When interest in Hans Memling revived, about a century and a half ago, the truth about him, unearthed from archives in Bruges was not as romantic as previously conjectured. Memling was not Flemish, but German, and he had arrived in Bruges, not as a wounded soldier on his last legs who reformed and began painting pious little pictures in repentance from his previous incarnation as slaughtering, blood-soaked gallant knight, but rather as a master painter who was formed in the workshop of Rogier van de Weyden. He was listed among the 217 most heavily taxed burghers and he bought a substantial house. In other words, an early example of the bourgeois class and willing to show it to the world.
Certain deductions also fatten the Memling biography; since twenty five portraits by him have survived, considered a phenomenal number, h was obviously much sought after and since most of his clients were business tycoons, both foreign and domestic, we may assert that he had an international reputation. A look at his works, even in bad reproductions, reveals one quality in common: a gentle serenity. Memling lived in a day when warfare was regarded as a Godly calling and executions were a form of public entertainment; violence was everywhere and was nowhere more commonplace than art. Yet Memling had no stomach for painting martyrdoms. In 1488, the city magistrates of Bruges were accused of treason and tortured in the marketplace.
According to J. Huizinga, who quoted an eyewitness, “The unfortunates are refused the death blow which they implore, that the people may feast again upon their torments.” We are free to presume that on this occasion, Memling stayed home.
Odd how Memling’s landscapes seem more “primitive” , certainly with little sense of realism; works conveying a simplicity of vision that distances itself from some of the underlying complexities that does not evoke the same sense of childlike wonder that the portraits reflect: