Altarpiece by Hans Memling
These three paintings offer a glimpse of heaven. Christ, surrounded by a group of angels, is shown against a golden background with dark clouds. Memling painted the words Agyos o Theos (‘O Holy God’) on Jesus’ collar. The three gems on his cloak pin refer to the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. With his crown and crystal orb, he is the ruler of the Christian realm in heaven and on earth.
Memling’s singing angels
The angels sing and play their music with gusto. The scene offers a wonderful survey of 15th-century musical instruments. In the left panel you can see, from left to right, a psaltery, a tromba marina, a lute, a trumpet and a shawm. While in the right panel, from left to right, there is a straight trumpet, a looped trumpet, a portative organ, a harp and a fiddle.
These three paintings once formed part of a huge altarpiece – most likely its upper tier. The central theme was displayed below them: a life-sized Assumption of the Virgin, flanked by images of four saints and two apostles. The altarpiece as a whole was monumental and Memling will almost certainly have needed the help of his assistants. Sadly, the other parts have not survived.
Nájera Altarpiece from Bruges
The altarpiece was intended for the Benedictine monastery of Santa María la Real in the northern Spanish city of Nájera. It was commissioned in 1483 by the abbot of Nájera, Gonzalo de Cabredo. The polyptych was not installed above the high altar, however, until 11 years later. Why did it take so long? Was its execution interrupted? Or did Memling really need 11 years to finish it? This seems unlikely, as the layers of paint were applied swiftly, efficiently and economically. But the production of such a gigantic work will undoubtedly have taken a lot of time. And Spain wasn’t exactly next door either. Communication with Bruges, the city in which Memling worked, must have been an obstacle.
Memling was a German-born painter who spent most of his career in Bruges. Because of that, his style and technique dovetail seamlessly with 15th-century Southern Netherlandish painting and he is rightly considered one of the greatest of the Flemish Primitives. An exceptionally large number of his panels have survived, including the KMSKA’s Christ with Singing and Music-making Angels.
Sixteen years in restoration
Memling painted Christ with Singing and Music-making Angels towards the end of his career. The late work was part of one of the most important commissions the painter ever received. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp purchased the panels in 1895. An extensive restoration campaign began in 2001. It took a total of 16 years, due partly to the huge surface area of the work and the complex nature of the treatment.