St John Altarpiece (central panel)
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine.
Oil on oak panel, 173,6 x 173,7 cm
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges
By Hans Memling (b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
The central panel focuses upon a Sacra Conversazione, a gathering of saints around the Virgin. Mary is enthroned on a golden seat and is being crowned Queen of Heaven by two dark-blue angels who hover above her. St Catherine kneels on one side, recognisable by the instruments of her martyrdom, the sword and wheel, and from the wedding ritual. The attribute of St Barbara, kneeling on the other side, is represented as a white stone sacrament tower. The Eucharistic Host is visible through the traceried window in a glass cylinder mounted on a crescent moon. Although the Host was another attribute of this saint, it may also be interpreted here as an allusion to the Holy Mass - symbolism which is continued throughout the remainder of the scene.
The standing figures of the two St Johns on either side of the Virgin in the middle ground personify aspects of the Eucharist. St John the Baptist with the lamb at his side points with his right hand to the incarnated Jesus, the true sacrificial Lamb, who holds an apple in his hand to indicate that he is the new Adam. St John the Evangelist blesses his poisoned chalice in the manner of the priest during Mass. The sacral nature of the scene heightens the significance of the book held up to the Virgin by the angel kneeling like an acolyte on the right, and the music played by the angel with the portative organ on the left. Mary functions as a kind of divine, consecratory altar. The overall scene is thus a vision of the Eucharist. The composition of the group is perfectly symmetrical, as is the architectural construction to the rear that encloses them. It is a kind of apse, with an ambulatory, without walls or windows.
Memling was doubtlessly influenced by the architecture in Jan van Eyck's Virgin with Canon van der Paele, which he opened up and elongated to form a series of light columns, thus taking the setting a stage further. Six brownish-red, round marble columns stand in a semi-circle on a tile floor. They are surrounded by a second crescent of dark-grey composite piers, whose bases are linked by the straight edges of the floor, which thus forms a polygonal footing for the architecture. A simplified version of this construction is to be found in Memling's Granada Virgin. The floor-pattern is repeated several times in his work. Allowing for the aberrations arising from manual execution, the perspective is systematic and geometrically correct. The narrow vertical openings between the columns reveal a continuous landscape with ruins and buildings in which small episodes from the lives of the two male saints are enacted. The two wings each depict one such incident in enlarged form in the foreground. In addition to these realistic portrayals, the carved groups on the two capitals above each saint also depict key moments from their lives. The scenes connected with the altarpiece's principal figures are not, however, the only action going on in the landscape. There is a third background scene which, though interwoven spatially with the others, actually relates to the donors, namely the clerics of St John's Hospital in Bruges. It depicts the measuring of imported wine at the city crane by a monk from the hospital (behind St John the Baptist), and another monk on the far right, half obscured by a column. This striking and detailed little figure was once taken erroneously for a self-portrait of the artist. However, close examination reveals his features to be those of Jacob de Ceuninc. St John's Church, which no longer exists, can be made out next to the column to the right of the wooden crane, from where it could be seen. It forms yet another allusion to the St John theme.