A New Memling!

A previously unknown panel by Hans Memling (ca. 1435-1494) has recently been discovered in a private collection on the East Coast of the United States. Yours truly had the opportunity to examine the panel and to verify the suggested attribution in New York at the beginning of November 2012. The spectacular discovery will be auctioned at Sotheby's in New York at the end of January 2013.

The newly discovered panel consists of an oak plank and measures 34.5 x 26.3 cm. The painting depicts the image of Christ Blessing. On the one hand, this iconography fits in with the tradition of portraits of Christ by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1385/90-1441), and on the other hand is clearly based upon the figure of Christ as Salvator Mundi in the centre of the Bracque Triptych (ca. 1452; Paris, Musée du Louvre), a painting originating from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464).

Hans Memling produced various paintings with the theme of Christ Blessing, which can be considered a variation of the iconography of the Salvator Mundi. A version of Christ Blessing by Memling is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is dated 1481 on the original frame. Another, somewhat earlier, version is part of the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena (California). The measurements of both two panels differ only slightly from the newly discovered painting, suggesting the use of a common model drawing that Memling used to produce several version of the theme with only minor variations.

In contrast to the two paintings from Boston and Pasadena, in which Memling placed the bust of Christ against a neutral (once coloured) background, the figure of the Salvator Mundi in the newly discovered version is shown in front of a golden background. Here, gold is the symbol for the divine nature of heaven and is bordered by dark clouds in the work, which were painted in a very distinctive manner.

Memling repeatedly combined a golden background with dark-grey clouds in a characteristic way. This combination is found for the first time on Memling's triptych of the Last Judgment (ca. 1469-1473, Gdansk, Muzeum Narodowe), with clouds that were apparently directly inspired by Rogier van der Weyden's red-grey clouds in his Polyptych of the Last Judgment (Beaune, Hôtel-Dieu). Between 1475 and 1495, one also finds this combination in a series of Memling's paintings that are related to the newly found panel. In the first place, one should recall two small fragments of angels, which were painted around 1475 and make up a part of a dismembered triptych, the center of which is lost (Paris, Musée du Louvre; Wallace Collection, London). The same combination can be also seen in a representation of the figure of the Salvator Mundi that is a portion of the small Polyptych (1485, Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux-Arts), which was commissioned by a member of the Lioani family from Bologna. Finally, we find grey clouds in combination with a gilded background on all the three monumental panels of the dismembered Najera Altarpiece that are in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA, ca. 1485/90).

Similarities between the newly discovered panel and the above-mentioned pieces (in particular the panels from the KMSKA collection) are numerous, especially in regard to the painting technique. Furthermore, the chalk underdrawing, which was made visible via infrared reflectography, reveals the typical characteristics of Memling's extremely loose and free drawing style. In addition to stylistic arguments, the evidence-derived technical examination suggests an attribution of the panel to the Bruges master beyond doubt.

Dendrochronological research shows that the panel was probably painted just after 1480. From the stylistic point of view and considering the thinly applied layers of paint, it appears to be from somewhat later than the version in Boston. A dating around the middle of the 1480's is, taking into account the chronology of Memling's oeuvre, the most plausible.

The discovery of Christ Blessing is a spectacular addition to the oeuvre of Hans Memling. In short, it is an important acquisition for the genre of painting for the Flemish Primitives. The painting's provenance is from an Italian collection and was auctioned in 1859 in Paris as a work by "J. Memling". Since that time, the painting was in the possession of the heirs of the purchaser, who had settled in America. Up until now, the painting was kept for more than 150 years in the same family and had not come to the attention of art historians.

Till-Holger Borchert (Chief conservator at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges)

(News item 21 December 2012)