Hans Memling is one of the most famous artists of the late fifteenth-century. His reputation among scholars, however, has been mixed. Max Friedländer criticized the painter for lacking passion of vision. Panofsky famously called Memling “a major-minor master,” noting that he “occasionally enchants, never offends, and never overwhelms.” In her recent book, Barbara Lane offers a more a positive interpretation. To her understanding, the quiet serenity and repetition of artistic motifs are not symptomatic of a lackluster imagination. On the contrary, they are visual marks of a shrewd businessman, carefully responding to the social and religious desires of his patrons.
Lane divides her book into four parts. In Part I, she addresses Memling’s early training. Much of this section questions the assumption that Rogier van der Weyden was Memling’s mentor. She argues that there is no proof of such an apprenticeship. Sixteenth-century sources, such as those penned by Vasari and Guicciardini, are too ambiguous to support the claim. The young Memling may have seen the Columba altarpiece in Cologne, which may explain close ties between this painting and Memling’s Prado Adoration and Jan Floreins Triptych. In addition, Lane claims that even though Memling’s Last Judgment in Gdansk reassembles Rogier’s Last Judgment inBeaune, Memling likely knew Rogier’s altarpiece from drawn copies alone. While acknowledging technical similarities in the underdrawings found in the works of both artists, Lane suggests nevertheless that Memling may have learned this practice from members of Rogier’s workshop rather than from the master himself.
Lane believes that Memling likely received his early training in Cologne. Although she is quick to state that he did not serve an apprenticeship under the supervision of Stephan Lochner, Lane notes echoes of Lochner’s work in numerous Memling paintings. In her assessment, Memling not only borrowed particular motifs from Lochner, he also appropriated the serene tone of Lochner’s work to evoke religious contemplation. Nonetheless, the young Memling, in her view, probably worked under the direction of another artist in the Rhineland and may have discovered Lochner’s imagery, shortly after completion of his apprenticeship.
According to Lane, Memling likely traveled to Brussels as a journeyman in hopes of working with Rogier. On the road to Brussels, he may have taken a detour to Leuven, where he would have encountered the work of Dieric Bouts. This part of Lane’s discussion of Memling’s itinerary is curious. Her remarks suggest that Memling learned his Rogier through a close tie to Bouts. Memling’s use of the arch motif, for instance, is said to have derived from seeing panels by Bouts and his workshop. Yet this link is puzzling, considering how cautious she remains about connecting Memling directly to Rogier.
Memling’s artistic sojourn surely ends in Bruges, where he purchased citizenship in 1465. Lane suggests that Memling may not have acquired sufficient wealth at this point to open his own shop, so that he might have worked as a journeyman in the workshop of Petrus Christus prior to establishing a shop of his own. She bases this view on Memling’s use of inscriptions on frames and on his full-length presentations of the Virgin and Child with attendants. Although Lane rightly notes the impact of Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus on Memling’s oeuvre, she clearly underestimates the variety of ways in which Memling could have imitated aspects of their works.
In Part II, Lane discusses Memling as a master painter in Bruges. Most of this section concentrates on assistants in Memling’s workshop and on the expectations and demography of his patrons. Based on stylistic evidence, Lane proposes that Martin Schongauer, Michael Sittow, the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, and Albrecht Dürer may all have spent time in Memling’s workshop as journeymen. While all four of these artists may have traveled to the Low Countries (in Dürer’s case, this has long been speculated, albeit mainly based on the assumption that if his father went, the son must have done so as well), the notion that they demonstrably worked for Memling while there seems quite a stretch.
As Lane states, Memling primarily worked on commission. His patrons included nearly as many Italians as Flemings. According to Lane, they sought images promoting their social prestige and revealing their deep religious devotion. Originality was not a primary concern. An astute businessman, Memling regularly satisfied their expectations.
In Part III, Lane examines Memling’s major commissions. She divides them into three categories: funerary altarpieces, Simultanbilder(images aiding spiritual pilgrimage), and hospital altarpieces. Lane shows how these panels advocated the art of dying well, encouraged imaginative journeys to sacred places, and promoted the care of Christian bodies and souls. Her discussion of the uses of these paintings fosters a deeper understanding of their religious motivations, in keeping with Lane’s useful primer, The Altar and the Altarpiece (1984).
Part IV addresses Memling’s relationship with Italy. After all, Italian patrons living in Bruges not only commissioned his paintings, they also shipped them home to Italy. As Lane rightly argues, late Quattrocento painters, such as Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli, imitated Memling’s half-length portraits as well as his landscape motifs.
The book closes with an epilogue. Starting with Dirk de Vos’s Memling exhibition catalogue (1994), Lane slightly redefines the artist’s oeuvre. She accepts seventy-five of de Vos’s attributions, disputes fourteen others, and rejects four of them. Her assessment seems reasonable, though she may be too tough on the Nelson-Atkins Madonna and the Child Enthroned, which she deems problematic. This, however, is a minor matter.
In sum, Lane offers a fine introduction to the life and work of Hans Memling. Her discussion of his patronage, the function of his panels, and the painter’s relationship to Italy are well presented. Although Lane may overreach Memling’s relationship to Bouts and his connection to prospective famous journeymen, she rightfully challenges the notion that Memling is a second-rate artist lucky enough to have stood in Rogier’s shoes.