In my Northern Renaissance course, we are learning about portraitures. Two fantastic portrait artists that we have covered are Petrus Christus and Hans Memling. Both artists come from Flanders (even though Memling was born in Germany).

I think that Flanders is probably the second best area that flourished during the Renaissance era, after Italy (of course, this is just my opinion). The 15th century in Flanders shows immensive progression in technique and style from the medieval period, especially because of the use of oil painting. In addition, along with religious artworks, there was an increase in the production of portrait pieces.

Particularly, Peter Christus and Hans Memling, in my opinion, show amazing detail in their portrait work.

One example by Petrus Christus is his Portrait of a Carthusian created in 1446.

Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446

Image from the MET

Christus was considered the leading painter of Bruges after the death of Jan van Eyck in 1441. Here we see this a Carthusian, a Catholic monk, in such detail that it is almost appears as if he is in front of us. You can see the veins coming out of his head, the rosy cheek complexion, the reality of his beard, etc. Christus includes a background that is not purely black but has a red color with light. The Carthusian is staring at the viewer while sitting slightly angled in order to show us his three dimensionality. There is also a fly on the body of the frame that messes with the viewers’ eyes, a technique called Trompe-l’œil.

Screenshot 2018-10-01 at 9.24.45 AM - Edited

Close image of the Carthusian’s eyes

The next example is Hans Memling’s Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove created in 1487.

Hans Memling, Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, 1487

After seeing this work, it is now added to my favorite paintings collection because WOW! Memling was able to execute this work extremely well. He included Mary and Baby Jesus, as well as the donor Maarten. These two panels are believed to be put in a diptych, looking something like this:

Hans Memling, Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, 1487

This work was commissioned by Maarten van Nieuwenhove and it is meant to be a vision of the Virgin Mary; it is most likely a vision he had as he was gazing out in prayer. Mary here is depicted beautifully and lavishly. Memling uses some artist techniques from van Eyck, such as the jewels, beautiful and heavy robes, simplicity of the faces, etc. Yet, in class we talked about how Memling was able to create depth and three dimensional features without having to consistently layer the oil painting, as van Eyck had to do (such as in his Ghent Altarpiece) – possibly showing that he may have mastered the technique of oil painting a bit quicker than van Eyck had. However, I think the most EXCITING feature about this work is that Mary is portrayed as actually being in the room with Maarten:

Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove close up on mirror

Close up on convex mirror

This close up shows a convex mirror created by Memling to show the back of Mary and Maarten. I absolutely love this piece. For one, it shows the brilliance of Memling being able to achieve a detailed convex mirror of these feature’s backs, much like van Eyck was able to create a reflection in his Arnolfini Portrait:

Additionally, it is most definitely hard to create a realistic appearance of the back of two figures, and also to include some of the background in the mirror. These tiny features in artworks are some of the features that include viewers in, making it seem like our world intertwines with the paintings.

Aside from these works, there are also other portrait pieces that were commissioned by Italians from Flanders. This is most likely because they were interested in this newer idea of portrait making with was more common in Northern Europe during the 15th century.

The interesting thing about portraiture paintings is that through these works we get a sense of the individuals. In the Northern Renaissance course with Dr. Irwin we went over the loss that comes with some portraits that are unnamed or unidentified. It’s a loss because individuals had these portraits made in order to have people remember them, and there are many works in which we don’t know who these individuals are. It’s also a loss because some of these portraits are amazing artworks and show great detail of figures and their lives, and we don’t know who they might be.


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