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Travelogue A11

May 19, 2014

I have always shown a keen interest in altarpieces and religious art in general, and, to this end, Sint Janshospitaal was most instructive, containing as it does a number of Hans Memling’s well-known pieces. Therein, I found put to work a number of principles peculiar to multi-panel religious works, with which I have become fascinated in recent years. Consider, for instance, the St. Ursula shrine.

The side panels, three to each side, depict St. Ursula’s pilgrimage from home to Rome. One side is dedicated to the first half the voyage, one panel for Cologne, one for Basel and one for Rome. The return trip is depicted in reverse order, with the Cologne panel naturally portraying the massacre of Ursula and her company of 11,000 maidens. What holds my eye in the panels is precisely the way in which the juxtaposition of the three cities plays with spatiality. For, despite their framing and distinctive landmarks, the cities run into one another, at least as painted, with common buildings to be found to either side of the divide. So it is that the painter unites in iconographic space what must stand forever apart in the world of the outside. In the altarpiece, spatial relations undergo a sort of simultaneous compression and distension.

A similar process is to be observed in Memling’s Triptych of Jan Floreins.



The center panels depicts the coming of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem, the left wing preceding this moment and the right following the same. The temporal relation of synchronicity proves quite common in the genre as it allows multiple events, distant in time, to be represented more or less simultaneously though distinctly within a common frame of reference so as to make evident connections otherwise obscured by the separation of years and forgetfulness. Accordingly, although well executed, this synchronicity merits less attention than the spatial relation between the panels. Whereas there is a clear rupture between the spaces depicted in the center panel and right wing, a careful observer or reader of the painting’s description, as was my case, will note that the left wing and center panel depict one and the same building, albeit from different angles. To the left, the building is viewed from the rear by the onlooker; in the middle, the same building is seen from the front. Here, the spatial effect is not that of melding distinct spaces into one but, instead, of distending one space so as to take on the appearance of separate spaces, all of which serves as indirect and anticipatory confirmation of the extent to which space bends back on itself. This bulging of space is further brought out by the brown cloth overflowing onto the bottom portion of the middle panel’s frame.

As a final case in point, the portrayal of space in Memling’s Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove with the Virgin.



My first impression was that of staring into two different rooms, their only commonality that of being an indoor space. Yet, as the notice to one side suggests, these two rooms are one and the same, however ill at the joints they may fit together. At work within the frames is a process of distortion and distention. Although the space of the right panel is depicted as being roughly equal to that captured in the left panel, the former is in fact merely the right edge of the open space of the latter. This effect is achieved by breaking the room’s depiction at the corner where the walls meet, hidden as it is by the hinges between the panels, and by bending slightly back the space of the right panel and skewing the perspective. In this way, a single space is broken up into two, not through the bending of space back on itself, but rather through the artist and onlooker’s applying pressure to that space through the gaze. Only with reference to the objects littering the table and a highly reflective surface tucked away at the back of the left panel and in whose surface the panels’ interiors are confirmed as being the same space, can the panels be held up as a single room refracted.

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