Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling, two masters from 15th century Northern Renaissance, were both commissioned during their lifetime to paint Last Judgement altarpieces. Although the works they produced have striking similarities, ultimately their dramatic differences create separate visions of the Last Judgement.
Rogier van der Weyden was born in Tournai in 1399 or 1400 but it is Brussels where he is associated with and where, in 1435, he became town painter and where he ran a successful workshop. He was highly esteemed during his lifetime and became known for the wonderful pathos in his work. Hans Memling may have been a pupil of Rogier and certainly was a follower. Memling, although born in Germany, was by 1465 a citizen of Bruges where he too operated a successful workshop until his death in 1494. Memling, although indebted to Rogier, was less interested in the pathos expressed by him and was “basically a painter of rational balance and order”. Although Memling’s Last Judgement altarpiece has distinct similarities to Rogier’s, it is unclear if he saw it. It has also been suggested that the similarities could derive from drawings that Memling acquired or knew of from Rogier’s workshop. However, in Memling’s altarpiece, the use of space, crowding of the figures and generally more turbulent image offset the similarities to give us two different
Visions of the Last Judgement.
Rogier was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy to paint an altarpiece (Fig 1) for a hospital he founded in Beaune in Burgundy in 1443. Rolin founded the hospital, as it’s charter states, “thinking of my own salvation”. The hospital’s main ward housed thirty beds, each accommodating two patients with the beds facing a chapel at the end of the ward. Rogier’s Last Judgement altarpiece was commissioned for this chapel to bring both comfort and warning to the patients and it was in place by December 1451. It has also been suggested that Rolin, who intended to be buried here, saw the altarpiece as a funerary monument for himself and his family. The two outer panels on the exterior wings (fig 3) depict both Rolin and his third wife, Guigone de Salins, kneeling in prayer, both identifiable by the coats of arms being held by the angels. The four remaining inner panels of the exterior wings contain depictions of the annunciation, St Sebastian and St Anthony, all painted in grisaille to look like statues.
Hans Memling’s Last Judgement altarpiece (Fig 2) was commissioned by Angelo Tani, a Florentine banker working in Bruges as director of the Medici’s branch there from 1450 to 1465. The date of the commission is unclear but it was completed by 1473 when it was loaded on a ship bound for Florence. Unfortunately, it never reached it’s destination being seized by a pirate ship of the Hanseatic League and brought to Gdansk in Poland where it now hangs in the National Museum. It had been intended for Tani’s burial chapel in the Medici church of the Badia Fiesolana in Fiesole, where it would have fitted perfectly over the altar and where it’s theme would have ‘been eminently suited for it’s function as a funerary monument’. The similarity with the Beaune Altarpiece begins with the exterior wings (fig 4) where the donors are depicted, again identified by the coats of arms, kneeling in front of paintings in grisaille of statutes of the Virgin and Child and St Michael. Barbara G. Lane has argued that the resemblances between the two altarpieces were probably specified by it’s patron, who like many fifteenth century patrons stipulated that their paintings be based on famous precedents. Lane further suggests that Tani may have specified to be painted in burial garments like Rolin had for his altarpiece and both altarpieces show the patron in black velvet fur-trimmed robes, suitable burial garments (Figs 3 and 4).
However, the most striking similarities occur in the interior panels where scenes from the Last Judgement unfold. The Beaune altarpiece is monumental and is set across nine panels over two registers, the size probably reflecting the need for it to be seem by all the patients of the hospital. The central panel of this polyptych depicts Christ in the upper section and the figure of the Archangel Michael directly below him weighing the souls of the dead. Christ is surrounded by four angels carrying the instruments of the passion and below Him are trumpeting angels announcing the day of Judgement. On either side of St Michael is the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist in their roles as intercessors for mankind. The seated twelve apostles and various dignitaries are spread behind the Virgin and Saint John. On the lowest part of the altarpiece, the naked bodies of the dead emerge from the ground and make their way across to either heaven on the outermost right panel or to hell on the outermost left panel.
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Memling’s altarpiece is not as monumental and is set across three panels in the format of a triptych, it’s size no doubt reflecting it’s intended destination. The composition has many similarities with the Beaune Altarpiece, notably the positioning of the Archangel directly under Christ, the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist on either side of him, the seated arrangement of the twelve apostles, the angels appearing above and below Christ and the naked figures of the rising dead heading either right or left to the outer panels depicting heaven and hell. However, it is the figure of Christ, where the similarities are so striking, that it is has been said to derive directly from Rogier’s. In both altarpieces, Christ the Judge sits on a rainbow wearing identical red copes both opened in exactly the same way to expose both the wound from the lance and the wounds on his feet, which rest on a globe. In each work, Christ’s right hand is raised in blessing and his left hand is lowered (Figs 5 and 6).
However, in his treatment of the figure of the Archangel, Memling introduces a significant variance from Rogier. In the Beaume altarpiece, the Archangel (Fig 7) is the largest figure and he dominates the foreground. His elongated body spans both heaven and earth with his feet firmly on earth and his head emerging from heavenly clouds. He is dressed in a sumptuous white alb with a magnificent red and gold cloak reflecting a priestly role.
On the other hand, Memling has placed the Archangel (Fig 8) firmly in the earthly realm and has depicted him in his role as a soldier, painting him in a suit of gold armour and showing him striking the damned soul in his scales with his cross-staff.
Memling’s treatment of the Virgin and John the Baptist also differs from that of Rogier. Rogier has placed them at the end of a rainbow and set them slightly apart from the seated groups giving them a more prominent role. He has further emphasized their prominence by employing a pyramidal structure to depict their figures. Memling, by contrast, has grouped the Virgin and John the Baptist more closely with the seated apostles and certainly, in the case of John the Baptist, has blended them with the group.
One of the most striking differences between the altarpieces is the use of space. Rogier has given over approximately two thirds of the picture to heaven and has confined the earth to a shallow foreground strip. Memling, by contrast, seems to have divided his central panel in two giving equal prominence to heaven and earth. Memling has given a greater sense of perspective to earth by allowing the flat plain behind the archangel to stretch into the far distance. This earthily space is populated by a far greater number of naked souls than in Rogier’s and into the middle distance, Memling has introduced the battle for the souls where we can see an angel and a demon struggle for the possession of one such soul (Fig 9). These naked souls spill out into the two outer panels in such a way that they form a semi-circular motion giving unity to the whole composition as well as a sense of turbulence. This contrasts with the horizontal line of the naked bodies in the Beaune altarpiece who are relegated to the shallow strip at the bottom and feature far less in the overall composition. As Barbara G. Lane has noted “the deep space and tumultuous activity in the center of the Gdansk Triptych…contrast, sharply with the limited space and hushed serenity of Rogier’s composition” thus summing up one of the striking differences between the works.
The overriding image in the Beaune altarpiece is a heavenly one and this is emphasized by the use of colour. A radiant gold background runs across approximately two thirds of the panels creating a celestial glow with the edges tinged with a beautiful reddish pink colour. Rogier also employs colour to balance the long horizontal nature of the composition by depicting one figure in each panel in either a red robe or cloak. He also uses colour to direct the viewer’s eye to the archangel whose white alb is the largest area of white in the compositionwhich in turn emphasizes the dominant role he plays. Memling too has employed gold to highlight the heavenly realm, but he has confined it, and therefore heaven, to a much smaller space. Although the archangel has a central role, it is less dominant than in Rogier’s and his suit of gold armour is more subdued than the white alb of Rogier’s archangel. Memling has, however employed much more colour to his earthy realm which, to the right of the archangel, he has painted a luscious green. To the left of the archangel, where by and large the damned appear, he has rendered a bare earth all stretching back to a blue horizon. By contrast, Rogier’s earth is brown and barren highlighting is more insignificant role in the whole composition.
The Last Judgement was a common subject matter in medieval art with the scene often depicted on tympana over church portals such as the one at the Cathedral of Saint Lazare at Autun, France (Fig 10). The scene usually included a terrifying vision of hell with demons wrestling for souls or else herding the damned into hell. Rogier’s interpretation was new in that it omitted any devilish figures which helps in a more serene vision of Judgement day. Memling reverts to the more traditional interpretation of the theme by including these demons reinforcing a more frightening vision of the day of Judgement. It is interesting to note, that even without these demons to herd them into hell, the damned in the Beaune Altarpiece move acceptingly towards hell looking every bit as terrified as those in Memling’s.
These two masterpieces of fifteenth century northern renaissance, created approximately twenty years apart, set out to give us two images of the Last Judgement. As laid out above, there are undeniable similarities in the two images most notably in certain areas of the composition and in the figure of Christ. Yet Memling has treated his altarpiece quite differently by including demons and the battle for the souls and he has employed compositional devices and techniques to give a very different image. In conclusion, these effects have given us one vision of the Last Judgement that it is somehow serene, namely that of Rogier’s, in contrast to Memling’s Last Judgement which is a far more terrifying vision of the Last Judgement.
- Borchert, Till-Holger, “Hans Memling” in Masterpieces in Detail: Early Netherlandish Art from van Eyck to Bosch, Prestel, Munich, London, New York 2014, 190-201
- Cuttler, Charles D., “Hans Memling” in Northern Painting, From Pucelle to Bruegel/Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Centuries, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1968
- Lane, Barbara G., Hans Memling, Master Painter in Fifteenth Century Bruges, Harvey Miller Publishers, London, 2009
- Pächt, Otto, Early Netherlandish Painting, From Rogier van der Weyden to Gerard David. London: Harvey Miller Publisher, 1997
- Lane, Barbara G., “Requiem aeternam dona eis”: the Beaune Last Judgement and the mass of the Dead, p 169 Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 19, No. 3 (1989), 166-180
- Lane, Barbara G., The patron and the pirate: The mystery of Memling’s Gdansk Last Judgement, Art Bulletin. Dec 91, Vol. 73 Issue 4, 623-640
 Cuttler, Charles D., “Hans Memling” in Northern Painting, From Pucelle to Bruegel/Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, 1968, Chapter 10, p 168
 Lane, Barbara G., Hans Memling, Master Painter in Fifteenth Century Bruges, Harvey Miller Publishers, London, 2009, p 22
 Beaune Altarpiece : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaune Altarpiececite ref-l171 16-0
 Lane, Barbara G., “Requiem aeternam dona eis:the Beaune Last Judgement and the mass of the Dead, p 169 Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 19, No.3(1989), 166-180
 Borchert, Till-Holger, “Hans Memling” in Masterpieces in Detail: Early Netherlandish Art from van Eyck to Bosch, p 190, Prestel, Munich London New York, 2014, 190-201
 Lane., Hans Memling, Master Painter in Fifteenth Century, Bruges, p 129
 Lane., Hans Memling, Master Painter in Fifteenth Century, Bruges, p 133
 Lane, Hans Memling, Master Painter in Fifteenth Century Bruges, p 133-134
 Lane, Barbara, G., The patron and the pirate: The mystery of Memling’s Gdansk Last Judgement, Art Bulletin, Dec 91, Vol. 73 Issue 4, 623-640
 Pächt, Otto, Early Netherlandish Painting, From Rogier van der Weyden to Gerard David. London: Harvey Miller Publisher, 1997 p 228
 Lane, The patron and the Pirate :The mystery of Memling’s Gdansk Last Judgement, p 627
 Lane, “Requiem aeternam dona eis”: the Beaume Last Judgement and the mass of the Dead, p 177
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