The Medieval Review 17.07.13


Marciari, John, ed. Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece . New York: Paul Holberton, 2016. pp. 112. ISBN: 978-1911300083 (paperback).



Reviewed by:


Penny Howell Jolly
pjolly@skidmore.edu

This handsome and generously illustrated catalogue accompanied the exhibition of the same name, held at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York, from September 2, 2016 through January 8, 2017. It celebrates the temporary reunification of the long dismantled parts of the Crabbe Triptych, painted by the highly successful Flemish painter, Hans Memling, today located in three museums: the exterior wings with a demi-grisaille Annunciation, sawn apart from the interior wing paintings probably ca. 1800, and now in the Groeningenmuseum, Bruges; the interior center Crucifixion panel, today in the Museo Civico, Vicenza; and the interior wings, with Anna Willemzoon with St. Anne and Willem de Winter and St. William of Maleval, housed at the Morgan Library and Museum. Commissioned by Jan Crabbe, Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Ten Duinen, thirty miles west of Bruges, it includes his portrait kneeling at the Crucifixion alongside his two patronal saints, John the Baptist and Bernard of Clairvaux. Following an introductory preface by Till-Holger Borchert and Renaat Landuyt, six catalogue essays by European and American scholars contextualize and analyze the triptych in detail, from its origins through its 1907 purchase by John Pierpont Morgan for his newly completed library, and summarize contemporary scholarship; a bibliography completes the catalogue.

John Marciari's essay, "Memling at the Morgan: The Crabbe Triptych in Context," opens the catalogue with a discussion of J. P. Morgan as collector and his collaboration with London art dealer Joseph Duveen that led to his successful purchase of Memling's triptych's two interior wings, along with a number of other significant Early Netherlandish and Italian paintings from the collection of Rodolphe Kann. Marciari's larger consideration of the triptych's origins and provenance leads him to conclude its dismembering likely occurred in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century when such a highly profitable practice was common. His analysis of the variation in quality of the triptych's three parts follows: particularly the exterior Annunciation and parts of the Crucifixion show signs of workshop intervention and are in poorer condition, while the Morgan's interior wings exemplify Memling's finest early style of ca. 1467-1470. He finds particularly noteworthy Memling's remarkable abilities as a portraitist, as seen in the Morgan's wings and in comparative portraits by Memling included in the exhibition: the Frick Collection's Portrait of a Man of ca. 1470, another from a private New York collection of ca. 1470-1475, and the Morgan's own Man with a Pink from ca. 1480. Marciari's consideration of the role of grisaille and Memling's relationship to contemporary Bruges manuscript illumination and painting round out this general introduction to the triptych.

Till-Holger Borchert's "Hans Memling (ca. 1440-1494): An Introductory Sketch," offers exactly that: an overview of the evidence regarding what is known or surmised of Memling's life, style, and artistic training. German by birth and probably trained in Cologne, Memling likely arrived in Brussels ca. 1459 or 1460, as Borchert maintains, and worked as a journeyman, not an apprentice, in the prestigious shop of Rogier van der Weyden; examination of underdrawings--such as in the Crabbe Triptych--confirm Memling's close stylistic links to Rogier and his knowledge of Rogier's figure types. Borchert emphasizes Memling's successful career after moving to Bruges prior to January 30, 1465. Important commissions from private patrons quickly followed and demonstrate his particular appeal to foreigners, including the Italian Angelo Tani and the Burgundian Ferry de Clugny; even Jan Crabbe was not a local, as Borchert notes, for he originated in what is now the southwestern Netherlands. Borchert observes it was not until 1474 that Memling received his first major commission from a Bruges religious institution, the Sint-Jan Hospitaal, and proposes this may have been due to interventions from Ferry de Clugny, who consecrated the chapel in 1477; unlike painters Petrus Christus and Gerard David, he never received commissions from the city of Bruges.

Noël Geirnaert's "Johannes Crabbe, Abbot of Ten Duinen, 1457-88" offers a detailed account of the family background and career of Abbot Jan Crabbe and the abbey's history, including its conflicts with the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy regarding the election of Crabbe as the new abbot in 1457 rather than Duchess Isabella of Portugal's nephew. Geirnaert describes Crabbe as an active patron of the arts and learned humanist, interested especially in the developments of quattrocento Italian culture, who commissioned not only the triptych from Memling, but various manuscripts, tapestries, metalwork, and stained glass, mostly lost today.

Maryan W. Ainsworth's technical examination of the triptych, outlined in her "The Evolution of Jan Crabbe's Triptych," confirms its early date of ca. 1467-1470, even though Jan Crabbe likely commissioned it for his Bruges residence's chapel, completed in 1478. Further, she believes it "came together in a series of stages that possibly stretched over a few years" (73). Her examination also reveals the damaged condition of the panels, especially the Crucifixion, and her analysis of that panel's underdrawings document significant changes, for example in the position of St. Bernard's head and his originally black robe overpainted white, and the shifting of John the Baptist's lamb from his left arm to his right. Examination of the Annunciation's underdrawing reveals the "confident hand of Memling himself" (76), though the final execution suggests a workshop assistant's participation. Infrared reflectography of the Morgan's interior wings, of high quality by the master himself, oddly reveal no underdrawing, but Ainsworth speculates it was lost when the panels were split and planed down, or, as Gianluca Poldi has suggested, possibly the materials used remain undetectable by IRR technology. Pentimenti are present, however; for example, originally the wing with St. Anne and the donor's mother included Mary and Christ, forming an Anna Selbdritt image; Ainsworth suggests this may have overcrowded the wing compositionally.

Gianluca Poldi and Giovanni C. F Villa's essay, "A New Technical Study of the Vicenza Crucifixion," details changes made by the artist in the Crucifixion, as revealed in new infrared reflectography imagery, and lists a summary of those alterations as found in the figures of Bernard and John the Baptist, as well as other less major interventions. They speculate these result from either Memling's desire for "a more compact composition or [were] to satisfy his patron's specific requests" (86). They further note the presence of silver, possibly indicating the use of silverpoint drawing under some figures, and identify various of the paints used.

Ilona van Tuinen, in "Drawings from the Time of Memling and his Followers," offers an overview of the uses for and increasing importance of drawings for fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists and their workshops. While no drawings exist attributable to Memling himself, van Tuinen discusses the eight drawings included in the exhibition from the Morgan's own collections and the one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; all relate to early Netherlandish artists, including Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Vrancke van der Stockt, Hugo van der Goes, and Gerard David.

While the catalogue largely ignores questions of meaning--for example, nothing is said of the unusual inclusion on the triptych's interior wings of the adult donor's mother and brother, nor of the break from normal gender conventions that here positions Anna on the more prestigious dexter side while her son kneels on the lesser sinister side--overall this catalogue offers a well-rounded and detailed analysis of the Jan Crabbe Triptych, including its original context and function, what is known of its provenance, and how it played a role in early twentieth-century collecting.



Copyright (c) 2017 Penny Howell Jolly



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