On the side of the Angels, Part 8: Memling

Another in a series of observations of early medieval paintings in the National Gallery London, an endless source of inspiration and amusement. Intended to show how I find stories in a painting, not my opinion of the subject matter nor its creator. Nothing replaces seeing the real thing!

Virgins and Children, with Donors and Angels

(Readers of this blog may know I have a bit of a thing for Memling.)

The ‘dead’ dragon curled like a whippet at the feet of St George is about to take a nip out of the back of the Donor’s knee. George has had to whip the Donor’s hat off at the last minute.  You can imagine the conversation in the studio

But Herr Memling, it is my best hat it cost me a month’s income.

Indeed Sir, but would you truly wear it when you bend your knee to the King of Heaven?

Compromise, in the hands of the artist, and in this case, St George.

The child beats time to the angel’s lute, and crumples  a leaf of his mother’s book; the old man leaves the garden.

She wears the same dress, sits in the same seat, is backed by the same material, holds the same child – but each virgin is her own self captured in that moment in time, not slavishly copied from the last.

The finished edge of the cloth that makes the cover of the cushion the child sits upon – a Flemish weaver’s eye for cloth, from a German.

The Donne Triptych

St John looks as though he expects the lamb to do tricks and it has disappointed him.

Come on Larry, he says, count to five for the baby!

The child waves delightedly at Mr Donne. One angel smirks as it plays the organ, the other offers the child an apple. St Catherine looks severe, impatient with  Mr Donne who seems unaware the child is there.

Look, she says, these tickets cost me a martyrdom, you could at least engage.

Barbara hikes her tower up to perform a momentary illusion in the surrounding landscape and places a solicitous hand on Mrs Donne’s shoulder.

Never mind, she says, he’s a fool, but I’ll look out for you and the girl.

The evangelist isn’t sure his magic trick with the snake in the cup is going to come off.  In the distance a waterwheel turns, and a cow grazes.

© Cherry Potts 2013

The Memling Triptych, Sint Jans Hospitaal, Brugge.

I wrote this in 2007 as part of an essay on silence for my coaching course. I am now completely hooked on Memling and have written a story based on his pictures; Portrait of The Artist’s Model as a Young Woman.


Central Panel Memling Triptych

Central Panel Memling Triptych

We’ve been walking around the museum for over 2 hours and now, this is the masterpiece: this is IT.

The virgin sits with the child on her knee, and St. Catherine, with her sword and wheel tucked part beneath her skirt, kneels beside her.  The child places a ring on Catherine’s finger, not yet past the second knuckle, and there is a look passing between them.  The child, serious, loving, concerned, thoughtful; Catherine, wondering what does this mean? And holding her breath with foreknowledge that it is not going to end well.

The same woman has been the model for virgin and Catherine, and St Barbara (who has her head resolutely in her book, like me waiting for a plane- if I do not think about this, it will not happen) and Salome, flinching away from the gift of the Baptist’s head.

Salome flinching from the gift...

But it is the look on Catherine’s face that keeps me gazing, walking backwards to the clear plastic chair because I can’t stand longer, and gaze some more.

So if it is possible to listen to a picture, that is what I am doing, and it is as though I can hear the thoughts of Herr Memling, thinking about the spaces and colours and the directness of one gaze and the furtiveness of another, there is so much going on:

on one side the four horseman of the apocalypse prancing about in a puddly landscape of drying sea that reflects the rainbow of heaven; on the other, the sassy bum of the executioner, who fancies his chances with Salome, who has shown herself to be less than chaste with that dance.

execution of John the Baptist

The sassy bum of the executioner...

In the centre Catherine, her heart in disarray, one cuff down and one up, wilting slightly at the enormity of it all, the pulse in her throat almost visible.

Glorious… The museum is closing.…

Next day we come back as soon as the museum opens, and sit and gaze some more.  The museum guard keeps a watchful eye on us, wondering if we are planning a heist. We sit for two hours almost speechless, pointing out details to each other with upraised hand and incoherent sub-vocal murmur, feeling as the medieval viewer of this picture must have felt, awed and silenced.

This is the silence of wonder, mine at Memling’s art, his at his creator, Catherine’s at fate.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2007-10