Donne Triptych by Hans Memling
Interpretation/Analysis of Netherlandish Altarpiece

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Donne Triptych by Hans Memling
The Donne Triptych (detail)
By Hans Memling.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Donne Triptych (1477-80)


Interpretation of Donne Triptych
Other Flemish Altarpieces


Artist: Hans Memling (1433-94)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Religious art
Movement: School of Flemish Painting
Location: National Gallery, London.

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Interpretation of Donne Triptych

This small altarpiece by Hans Memling (c.1433-94), also known as The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors, or the Triptych of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, is among the finest religious paintings of the 15th century Netherlandish Renaissance. Commissioned during a visit to Bruges by the Welsh nobleman and courtier Sir John Donne of Kidwelly (c.1428-1503) to celebrate the royal marriage of Margaret of York to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, it is one of the rare panel paintings which Memling executed for a British customer. Most of his usual patrons were ecclesiastical figures or wealthy businessmen from either Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp or elsewhere in Flanders, or foreign representatives of the German Hanseatic League or the Florentine Medici family. His Last Judgment Triptych (c.1471) for instance, was painted for the Florentine banker Jacopo Tani. Undertaken by Memling at the height of his powers, The Donne triptych was painted in Bruges where the artist had established a flourishing workshop and was listed among the wealthiest individuals of the city. A major treasure of the Northern Renaissance, the work now hangs in the National Gallery, London.




In the central panel of the Donne Triptych Sir John Donne is depicted kneeling on the Madonna's right, while his wife Elizabeth Hastings and their eldest daughter Anne are shown kneeling to her left. St Catherine is shown presenting Donne to the Virgin and Child while his wife is being presented by St Barbara. Although the demeanor of the donors implies pious humility, their dress expresses wealth and style, and both husband and wife wear Yorkist collars of gilt roses adorned by the Lion of March motif of the English King Edward IV. The Virgin Mary is also accompanied by angels playing music for the baby Jesus, who is making an ambiguous gesture with his right hand - either he is blessing the donor or reaching for a piece of fruit! In the background, a picturesque landscape stretches into the distance - featuring a man riding a horse, a miller unloading a sack from his donkey, as well as the waterwheel of a mill (a witty depiction of the attribute of St Catherine).

The side panels depict Donne's name-saints - John the Baptist (holding lamb) and John the Evangelist. The observer standing in the background behind John the Baptist may be a self portrait of Memling himself.

The architecture in the painting is part-Bruges domestic interior and part-Italian palatial, and affords Memling ample opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of linear perspective. At the same time, he uses chiaroscuro - from weak contrasts of light and shade - to expand the volume of his figures. Meanwhile the mood is formal but relaxed: the tortured Gothic art of his earlier Last Judgment Triptych (1471, Uffizi, Florence) has given way to the more courtly elegance of the Early Renaissance.

When the outer panels are closed, we see grisaille paintings of St Christopher and St Anthony Abbot rendered exclusively in tones of grey to resemble stone sculptures. This was a not uncommon convention among late 15th century Northern Renaissance artists of the Low Countries, but still relatively novel to contemporary Italian painters. Indeed, many works from Memling's studio were exported to Italy, where his painting methods (virtuosity with oil paint, striking Renaissance colour palette, use of chiaroscuro) were well received by Venetian customers such as Cardinal Bembo and Cardinal Grimani, and often emulated by his contemporaries, especially by members of the Umbrian School of painting.

Harmony and Balance

Characterized by a tangible sense of harmony that comes from a symmetrically balanced composition, a masterly deployment of colour - both hues and tones, spanning the range from rich reds and blues to subtle half-tones - and figures who radiate quiet devotion instead of the intense feeling seen in the works of his contemporaries, The Donne Triptych is one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of its age.



Other 15th Century Flemish Altarpieces

The Dijon Altarpiece (1393-99, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon) by Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411) was a seminal work that signalled the rise of the large-scale panel painter (Robert Campin, Hubert/Jan van Eyck, Roger Van der Weyden, Dieric Bouts the Elder, Hugo Van Der Goes), and the corresponding decline of miniature painting and manuscript illustration by miniaturists like the Limbourg Brothers and Jacquemart de Hesdin (c.1355-1414). Miniatures, by definition, could only include a small amount of detail, whereas the new generation of Flemish panel painters could (and did) make a feature of meticulous detail, and revolutionize art in the process. Among their best works were the following:

- Dijon Altarpiece (1393-99, Musee des Beaux-Arts) by Melchior Broederlam
- Merode Altarpiece (1427, Metropolitan Museum, NY) by Robert Campin.
- Ghent Altarpiece (1432, St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent) by Jan van Eyck.
- Beaune Altarpiece (1450) by Roger Van der Weyden.
- Last Supper (1464-8, St Pieterskerk, Leuven) by Dieric Bouts the Elder.
- Last Judgment (c.1471, Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk) by Hans Memling
- Portinari Altarpiece (1476-79, Uffizi, Florence) by Hugo Van Der Goes.

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