Bruges continued to be an important trading city until the end of the 15th century. Due to a difficult political situation, an overly protectionist trade policy and the silting up of Het Zwin, however, the city was ultimately obliged to relinquish its pre-eminent role.
At around this time, many artists were still active in Bruges. The most influential of these was undoubtedly Hans Memling. This master, originally of German descent, was attracted by Bruges’ artistic climate and was highly successful, including as a portrait painter. With the Moreel Triptych, he created one of the first large-scale group portraits in history.
Around him, there were many artists at work whose names are no longer known, but to whom an oeuvre of works can be attributed on stylistic grounds. They were assigned a provisional name, for example the ‘Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula’ or the ‘Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy’. The latter can perhaps be identified as Fransois vanden Pitte, but the research results on this are not (yet) conclusive.
This diptych was created by adding a portrait of the donors to an existing devotional scene. This explains the difference in scale between the two depictions. The donors are standing closer to the viewer, their physical proportions are wrong, and they are more crudely realised than the highly stylised and refined Virgin on the left-hand panel, who sits on a throne before a canopy.
Legend has it that Christ’s face appeared on the cloth with which Veronica wiped away his sweat and blood during the walk to Golgotha. The subject, which is based on older Byzantine icons, became popular in devotional panels. The Bruges Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula made a number of versions of this image. This panel was probably commissioned by an Italian sojourning in Bruges.
This is the true face of Christ. It is shown to us by Saint Veronica. She is dressed in exceptional finery. When Jesus carried his cross to Mount Golgotha, Veronica wiped the sweat and blood from his face, which then miraculously appeared on her veil. Or so the ancient legend says.
You are looking at a work by an unknown Bruges master from the time of Hans Memling, which means he was working in the last quarter of the 15th century. Like Memling, this Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula, as he is called, also received commissions from Italian merchants who resided in Bruges. This panel soon ended up in Italy, in a Franciscan monastery in Tuscany. It was copied by the Italian painter Piero di Cosimo.
Impressive figures of Christ, similar to this one, are also known from the work of Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. The prototype dates back to earlier icons from Byzantium. The subject was popular with clients, including those in Bruges. A panel such as this would have been placed in a private chamber where prayers were said. Contemplating the true face of Jesus, which was devoid of suffering, deepened the act of devotion.
The Groeningemuseum purchased this work from a private owner in 2019. The panel is in very good condition, although the top and bottom have been added. For a painting by a Flemish primitive to reach the market, and for a Flemish museum to be able to buy it, is a very rare occurrence.
On the panels of this altarpiece, of which the middle section has been lost, the legend of the English princess Ursula is depicted in cartoon form. Ursula was only prepared to marry on two conditions: that her fiancé convert to Christianity, and that she be allowed to go on a pilgrimage. Ursula and her extensive entourage were murdered by Huns while on their way to Rome. The women at the top, Church and blindfolded Synagogue, illustrate the victory of the New over the Old Testament. On the outer panels, the evangelists and church fathers are depicted in shades of grey.
These lively panels look like a medieval cartoon strip. The legend that they recount in eight episodes was extremely popular at the time. Before we reveal the story, we’ll tell you who the painter is: The Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula. In other words: we don’t know his identity. In this case, art historians use what is known as a ‘provisional’ name. Still, the anonymous painter lived at the end of the 15th century and was a member of Hans Memling’s generation. His name may have been Pieter Casembroodt…
Now for the story. It does not have a happy ending. The main character is Saint Ursula, a princess. A heathen prince asks for her hand in marriage, but Ursula only wants to accept the offer if he converts to Christianity. She also seeks permission to make a pilgrimage to Rome. Accompanied by 11,000 virgins, or so the story goes. The journey ends badly: on the return trip, Ursula and her extensive entourage are murdered in Cologne by barbarian Huns. We warned you that there was no happy ending, although the massacre did provide a wealth of relics. This partially explains the story’s popularity. The final scene depicts the veneration of the Ursula relics.
What we see here are the side wings of an altarpiece. The central panel has been lost. Depicted on the back are the four evangelists and four church fathers, painted in shades of grey. And finally, there are still the two figures at the top: to the left is a self-confident looking woman who represents the Church, while the blindfolded figure to the right stands for the Synagogue. She allows the stone tablets, bearing the Old Testament laws, to slip from her hands. This symbolises the triumph of the Church over the ancient Jewish faith.
The portraits on the side panels of this triptych are among the oldest of all Flemish group portraits. The wealthy Moreel family from Bruges, who commissioned the piece, are portrayed alongside their patron saints. This painting hung in their family chapel in Saint James’s Church. On the middle panel, in between Saint Maurus and Saint Egidius, the Christ Child sits on Christopher’s shoulders. A sublime landscape runs across the three panels.
First take a look at the background of this triptych, at the imaginary landscape panorama that spans all three panels. When Hans Memling created this work, at the end of the 15th century, the art of landscape painting was gradually becoming a genre in its own right. Memling’s landscapes were a source of inspiration within this development.
Apart from being a sublime landscape, this work is one of the oldest Flemish examples of a group portrait. Kneeling on the left is Willem Moreel, and on the right, his wife Barbara van Vlaenderberch alias Van Hertsvelde: these are his clients. Their patron saints stand by their sides, while their children kneel behind them in prayer. The Moreel family was a large one. Willem Moreel came from a well-to-do Bruges merchant family. He was even the mayor of Bruges for a short period, until he opposed Maximilian of Austria’s power grab for the Low Countries and their cities. In 1485, the family went into exile for three years.
Who are the figures in the central panel? Of the three saints, the man carrying the infant Jesus on his shoulders is Saint Christopher. Together with Jacob, he was the patron saint of Saint Jacob’s Church, the parish church of the Moreel family. The Moreels established a family chapel in the church in 1484, which would later house their family tomb and this painting. The two other saints in the central panel are Maurus and Giles. They refer to the couple’s surname: Maurus and Moreel have the same origin, and Saint Giles’ attribute was a deer. Moreel’s wife’s surname was Van Hertsvelde – and the Dutch word ‘hert’ means ‘deer’.
The Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy received the majority of his many commissions from Spaniards, who appreciated his bright colour tones and elongated figures. The monumental altarpiece was made for the Dominican Monastery of Lekeitio in the Basque Country. The luxuriously dressed clients on the panels are probably the nobleman Nicolás Ibáñez de Arteita and his wife. They are likely to have commissioned this altarpiece from the Bruges artist via an intermediary.
In the 15th century, there was a high demand for devotional panels, small religious paintings that were intended for the practice of faith in the private realm. The decision to depict the saints in close-up was intended to foster empathy, as is the case on this panel, which was commissioned by the Genoese merchant Andrea della Costa. The front shows a detail from the descent from the cross, while the reverse shows a close-up of Saint Andrew, the commissioner’s patron saint.
These Annunciation panels were part of a triptych that was ordered by Jan Crabbe from the Abbey of the Dunes in Koksijde. The triptych was dismantled so that the panels could be sold separately, a common practice from the 18th century onwards. These are the backs of the sawn-through panels. The fronts with the commissioners’ portraits are held in New York (Pierpont Morgan Library), and the middle panel with the Crucifixion in Vicenza (Museo Civico).