The Virgin Mary and Christ Child are enthroned beneath a canopy and before a cloth of honour of the kind displayed behind medieval kings and queens.The naked child is balanced on her knee and crumples the pages of an open book. The unidentified donor kneels on the right: he was presumably called George as Saint George stands behind him, the limp and lifeless body of the dragon that he killed is at his feet.
Memling ran a large workshop, and certain oddities in the composition – the way the Christ Child reaches out towards nothing, for example – might indicate that this is the work of an assistant. But technical analysis suggests an alternative explanation. The painting was done very quickly and there are many changes between the underdrawing and the final painted version, including the head of the donor. The picture may be attributed to Memling himself, perhaps working under unusual constraints, for a difficult and impatient client.
The Virgin Mary and Christ Child are enthroned beneath a canopy and before a cloth of honour of the kind displayed behind medieval kings and queens. The cords holding up the canopy would once have disappeared behind the now-missing frame; the carpet at the Virgin’s feet is said to resemble a Turkoman hali. The naked child is balanced rather awkwardly on his mother’s knee and he crumples the pages of an open book, the inscription of which was never intended to be legible. On the left, a half-kneeling angel wearing an alb plucks at a lute.
The unidentified donor kneels on the right. He is soberly dressed, with a dagger and purse at his belt. We know nothing about him, although he was presumably called George: Saint George stands behind him, his banner in one hand and the limp and lifeless body of the dragon that he killed at his feet. The group are arranged in a kind of loggia that opens onto a walled garden behind. The man leaving through the gate in the corner appears to be Saint Joseph. Behind the wall is a landscape, with ships on a stretch of water on the left and a woman with a basket on her head walking along a road near a large building on the right.
Almost every element in the picture can be found in other paintings by Hans Memling. Both Virgin and Child are remarkably similar to these figures in The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (The Donne Triptych), and the resemblance is even closer in the underdrawing. The Virgin is very close to that in his Virgin of Jacob Florens (Paris, Louvre) and in the Triptych of the two Saints John. The pattern of the cloth of honour and the tiled floor recur in in the Donne Triptych and in other paintings.
Memling ran a large workshop, and certain oddities in the composition – the way the Christ Child reaches out towards nothing, for example – might indicate that this is the work of an assistant. But technical analysis suggests an alternative explanation. The painting was evidently done very quickly: infrared reflectograms show that the underdrawing is hasty and schematic and that parts of the painting, like the angel and the lute, were painted at great speed. There are also many changes between the underdrawing and the final painted version. Saint George’s head was initially drawn slightly higher and at a different angle, and his banner was considerably altered, as was the donor’s head.
If the painter was not Memling himself, then he was an associate with a commanding knowledge of Memling’s pictures and access to his workshop designs. The alterations in the donor’s head and the apparent speed of execution suggest another possibility, however. Could the faults with the composition have been caused by the patron rather than the artist? Patrons at this date would have instructed the painter as to what they wanted shown in their pictures. The commissioner must have set the painter an impossible task when asking for a balanced arrangement of these five principal figures. He was clearly unhappy with the first version of his portrait, which had to be redone. He may also have wanted the painting finished in a hurry. The painting may therefore be attributed to Memling himself, working under unusual constraints, for a difficult and impatient client.
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