Hans Memling (Flemish, ca. 1440–1494), The Triptych of Jan Crabbe, ca. 1467-70. Oil on panel. Center panel: Image courtesy of Pinacoteca Civica di Palazzo Chiericati, Vicenza. Left and right panels: © The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Graham S. Haber.
Completed around 1470 in Bruges, Hans Memling’s extraordinary Triptych of Jan Crabbe was dismantled centuries ago and the parts were scattered. The inner wings from the altarpiece are among the finest paintings owned by the Morgan Library & Museum, where they have long been on permanent view in museum founder Pierpont Morgan’s study. Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece, opening on September 2, reunites the Morgan panels with the other elements of the famous triptych: the central panel from the Musei Civici in Vicenza, Italy, and the outer wings from the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, Belgium.
This exhibition—on view through January 8, 2017—is the first to explore the reconstructed masterpiece in context. The altarpiece will be surrounded by other paintings by Memling and his contemporaries, by a choice selection of illuminated manuscripts from Bruges, and by a group of Early Netherlandish drawings. Aside from the triptych fragments from Italy and Belgium, loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, and a private collection will complement a range of works from the Morgan’s own holdings.
“It is always meaningful—and moving—to see a great work of art made whole again,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum. “The Crabbe triptych is a masterpiece of the first order and shows a relatively young Memling demonstrating many of the characteristic elements of his work—crystalline realism, spatial sophistication, and the ability to capture the humanity and individuality of his subjects. We are delighted to offer visitors the opportunity to see this work in its full glory for the first time in the U.S. and to explore the artistic milieu in which it was created.”
I. Triptych of Jan Crabbe
Morgan acquired the triptych’s inner wings in 1907. They were part of an altarpiece commissioned by Jan Crabbe, Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Ten Duinen, near Bruges, Belgium. On the central panel, Memling depicted the crucifixion of Christ, with the Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Mary Magdalene to the left of the cross. Kneeling to the right of the cross is Jan Crabbe, accompanied by his name-saint St. John the Baptist and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian order. The two inner wings depict members of the patron’s family: his mother Anna Willemzoon with St. Anne on the left, and his much younger half-brother Willem de Winter with St. William on the right. The outer wings, originally visible only when the panels are closed, feature an Annunciation scene with the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. It is not known precisely when or why the work was dismantled, though it was not unusual for composite pieces such as triptychs to suffer this fate.
The Triptych of Jan Crabbe is a fine demonstration of Memling’s extraordinary ability to capture the essence of the human face. In particular, the left panel portrait of Anna Willemzoon is one of the most frank and extraordinary depictions of old age from the Renaissance.
Indeed, in later years, Memling’s portraiture would come to revolutionize the genre across Europe. Similarly transformative, the Annunciation scene features Gabriel and the Virgin Mary clad in white drapery and set on pedestals in niches like sculptures, but with rosy flesh tones in their heads and hands, making them one of the earliest examples of the technique of demigrisaille in Flemish painting.
II. Triptych of Jan Crabbe in Context
Paintings by Memling and his Contemporaries Several independent portrait paintings from Memling’s early and late career offer further evidence of Memling’s extraordinary talent as a portraitist. Although Memling’s painterly style developed as he grew older, his ability to capture the essence of his sitters’ personalities never changed.
Memling did not work in isolation, and a painting representing the Virgin and Child with St. Anne by a contemporary artist known as the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend provides an ideal counterpart to the triptych with its broad landscape and similar iconography. It shows how Memling’s production fits alongside that of other painters in Bruges, while also highlighting how his technical abilities surpassed most others.
Manuscript Illumination in Bruges
In the fifteenth century, Bruges was an important center for manuscript illumination. Memling’s development of the demigrisaille technique has generally been traced to his time spent in Cologne, but in fact, varieties of grisaille and demi-grisaille were regularly used in Bruges manuscript illumination in the decades prior to the painting of the Crabbe triptych, as will be shown with a selection of Books of Hours from the Morgan’s rich holdings. Conversely, the radical naturalism of Memling’s painting seems to have served as an inspiration to the manuscript painters. Superb manuscripts from the Morgan’s collection will show that reflections of Memling’s painting technique began to appear in manuscript painting towards the end of the fifteenth century.
Drawings by Memling’s Contemporaries and Followers
No original drawings by Memling survive, and those by his contemporaries are extremely rare, but it is clear that drawing played a fundamental part of his artistic practice. Several exquisite drawings by Memling’s contemporaries and followers from the Morgan and the Metropolitan Museum of Art will give an impression of the array of drawing types Memling must have executed in his lifetime.
III. Beneath the Surface: Technical Study of the Crabbe Triptych
Technical study of the Jan Crabbe panels has revealed fascinating aspects of the altarpiece’s evolution. With infrared imaging (IRR), Memling’s graphic style can be seen in the lively underdrawings that lie beneath the layers of paint. Differences between the underdrawing and painting show that Memling made changes to the initial composition. X-radiographs show that he also made changes during the actual painting process