Hans Memling’s Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove is no ordinary portrait. The subject Maarten van Nieuwenhove is pictured in a three-quarter view dressed in fine purple velvet. His hands are raised in a sign of prayer above an open manuscript, and his lips part slightly. The sitter’s gaze is fixed on a heavenly apparition of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child.
In 1487, a young Maarten van Nieuwenhove aged only twenty-three asked Hans Memling, the greatest portraitist in Bruges, to paint this intimate diptych. Memling was from Seligenstadt in Germany and is believed to have spent time in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden. The painter settled in the thriving economic center of Bruges in 1465. Linked to the North Sea by a series of waterways, Bruges was the leading cultural and commercial center of northwestern Europe during the fifteenth century. According to one 1437 account, Bruges was “the meeting-place of all the world” with as many as 700 ships departing the port daily. There, Memling’s patrons included local dignitaries, members of the Burgundian court, and persons of the foreign communities living in the cosmopolitan city. By 1487, the year inscribed on the frame of the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, Memling’s portraits were in high demand and especially popular amongst Italian merchants living in Bruges.
The oil on oak diptych is one of the most important of the fifteenth century, both for its innovative subject matter and for its condition. Over the intervening centuries, the panels of many diptychs and triptychs were separated. In some cases, once-joined panels are now displayed as independent compositions on the walls of a museum; more often, a single panel from a larger, multi-panel work is all that survives today. Remarkably, the two panels of Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove have never been removed from their original frames and remain joined by the original hinges.
Portrait or Christian devotional object?
With markers of material wealth, familial ties, and Christian piety depicted across both panels, the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove is at the same time a portrait and an object made for private religious devotion. The Virgin Mary and Christ Child appear in the left wing of the diptych. Mary is richly dressed in a deep blue garment that is decorated with a triangle of brocade edged with gold cloth and a series of precious stones and pearls. A thin band of black fabric ornamented with clusters of luminous pearls adorns her hair. A cape of vibrant red cloth drapes around Mary and her infant son, who sits on a patterned pillow in the immediate foreground. The relationship between mother and child appears natural: Mary demurely tilts her head and supports the weight of her son, with her right hand tenderly held to his stomach. The Christ Child reaches for an apple held by his mother. Here, the apple refers to the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and symbolizes original sin. The child’s gesture toward the apple signals the acceptance of his own crucifixion, during which Jesus Christ takes on the sin of the world to redeem humankind.
A portrait of Maarten van Nieuwenhove fills the opposite panel. The young sitter signals his material wealth and status as an elite citizen of Bruges through his dress. He wears a regal purple doublet made of velvet and a plum-colored overgarment. In Netherlandish works of art, material trappings like luxurious fabrics and jewels were often used to represent the status of figures. For example, in his The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck painted an Italian merchant and his wife in expensive garments. Lush furs, crisp lace, and heavy fabric dyed a vibrant shade of green all signal the foreign merchant’s financial success in Bruges.
Painted representations of luxurious materials were also used to glorify heavenly figures. In the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, the clothing worn by the Virgin Mary is decorated with precious red and blue gemstones and luminous pearls. She is doubly crowned: her hair is adorned with a band of clustered pearls and a halo of radiant light frames her downturned face.
Several pictorial devices ensure the easy identification of the richly dressed Van Nieuwenhove. On the right wing, a stained-glass window in the upper right depicts Saint Martin, the sitter’s name saint, on horseback. On the left wing, the window in the upper left corner features the Van Nieuwenhove coat of arms with the motto “Il ya cause,” meaning “not without reason.” The four roundels surrounding the coat of arms show a hand reaching from a cloud to drop seeds on the earth, an allusion to the family name Nieuwenhove, or “new garden.” Two additional roundels in the upper right depict Saint George and Saint Christopher, who must have held a special significance for the sitter.
In addition to visual identifiers, a Latin inscription spans both wings of the hinged frame. It reads “HOC OPVS FIERI FECIT MARTINVS DE NEWENHOVEN ANNO DM 1487 / AN° VERO ETATIS SVE 23,” which states that Maarten van Nieuwenhove commissioned the diptych in 1487 at the age of twenty-three.
The ultimate purpose of portrait diptychs, along with donor portraits in other media, is the salvation of the sitter’s soul. A donor portrait would directly associate the sitter with his donation in the eyes of God, and for those displayed in public spaces, might inspire viewers to pray on his behalf. Small-scale portrait diptychs were instead displayed within the home and only accessible to a limited audience. During a sitter’s own lifetime, a portrait diptych would promote personal meditation. In the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, the young sitter’s identity is emphasized with both visual and textual markers, thereby ensuring the identification of Van Nieuwenhove by future generations who might pray for his soul after death.
An expensive manuscript lies open in the foreground before the rapt Maarten van Nieuwenhove. Its pages still flutter, suggesting it has been laid down only a moment before. It seems the sitter’s reading has been interrupted by the apparition, the sudden appearance of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. Van Nieuwenhove is seen raising his hands in a gesture of prayer in response. His brown eyes gaze in the direction of the heavenly pair but appear unseeing. Does the diptych depict a vision, prompted by Van Nieuwenhove’s private devotion? Or do the Virgin Mary and Christ Child truly inhabit the home of the prosperous citizen of Bruges?
A unified composition
The format of a diptych, made of two separate panels or wings, poses a particular challenge: the composition is visually divided in half by the frame. The primary unifying feature of the composition is the setting, a room in Maarten van Nieuwenhove’s house. Both the Virgin Mary and Van Nieuwenhove are pictured situated behind a continuous ledge covered with an imported carpet, yet another marker of Van Nieuwenhove’s taste, wealth, and the market for luxury goods in the city of Bruges. The Christ Child is seated on a pillow, and the red cape worn by the Virgin Mary pools below her son’s outstretched foot and traverses the division created by the frame. Van Nieuwenhove’s manuscript lies open on a corner of her garment.
A convex mirror hanging on the wall of the left wing reflects both figures—the Virgin Mary seated on a stool and Van Nieuwenhove kneeling in profile. The reflection seen in the circular mirror makes clear to the viewer that the holy figure and sitter inhabit the same physical space. Memling’s representation of figures in a mirror adheres to Flemish pictorial tradition, where objects are rendered in nearly microscopic detail with careful attention paid to texture and reflective surfaces. In particular, the mirror recalls Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait. The distant landscape visible through open windows is continuous and records scenes of the Minnewater, or Lake of Love, located near Van Nieuwenhove’s house.
The object in space
Today, most paintings hang flat on the wall, but small diptychs like Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove were meant to be handled and displayed standing on a table or altar. The hinged format allowed owners to close the object like a book to protect the painted interior. Diptych exteriors, sometimes called reverses, were also painted, often with a patron’s coat of arms or emblematic imagery. In the case of the Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, red and black pigments applied to imitate marbled stone are now barely discernible.
The steep perspective of the wall painted behind Van Nieuwenhove suggests the right wing might be best viewed at an oblique angle in relation to the frontally rendered Virgin Mary and Christ Child. This display directs the gaze of the sitter more directly toward the pair, which has miraculously appeared before him, and better corresponds to the mirror’s reflection. Displayed with wings set diagonally, the three-dimensional object projects into the viewer’s space, and Memling cleverly incorporated this literal depth and angled display of the diptych into his design. The composition suggests that an ordinary, although in this case wealthy and socially significant, person can gain direct access to the Virgin Mary through the act of prayer. Thanks to the creativity and skill of Hans Memling, we, the viewers, can also share in Van Nieuwenhove’s vision!
Finally, the Virgin Mary’s red robe spills out of the picture plane in the bottom right corner of the left wing, and the pillow supporting her infant casts a shadow onto the frame’s smooth gilt surface. By extending the painted composition onto the frame, Memling further blurred the boundary dividing real and fictive space, the world the viewer and that of the divine.
Hans Memling’s innovative Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove stands in stark contrast to earlier devotional portrait diptychs, where subjects are pictured against a nondescript, monochromatic background. Here, the artist created visual unity between the hinged wings by situating the rapt Maarten van Nieuwenhove and radiant Virgin Mary and Christ Child within a coherent environment. The costly fabrics, jewels, and furnishings represented in meticulous detail remind the viewer of the sitter’s exquisite taste and elite standing within the prospering city of Bruges—an assertion no doubt echoed by the object itself, one of the finest surviving diptychs painted by the century’s leading portraitist.
Burgundian Netherlands: Private Life on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Lorne Campbell, The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools (London: National Gallery Publications, 1998).
John Oliver Hand, Catherine A. Metzger, and Ron Spronk, Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2006).
Paula Nuttall, From Flanders to Florence: The Impact of Netherlandish Painting, 1400-1500 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).