The picture’s harmonious composition was adapted from a large, celebrated altarpiece Hans Memling completed in 1479 for the Sint-Janshospitaal in Bruges. This smaller, more modest version was commissioned by an anonymous donor who kneels at the left. He is shown reciting his rosary as he contemplates Saint Catherine’s mystic marriage to the infant Christ. Saint Barbara, whose attribute—the tower—is behind her, sets a meditative example by reading.
The grape arbor above the Virgin’s throne and canopy was most likely added shortly after Memling’s lifetime, in the early sixteenth century, when the cult of the Eucharist became increasingly popular.
This composition is based on the centerpiece of one of Hans Memling’s most celebrated monumental triptychs devoted to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist that was made for the high altar of the chapel in Sint-Janshospital in Bruges, where it was dedicated in 1479. This smaller, more modest version, commissioned by the anonymous donor who kneels at the left reciting his rosary, eliminates the two Saints John and takes place in a pastoral landscape instead of the splendid columned interior of the prototype. Representing a familiar and popular theme of the time, the Virgin Mary and Christ Child take center stage between the two favored female saints of Bruges, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Barbara. The former is identified by the broken wheel and sword of her martyrdom shown beneath her gown and by her mystical betrothal to Christ, who slips a ring onto her finger. Barbara sits before her attribute, the tower, where she was imprisoned by her father, who aimed to restrict her suitors and where she was secretly baptized as a Christian. Completing the group are the two angels playing a portative organ and a harp, thus evoking the divine music of the heavenly realm.
Close visual scrutiny of the grape arbor above the Virgin’s throne and canopy indicates that it was not originally part of Memling’s painting. The grape leaves are painted with a different green and with less meticulously blended brushstrokes than is typical of Memling’s technique elsewhere in the painting. Most likely, the grape arbor was added in the beginning of the sixteenth century when the cult of the Eucharist became increasingly popular. Clusters of grapes and grape arbors begin to appear frequently in devotional works around this time. An exact copy of the Metropolitan painting in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, dates from the sixteenth century and thus supports the notion that the grape arbor was added to Memling’s painting not long after its completion. This intentional alteration to the painting must have been made at the request of an owner in order to satisfy particular devotional requirements.
The painting dates from the early 1480s, that is, after the Sint-Janshospital triptych was dedicated in 1479. It comes from the artist’s mature phase when he had developed the idealized female types with demure, sweet countenances that were so admired by his clientele. A new sense of symmetry and balance in the composition has been established and the painting presents a world in perfect harmony. The spontaneous and free character of the black chalk sketch of the underdrawing (see Additional Images) belies the smooth, pristine surface of Memling’s painting. Although the Sint-Janshospital altarpiece was the model for the Met’s smaller version, there is no hint of a mechanical transfer from any predetermined model for the latter. Memling must have relied on workshop drawings of the figures and drapery studies that he copied by eye and then freely modified in the underdrawing and painted layers to reach the desired final design.
[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2011]
?Dr. John Taylor, Ashbourne, Derbyshire (b. 1711–d. 1788); ?Sir Joshua Reynolds, London (b. 1723–d. 1792; "given to Mrs. Davenport"); Mrs. Davenport, 2 Church Row, Hampstead, London (1884); her descendant, Mr. Davenport (sold to Bodley); G. F. Bodley, London (until 1900; sold to Colnaghi); [Colnaghi, Paris, 1900–1901; sold to Goldschmidt]; Léopold Goldschmidt, Paris (1901–d. 1904); his daughter, Giberte de Sartiges, Comtesse de Sartiges, Château Louveciennes, Seine–et–Oise (1904–11; sold to Kleinberger); [Kleinberger, Paris and New York, 1911; sold for $200,000 to Altman]; Benjamin Altman, New York (1911–d. 1913)
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January–March 1884, no. 285 (as "School of Memling," lent by Mrs. Davenport).
London. New Gallery. "Exhibition of Pictures by Masters of the Flemish and British Schools," 1899–1900, no. 21 (as by Hans Memling, lent by G. F. Bodley, Esq., A.R.A.).
Bruges. Palais du Gouvernement. "Exposition des primitifs flamands et d'art ancien," June 15–September 15, 1902, no. 63 (as by Hans Memling, lent by M. Goldschmidt, Paris).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art Treasures of the Metropolitan," November 7, 1952–September 7, 1953, no. 99.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 11.
Max J. Friedländer. "Die Leihausstellung der New Gallery in London, Januar–März 1900." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 23 (1900), pp. 248–49, mentions this painting as a hitherto unpublished Memling, observing that the composition was already known to him from an early precise copy in the Accademia in Venice; recognizes that the composition is very close to that of the altarpiece in Bruges [the Saint John Altarpiece, dated 1479; Memlingmuseum, Sint–Janshospitaal]; thinks that both works date from the same period but finds our picture less fresh and fine than the one in Bruges.
W. H. J. Weale. Hans Memling. London, 1901, pp. 60–61, 100, ill., considers it an early work by Memling, probably slightly later than the Virgin with Saint George and a Donor in the National Gallery, London, which he places about 1475; compares it with the central panel of the Saint John altarpiece in Bruges; notes that it was "purchased on the continent by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who gave it to Mrs. Davenport" and that it was "purchased from a descendant of that lady by Mr. Bodley".
Henri Hymans. "L'exposition des primitifs flamands à Bruges (1er article)." Gazette des beaux-arts, 3rd ser., 28 (August 1902), p. 55, calls it a smaller repetition by Memling of the Bruges altarpiece, with changes that improve the composition.
Georges H. de Loo Palais du Gouvernement, Bruges. Exposition de tableaux flamands des XIVe, XVe et XVIe siècles: catalogue critique précédé d'une introduction sur l'identité de certains maîtres anonymes. Ghent, 1902, p. 16, no. 63.
W. H. James Weale. Exposition des primitifs flamands et d'art ancien, Bruges. Première section: tableaux. Catalogue. Exh. cat., Palais du Gouvernement. Bruges, 1902, pp. XXII, 28, no. 63, as by Hans Memling, but notes that all attributions given in the catalogue are those provided by the owners; dates it probably 1475–80 in the introduction, and about 1480 in the catalogue.
W. H. James Weale. "The Early Painters of the Netherlands as Illustrated by the Bruges Exhibition of 1902, Article III." Burlington Magazine 1 (April 1903), p. 335.
Max J. Friedländer. "Die Brügger Leihausstellung von 1902." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 26 (1903), p. 81, no. 63, dates it about 1480 on the basis of style.
Karl Voll. Die altniederländische Malerei von Jan van Eyck bis Memling. Leipzig, 1906, p. 225, mentions it as a pretty work, but not finely executed; notes that opinion regarding its authenticity is divided.
[Hippolyte] Fierens-Gevaert. La peinture en Belgique: Les primitifs flamands. Vol. 2, Brussels, 1909, pp. 132–33, as by Memling; dates it about 1480.
Karl Voll. Memling: Des Meisters Gemälde. Stuttgart, 1909, pp. 138, 174, ill., calls it a school work, too close to the larger and superior work in Bruges to be considered an authentic work by Memling.
Georges Hulin de Loo. Letter to Duveen. December 26, 1909, considers it an autograph work by Memling, earlier than the Bruges picture [Saint John Altarpiece, dated 1479]; notes that it was retouched by D. Hauser [in Berlin (see Ref. Friedländer, 1916)] at some point after 1900.
Max J. Friedländer. Letter to Francis Kleinberger. January 26, 1910, as without doubt by Memling.
William Bode. "More Spurious Pictures Abroad Than in America." New York Times (December 31, 1911), p. SM4.
Max J. Friedländer. "The Altman Memlings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Art in America 4, no. 4 (1916), pp. 188–89, 193–94, ill., dates it about 1480; notes that the firm of dealers [Colnaghi] who bought it from Bodley in 1900 had it cleaned in Berlin [presumably by D. Hauser, as reported in the 1909 letter from Hulin de Loo (see Refs.)], before selling it to Goldschmidt in Paris [in 1901].
Martin Conway. The Van Eycks and Their Followers. London, 1921, p. 231.
Thomas H. Benton. "Mechanics of Form, Organization in Painting." Arts 11 (March 1927), pp. 147–48, ill., analyzes its composition.
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 6, Memling und Gerard David. Berlin, 1928, p. 128, no. 65, notes that it has been slightly overcleaned.
Handbook of the Benjamin Altman Collection. 2nd ed. New York, 1928, pp. 45–47, no. 19, ill.
H[ans]. V[ollmer]. inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 24, Leipzig, 1930, p. 375.
Édouard Michel. L'École flamande du XVe siècle au Musée du Louvre. Brussels, 1944, p. 50, mentions it in relation to a Memling diptych with this subject on its left wing (Louvre, Paris, diptych of Jean Cellier) and observes that in unpublished remarks of 1924 Hulin de Loo places the Louvre panel before our example and the Bruges altarpiece.
Walter R. M. Lamb [Royal Academy of Arts]. Letter to Miss. E. Carson [later Elizabeth E. Gardner]. February 21, 1944, provides an adress for the Mrs. Davenport who lent the present work to the Winter Exhibition of 1884 and notes that besides the description printed in the catalogue, the entry form states that the picture "formed part of the collection of Dr. Taylor of Ashbourne, which was made under the direction of Hogarth. Bought at Dr. Taylor's sale. Catalogued 'Van Eyck'" [none of which can be verified]
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 68–70, ill.
Art Treasures of the Metropolitan: A Selection from the European and Asiatic Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1952, pp. 226–27, no. 99, colorpl. 99.
Édouard Michel. Catalogue raisonné des peintures du moyen-age, de la renaissance et des temps modernes: Peintures flamandes du XVe et du XVIe siècle. Paris, 1953, p. 200, dates the Louvre diptych including this subject about 1475, or before the 1479 example in Bruges, and places our painting about 1480.
Sandra Moschini Marconi. Galerie dell'accademia di Venezia: opere d'arte dei secoli XIV e XV. Rome, 1955, p. 184.
Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, pp. 73–74, 119, fig. 20, attributes it to Memling and workshop.
A. P. de Mirimonde. "Les anges musiciens chez Memlinc." Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (1962–63), pp. 21, 23, 54, ill.
Giorgio T. Faggin. L'opera completa di Memling. Milan, 1969, p. 107, no. 82, ill., as Memling.
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 171 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].
Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 6, Hans Memlinc and Gerard David. New York, 1971, part 1, p. 54, no. 65, pl. 108.
K. B. McFarlane with the assistance of G. L. Harris. Hans Memling. Ed. Edgar Wind. Oxford, 1971, p. 31 n. 15.
Lorne Campbell. "K.B. McFarlane, Hans Memling, 1971." Apollo 96 (December 1972), p. 564.
Elisabeth Heller. Das altniederländische Stifterbild. PhD diss., Universität München. Munich, 1976, p. 215, no. 249.
Przemyslaw Trzeciak. Hans Memling. Berlin, 1977, unpaginated, no. 11, considers questionable Memling's authorship of the present work and the Louvre diptych.
Barbara G. Lane. Hans Memling: Werkverzeichnis. Frankfurt, 1980, p. 30, no. 42, ill., dates it about 1479–80.
Lorne Campbell. Unpublished notes. 1981, ascribes it to Memling about 1480, and suggests that it was designed for a private setting; calls it a reduced and simplified repetition of the central panel of the Bruges altarpiece.
Maximiliaan P. J. Martens Hans J. van Miegroet. "Nieuwe inzichten omtrent de omstreden du cellier–dyptiek, toegeschreven aan Hans Memling." Gentse bijdragen tot de kunstgeschiedenis 26 (1981–84), pp. 71–73, ill., compare our picture to Saint John Altarpiece in Bruges and the Cellier Diptych in Paris, observing that in all three works Saint Catherine, the Virgin and Saint Barbara are placed in the points of a triangle, a static compositional structure typical of the artist.
Grizelda Grimond [Librarian, Colnaghi, London]. Letter to Mary Sprinson. 1981, notes that in the Colnaghi stock book for 1900–1901 our picture (stock no. 1135) is recorded as purchased in 1900 from G. F. Bodley; quotes a note in the margin: "From Mr. Davenport's Collection, a descendant of Mrs. Davenport who had it from Sir Joshua Reynolds".
Guy Bauman. "Early Flemish Portraits, 1425–1525." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 43 (Spring 1986), pp. 24–25, 30, ill. (color), comments on Memling's predilection for symmetry; notes that the grape bower is "an addition, possibly by another artist, painted over the landscape background".
Introduction by James Snyder inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Renaissance in the North. New York, 1987, pp. 11, 34–35, ill. (color).
Francis Broun. "Sir Joshua Reynolds' Collection of Paintings." PhD diss., Princeton University, 1987, vol. 2, p. 301, observes that this picture has been associated with one included in Sir Joshua Reynold's 1795 sale at Christie's as a "very fine" Perugino, The Marriage of Saint Catherine (part II, no. 26, bought in), and later included in his 1798 sale at Phillips as a "very fine" Dürer (part I, no. 16, to Woodburn for 3 guineas); notes that there appears to be no supporting evidence for this connection.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Northern Renaissance Drawings and Underdrawings: A Proposed Method of Study." Master Drawings 27 (Spring 1989), p. 6 n. 5, notes that "Memling's characteristically free sketch for the figures and landscape [in the underdrawing of this picture] ... could hardly have been anticipated judging by the meticulously rendered surface in paint".
Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke inFlemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, pp. 24, 353, no. 350, ill.
Dirk De Vos. Hans Memling: The Complete Works. Ghent, 1994, pp. 41, 65–66, 154, 166–67, 234, 379–80, no. 35, ill. (color and infrared reflectogram), dates it after 1479; calls it a free-hand reduced version of the central panel of the Saint John Altarpiece in Bruges and notes that the artist evidently based our picture and the Donne Altarpiece (National Gallery, London) on preparatory drawings made for the Bruges work; explains the spontaneous character of the underdrawing in our painting as the result of free copying of these "modelli"; observes that the probable felling date for our panel is about 1468, but finds it "difficult to say whether this work was executed shortly after the St John Altarpiece, in around 1480, . . . or after a longer period had elapsed"; believes the grape arbor motif was added shortly after Memling's time, since it is already seen in a weak copy of our painting in the Accademia, Venice; notes that a similar motif appears in the oeuvre of the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy (see "Virgin inter Virgines", Detroit Institute of Arts); identifies the donor as a guild official portrayed in uniform, and interprets the motif embroidered on his costume at hip-level as the coat of arms of his guild or confraternity; observes that Joshua Reynolds was in Bruges in 1781 and suggests that he may have acquired our picture at this time.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Hans Memling as a Draughtsman." Hans Memling: Essays. Ed. Dirk De Vos. Ghent, 1994, pp. 82–84, ill. (including x-radiograph and infrared reflectograms), remarks that such free sketching and direct underdrawing in black chalk alone occur in certain paintings of Memling around 1479–80; compares the spontaneous and remarkably direct underdrawing in our painting and its apparent model, the Saint John Altarpiece in Bruges, and concludes that there is "no hint of a mechanical transfer from any predetermined model"; suggests that "Memling relied on detailed workshop drawings of figures and drapery studies from which he could copy by eye both for the rough sketch and for the finished painted details"; adds that the heads of the two angels were first drawn and painted as in the Bruges version and then changed from a profile to a three-quarter view, noting that this characterizes Memling's working method, his "continual revision of the forms up into the final painted layers".
Dirk De Vos. Hans Memling: Catalogue. Exh. cat., Groeninge Museum, Bruges. Ghent, 1994, p. 245, calls the version in the Venice Accademia an exact but weak copy of our painting, tentatively placing it in the 16th century.
Mary Sprinson de Jesús inFrom Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. vii, 35, 66, 74, 114, 116–17, 143, 220, 278, no. 11, ill. (color), places it in the early 1480s, commenting on early signs of Memling's "classic phase": the oval facial type of the female figures, wider across the eyes and narrowing at the chin, that "tends to reflect a state of gentle, beatific acceptance"; the carefully constructed composition, in pursuit of the greatest effect of balance and harmony; and the bright, clear light and colors.
Lorne Campbell. National Gallery Catalogues: The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools. London, 1998, p. 384.
Michael Rohlmann. "Flanders and Italy, Flanders and Florence. Early Netherlandish Painting in Italy and its Particular Influence on Florentine Art: An Overview." Italy and the Low Countries—Artistic Relations: The Fifteenth Century. Florence, 1999, p. 57 n. 2, includes it in a list of Flemish works that came from Italy, "of which the precise origins are unknown".
Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Commentary: An Integrated Approach." Early Netherlandish Painting at the Crossroads: A Critical Look at Current Methodologies. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth. New York, 2001, p. 115, observes that the later addition of the grape arbor "signals the importance in the early sixteenth century of the cult of the Eucharist".
Maryan W. Ainsworth. Recent Developments in the Technical Examination of Early Netherlandish Painting: Methodology, Limitations & Perspectives. Ed. Molly Faries and Ron Spronk. Cambridge, Mass., 2003, p. 142.
Lorne Campbell inMemling's Portraits. Ed. Till-Holger Borchert. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Ghent, 2005, p. 55, claims the donor is not praying but "telling" his beads.
Peter Klein inMemling's Portraits. Ed. Till-Holger Borchert. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Ghent, 2005, p. 181, provides a tabulated dendrochronological analysis of panels attributed to Hans Memling.
Till-Holger Borchert. "Collecting Early Netherlandish Paintings in Europe and the United States." Early Netherlandish Paintings: Rediscovery, Reception and Research. Ed. Bernhard Ridderbos et al. English ed. Amsterdam, 2005, p. 212 [Dutch ed., "'Om iets te weten van de oude meesters'. De Vlaamse Primitieven—herontdekking, waardering en onderzoek," Nijmegen, 1995].
Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Intentional Alterations of Early Netherlandish Paintings." Metropolitan Museum Journal 40 (2005), pp. 55–56, figs. 8–10, colorpls. 4–5 (overall and details).
Pascale Syfer-d'Olne et al. The Flemish Privitives IV: Catalogue of Early Netherlandish Painting in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Vol. 4, Masters with Provisional Names. Brussels, 2006, p. 359 n. 22.
Jenny Graham. Inventing Van Eyck: The Remaking of an Artist for the Modern Age. Oxford, 2007, p. 44, fig. 13.
Lisa Monnas. Merchants, Princes and Painters: Silk Fabrics in Italian and Northern Paintings, 1300–1550. New Haven, 2008, pp. 137, 354 nn. 65, 67.
Barbara G. Lane. Hans Memling: Master Painter in Fifteenth-Century Bruges. London, 2009, pp. 48, 51, 53, 60 n. 25, p. 111 n. 20, pp. 117, 292–93, no. 47, fig. 39.
Christopher S. Wood. "The Votive Scenario." Res no. 59/60 (Spring–Autumn 2011), pp. 224–25, fig. 10.
Related in composition to this work is the centerpiece of Memling's Donne Triptych (National Gallery, London), although a Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine is not depicted. Another Mystic Marriage attributed to Memling serves as the left wing of a diptych in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. A weak but exact copy of The Met's painting is in the Accademia, Venice.
When this picture was lent to the Royal Academy exhibition in 1884, the following information was supplied by its owner, Mrs. Davenport: "Formed part of the collection of Dr. Taylor of Ashbourne which was made under the direction of Hogarth. Bought at Dr. Taylor's sale. Catalogued 'Van Eyck'." Dr. John Taylor (1711–1788) left his estate to William Brunt, who took the name of Webster. There are no sales listed in Lugt from 1788–1800 for Dr. Taylor or for Webster.
According to Weale (1901), the picture was purchased on the Continent by Joshua Reynolds and given by him to Mrs. Davenport. Possibly Reynolds sold it instead to Taylor, whom presumably he knew, since he painted a portrait of Samuel Johnson for him.