous nobleman. The divine sphere has been shown to enter the sphere of this Bruges nobleman's everyday world.
The original frame states the name and age of the donor, together with the date. He is Maarten van Nieuwenhove, portrayed in 1487 when he was 23. He was born on 11 November 1463 to a prominent Bruges family, several members of which held important civic posts (burgomaster, councilor, municipal treasurer) or worked for Maximilian of Austria. Links with the latter were to cost Maarten's brother Jan his head in 1488. Maarten was a councilor in 1492 and 1494, captain of the civic guard in 1495 and 1498 and burgomaster in 1497. He died on 16 August 1500, as recorded by his tombstone in the family chapel in the Church of Our Lady. He was evidently still unmarried at the time the painting was commissioned. His future bride, Margareta Haultain, was to outlive him by twenty years. His coat-of-arms and motto IL YA CAVSE are incorporated in the stained-glass window behind the Virgin. The window also features four medallions containing a vivid emblem that illustrates his family name: a hand sowing seeds over a garden of flowers (Nieuwenhove = new garden). Maarten's patron saint, St Martin, is represented behind him, again in the form of a stained-glass window. The medallions showing St George and St Christopher to the Virgin's right might be personally chosen protectors. The view through the window to the rear of the portrait appears to show the Minnewater bridge in Bruges.
Although the painting is not signed, Memling's authorship has never been doubted.