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Hans Memling, Saint John the Baptist

Key facts
Full title Saint John the Baptist
Artist Hans Memling
Artist dates active 1465; died 1494
Group The Donne Triptych
Date made about 1478
Medium and support Oil on oak
Dimensions 71 × 30.5 cm
Acquisition credit Acquired under the terms of the Finance Act from the Duke of Devonshire's Collection, 1957
Inventory number NG6275.2
Location Room 27
Collection Main Collection
Saint John the Baptist
Hans Memling

Saint John the Baptist stands in a kind of loggia (an open-sided gallery or room) with a tiled floor, wearing a hair shirt and holding his emblem, the lamb. This is the left wing of The Donne Triptych, painted by Hans Memling for the Welsh nobleman and diplomat Sir John Donne, probably in the late 1470s.

Memling ran a busy and efficient workshop and was renowned for reusing figures in different paintings. This Saint John is almost identical to the figure in Saint John the Baptist, also in the National Gallery’s collection. Only the setting has been substantially changed.

On the back of the panel, visible when the altarpiece was closed, Saint Christopher with the Christ Child on his shoulders is painted in grisaille (shades of black, white and grey) to look like a stone statue in a niche. Christopher was a hugely popular saint: he was the patron of travellers and also a protector against sudden death.

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The Donne Triptych


Courtier and soldier Sir John Donne kneels before the Virgin and Christ Child in the central panel of this triptych (a painting in three parts), which he commissioned, facing his wife Elizabeth and one of their daughters. With them are Saints Catherine and Barbara, two of the most popular medieval saints; the wings show Donne’s patron saints, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. On the outside of the wings Saints Christopher and Anthony Abbot are shown as stone statues in niches.

The younger son of a Welsh soldier, Donne was a career administrator who owed his fortune to King Edward IV. He and his wife wear the King’s livery collars. The composition is a version of Memling’s famous Triptych of the Two Saints John (Memling Museum, Bruges), which he worked on in the late 1470s. Perhaps Donne saw it in Memling’s workshop and asked for something similar.