Mitzi Kirkland-Ives’s book focuses on three works by Hans Memling: Scenes from the Passion of Christ in Turin, the so-called Seven Joys of Mary in Munich and the Greverade Altarpiece in Lübeck – all works distinguished by elaborate continuous narrative centered on the life of Christ. The author’s main argument is that viewers of these paintings would have read them in the light of devotional practices (primarily pilgrimage and procession) that involved the experience of movement accompanied by imaginative engagement with a sequence of events in Christ’s life. As a result, in the late medieval period, these pictorial narratives would have functioned, like pilgrimages and processions, as a means of allowing the devout to imagine themselves following in the footsteps of Christ, and, in this way, to transform their souls into conformity with Christ. The linkage of these paintings with pilgrimages (both actual and spiritual) and processions is not new, as Kirkland-Ives herself recognizes. However, she does consider these devotional contexts in a more sustained fashion than previous studies of Memling’s paintings do.
Chapter 1 is the only chapter to center on the paintings themselves. Here Kirkland-Ives considers how movement itself becomes a subject in each work and thereby engages the viewer in an imagined journey. The analysis provides valuable insights into how Memling used figural and compositional means to lead the viewer’s eye from one scene to the next. In addition, Kirkland-Ives brings out ways in which Memling creates narrative foreshadowing and establishes non-chronological as well as chronological relations between various scenes. One issue that could have been explored in fuller detaiI is the difference between how continuous narrative works within the triptych format of the Greverade Altarpiece and within the single-panel formats in Munich and Turin. It also would have been helpful to provide larger-scale illustrations, since in some cases the book’s plates and figures are too small to allow a reader to follow all of the author’s points.
Chapter 2 focuses on pilgrimages, particularly the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Using a number of primary texts, and including very useful translations of the Dutch, Kirkland-Ives provides a thorough discussion of how the Jerusalem pilgrimages were organized and enacted. While there is little discussion of the Memling paintings in this chapter, Kirkland-Ives’s claim is that pilgrimages served a function similar to that of the images in Memling’s continuous-narration works. But perhaps more distinctions could be drawn between a direct experience of the places where Christ’s Passion was enacted and the mediated experience provided by viewing representations of these places.
In Chapter 3 Kirkland-Ives examines a variety of Netherlandish processional practices, including the Bruges Holy Blood procession, Palm Sunday processions, Easter week ceremonies, Corpus Christi processions and Blijde inkomsten (ritual entries of monarchs into cities). These activities, like Memling’s paintings, generally involved both processional movement and dramatic enactments of Christ’s life – although the Blijde inkomsten also had political significances that may make them less relevant to an understanding of Memling’s paintings than the other specifically religiously-oriented processions. Kirkland-Ives notes that in Memling’s paintings, as in these sorts of processions, the motion between events is as important as the events themselves, making these paintings not merely sequential narratives, but a special form of truly continuous narration.
The book’s final chapter examines the processional experience in a number of other artistic and literary forms. These include the Jerusalem Chapel in Bruges, the Stations of the Cross, the virtual pilgrimage, and devotions to the wounds of Christ. Kirkland-Ives then moves into a consideration of serial imagery in book illustrations and prints, including Dürer’s Large Passion series. Here she demonstrates how Dürer’s prints do not just incorporate one moment of time, but rather include hints of future narrative, creating similar kinds of narrative cross-references to those seen in Memling’s works. But although Kirkland-Ives argues that the process of turning pages in an illustrated book involves a somatic act akin to a procession, there seems to be a significant difference between Memling’s presentation of continuous narrative that moves across a single panoramic landscape setting and the experience of viewing individual narrative scenes on separate printed pages.
Overall, I think, the book provides a great deal of information that would be useful for an understanding of how late fifteenth-century viewers experienced these three Memling paintings. However, the book’s focus on the concept of procession ends up being somewhat constraining. For while the accumulation of data on various processional activities in the Netherlands is of interest, it does not provide a deepening of our understanding of Memling’s paintings as the book progresses, but rather results more in a reiteration of the book’s initial arguments. Kirkland-Ives’s points could have been developed and strengthened by consideration of a broader range of relevant issues, including the question of sources (which could help establish how novel Memling’s approach here is); the role of the donor (which, given that one donor was German and one Italian, might point to influences from non-Netherlandish traditions); and the place of Memling’s three paintings within the wider development of narrative and world landscapes in later fifteenth-century Netherlandish art (which could address how much the pilgrimage/procession mindset influenced art more generally). However, Kirkland-Ives’s book has established a strong foundation for scholars who wish to pursue these issues.
University of Arkansas