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LAST JUDGEMENT, triptych, 1467 - 1471, Bruges, distemper, oil on panel.
Hans Memling, (~1435 Seligenstadt - 1494 Bruges)
middle part of triptych 241 x180.8 cm, wings 2 x 242 x 90 cm
Inv. No. MNG/SD/413/M
studium obrazu
 
   
 
 

  
  

© Ryszard Petrajtis
 
The altarpiece was ordered in 1465 by Angelo Tani, head of the Bruges branch 
of Medici's bank, and completed 1471 after Tomaso Portinari had been
appointed to that post. Originally designed for the church Badia Fiesolana in 
Florence, it never arrived at its destination. During in English - Hanseatic war it
was dispatched from Bruges together with other merchandise on the Burgundian  
galleon „St. Matthew” hired by Portinari. On the way to Italy the ship was to 
call at on of England's ports. Taking  part in the blockade of the  English coast 
a Gdańsk captain, Paweł  Beneke, in command of  the caravel „Piotr z Gdańska” 
captured the galleon with its  precious cargo on 27 April 1473. Hi divided the 
loot among the crew and the caravel's owners - Jan  Sidinghusen, Tiedemann 
Valandt and  Henryk Niderhoff. Found under the deck, the  triptych with the 
scene of the Last Judgement was given to St. Mary's church. It  was placed 
on a pillar next too St. George's chapel.
In spite of protests from the Medici and Portinari, who suffered damage  in this
incident, and in spite of the support from Charles the Brave, Duke of  Burgundy,
and Pope Sixtus IV, the masterpiece ( unknown to Gdańsk people at  that time )
remained in St. Mary's temple. On the basis of the partly legible inscription on
the altarpiece it was later connected with he name van Eyck. In the following
centuries multiple attempts were  made to attribute the painting to many other
Netherlands  masters. Only in 1843  H.G.Hotho established  Memling as its creator. 
This attribution was widely acknowledged and confirmed by contemporary 
researchers of the artist's work. 
The lawful owner's efforts to regain the altarpiece proved  fruitless. However, 
Memling's work was not supposed to remain in the calm and sacred  interior
of St. Mary's Church. During  the  Northern War ( 1716-1717 ) Russian  tsar
Peter the Great demanded the altarpiece two times as part of  the reparations
imposed on Gdańsk. The Town Council barely managed to prevent  the  
masterpiece from being taken away. In 1807 Baron Vivan Denon came to 
Gdańsk which was then occupied by the French Army, as Napoleon's  
plenipotentiary and the newly nominated director of  the Louvre Museums. 
He supplied the museum with pieces of art stolen in dominated Europe following  
Napoleon's orders. This tam Gdańsk citizens were unable to protect  their  treasure. 
The „Last Judgement” went too Paris. In the museum's catalogue it was listed
under number 563 as van Eyck's work.
After Napoleon's fall in 1815 the Prussian authorities the stolen pieces of art
and brought them to Berlin.On 18 January 1817, after a lot of effort, the  triptych 
was solemnly taken to St. Mary's Church. The painting was placed in St.Dorothy's  
chapel. In 1934 it made a short journey within in church; it was moved to St. Raynaud's 
chapel because of unfriendly climatic conditions.
The second World War scattered many precious pieces of  art and turned 
the city into ruins ( also  its  churches ). Evacuated before the war's end 
the „Last Judgement” fortunately survived. Found by the Soviet Army it went
to the Lenningrad Hermitage as a war trophy. On 22  September 1956  it was 
returned to Gdańsk together whit other pieces of art which also included things 
from the Gdańsk Museum. It was placed in the Pomeranian Museum (after 1972
the  National  Museum ) where it was given suitable conditions and excellent
care by restorers.
The „Last Judgement” is one of the earliest works painted by Hans Memling
who was born in Seligenstadt on the Main River  in 1440. During his artistic
career he went through the whole valley of the Rhine to settle down in Bruges
where he worked for the rest of  this life. The triptych was painted between 
1465 and 1471. The main scene is arranged in two parts. At the top we can 
see Christ sitting on a throne in a rainbow. He is accompanied by the Holy 
Virgin, St. John the Baptist and  the Apostles. In the top corners there  are 
angels who carry the symbols of Christ's passion; between Heaven and the Earth 
angels announce the day of the Last Judgement. At  the bottom there is a vast 
meadow  bordered by a glowing horizon with Michael  the Archangel who 
weighs the souls of the raised. To the right devils push a crowd of sinners down
to Hell; it is shown on the altarpiece's  right  leaf. The opposite side is occupied 
by a group of the just who calmly wait at the entrance into the Kingdom of
Heaven. On the left leaf they are welcomed by St. Peter at the foot of crystal
stairs leading to Paradise's gates.
The „Last Judgement” is admired for its perfect composition and the richness
and variety of themes it contains. They range from the portraits of donators on 
the leaves' back surfaces conveying a sense of  tranquillity and peacefulness to
the expressive and dramatic scenes with the damned. The mastery of using 
the oil-tempera technique, the skilful  subtle use of glaze, and the composition
of colours resulting in clear and deep coloration all allowed the artist to create 
a work of exceptional beauty. The illusion of perspective, movement, the 
delineation of figures, the precision and reality in  representing details astound 
lovers of 15h century Netherlands  paintings, and Polish and foreign art historians.
Without exception it makes an impression on everyone who looks at this 
expressive vision of reward and punishment after life on earth and makes one 
think deeply.
The eventful history of  Hans Memling triptych extends over five centuries
and is closely connected with the history of Gdańsk and Europe. It makes
the successive generations of Gdańsk citizens aware of what  an exceptional
and precious treasure they have.

                   
                                                      Krystyna Górecka - Petrajtis
 

 

 

 
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