Bruges, Belgium: Church of Our Lady and Memling Museum


For 600 years,
the Church of our Lady has stood, with its
400-foot-tall tower of bricks, as a memorial to the power
and wealth of Bruges at its height. Inside, reclining statues mark the tombs of the last
local rulers of Bruges, Mary of Burgundy, and her father,
Charles the Bold. This delicate Madonna and
Child is said to have been the only Michelangelo statue
to leave Italy in his lifetime. It marks the tomb of the
wealthy Bruges businessman who bought the statue
in Tuscany. Mary, slightly smaller
than life-size, sits while young Jesus stands
in front of her. Their expressions are mirror
images of each other, serene but a bit melancholy,
with downcast eyes, as though pondering what lies
ahead for the young child. Though they’re
lost in thought, their hands instinctively
link, tenderly. Just across the street,
a monastery ran a hospital. It recalls how the sick
were treated. It also displays masterpieces
by the great Flemish painter, hometown boy
Hans Memling. Some 500 years ago, the
nave of this former church was lined
with the sick and dying. Nuns served as nurses. In many ways, this was less
a hospital than a hospice. It helped the down and out
make the transition from this world
to the next. Rather than dying
in the streets, they died here,
with dignity. Care was more for the soul
than the body. Religious art reminded
those suffering that Christ could feel their
pain, having lived it himself. Today, rather than
the sick and dying, the wards now house a handful of exquisite
paintings by Hans Memling. Memling was a master
of Flemish primitives. Primitive is not an insult;
It was a 19th-century term for the nostalgic,
pure and spiritual art of these highly skilled
15th-century oil painters. Employed by and often
portraying Belgium’s wealthy, they captured their world
in astonishing detail. Hans Memling’s
“St. John’s Altarpiece” was designed to comfort
patients in the hospital. Gazing at this
slice of heaven, they could imagine leaving
this world of pain and illness and joining Mary and Jesus
in a serene setting, listening to heavenly music
and conversing with the saints. Memling’s heaven echoes
wealthy Bruges in the 1400s, showing the city skyline, oriental carpets
that passed through here, fine furniture manufactured
by the city, and the latest
Italian fashions. In the right panel, Memling then takes us
on a journey to the end of the world. John the Evangelist sits
on the island of Patmos, transfixed as he envisions
the apocalypse now. He writes down
his vision, a revelation
of the end of time, which eventually becomes
the last book of the bible, “Revelations.” Up in heaven,
in a rainbow bubble, God opens the seals of a
book, unleashing awful events, fires, plagues and wars that stretch as far
as the eye can see. The dreaded four horsemen
gallop across the dreamscape, chasing helpless mortals
who scramble for cover. In the
“St. John Altarpiece,” Hans Memling shows us the
full range of his palette, from medieval grace
to Renaissance realism to avant-garde surrealism,
all in a luxurious setting somewhere between Bruges
and heaven.

7 thoughts on “Bruges, Belgium: Church of Our Lady and Memling Museum

  1. Thank you so much my friend Rick, well, I wish you a nice, satisfying evening …
    Best regards from Basel, Switzerland, Hans-Peter

  2. Whenever you see some anonymous character kneeling in adoration in a religious painting, very often it's a portrait of the donor, the one who paid for the art.

  3. I think the things John saw were/are normal to us. We don't know it. A war here or there…I really do think God hears everything we say. Be careful what you say 🙂

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