Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove

Hans Memling, 1487
Museum Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges

Maarten van Nieuwenhove was only 23 years old in 1487, when he asked Hans Memling, the greatest painter in Bruges at the time, to paint this small diptych. His luxurious clothes, the coat of arms of his famous family, and his personal motto on the stained glass all emphasize the high position Maarten claimed in Bruges society. Here, Memling is not only the clever and sensible portraitist we know him to be: the originality of this work may lie elsewhere. Maarten has just dropped his prayer book to join his hands, perhaps because he is surprised by the apparition of the Virgin with Child. The mirror in the background reflects both Maarten and the Virgin, testifying to their actual presence in the room. However, Maarten cannot see the Virgin Mary, regardless from whatever angle the diptych is opened. Is it nothing but a vision, arisen from his reading? What Memling shows us is a sophisticated meditation on the nature of devotion and art, representing the porosity between the sacred and the human worlds, between the painting and the viewer’s reality.

Sophie Caron, Curator of Early Netherlandish, French, German and Spanish Paintings, Musée du Louvre, Paris

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