Last Judgment Triptych by Hans Memling
Interpretation, Analysis and Meaning of Flemish Altarpiece

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Last Judgment Triptych by Hans Memling
Last Judgment Triptych (detail)
By Hans Memling.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Last Judgment Triptych (c.1471)


Interpretation of Last Judgment Triptych
Other Famous Northern Renaissance Altarpieces


Artist: Hans Memling (c.1433-94)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Altarpiece art
Movement: Netherlandish Renaissance movement
Location: Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk.

For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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Interpretation of Last Judgment Triptych

This impressive triptych altarpiece by the German-born Flemish painter Hans Memling is one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of 15th century Flanders. A student of Roger van der Weyden, one of the most influential Flemish painters, Memling specialized in creating harmonious religious paintings out of numerous figures and carefully observed details, further enhanced by the three-dimensional modelling of his forms as well as the hues of his rich Renaissance colour palette. Painted in his late thirties, only a few years before the sublime Donne Triptych (1475-80, National Gallery, London) it is Memling's most monumental work. One might say that it stands at the point of transition between Gothic art (like that of Hieronymus Bosch) and the Renaissance in Florence. The work was painted in Bruges then shipped to Italy. En route, however, it was seized by pirates and carried off to Poland. It now resides in the Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk.




This work of Biblical art was commissioned by Jacopo Tani (1415-1492), a Florentine banker and representative of the Medici Family in Bruges. An associate of the Italian financier Tommaso Portinari, who would shortly commission the Bruges artist Hugo van der Goes (1440–1482) to paint the celebrated Portinari Altarpiece (1476-9), Tani intended the work for the altar of his family chapel in the church of the Badia Fiesolana in Florence, and timed it to coincide with his wedding in 1466 to Caterina Tanagli (1446-1492), with whom he is shown on the wings when closed. Upon completion, the panel paintings were consigned by ship from London to Porto Pisano in 1473, except that when it was off the Dutch coast, the ship was seized by a privateer in the pay of the Hanseatic League who were then engaged in a blockade of English trade. The painting was confiscated and taken to Danzig (Gdansk), where it has remained ever since.


In the central panel of Memling's work, Christ is depicted as the Maestas Domini enthroned above a rainbow with his feet resting on a globe representing the earth. A lily (symbolizing Mercy) and a sword (symbolizing Justice) emerge from his mouth, mirroring the palm-up blessing of his right hand, and the palm-down condemnation of his left. He is surrounded by the Apostles, as well as the praying figures of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, who intercede for human souls, plus a number of angels bearing instruments of the Passion.

Down below on earth, Archangel Michael, who stands on the border between the green, rich soil to the left and the brown, bare plain to the right, propels the naked sinners into Hell (right panel), while the righteous are steered upwards into Heaven (left panel). Greeted on a crystal glass stairway by Saint Peter, the procession of the saved - led by pope, cardinal and bishop - are then given clothes by angels. A golden aura surrounds the Gates of Paradise - a richly decorated archway complete with angelic choir and orchestra. The architectural mix (Gothic portal, Romanesque towers) together with the image of the creation of Eve in the gablet, joins together the beginning and end of human history, and symbolizes the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven, as foretold in Revelations (3:12).

In contrast with the left panel, depicting the ordered ascent of the righteous into Heaven, the right panel shows the damned being ruthlessly cast down into the bowels of a volcanic Hell by black demons, carrying an assortment of weapons and instruments of torture.

The two extremes are linked by a flowing semi-circular pictorial line of nude bodies, which lends the whole work a sense of harmony and balance. As it was, Memling did not see his figures as purely anonymous representations, but gave them individual facial features. How many of these figures are genuine miniature portrait paintings is impossible to determine. Nonetheless, the figure kneeling in the left scale of the Archangel has been identified as Tommaso Portinari, Jacopo Tani's partner. In the background of the centre panel, behind Archangel Michael, a detailed landscape - showing the valley of Josaphat, the site of the Last Judgement - stretches to the horizon.

Grisaille Exterior

When the outer panels are closed, we see pictures in grisaille of the donor Jacopo Tani and his wife Caterina kneeling in prayer, before their individual recess containing (in his case) a statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, and (in her case) St Michael battling with demons. The theme is the victory of St Michael over the Devil, who was threatening the Virgin and Christ Child.

Development of Van der Weyden's Flemish Style of Painting

Memling's triptych preserves several traditions of religious art which were used earlier in the century by his teacher Roger van der Weyden in the latter's Last Judgment (1446-52, Musee de l'Hotel Dieu, Beaune) also known as the Beaune Altarpiece. The central figures are still Christ and Archangel Michael with the scales, but the latter has been transformed from a priest into a soldier. But Weyden's wide, hieratical picture has been streamlined and made clearer by reducing the disproportionate relationship between the divine and earthly spheres. In addition, Memling appears to have added a velvety softness of pigment and a delicate transparency of colour.



Other Famous 15th Century Northern Renaissance Altarpieces

Other famous examples of religious Flemish painting include:

Entombment Triptych (1410, Courtauld Gallery, London) by Robert Campin.
Merode Altarpiece (1427, Metropolitan Museum, NY) by Robert Campin.
Ghent Altarpiece (1432, St Bavo's Cathedral) by Hubert/Jan van Eyck.
Three Kings Altarpiece (c.1440) by Stefan Lochner.
Last Supper (1464-8, St Pieterskerk, Leuven) by Dieric Bouts the Elder.
Portinari Altarpiece (1476-79, Uffizi, Florence) by Hugo Van Der Goes.
Donne Triptych (1477-80, National Gallery, London) by Hans Memling.
Church Fathers Altarpiece (1483, Pinkothek, Munich) by Michael Pacher.

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