THE Hospital of St. John, one of the most ancient institutions in Bruges, or of its kind in Europe, was founded not later than 1188, and still retains, within and without, its mediæval arrangement. Its Augustinian brothers and nuns tend the sick in the primitive building, now largely added to. It derives its chief interest for the tourist, however, from its small Picture Gallery, the one object in Bruges which must above everything else be visited. This is the only place for studying in full the exquisite art of Memling, whose charming and poetical work is here more fully represented than elsewhere. In this respect the Hospital of St. John may be fitly compared with the two other famous ” one-man shows ” of Europe the Fra Angelicos at San Marco in Florence, and the Giottos in the Madonna dell’ Arena at Padua. Many of the pictures were painted for the institution which they still adorn; so that we have here the opportunity of seeing works of mediæval art in the precise surroundings which first produced them.
Hans Memling, whose name is also written Memlinc and Memlin, etc. (long erroneously cited as Hemling, through a mistaken reading of the initial in his signature) is a painter of whom little is known, save his work; but the work is the man, and therefore amply sufficient. He was born about 1430, perhaps in Germany, and is believed to have been a pupil of Roger van der Weyden, the Brussels painter, whose work we shall see later at Antwerp and elsewhere. Mr. Weale has shown that he is a per-son of some wealth, settled at Bruges in his own house (about 1478), and in a position to lend money to the town. He died in 1495. His period of activity as a painter is thus coincident with the earlier work of Carpaccio and Perugino in Italy; he died while Raphael was still a boy. In relation to the artists of his own country, whose works we have still to see, Memling was junior by more than a generation to Jan van Eyck, having been born about ten years before Van Eyck died; he was also younger by thirty years than Roger van der Weyden; and by twenty or thirty years than Dierick Bouts; but older by at least twenty than Gerard David. Memling has been called the Fra Angelico of Flanders; but this is only true so far as regards Fra Angelico’s panel works; the saintly Frate, when he worked in fresco, adopted a style wholly different from that which he displays in his miniature-like altar-pieces. It would be truer to say that Memling is the Benozzo Gozzoli of the North :. he has the same love of decorative adjuncts, and the same naïve delight in the beauty of external nature.
Before visiting the Hospital it is also well to be acquainted in outline with the history of St. Ursula, whose shrine forms one of its greatest treasures. The Hospital possessed an important relic of the saint her holy arm and about 148o -1489 commissioned Memling to paint scenes from her life on the shrine des-tined to contain this precious deposit. The chest or reliquary which he adorned for the purpose forms the very best work of Memling’s lifetime.
St. Ursula was a princess of Brittany, brought up as a Christian by her pious parents. She was sought in marriage by a pagan prince, Canon, said to be the son of a king of England. The English king, called Agrippinus in the legend, sent ambassadors to the King of Brittany asking for the hand of Ursula for his heir. But Ursula made three conditions : first, that she should be given as companions ten noble virgins, and that she herself and each of the virgins should be accompanied by a thousand maiden attendants ; second, that they should all together visit the shrines of the saints; and third, that the Prince Conon and all his court should receive baptism. These conditions were complied with; the King of England collected eleven thousand virgins ; and Ursula, with her companions, sailed for Cologne, where she arrived miraculously without the assistance of sailors. Memling, however, adds them to the painting. Here, she had a vision of an angel bidding her to repair to Rome, the threshold of the apostles. From Cologne, the pilgrims went up the Rhine by boat, till they arrived at Basle, where they disembarked and continued their journey on foot over the Alps to Italy. At length they reached the Tiber, which they descended till they approached the walls of Rome. There, the Pope, St. Cyriacus, went forth with all his clergy in procession to meet them. He gave them his blessing, and lest the maidens should come to harm in so wicked a city, he had tents pitched for them outside the walls on the side toward Tivoli. Meanwhile, Prince Conon had come on pilgrimage by a different route, and arrived at Rome on the same day as his betrothed. He knelt with Ursula at the feet of the Pope, and, being baptized, received in exchange the name of Ethereus.
After a certain time spent in Rome, the holy maidens bethought them to return home again. Thereupon, Pope Cyriacus decided to accompany them, together with his cardinals, arch-bishops, bishops, patriarchs, and many others of his prelates. They crossed the Alps, em-barked again at Basle, and made their way northward as far as Cologne. Now it happened that the army of the Huns was at that time besieging the Roman colony ; and the pagans fell upon the eleven thousand virgins, with the Pope and their other saintly companions.
Prince Ethereus was one of the first to die; then Cyriacus, the bishops, and the cardinals perished. Last of all, the pagans turned upon the virgins, all of whom they slew, save only St. Ursula. Her they carried before their king, who, beholding her beauty, would fain have wedded her. But Ursula sternly refused the offer of this son of Satan; whereupon the king, seizing his bow, transfixed her breast with three arrows. Hence her symbol is an arrow ; also, she is the patroness of young girls and of virgins, so that her shrine is particularly appropriate in a nunnery.
Most of the bones of St. Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins are preserved at Cologne, the city of her martyrdom, where they are ranged in cases round the walls of a church dedicated in her honour; but her arm is here, and a few other relics are distributed elsewhere.
The Hospital is open daily from nine to six; Sundays, three to six. One franc per person. If you have Conway, take it with you.
From the Grand’ Place, turn down the Rue des Pierres, the principal shopping street of Bruges, with several fine old façades, many of them dated. At the. Place Simon Stévin turn to the left, and go straight on as far as the church of Notre Dame. The long brick building with Gothic arches, on your right, is the Hospital of St. John, the Evangelist.
First, examine the brick Gothic exterior. Over the outer doorway is the figure of a bishop with a flaming heart, the emblem of St. Augustine, this being an Augustinian hospital. Continue on to the original main portal (now bricked up) with a broken pillar and two thirteenth century reliefs in the tympanum. That to the right represents the Death of the Virgin, with the Apostles grouped around, and the figure of the Christ receiving her naked newborn soul as usual. Above is the Coronation of Our Lady. That to the left seems like a reversed and altered replica of the same subject, with perhaps the Last Judgment above it. It is, however, so much dilapidated that identification is difficult. Perhaps the top is a Glory of St. Ursula. Go on as far as the little bridge over the canal, to inspect the picturesque river front of the Hospital.
Return to the main portal and ring the inner bell. Admission, see above. The pictures are collected in the former Chapter-house of the Hospital, above the door of which is another figure of St. Augustine.
The centre of the room is occupied by the famous shrine containing the arm of St. Ursula, a dainty little Gothic chapel in miniature. It is painted with exquisite scenes from the legend, by Memling, with all the charm of a fairy tale. He treats it as a poetical romance. Begin the story on the side toward the window. (For a penetrating criticism of these works, see Conway.)
In the first panel, on the left, St. Ursula and her maidens, in the rich dress of the Burgundian court of the fifteenth century, arrive at Cologne, the buildings of which are seen in the background, correctly represented, but not in their true relations. In a window in the back-ground to the right, the angel appears to St. Ursula in a vision.
In the second panel, the virgins arrive at Basle and disembark from the ships. In the background, they are seen preparing to make their way, one by one, across the Alps, which rise from low hills at the base to snowy mountains. From another ship Conon and his knights are disembarking.
In the third and most beautiful panel, the maidens arrive at Rome. In the distance they are seen entering the city through a triumphal arch; in the foreground, St. Ursula kneels before St. Cyriacus and his bishops, with their attendant deacons, all the faces having the character of portraits. Note especially the fat and jolly ecclesiastic just under the arch. At the same time, her betrothed, Conon, with his knights, arrives at Rome by a different road, and is seen kneeling in a red robe trimmed with rich fur beside St. Ursula. Note the fine portrait faces of Conan and an old courtier behind him, The Pope and his priests are gathered under the portals of a beautiful round-arched building, whose exquisite architecture should be closely examined. To the extreme right the new converts and Conon receive baptism naked in fonts after the early fashion. In the background of this scene, St. Ursula receives the Sacrament. She may be recognized throughout by her peculiar blue-and-white dress, with its open sleeves. To the left of her, Conon makes confession. In this, as in the other scenes, several successive moments of the same episode are contemporaneously represented. Look long at it.
Now, turn round the shrine, which swings freely on a pivot, to see the scenes of the return journey, beginning again at the left. In the first panel, the Pope and his bishops and cardinals embark with St. Ursula in the boat at Basle on their way to Cologne. Three episodes are here conjoined : the Pope cautiously stepping into a ship; the Pope seated; the ship sailing down the Rhine. All the faces here, and especially the timid old Pope stepping into the boat, deserve careful examination. In the background, the return over the Alps.
In the second panel, the maidens and the Pope arrive at Cologne, where they are instantly set upon by the armed Huns. Conon is slain by the thrust of a sword, and falls back dying in the arms of St. Ursula. Many of the maidens are also slaughtered.
The third panel is continuous with the last, but represents a subsequent moment : the Martyrdom of St. Ursula. The King of the Huns, in full armour, at the door of his tent, bends his bow to shoot the blessed martyr, who has refused his advances. Around are grouped his knights in admirably painted armour. (Note the reflections.) All the scenes have the character of a mediæval romance. For their open-air tone and make-believe martyrdom, see Conway.
At the ends of the shrine are two other pictures. The first is, St. Ursula with her arrow, as the protectress of young girls, sheltering a number of them under her cloak (not, as is commonly said, the eleven thousand virgins). Similar protecting figures of the saint are common elsewhere (Cluny, Bologna, etc.). At the opposite end is the second, the Madonna and Child with the apple, and at her feet two Augustinian nuns of this Hospital, kneeling, to represent the devotion of the order.
The roof of the shrine is also decorated with pictures. First, St. Ursula receiving the crown of martyrdom from God the Father, with the Son and the Holy Ghost; at the sides, two angels playing the mandoline and the regal or portable organ; second, St. Ursula in Paradise, bearing her arrow, and surrounded by her maidens, who shared her martyrdom, together with the Pope and other ecclesiastics in the background. This picture is largely borrowed from the famous one by Stephan Lochner on the High Altar of Cologne Cathedral, known as the Dombild. If you are going on to Cologne, buy a photograph of this now, to compare with Meister Stephan later. His altar-piece is engraved in Conway. If you have it with you compare them. At the sides are two angels, drawn possibly by a pupil, playing the zither and the violin.
I have given a brief description only of these pictures, but every one of them ought to be carefully examined, and the character of the figures and of the landscape or architectural background noted. You will see nothing lovelier in all Flanders.
Near the window by the entrance is a Triptych, also by Memling, commissioned by Brother Jan Floreins of this Hospital. The central panel represents the Adoration of the Magi, which takes place, as usual, under a ruined temple fitted up as a manger. The Eldest of the Three Kings, according to precedent, is kneeling and has presented his gift; Joseph, recognizable in all three panels by his red-and-black robe, stands erect behind him, with the presented gift in his hands. The Middle-aged King, arrayed in cloth of gold, with a white tippet, kneels with his gift to the left of the picture. The Young King, a black man, as always, is entering with his gift to the right. The three thus typify the Three Ages of Man, and also the three known continents, Europe, Asia, Africa. On the left side of this central panel are figured the donor, Jan Floreins, and his brother Jacob. (Members of the same family are grouped in the well-known ” Duchâtel Madonna,” also by Memling, in the Louvre.) To the right is a figure looking in at a window and wearing the yellow cap still used by convalescents of the Hospital (arbitrarily said to be a portrait of Memling). The left panel represents the Nativity, with our Lady, St. Joseph, and two adoring angels. The right panel shows the Presentation in the Temple, with Simeon and Anna, and St. Joseph (in red and black) in the background. The whole thus typifies the Epiphany of Christ; left, to the Blessed Virgin; centre, to the Gentiles ; right, to the Jews. The outer panels, in pursuance of the same idea, have figures, right, of St. John the Baptist with the lamb (he pointed out Christ to the Jews), with the Baptism of Christ in the background ; and left, St. Veronica, who preserved for us the features of our Lord, displaying his divine face on her napkin. The architectural frame shows the First Sin and the Expulsion from Paradise. Note everywhere the strong character in the men’s faces, and the exquisite landscape or architectural backgrounds. Dated 1479. This is Memling’s finest altar-piece : its glow of colour is glorious.
By the centre window, a triptych, doubt-fully attributed to Memling, represents, in the centre, the Deposition from the Cross, with the Holy Blood conspicuous, as might be expected in a Bruges work. In the foreground are St. John, the Madonna, and St. Mary Magdalene; in the background, the preparations from the Deposition in the Tomb. On the wings : left, Brother Adrian Reins, the donor, with his patron saint, Adrian, bearing his symbol, the anvil, on which his limbs were struck off, and with his lion at his feet; right, St. Barbara with her tower, perhaps as patroness of armourers. On the exterior wings, left, St. Wilgefortis with her tau-shaped cross; right, St. Mary of Egypt, with the three loaves which sustained her in the desert.
On the same stand is the beautiful diptych by Memling, representing Martin van Nieuwenhoven adoring the Madonna. The left panel represents Our Lady and the Child, with an apple, poised on a beautifully painted cushion. A convex mirror in the background reflects the backs of the figures, as in the Van Eyck of the National Gallery. Through the open window is seen a charming distant prospect. The right panel has the fine portrait of the donor, in a velvet dress painted with extreme realism. Note the admirable prayer-book and joined hands. At his back, a stained glass window shows his patron, St. Martin, dividing his cloak for the beggar. Below, a lovely glimpse of landscape. This is probably Memling’s most successful portrait. Dated 1487: brought here from the Hospice of St. Julian, of which Martin was Master.
In all Flemish art, observe now the wooden face of the Madonna ultimately derived, I believe, from imitation of painted wooden figures, and then hardened into a type. As a rule, the Madonna is the least interesting part of all Flemish painting; and after her, the women, especially the young ones. The men’s faces are best, and better when old : character, not beauty, is what the painter cares for. This is most noticeable in Van Eyck, but is true in part even of Memling.
At the end of the room is the magnificent triptych painted by Memling for the High Altar of the Church of this Hospital. This is the largest of his works, and it is dedicated to the honour of the two saints, John the Evangelist and John the Baptist, who are patrons of the Hospital. The central panel represents Our Lady, seated in an exquisite cloister, on a throne backed with cloth of gold. To the right and left are two exquisite angels, one of whom plays a regal, while the other, in a delicious pale blue robe, holds a book for Our Lady. Two smaller angels, poised in air, support her crown. To the left, St. Catherine of Alexandria kneels as princess, with the broken wheel and the sword of her martyrdom at her feet. The Child Christ places a ring on her finger; whence the whole composition is often absurdly called ” The Marriage of St. Catherine.” It should be styled ” The Altar-piece of the St. Johns.”
To the right is St. Barbara, calmly reading, with her tower behind her. When these two saints are thus combined, they represent the meditative and the active life (as St. Barbara was the patroness of arms), or, more definitely, the clergy and the knighthood. Hence their appropriateness to an institution, half monastic, half secular. In the background stand the two patron saints; St. John the Baptist with the lamb (Memling’s personal patron), to the left, and St. John the Evangelist with the cup and serpent, to the right. (For these symbols, see Mrs. Jameson.) Behind the Baptist are scenes from his life and preaching. He is led to prison, and his body is burned by order of Julian the Apostate. Behind the Evangelist, he is seen in the cauldron of boiling oil. The small figure in black to the right is the chief donor, Brother Jan Floreins, who is seen further back in his secular capacity as public gauger of wine, near a great crane, which affords a fine picture of mercantile life in old Bruges. The left wing represents the life of St. John the Baptist. In the distance is seen the Baptism of Christ. In a room to the left, the daughter of Herodias dances before Herod.
The foreground is occupied by the episode of the Decollation, treated in a courtly manner, very redolent of the Burgundian splendour. Figures and attitudes are charming : only, the martyrdom sinks into insignificance beside the princess’s collar. Other minor episodes may be discovered by inspection. The episodes on either wing overflow into the main pictures. The right wing shows St. John the Evangelist in Patmos, writing the Apocalypse, various scenes from which are realistically and too solidly represented above him, without poetical insight. Memling here attempts to transcend his powers. He has no sublimity. On the exterior of the wings are seen the four other members of the society who were donors of the altar-piece; Anthony Zeghers, master of the Hospital, with his patron, St. Anthony, known by his pig and tau-shaped crutch and bell ; Jacob ‘de Cueninc, treasurer, accompanied by his patron, St. James the Greater, with his pilgrim’s staff and scallop-shell; Agnes Casembrood, mistress of the Hospital, with her patron, St. Agnes, known by her lamb; and Claire van Hulsen, a sister, with her patron, St. Clara. Dated, 1479.
By the entrance door is a Portrait of Marie Marcel, represented as a Sibyl. She was a daughter of Willem Moreel or Morelli, a patron of Memling, whom we shall meet again at the Museum. This is a fine portrait of a solid, plain body, a good deal spoiled by attempted cleaning. It comes from the Hospice of St Julian.
As you go out cast a glance at the fine old brick buildings, and note the cleanliness of all the arrangements.
Return more than once : do not be satisfied with a single visit.
The other pictures and objects formerly exhibited in this Hospital have been transferred to the Potterie and another building. They need only be visited by those whose time is ample.
After leaving the Hospital, I do not advise an immediate visit to the Academy. Let the Memlings first sink into your mind. But the walk may be prolonged by crossing the canal, and taking the second turning to the right, which leads, over a pretty bridge of three arches, to the Béguinage, a lay-nunnery for ladies who take no vows, but who live in monastic fashion under the charge of a Superior. Above the gateway is a figure of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, to whom the church within is dedicated, giving alms to a beggar. She wears her crown, and carries in her hand the crown and book which are her symbol. Remember these, they will recur later. Pass under the gateway and into the grass-grown precincts for an external glimpse o,f the quiet old-world close, with its calm whitewashed houses. The church dedicated to St. Elizabeth is uninteresting. This walk may be further prolonged by the pretty bank of the Lac d’Amour or Minnewater as far as the external canal, returning by the ramparts and the picturesque Porte de Gand.