Easter is the celebration of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ, the annual commemoration of the event at the heart of Christian faith. Buttressed by six weeks of preparation and seven weeks of deepening reflection, it extends over a quarter of the year. The event also gives shape to every week in that each Friday to Sunday echoes the great event. At the heart is Christ’s journey to the cross, burial in the tomb and Resurrection, so perhaps it is appropriate to choose an image which seems to draw on the whole Paschal Mystery, rather than only the summit, the Resurrection.
This painting by Memling was brought to light from a private collection at an auction at Sotheby’s earlier this year. Hitherto, it had not featured in scholarly writing about Memling’s paintings. The attribution is now upheld by several scholars. It shows Christ blessing and was painted in the 1480s. It is a devotional image, close to other examples of the subject by Memling, the Christ Blessing in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts, dated 1481 and Christ Blessing in the Norton Simon museum, Pasadena and also Antonello della Messina’a earlier Christ blessing from 1465 in the National Gallery, London
The origins of the theme are complex and two fold. On the one hand they may lie originally in the icon of ‘extreme humiliation’ in Byzantine art in the 12th century. Even before the discovery of a shroud, purported to be that in which Christ was wrapped, brought from Palestine to Constantinople in 1204, already, linen for the consecrated species of the Eucharist had embroidered or painted on it the sleeping figure of Christ. The ‘extreme humiliation’ icon (Akra Tapeinosis) seems to have developed from this, and the shroud probably encouraged devotion. The icon shows the dead Christ, whose body lies in death while his divinity is awake and his soul is in hell. Sometimes the Christ is seen close up, and sometimes standing in the tomb. It is a Holy Saturday image, but still emphasises the divinity of Christ, whose katabasis saves us. In the West the image slightly changed and became more humanly focussed ‘the Man of Sorrows’, where the emphasis is more on the suffering of Christ, and on fostering our compassion in response. Sometimes the attributes of the Passion, the nails, ladder and sponge were featured, too. We can see this in the Memling’s Man of Sorrows, from the devotional collection of Queen Isabella of Spain in Granada. There were many artists who painted these for devotional purposes in the 15th century.
On the other hand, the image derives from the icon of Christ as the Saviour of the world, also found first in Byzantine iconography, and then in the west, which developed into images such as Roger van der Weyden’s Salvator Mundi in the Braque family portrait,and that recently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci where Christ is portrayed more clearly in majesty. These show Christ as a Saviour, as ruler and judge, sometimes with orb and sceptre. The painting is also reminiscent of Van Eyck’s Holy Face, seen in copies such as this from the Groeningen museum and other paintings after the Sudarium, the miraculous image of Christ’s face believed to have been imprinted during the Passion.
This image above, like the others by Memling, draws on all of these and seems to be of a more human Christ, rather than a Man of Sorrows type, or the Salvator Mundi. We cannot see his wounds, significantly, perhaps, because of the blessing he gives us. He does not emerge from a tomb, but his hand rests on a ledge. Indeed, the tips of his fingers on the left hand were painted on the frame, now lost, which further emphasised the reality of the figure in the viewer’s space. Nor is Christ magnificently enrobed or crowned, and holds neither sceptre nor orb. Nevertheless, this is the Resurrected Christ who blesses us in his conquering of death, even if the markers of this are limited and the space is indeterminate, Christ is shown as a human figure in time, yet also beyond time, the alpha and the omega.
In the Sotheby’s catalogue entry there is a detailed report on the painting. Research analysis shows that, originally, Christ’s head was surrounded by cerulean blue clouds which became whiter nearer to Christ’s head, a sign of divine light. However, it seems Memling over-painted this background with the gold ground appearing through dark clouds, making for an even more dramatic and celestial finish. In this respect it is close to the gold ground of Memling’s Salvator Mundi with musical angels dated 1491 in Koninkijk Museum.
In doing so, did Memling wish to accentuate the divinity of Christ to complement the humanity rendered so skillfully in the details of the beard and face? It is not clear whether the decision was at the request of a patron or a decision of the artist himself, but it serves to better portray both the humanity and divinity of Christ, and bring together his suffering and his triumph, ours, too, in Resurrection.