This wooden door dates from the 1600s. Nowadays it’s the door to the Saint Cornelius Chapel but that’s not the place it was originally made for. It’s called the Apollonia door and it once belonged to the Saint Apollonia Chapel, though that has disappeared. But in earlier times, Saint John’s Hospital had chapels that were actually in the wards.
One of those chapels was dedicated to Apollonia, a saint who lived in Roman times. Apollonia was very popular in this part of the world, particularly if you were suffering from toothache. Like many saints, her speciality was related to the way she’d been martyred – Apollonia had all her teeth broken and pulled out with pincers. That also explains why her attribute is a pair of pincers. Saint John’s Hospital owned a relic of Saint Apollonia. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was a tooth!
You’re looking at what’s called a wall tabernacle or aumbry. A tabernacle is the receptable in which the Reserved Sacrament – the consecrated wafers or hosts – is kept for when the Eucharist or Holy Communion is celebrated. A wall tabernacle like this one is a splendid piece of late-medieval interior architecture. It’s made in sandstone and the doors are copper. It dates from shortly after 1400.
The scene carved in relief above the door depicts the Agony in the Garden, an episode from the last days of Christ’s life. Jesus has gone to pray in a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Some of the disciples have come with him but have fallen asleep. Christ kneels and gazes upwards, searching for a sign from God. The bushes, flowers, brook, and fence evoke the garden. The other characters on the tabernacle are prophets with banderoles and angels playing music.
In Saint John’s Hospital, two worlds were inextricably linked: the world of faith, and the world of care. That people in the Middle Ages felt faith as a physical presence is shown by this diptych, painted by Hans Memling. It still has its original frame and the original hinges.
We’re in Bruges. If you look through the window behind the praying man you can see the bridge over the lake known as the Minnewater, or ‘lake of love’. The Latin inscription that runs across the bottom of the frame tells us that the man is Maarten van Nieuwenhove, and that he had this diptych made in 1487, when he was twenty-three. His velvet doublet and fur-lined robe show that he’s very well-off: Van Nieuwenhove belonged to one of the city’s rich patrician families and even became Bruges’s burgomaster. The stained-glass window behind him depicts his patron saint, Saint Martin, cutting his cloak in two so he can give half to a beggar – an exemplar of Christian charity. Maarten was just thirty-six when he died.
Maarten’s prayers are directed to the Virgin and Child, who have appeared to him in that same room. Jesus reaches out to take an apple from his mother’s hand. In other words, he accepts his burden – to die on the Cross for man’s salvation. We can see that Mary realizes that this will be her son’s destiny. In the top left corner are the Van Nieuwenhove arms and motto: Il y a cause, which means ‘Not without reason’. The four identical roundels show a heavenly hand emerging from a cloud to sow golden seeds upon the earth. This is probably a play on the family name, ‘Nieuwen-hove’ or ‘new garden’.
Have you noticed the convex mirror just behind Mary? It reflects the seated Virgin with Maarten kneeling at her side. As if Memling is suggesting that they are both really here, in the same room – that this is not a vision but actual reality.
This is the figure of Christ as he awaits his crucifixion. Sitting on a rock, practically naked, completely alone. His hands are bound, his eyes are downcast, on his head is the excruciating crown of thorns. It’s plain to see that he accepts his fate. His robe is draped over the rock.
This kind of figure is called ‘Christ on the Cold Stone’. It was hugely popular in the fifteenth century and shortly after 1500 as well – that’s when this life-size version was made. It used to stand in the graveyard here. Figures like this, from the Passion of Christ, were intended to evoke empathy and compassion, and so strengthen one’s faith.
In the Holy Land, pilgrims venerated the ‘cold stone’ on which Christ was believed to have waited while his executioners prepared his Cross. And the scene was often performed in Passion plays. That probably inspired painters and sculptors. Even so, there’s no mention of this episode in the accounts of Christ’s life and works as told in the Gospels
Even after hundreds of years, this young woman still fascinates us. Hans Memling has portrayed her as if she’s sitting at an open window, gazing out. Look at the way her fingers seem to be resting on the frame. As if she wants to enter our space. Like she was right next to us, or we were next to her – in 1480, as it says at the top.
But look most of all at her expression, absorbed in her thoughts… We can tell from her appearance that she belongs to Bruges’s wealthy burgess class. Her clothes and jewels are plain but fashionable – a necklace with a gold cross and precious stones, and rings on several fingers. Her stylish hairdo, with its very high, plucked hairline and the hair itself concealed inside the hennin, was very much in vogue at the time.
We don’t know who this young lady is. Though we do know who she isn’t. She’s not a character from Antiquity, despite what it says in the cartouche in the top left corner. That’s a later addition. So is the writing on the banderole at the bottom, though the banderole itself is authentic.
Everyone wanted their portrait painted by Hans Memling. And looking at this one, which is both realistic and idealized, it’s clear to see why.
Saints were believed to play a crucial part in making you well. They protected people, and they were invoked against every imaginable illness and complaint. Each saint had his or her own speciality. And before or after they’d helped you, you’d offer them an ‘ex voto’ – a sort of thank-you present – perhaps in the shape of the limb or the part of the body that had been affected.
This monumental statue represents one of those popular saints. His name is Cornelius, and the chapel we’re in now is the Saint Cornelius Chapel. His cloak is gilded with gold leaf and the triple tiara on his head tells us that Cornelius was once the pope. It’s very rare to find a late-fourteenth-century statue whose polychrome is so well-preserved.
Cornelius live in the third century. His invariable attribute is a cow’s horn. The Latin word for horn is cornu, which sounds like his name: Corn-elius. He was invoked against the falling sickness, as epilepsy was commonly called, and he was also the patron saint of cattle. With and without horns…
The Saint Cornelius Chapel was used by the Saint Cornelius Guild. The guild promoted his veneration and they held their services here. We know from a contract between the guild and the hospital governors that the guild was supposed to redecorate the chapel in return for being allowed to use it. But after an argument with the sacristan the guild had to look for a chapel elsewhere.
That was not the end of the veneration of Cornelius. Until not so long ago, many children in Flanders were given ‘Cornelius’ as a middle name. To protect them from fits.