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The Seven Joys and the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin

The Seven Joys of Maria

Hans Memling (ca. 1435-1494). Alte Pinakothek – Munich. 1480.

The Seven Sorrows of Maria

Hans Memling (ca. 1435-1494). Pinacoteca – Turin.

Paintings were used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for religious education. The paintings of the Gothic Middle Ages of Flanders were full of narrative scenes and symbols. Bringing many symbols in a painting was a joy for the clergy. They could explain the mysterious signs hidden in the paintings. The clergy only had the theological knowledge to explain the pictures. The priests and monks advised the painters. The clergy thus showed that only they had the keys to an understanding of the scriptures; they could show that they always knew something more of the Gospels than the common folk and they benefited from the reputation. They were supposed to be more close to the saints and to the Virgin Mary. Thus, there was a large folklore market in Flanders for scenes of the lives of saints. The most prolific painter of lives of saints and of religious pictures in the wealthy Bruges of the late fifteenth century was Hans Memling.

Memling was not of Bruges. He was born around 1433 in the German town of Momlingen, near Mainz. He came to Brabant though, and painted in the workshop of Rogier Van Der Weyden. There was more to earn in Bruges than in Brussels. So, Memling moved. He was admitted to the Painters’ Guild of Bruges in 1466 and remained there until his death in 1494. Memling was particularly popular with the rich Florentine merchants of Bruges, such as Tommaso Portinari, whose portrait he made. Memling is especially known for the shrine of Saint Ursula, which is kept in the Saint John hospital of Bruges, where a museum is almost exclusively dedicated to works of Memling. The shrine tells the life story of Saint Ursula in many scenes, in which many figures participate in the drama of the martyrdom of Ursula and her eleven companion maidens.

Even more than Van Eyck, and even though he was not born in Bruges, Memling is the beloved painter of Bruges. One of the reasons for this is the sheer mass of paintings that still exist of his hand. Yet, Bruges remembered that he was a German: Memling ‘s first name in Latin was Johannes, but Bruges preferred to call him the German Hans instead of the Flemish Jan.

Memling was also popular because he was smooth. Like Raphael, Memling pleased and wanted to please. He made harmonious, balanced images and complex scenes in clear, bright, splendid colours. He liked to tell stories; he combined figures and scenes so as to astound the viewers with his skill. He painted many portraits also, and these were very realistic images of the sitters, as the wealthy of Bruges would ask and like. Like Van Eyck before him Memling painted his holy figures clad in the rich dresses of Flanders and made this almost a first grand publicity for the weaving industry of the country. Memling did not show the character of his commissioners. He only showed exactly how they looked like physically and even then, he must have ennobled their images. He painted with an undisturbed, equal temperament. It was most in his religious scenes that he excelled and as no other he could combine many scenes with many figures together in one picture. He painted the ‘Seven Joys’ and the ‘Seven Sorrows of Maria’ in this pleasing fashion.

The donators of the ‘Seven Joys’ were Pieter Bultync and his wife Catherine van Riebeke. The panel was destined for the chapel of the Guild of Tanners in the Church of the Ladies in Bruges. The ‘Seven Joys’ is a picture with an astonishing combination of scenes that could be used for education of the faithful, to illustrate the New Testament. The painting is a vast landscape in which are shown twenty-five different scenes of the life of the Virgin, including her Seven Joys (as opposed to her Seven Sorrows). The landscape is really sumptuous, showing all the various possible geographies of earth: land, mountains, sea. There are towns and castles, meadows and winding roads. The ‘Nativity’ is the central scene. Other smaller scenes are the ‘Annunciation’, the ‘Resurrection’, the ‘Visitation’, and the ‘Entry of Christ into Jerusalem’. Traditionally, the Seven Joys of Mary were the Annunciation, The visitation, the Birth of Christ, The Adoration of the Magi, the Encounter with Simeon, the Reunion on the Temple and the Coronation of the Virgin. These scenes have been painted by Memling.

The ‘Seven Sorrows’ resembles the ‘Seven Joys’, but this painting contains mainly town scenes. A magnificent Renaissance town is shown, with medieval turrets and newer octagonal Renaissance church towers. The sorrows happen inside the town and around the town walls. Most of the sorrows are the sufferings of Mary’s son Jesus Christ. Traditionally the seven sorrows are the Circumcision of the baby Jesus, the Flight to Egypt, Jesus in the Temple, Calvary, the Crucifixion, the Pietà and the Entombment of Christ. The nature of the sorrows changed somewhat in paintings over the centuries: sometimes the Circumcision of Jesus is not one of the sorrows, and the Resurrection of Christ, which is the final leaving of Mary’s son, is added. The Seven Sorrows of Mary were Simeon’s Prophecy, the Flight into Egypt, the Loss of the twelve-year old Jesus, the Arrest of Christ, the Bearing of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Deposition form the Cross and the Entombment.

In Memling’s painting a long procession starts outside the gates, in the garden of Ghetsemane, with the arrest of Jesus. Jesus’s torture, trial, and presentation to the Jews are shown, as well as the scenes on the long way to Calvary. The story does not end with the three crosses high on a far mountain behind the town, because just next to that scene comes the Descent of the Cross, then the Entombment, and the Resurrection of Christ. The two donors are painted too, the husband on the left and the wife on the right. This also was a tradition: the woman holds the lesser position to the left of the man.

Both the Joys and Sorrows are stunning compositions. It seems almost magical that so many scenes could be brought together in one painting. The small scenes are realistically drawn, then painted to the smallest detail. These paintings must have been marvels for young children learning catechism and the story of the Gospels. And we feel that Memling must have had a real joy in assembling the various scenes. This is Memling at his best, although we do not appreciate these naïve representations anymore. Nowadays, we prefer the portraits or the less complex pictures of Memling.

Hans Memling must have been a really religious man to lovingly depict scene after scene of Jesus’s life and of the saints. A Flemish Primitive like Memling must also have been a content man. Since these painters believed, and had dedicated their lives to representations of the New Testament, they thought they helped do God’s work. Thus they felt they surely would be part of God’s paradise after their death. They had a status in society not unlikely the status of the clergy. The people of Bruges felt their painters were closer to God than themselves. They looked at their artists with considerable respect. In the Late Middle Ages the cult of beauty was added to the cult of God.

Memling possessed the talent to please with his painterly skills of presenting all details of various scenes in a natural composition. He could combine many figures in a fluent visual narrative like his Italian counterpart Benozzo Gozzoli. Memling had the gift of a Flemish eye for the smallest detail and he is still admired for that today. He coupled that with real devotion, as well as with empathy for the figures of his scenes.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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