Hans Memling’s ”The Seven Joys of Mary” is a pageant as much as a painting, a dramatization of holy events in a landscape that might accommodate the revelry of a midsummer eve. Exactly what is going on is hard to sort out at first glance. Surely it is Twelfth-night , for what can only be the Magi and the Holy Family are in the forefront of the action. Yet it must be Christmas Day as well, for to the left of the throng at center is a radiant Nativity scene, observed through a window by two men in black. What is the city that sits in mid landscape like a crown? Jerusalem, no doubt, for such a skyline can only denote the home of kings.
It quickly becomes apparent that the space we see is not realistic, nor are the events simultaneous. The chief event depicted is the journey of the Three Wise Men. It begins in the farthermost distance, with each man perched on his respective mountaintop observing a star. The three join forces in the foothills; then they appear inside the walls of Jerusalem with King Herod and continue to Bethlehem, where they play their scene and depart, winding their way down to the sea to embark for home. But there is much else besides the Magi.
We see a flight into Egypt, a resurrected Christ, two annunciations, one ascension, one assumption, and assorted other miracles, all of them mingled with such everyday sights as horses drinking from a pool, boatmen plying a river, birds on the wing. No satisfactory title is known for this felicitous creation by the fifteenth-century master Hans Memling. ”The Seven Joys of Mary” is traditional if inaccurate, for Mary’s seven joys are specified by church tradition, and Memling has omitted a few.
Memling finished the painting in 1480, and it was hung in the Chapel of the Tanners in Notre-Dame of Bruges. it was commissioned by a wealthy member of the Tanners’ Guild, Peter Bultinc, who is portrayed as the foremost of the two observers at the Nativity. Behind him stands his son; his wife, oddly enough, has been relegated to the opposite side of the painting and given a chained monkey for a companion. No one knows what Memling had in mind here, but monkey’s were often used as a symbol of stinginess; perhaps Dame Bultinc was reluctant to spend whatever it cost to have Memling immortalize her.
Hans Memling is one of the school of great masters known as Flemish primitives. They are hardly primitive, except in the sense of being the first to paint with oils, and Memling himself was not even Flemish, though he did spend his productive years in Bruges. Flanders was at the time part of the duchy of Burgundy, the powerful medieval state that for a century stood between france and the Germanic kingdoms. Memling died in 1494, as Burgundy was crumbling and the high culture of medieval Flanders along with it.
Some time during this almost total eclipse the people of Bruges invented a yarn about Memling that made him out to be a profligate and libertine who had soldiered for Charles the Bold. This Charles, the last of Burgundy’s independent dukes was brutally slain in battle near Nancy in 1477, and it was said that Memling, wounded, had made his way from Nancy to Bruges and fainted on the doorstep of the Hopital Saint-Jean. The good sisters took him in, and Memling recovered, reformed, and began to paint pious little pictures.
The truth, unearthed from the archives in Bruges, turned out to be rather less romantic. Memling was not Flemish but German and had arrived in Bruges not as a soldier, but as a master painter. Married, with three sons, he was listed as one of the 217 most heavily taxed burghers and he bought a substantial house. Since twenty-five portraits by him have survived, he was much sought sought after; and since most of his clients were business tycoons, we may conclude he had an international reputation.