It’s easy to go to Europe and get total Beautiful Antiquities fatigue. Between the towns and cities full of centuries-old churches, museums stocked with the riches that come with living in an old country, and the availability of these things to willing American tourists, you can become a particular kind of jaded. Truth: I realized on this trip that I actually am not all that interested in visiting old churches. They are beautiful, yes. And if there’s a certain local mythology going on, as there was in both Bruges and Brussels (more on that later), you learn about another aspect of the place you’re staying more viscerally than you could otherwise. But when I see ornate churches, lavished with riches and made with decades and centuries of labor from the faithful, I only see ruined lives and bent souls, both in the past and now. All the carved wood, stunning sculpture, and ancient gilding in the world can’t get me past that.
But the Memling Museum… that is a different matter.
The Memling Museum collects art, history, and medical paraphernalia from across the 800-year history of this hospital/nunnery/cradle of fine Flemish art.
I promise this makes sense.
Hans Memling was an adopted citizen of Bruges, and he created stunning commissions for, among others, the curiously flourishing nuns and priests of Sint-Janshospitaal.* So the museum collects some of Memling’s works, some of the tools used for palliative care of pilgrims who appeared in Bruges feeling poorly, and other artifacts from the hospital’s long history.
I was enthralled.
You should go, if you get the chance. But in case you don’t, here’s a thematic tour. I give you: a selection of people who are having a bad time in art in the Memling Museum.
Detail from Portrait of Francois de Wulf, anonymous, 18th century. The rest of this painting depicts a man who would like you to know he is quite skilled and prestigious, looking at us to reassure us of this and paying not nearly enough attention to prodding this child in the eyeball. Sorry, child. It wasn’t easy being a pilgrim in the 1700s. We get pairs of things for a reason, I guess.
Opthalmodouleia, das ist Augendienst, Georg Bartisch, 1535-1607. This is a page from a book meant to instruct you of something. Mainly, it instructed me that I should take a moment to be glad that I was born when I was. But I’m always glad of that.
Detail from The Anatomy Lesson, Anonymous, Bruges, 1679. Surrounding this man: a bunch of other men who look disinterested as only Flemish paintings of aristocrats can make a person look.
Intermission: GIANT FREAKING KIDNEY STONES, OH MY GOD. Not included: an explanation of the long, wonderful lives the people who produced these went onto live.
Hans Memling’s Virgin Nursing the Christ Child. This is one of the centerpieces of the museum, and for good reason. I draw. I make art. But I’ve never worked in oils, and the colors they can produce still stun me. I stood in front of this for a good minute, drinking it in.
But I have an inescapable truth for you.
And that is why Our Lady here is included in this roundup.
Detail from Magi, the Circumcision, and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Anonymous, Flanders, 16th century. I like this painting because our focus here has the distinct look of someone going, “Uh, hey, can we have a word? There’s more going on here than I signed up for.”
Detail from The Good Samaritan, Anonymous, Southern Netherlands, 16th century. At least we know this fellow has better things waiting for him on the other side. Of the story, not the great rift between the living and the dead. That too, I suppose, considering the theme of the museum.
And, finally, St. John Altarpiece, Memling, around 1479.
Ah, you hate to see that.
We didn’t make it to the Groeninge Museum (though I very much enjoyed reciting Rick Steves’ transcribed versions of how to properly pronounce said museum’s name), but we made the right choice. The Memling Museum, with its wonderful collision of ghastly history, transcendent beauty, and peculiar local history, was one of the highlights of the whole London-Brussels-Bruges trip for me. I was a bit surly on my day in Bruges, but the Memling Museum made all the tourist-dodging and other bits of sourness utterly worth it.
Though having cause to dash across a museum, whisper neckboob to someone you love, and dash back away… well, that is a balm for the spirits too.
*That is: in which I learn that not all people who dedicated their lives to Christianity took a vow of poverty! Because wow, those were some hefty commissions. My favorites: triptychs where the central panel depicts a pivotal moment of Christian mythology… and the two outer wings contain portraits of the priests, nuns, and monks who commissioned the works, staidly looking on as St. John is beheaded or someone important gets circumcised or something of that nature. And, in case you didn’t catch the likeness, many had their names painted above their depictions. I learned many things that day.