Lotto No. 12


Workshop of Hans Memling


(Seligenstadt 1435/40–1494 Bruges)
The Nativity,
oil on panel, 99,2 x 72,5 cm, framed

Provenance:
Property of a Flemish aristocratic family;
and by descent to the present owners

Exhibited:
Bruges, Groeningemuseum, Hans Memling, 12 August – 15 November 1994, p. 167, no. 46 (as after Hans Memling)

Literature:
D. de Vos, Hans Memling, The Complete Works, London, 1994, p.345, appendix A14 (as after Hans Memling)

The present painting remained unknown to art historians until 1994 when it was published by Dirk de Vos. For centuries the painting was in the possession of one of the most ancient and noble families of the Burgundian Netherlands. The painting’s close link with Hans Memling was immediately understood even though the present Nativity was listed among the copies in an appendix to De Vos’ catalogue raisonné of Memling’s work. Nonetheless, the rediscovered panel was considered important enough to be included in the Memling exhibition in Bruges in 1994. On this occasion De Vos presented it to the public and art experts as a copy after the Nativity, found on the left wing of Hans Memling’s Floreins Triptych of 1479, possibly painted by the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucia. De Vos convincingly argued that the present Nativity originally formed the left wing of a centre-piece that depicted the Adoration of the Magi with a Presentation in the Temple on the right wing, both lost. The panel is characterized by the high quality of its painterly execution and its nuanced and subtle use of light. The curls of the Virgin, the Child and the Angels are meticulously painted in almost ornamental patterns. Great care has been taken in painting the brocade of one of the angel’s robes. The shadow cast by a single straw, rendered in a still life like manner and the detailed pictorial realism of rendering even the wormholes in the wooden beams of the stable, are impressive. The figures’ skin tones and garments are depicted in very polished surfaces, a distinctive feature of Early Netherlandish Painting of the 15th century. The greens in the background, on the other hand, are applied more thickly and reveal the skillful brushwork of the painter in a manner that is a characteristic aspect in Early Netherlandish paintings produced towards the end of the century, and is frequently found in paintings by Memling.

De Vos observed that the present Nativity is stylistically very different to Memling’s Floreins Altarpiece of 1479 despite the fact that it sources most of its motifs from this work. The difference of scale needs to be taken into consideration. Memling’s religious paintings show a smaller figure scale, often revealing a distinctive painterly approach that differs from the manner in which Memling and his workshop paint figures and landscapes in bigger altarpieces. Some of the altarpieces that Memling produced towards the end of his career such as the fragments from the Najera Retabel (Antwerp), the so called Virgin of Jacques Floreins (Paris), and the Passion Altarpiece (Lübeck) display at least in some parts, a harder, more contour driven manner of painting that is only remotely echoed in the style of the present Nativity. Furthermore the present Nativity includes motifs such as the two men in the background, who because of their bagpipes can be identified as shepherds, alluding to the event of the Adoration of the Shepherds in precisely the way Memling would enhance the narratives in his paintings. Considering all of these observations, the present Nativity seems somewhat closer to Memling than to the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucia, whose paintings are conceived in a more systematic and almost mechanical way and combine unusually bright colors and rich contrasts with somewhat unnaturally elongated figures.

A further look reveals that both the attribution of the painting as well as its relationship with the obvious prototype by Memling are more complex than De Vos had realized in 1994. Despite the fact that there is a considerable difference of scale, there can be little doubt that the present Nativity was directly modeled after the composition in Memling’s Floreins Triptych. Nevertheless, minor yet significant alterations compel us to classify the painting as a version of the Floreins Nativity rather than a mere copy thereof. The representation of the ruinous architecture of the stable that Memling ingeniously conceived in the Floreins Triptych also dominates the much larger present Nativity. Yet in the latter painting, the wooden pillar on the right is replaced by a conspicuous column made of marble. Such columns were often depicted by Rogier van der Weyden and Flemish artists of the period, who like Memling followed the popular texts of the Vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden, according to which the stable in Bethlehem was built within the ruins of an ancient temple. The transparent and shiny crystal vein within the marble, at the height of Joseph’s purse, may allude to a specific object of veneration that presumably was kept in the church for which the present Nativity, as the left wing of a much larger triptych, was originally commissioned for.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that while both paintings depict the stable from roughly the same viewpoint, the proportions and depth of the building were meticulously altered in the larger painting in order to account for the change of format and its consequences for the perception of the beholder. For much the same reason, the painter also changed the position and arrangement of the figures with the notable exception of the Virgin, who is represented in the almost exact same position as in the Floreins Triptych, to a degree that even the drapery of her dress is closely following the model. On the other hand, the figure of Saint Joseph is depicted in a more dynamic pose as he is approaching the scene from the back of the stable, bending his head to the left. In doing so, the figure is more successfully and smoothly integrated into the pictorial space that the painter tries to evoke.

The most obvious deviation from Memling’s Floreins Nativity concerns the position of the child and the winged angels. Whereas Memling originally showed two angels at the rear of the stable, the painter of the present Nativity has positioned them at the right edge of the panel, next to the child. In order to fill their position, the painter added a third angel who is depicted kneeling down in adoration of the newborn. In contrast to Memling, who depicted the angels dressed in simple tunics, the present Nativity represents them dressed in rich liturgical garments. The Child is no longer shown in a diagonal position as in the Floreins Nativity, but rather lies horizontally on Mary’s robe, parallel to the picture’s lower edge. The alterations to Memling’s design of the Floreins Triptych seems to be based on the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes. Painted between 1475 and 1478 for Tommaso Portinari, the representative of the Medici bank in Bruges. Like Memling’s Floreins Nativity, this monumental composition was based on the Vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden. In its centre Van der Goes painted an Adoration of the Shepherds, with the newborn child lying in a horizontal position parallel to the picture plane, on a straw bedding on the ground. He also enriched the painting’s composition with several angels that were clad in richly decorated liturgical vestments as they kneeled on the floor in adoration of the newborn child. Given the prominence of the Portinari Tryptych, it seems likely that the changes were introduced in the present composition on demand of the patron of the altarpiece that the present Nativity was originally part of.

It also should be noted that by shifting the position of the two angels from the rear of the stable to the edge of the picture, the painter of the present Nativity actually looked at an earlier work by Memling that also depicted a Nativity. The Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi, today in the Prado in Madrid, shows the Nativity on its left wing and the Presentation in the Temple on its right wing. Considerably larger than the Floreins Triptych, with which it shares its iconographical program, the triptych is among the most conceptually ambitious works of Memling’s early career. In the present Nativity as well as in the Adoration of the Prado Triptych he simultaneously showed the frontal and the rear view of the stable, thereby presenting the exterior and interior to the beholder (see T. H. Borchert, Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden, in: Northern Renaissance Studies in honour of Molly Faries, Turnhout, 2008, pp. 87–93).

The motif of the two angels from the Prado Triptych in the present Nativity is significant, indicating that the painter most likely had access to drawings of single motifs or entire compositions that were kept in the workshop of Hans Memling.

Commonly regarded as one of the most influential painters of the Early Netherlandish School, Hans Memling was born between 1435 and 1440 in Seligenstadt on the river Main. He is documented for the first time in 1465 when he acquired citizenship in Bruges, a prerequisite to establish and run a painter’s workshop. Memling’s remarkable artistic skills greatly appealed to the religious institutions, the secular guilds and the wealthy families of Bruges. His compositions also drew the attention of the members of the affluent international merchant community who resided in the city, then still the unchallenged commercial centre of the Burgundian Netherlands. Memling’s production was remarkably prolific and had to be organized in a way that the painter was able to fulfill the demands of his clients. Throughout his career Memling varied his well-known repertoire, introducing his established motifs into new, ambitious and at times surprising compositions.

Memling’s workshop practices

There can be but little doubt that Memling kept a stock of model drawings in his workshop. The efficient use of inversed, added or omitted figures, as well as altered backgrounds and settings, give away the obvious use of templates. Memling’s efficient working manner enabled the painter to meet the specific demands of his clients without impairing the quality of the works, and create a variety of popular devotional images that were produced serially. His professional success enabled Memling to quickly expand his workshop. The painter was able to employ assistants and travelling journeymen, he also trained at least two apprentices in 1480 and 1483 named Hannekin Verhanneman and Passchier van der Meersch. By the 1480s, Memling’s workshop had become the most successful in Bruges, keeping this prominent position until the artist’s death in 1494.

The resemblance of the present Nativity with the figure types and the compositions by Hans Memling, strongly suggest that its painter was a member of Memling’s workshop. This assumption is further supported by the results of infrared reflectographic and radiographic studies of the panel, providing further insights into the workshop practices of Memling and his collaborators.
The entire composition seems to have been prepared with a dry drawing medium, presumably black chalk, which seems to have been applied in different stages. Simple contours of the stable’s architecture were drawn on a primed surface providing guidelines during the painting stage. The design of the stable remained essentially unaltered, even though the roof and step-gable of the building were originally planned to be a bit higher. Except for the faint lines contouring the castle in the centre, there are barely any underdrawings to be found in the landscape of the background. Circular scribbles used by Memling to indicate trees, visible in the Floreins Triptych, are missing.

All of the figures of the present Nativity have been carefully prepared with underdrawings. The underdrawings were continuously altered throughout the preparatory and the painting stages, where alterations were done. While the main features of the composition remain unchanged, there are multiple minor alterations, indicating the meticulous workings of an artist. This is particularly evident in the figure of Saint Joseph, whose left knee was originally larger and whose hands have been repositioned several times. A similar observation can be made with regard to the ox, whose head, eyes and horns were originally drawn more to the left and were shifted twice.

Continuing with the outlines of the figures and drapery folds, it can be said that the drawing style seems surprisingly free with spontaneously applied lines, revealing multiple minor alterations of scale and positioning in the underdrawing. The spontaneity of the drawing, however, does not indicate that the artist began to design the composition on the primed panel; it rather suggests the use of templates or model drawings, serving as guidelines during both the underdrawing and painting stages. This becomes particularly evident when looking at the dress of the Virgin. Although it is based on the folds of the Virgin’s dress in the Floreins Nativity, it is extensively underdrawn, with guidelines indicating the precise position and direction of the drapery folds almost as if it were an original design.

Although the underdrawings are surprisingly similar to those of Hans Memling’s Sint Jans Triptych in Bruges, it seems, especially in the drawing of the angels, that there are traits of a precarious and less experienced drawing style. Like the undisputed underdrawings of Memling, executed in a dry medium, the underdrawings of the present Nativity consists of single and double outlines, and angular folds that continuously end in angled or curved hooks. Receding folds are sometimes indicated by means of loose parallel hatches that occasionally cover larger areas of the painting to indicate darker zones. Next to parallel hatches that run diagonally, there is a small area of chequered hatches as can be seen on the left side of the newborn Christ.

All of the technical evidence supports the hypothesis that the present Nativity must have been executed by a close collaborator of Hans Memling. An artist who must have had access to Memling’s model drawings and was well versed in reading them. His working method, as evinced by the manner of his underdrawing, is closely related to Hans Memling; there can be no doubt about the fact that both artists closely collaborated for a longer period of time. We cannot be certain, why Memling would have left the execution of the entire painting to one of his assistants who seemed to have worked on the present Nativity quite independently but perhaps he was occupied with other parts of the commission or was engaged with other work. It is even possible to go so far as to speculate that the present Nativity might have been part of a commission that was unfinished at the time of Memling’s death in 1491 and had to be completed by the workshop. Be that as it may: there can be no doubt about the fact that the present Nativity is a highly important key work for a better understanding of Memling’s workshop practices towards the end of his career.

Provenance

It is not known who had commissioned the altarpiece of which the present Nativity originally was part of, nor are there any indications as to which church or chapel the altarpiece may have been intended for. From the fact that the painting has been in the possession of an aristocratic family for a long time, one can deduce that it might have been ordered by a member of this illustrious family. Memling might have known a member of this family through his membership at the illustrious confraternity of Our Lady of the Snow. In addition, the Hospital of Saint John was across the street and Memling’s altarpiece for the guild of the Tanners (The Seven Joys of the Virgin, Munich) decorated the church altar. Nevertheless a commission for the present work is not documented and given the vast circle of aristocratic families, we might never be certain of who commissioned the present work.

Condition

Painted on a panel that was made out of three vertically joined boards of oak, the present composition has remained in an astonishingly good condition, with only a few points of restoration in the main figures as well as in the background. Old restorations can chiefly be recognized along two joints of the boards, where movement of the wooden panel caused flaking and some losses of the original paint before the problem was treated by applying a cradle on the reverse of the painting. Minor losses also occurred at the edges of the painting and alongside a crack on the right side of the panel that extends from the upper right edge through to the middle of the column next to Saint Joseph, whose forehead also shows some small losses. In addition, the sky in the left upper corner must have suffered at some point in the painting’s history and was repainted extensively early on. These restorations, however, are inconsequential in their scale and nature as they don’t interfere with the remarkable condition of the paint surface, as evinced by the subtly applied thin white glazes on the red coat of Saint Joseph, which has been preserved in its entirety.

We are grateful to Till-Holger Borchert for cataloguing the present painting.



Additional images:
Fig. 1: Hans Memling, Jan Floreins Triptych, Memling Museum, Bruges Musea Brugge
© www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw, photo Dominique Provost
Fig. 2: Hans Memling, Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi, 1470–1472, Museo del Prado, Madrid
© Museo Nacional del Prado

Infrared reflectograph of lot 12

Esperto: Damian Brenninkmeyer Damian Brenninkmeyer
+43 1 515 60 403

damian.brenninkmeyer@dorotheum.at

19.04.2016 - 18:00

Prezzo realizzato: **
EUR 1.200.000,-
Stima:
EUR 1.200.000,- a EUR 1.800.000,-

Workshop of Hans Memling


(Seligenstadt 1435/40–1494 Bruges)
The Nativity,
oil on panel, 99,2 x 72,5 cm, framed

Provenance:
Property of a Flemish aristocratic family;
and by descent to the present owners

Exhibited:
Bruges, Groeningemuseum, Hans Memling, 12 August – 15 November 1994, p. 167, no. 46 (as after Hans Memling)

Literature:
D. de Vos, Hans Memling, The Complete Works, London, 1994, p.345, appendix A14 (as after Hans Memling)

The present painting remained unknown to art historians until 1994 when it was published by Dirk de Vos. For centuries the painting was in the possession of one of the most ancient and noble families of the Burgundian Netherlands. The painting’s close link with Hans Memling was immediately understood even though the present Nativity was listed among the copies in an appendix to De Vos’ catalogue raisonné of Memling’s work. Nonetheless, the rediscovered panel was considered important enough to be included in the Memling exhibition in Bruges in 1994. On this occasion De Vos presented it to the public and art experts as a copy after the Nativity, found on the left wing of Hans Memling’s Floreins Triptych of 1479, possibly painted by the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucia. De Vos convincingly argued that the present Nativity originally formed the left wing of a centre-piece that depicted the Adoration of the Magi with a Presentation in the Temple on the right wing, both lost. The panel is characterized by the high quality of its painterly execution and its nuanced and subtle use of light. The curls of the Virgin, the Child and the Angels are meticulously painted in almost ornamental patterns. Great care has been taken in painting the brocade of one of the angel’s robes. The shadow cast by a single straw, rendered in a still life like manner and the detailed pictorial realism of rendering even the wormholes in the wooden beams of the stable, are impressive. The figures’ skin tones and garments are depicted in very polished surfaces, a distinctive feature of Early Netherlandish Painting of the 15th century. The greens in the background, on the other hand, are applied more thickly and reveal the skillful brushwork of the painter in a manner that is a characteristic aspect in Early Netherlandish paintings produced towards the end of the century, and is frequently found in paintings by Memling.

De Vos observed that the present Nativity is stylistically very different to Memling’s Floreins Altarpiece of 1479 despite the fact that it sources most of its motifs from this work. The difference of scale needs to be taken into consideration. Memling’s religious paintings show a smaller figure scale, often revealing a distinctive painterly approach that differs from the manner in which Memling and his workshop paint figures and landscapes in bigger altarpieces. Some of the altarpieces that Memling produced towards the end of his career such as the fragments from the Najera Retabel (Antwerp), the so called Virgin of Jacques Floreins (Paris), and the Passion Altarpiece (Lübeck) display at least in some parts, a harder, more contour driven manner of painting that is only remotely echoed in the style of the present Nativity. Furthermore the present Nativity includes motifs such as the two men in the background, who because of their bagpipes can be identified as shepherds, alluding to the event of the Adoration of the Shepherds in precisely the way Memling would enhance the narratives in his paintings. Considering all of these observations, the present Nativity seems somewhat closer to Memling than to the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucia, whose paintings are conceived in a more systematic and almost mechanical way and combine unusually bright colors and rich contrasts with somewhat unnaturally elongated figures.

A further look reveals that both the attribution of the painting as well as its relationship with the obvious prototype by Memling are more complex than De Vos had realized in 1994. Despite the fact that there is a considerable difference of scale, there can be little doubt that the present Nativity was directly modeled after the composition in Memling’s Floreins Triptych. Nevertheless, minor yet significant alterations compel us to classify the painting as a version of the Floreins Nativity rather than a mere copy thereof. The representation of the ruinous architecture of the stable that Memling ingeniously conceived in the Floreins Triptych also dominates the much larger present Nativity. Yet in the latter painting, the wooden pillar on the right is replaced by a conspicuous column made of marble. Such columns were often depicted by Rogier van der Weyden and Flemish artists of the period, who like Memling followed the popular texts of the Vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden, according to which the stable in Bethlehem was built within the ruins of an ancient temple. The transparent and shiny crystal vein within the marble, at the height of Joseph’s purse, may allude to a specific object of veneration that presumably was kept in the church for which the present Nativity, as the left wing of a much larger triptych, was originally commissioned for.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that while both paintings depict the stable from roughly the same viewpoint, the proportions and depth of the building were meticulously altered in the larger painting in order to account for the change of format and its consequences for the perception of the beholder. For much the same reason, the painter also changed the position and arrangement of the figures with the notable exception of the Virgin, who is represented in the almost exact same position as in the Floreins Triptych, to a degree that even the drapery of her dress is closely following the model. On the other hand, the figure of Saint Joseph is depicted in a more dynamic pose as he is approaching the scene from the back of the stable, bending his head to the left. In doing so, the figure is more successfully and smoothly integrated into the pictorial space that the painter tries to evoke.

The most obvious deviation from Memling’s Floreins Nativity concerns the position of the child and the winged angels. Whereas Memling originally showed two angels at the rear of the stable, the painter of the present Nativity has positioned them at the right edge of the panel, next to the child. In order to fill their position, the painter added a third angel who is depicted kneeling down in adoration of the newborn. In contrast to Memling, who depicted the angels dressed in simple tunics, the present Nativity represents them dressed in rich liturgical garments. The Child is no longer shown in a diagonal position as in the Floreins Nativity, but rather lies horizontally on Mary’s robe, parallel to the picture’s lower edge. The alterations to Memling’s design of the Floreins Triptych seems to be based on the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes. Painted between 1475 and 1478 for Tommaso Portinari, the representative of the Medici bank in Bruges. Like Memling’s Floreins Nativity, this monumental composition was based on the Vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden. In its centre Van der Goes painted an Adoration of the Shepherds, with the newborn child lying in a horizontal position parallel to the picture plane, on a straw bedding on the ground. He also enriched the painting’s composition with several angels that were clad in richly decorated liturgical vestments as they kneeled on the floor in adoration of the newborn child. Given the prominence of the Portinari Tryptych, it seems likely that the changes were introduced in the present composition on demand of the patron of the altarpiece that the present Nativity was originally part of.

It also should be noted that by shifting the position of the two angels from the rear of the stable to the edge of the picture, the painter of the present Nativity actually looked at an earlier work by Memling that also depicted a Nativity. The Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi, today in the Prado in Madrid, shows the Nativity on its left wing and the Presentation in the Temple on its right wing. Considerably larger than the Floreins Triptych, with which it shares its iconographical program, the triptych is among the most conceptually ambitious works of Memling’s early career. In the present Nativity as well as in the Adoration of the Prado Triptych he simultaneously showed the frontal and the rear view of the stable, thereby presenting the exterior and interior to the beholder (see T. H. Borchert, Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden, in: Northern Renaissance Studies in honour of Molly Faries, Turnhout, 2008, pp. 87–93).

The motif of the two angels from the Prado Triptych in the present Nativity is significant, indicating that the painter most likely had access to drawings of single motifs or entire compositions that were kept in the workshop of Hans Memling.

Commonly regarded as one of the most influential painters of the Early Netherlandish School, Hans Memling was born between 1435 and 1440 in Seligenstadt on the river Main. He is documented for the first time in 1465 when he acquired citizenship in Bruges, a prerequisite to establish and run a painter’s workshop. Memling’s remarkable artistic skills greatly appealed to the religious institutions, the secular guilds and the wealthy families of Bruges. His compositions also drew the attention of the members of the affluent international merchant community who resided in the city, then still the unchallenged commercial centre of the Burgundian Netherlands. Memling’s production was remarkably prolific and had to be organized in a way that the painter was able to fulfill the demands of his clients. Throughout his career Memling varied his well-known repertoire, introducing his established motifs into new, ambitious and at times surprising compositions.

Memling’s workshop practices

There can be but little doubt that Memling kept a stock of model drawings in his workshop. The efficient use of inversed, added or omitted figures, as well as altered backgrounds and settings, give away the obvious use of templates. Memling’s efficient working manner enabled the painter to meet the specific demands of his clients without impairing the quality of the works, and create a variety of popular devotional images that were produced serially. His professional success enabled Memling to quickly expand his workshop. The painter was able to employ assistants and travelling journeymen, he also trained at least two apprentices in 1480 and 1483 named Hannekin Verhanneman and Passchier van der Meersch. By the 1480s, Memling’s workshop had become the most successful in Bruges, keeping this prominent position until the artist’s death in 1494.

The resemblance of the present Nativity with the figure types and the compositions by Hans Memling, strongly suggest that its painter was a member of Memling’s workshop. This assumption is further supported by the results of infrared reflectographic and radiographic studies of the panel, providing further insights into the workshop practices of Memling and his collaborators.
The entire composition seems to have been prepared with a dry drawing medium, presumably black chalk, which seems to have been applied in different stages. Simple contours of the stable’s architecture were drawn on a primed surface providing guidelines during the painting stage. The design of the stable remained essentially unaltered, even though the roof and step-gable of the building were originally planned to be a bit higher. Except for the faint lines contouring the castle in the centre, there are barely any underdrawings to be found in the landscape of the background. Circular scribbles used by Memling to indicate trees, visible in the Floreins Triptych, are missing.

All of the figures of the present Nativity have been carefully prepared with underdrawings. The underdrawings were continuously altered throughout the preparatory and the painting stages, where alterations were done. While the main features of the composition remain unchanged, there are multiple minor alterations, indicating the meticulous workings of an artist. This is particularly evident in the figure of Saint Joseph, whose left knee was originally larger and whose hands have been repositioned several times. A similar observation can be made with regard to the ox, whose head, eyes and horns were originally drawn more to the left and were shifted twice.

Continuing with the outlines of the figures and drapery folds, it can be said that the drawing style seems surprisingly free with spontaneously applied lines, revealing multiple minor alterations of scale and positioning in the underdrawing. The spontaneity of the drawing, however, does not indicate that the artist began to design the composition on the primed panel; it rather suggests the use of templates or model drawings, serving as guidelines during both the underdrawing and painting stages. This becomes particularly evident when looking at the dress of the Virgin. Although it is based on the folds of the Virgin’s dress in the Floreins Nativity, it is extensively underdrawn, with guidelines indicating the precise position and direction of the drapery folds almost as if it were an original design.

Although the underdrawings are surprisingly similar to those of Hans Memling’s Sint Jans Triptych in Bruges, it seems, especially in the drawing of the angels, that there are traits of a precarious and less experienced drawing style. Like the undisputed underdrawings of Memling, executed in a dry medium, the underdrawings of the present Nativity consists of single and double outlines, and angular folds that continuously end in angled or curved hooks. Receding folds are sometimes indicated by means of loose parallel hatches that occasionally cover larger areas of the painting to indicate darker zones. Next to parallel hatches that run diagonally, there is a small area of chequered hatches as can be seen on the left side of the newborn Christ.

All of the technical evidence supports the hypothesis that the present Nativity must have been executed by a close collaborator of Hans Memling. An artist who must have had access to Memling’s model drawings and was well versed in reading them. His working method, as evinced by the manner of his underdrawing, is closely related to Hans Memling; there can be no doubt about the fact that both artists closely collaborated for a longer period of time. We cannot be certain, why Memling would have left the execution of the entire painting to one of his assistants who seemed to have worked on the present Nativity quite independently but perhaps he was occupied with other parts of the commission or was engaged with other work. It is even possible to go so far as to speculate that the present Nativity might have been part of a commission that was unfinished at the time of Memling’s death in 1491 and had to be completed by the workshop. Be that as it may: there can be no doubt about the fact that the present Nativity is a highly important key work for a better understanding of Memling’s workshop practices towards the end of his career.

Provenance

It is not known who had commissioned the altarpiece of which the present Nativity originally was part of, nor are there any indications as to which church or chapel the altarpiece may have been intended for. From the fact that the painting has been in the possession of an aristocratic family for a long time, one can deduce that it might have been ordered by a member of this illustrious family. Memling might have known a member of this family through his membership at the illustrious confraternity of Our Lady of the Snow. In addition, the Hospital of Saint John was across the street and Memling’s altarpiece for the guild of the Tanners (The Seven Joys of the Virgin, Munich) decorated the church altar. Nevertheless a commission for the present work is not documented and given the vast circle of aristocratic families, we might never be certain of who commissioned the present work.

Condition

Painted on a panel that was made out of three vertically joined boards of oak, the present composition has remained in an astonishingly good condition, with only a few points of restoration in the main figures as well as in the background. Old restorations can chiefly be recognized along two joints of the boards, where movement of the wooden panel caused flaking and some losses of the original paint before the problem was treated by applying a cradle on the reverse of the painting. Minor losses also occurred at the edges of the painting and alongside a crack on the right side of the panel that extends from the upper right edge through to the middle of the column next to Saint Joseph, whose forehead also shows some small losses. In addition, the sky in the left upper corner must have suffered at some point in the painting’s history and was repainted extensively early on. These restorations, however, are inconsequential in their scale and nature as they don’t interfere with the remarkable condition of the paint surface, as evinced by the subtly applied thin white glazes on the red coat of Saint Joseph, which has been preserved in its entirety.

We are grateful to Till-Holger Borchert for cataloguing the present painting.



Additional images:
Fig. 1: Hans Memling, Jan Floreins Triptych, Memling Museum, Bruges Musea Brugge
© www.lukasweb.be - Art in Flanders vzw, photo Dominique Provost
Fig. 2: Hans Memling, Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi, 1470–1472, Museo del Prado, Madrid
© Museo Nacional del Prado

Infrared reflectograph of lot 12

Esperto: Damian Brenninkmeyer Damian Brenninkmeyer
+43 1 515 60 403

damian.brenninkmeyer@dorotheum.at


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