Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Sir John Donne was a Welsh knight who accompanied King Edward IV to the Low Countries on a number of occasions in the 1470s. Presumably this work was commissioned during one of these visits. The small size of the triptych would suggest that it was intended as a portable altarpiece which could be used as a focus for his devotions during his travels.
The wings show Sir John’s two name saints. To the left St John the Baptist holds a charmingly cute Lamb of God. Behind the Baptist, half hidden behind an Italianate pillar, a man looks on — perhaps fearful of gatecrashing such an august assembly but nevertheless wanting to see more. St John the Evangelist appears in the right wing holding his chalice complete with emergent snake (when challenged to drink poison he is reputed to have made the sign of the cross over the receptacle thereby turning the poison into a serpent).
The central panel is a little more crowded. The Virgin sits on her throne backed by gorgeous damask. On her lap the Christ child is diverted by an angel. Everyone else looks as though they are lost in meditation or prayer. Kneeling to the Virgin’s right we see Sir John, hands together at his devotions. He is presented by St Catherine who holds the sword with which she was beheaded. Facing him, his wife and eldest child are presented by St Barbara, a possibly mythical saint who was locked in a tower by her pagan father. Memling has integrated her tower into the landscape and on the other side of Mary, near to St Catherine, he has also depicted a mill wheel which is a reference to the instrument of Catherine’s (unsuccessful) torture before her decapitation.
In common with many of his other triptychs the same background scene of bucolic peace seems to extend across all three sections. A good number of his works found their way to Italy where these exquisite background landscapes influenced such painters as Perugino and through him Raphael.
A marvellous serenity pervades every corner of this picture. All is still and contemplative. An ideal and flawless utopia is presented to us — a setting suitable for the heavenly personages who are attendant to the needs of the Virgin and her child. The symmetry of the composition lends further gravitas to the hushed atmosphere.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
c1478 Sandro Botticelli: Primavera, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
1480 Hugo van der Goes: Dormition of the Virgin, Bruges, Groeningemuseum