Rogier van der Weyden (a.k.a. Roger de la Pasture) (c1399-1464) was born in Tornai in the Burgundian Netherlands and served an apprenticeship there between 1427 and 1432 with the great early Northern Renaissance painter Robert Campin (a.k.a. Master of Flémalle) (c1378-1444). In c1435 he moved to Brussels, where his wife came from, and established a large and successful workshop.
Hans Memling (a.k.a Jan van Mimnelinghe) (1430-1494) was born near Frankfurt, in what is now Germany. He moved to Brussels as a trained journeyman painter and worked in the workshop of van der Weyden between c1455 and c1460 (mentioned by Vasari). It is thought that the triptych God of Pity, mentioned in the 1524 inventory of Margaret of Austria, has a central painting by van der Weyden and that the wings were painted by Memling. By 1465 Memling was in Bruges, then the Manhattan of Europe.
Whilst Northern Renaissance art has many common features each individual artist developed their own style. Pictures that have survived are mainly in oil paint on aged Baltic oak wood. Though much art of the time was painted in animal glue size on linen, this wasn’t very durable and has largely not survived. Pictures were all incredibly detailed, possibly because of the introduction and use of eye glasses by artists. The paint surface was very highly finished, without visible brush strokes.
Huge effort went into the portrayal of light on textures, into the material quality of objects, especially the fabrics that made the Burgundian Netherlands so economically rich. This was very important because a picture viewer could identify the status and often identity of a subject by what they were wearing. An explosion in trade brought in pigments from the known world which were used by artists to create dazzling colours and luminosity, such as the lapis lazuli from Afghanistan used to make ultramarine blue. People were often portrayed in front three quarters view and landscape backgrounds were common. Most pictures were religious, intended as a visual aid to devotion whilst putting humanity into sacred history. We can see all of these elements in both of pictures we are looking at.
Van der Weyden’s St Luke Madonna (c1435-40, 137.5 X 111 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is a picture which owed a lot to Jan van Eyck’s Madonna and Chancellor Nicolas Rolin, not just the composition, but in the colours and the use of strong chiaroscuro. Van der Weyden here has, typically for him, moved the picture plane forwards to impose the image on the viewer and he has used his typical huge range of colours with fine tonal variation. His figures are statuesque and you can see humanity and real depth of emotion in their portrayal. His theatrical artifice means that if the Virgin and St Luke were to stand up they would bang their heads on the ceiling.
It is thought that the image of St Luke is effectively a self portrait of van der Weyden. A widely viewed painting like this would have had the effect of elevating the status of the artist. Making them seen as fit for the company of holy divinity.
The picture is a tour de force of artistic virtuoso at displaying a large range of textures; the human hair and skin, St Luke’s ox and book, the carved wooden throne, the tiled floor, the folded velvet and fur cuffs and collar of St Luke’s robe, the gold brocade of the Virgin’s cloth of honour, sleeves and hems, the embroidery and fur lining of her dress, the circular stained glass window and the stone wall.
When Memling moved to Bruges he was influenced by the art of previous generations there, Van Eyck and Petrus Christus, so over time his own style gradually changed away from the earlier strong influence of van der Weyden. The Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove (1487, 33.5 by 44.7 cm (each panel), Old St John’s Hospital, Bruges) shows this. Like the St Luke picture this has a Madonna and child in a room with a view out to a landscape, but where van der Weyden included the patron saint of artists making a drawing using silverpoint the Memling diptych portrays a rich and powerful patron kneeling at prayer with a religious text in front of him in a second picture.
Whilst the diptych is divided into a sacred panel containing the Virgin and a temporal panel containing the patron Memling has used a number of devices to blur the distinction. On the sacred side is a convex mirror and in it is a reflected image of the room containing both the Virgin and patron. Above the mirror is a stained glass window which puts the van Nieuwenhove coat of arms on the sacred side. And the Anatolian carpet (or perhaps tapestry, but Memling Carpets were named after the artist’s use of a certain pattern) and red cloth on the table in front of the Virgin extend to the table in front of the patron on the other panel.
The coat of arms is typical of the heraldic imagery that Memling developed to use. The stained glass behind van Nieuwenhove’s head depicts St Martin of Tours, his name saint, the second stained glass window behind the Virgin’s depicts Saint George and St Christopher and surrounding the coat of arms on the first window are the family emblem and motto. All this made the picture far more personal to the donor and perhaps reflects the fact that Memling painted mainly for private clients, whereas van der Weyden painted mainly for public clients and the royal court.
Memling, like van der Weyden, tries to impose the image into the viewers space so he flattens the perspective, bringing the figures forwards, also the red cloth spills out on to the frame (a trompe-l’œil effect) which puts it outside the fictive image and into the real world. Also, typical of Memling, the subject’s faces are over size on their heads.
One very important difference between the two pictures is that the space portrayed by van der Weyden, in which he places his figures, is pure fiction, totally made up by the artist. Whereas Memling probably set his diptych in van Nieuwenhove’s home, or an idealised version of it, so as to make the imagery more effective for its intended devotional purpose.
The diptych has a similar range and quality of textures to the St Luke painting. Both figures have highly detailed and realistic hair, the donor wears a fur gilet, there are jewels, fabrics, stained glass, stone, wood, skin and a mirror. All painstakingly and realistically rendered.
On the frame is written that it was painted in 1487, this is 23 years after the death of van der Weyden, so we can see considerable development in Memling’s style and technique. He used paint sparingly compared to other Northern Renaissance artists with fewer paint layers, his figures are softer, stiller and less statuesque than van der Weyden’s and they don’t portray anywhere near the same depth of emotion. In fact his faces can appear emotionless, idealised and of indeterminate age. Memling appears to seek a middle ground between the highly emotional theatricals of van der Weyden and the calm emotionless reality of van Eyck. This middle road applies to Memling’s treatment of how the figures relate to the rest of the picture. Van der Weyden has them emphasised, standing out with an unreal presence whilst van Eyck embeds them far more naturally in his quest for realism. It could be said that Memling’s work was derivative of these earlier influences.
Both pictures depict the Virgin Mary with very good reason. In Europe this time a very strong Marian cult, as she was supposed to intercede with God on behalf of mankind. This belief means that her image in art which is meant as a devotional aid has a very powerful impact.
One very sharp difference between our two images is their intended audience, the van Nieuwenhove diptych was intended as an aid and encouragement for his private devotion, which was then a very important element of northern Catholic dogma. The St Luke picture was commissioned by the Brussels painters guild (probably) for their chapel in the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula. A very public use. It proved so popular that van der Weyden’s workshop made at least three more copies of it. (Now in St Petersburg, Bruges and Munich). It was then widely imitated by other artists. This difference in use may explain why the St Luke figures are portrayed full length whereas the Memling picture has them only from the waist up.
So whilst we see very much in common between the two pictures, because they are products of their time and reflect established practice, there are sharp difference between them. Some of these differences derive from their subject and intended use, but other differences are stylistic, reflecting the intentions and techniques of the artist.