Memling, tears of the damned and a magic rainbow

To commune with one of the greatest painting masterpieces in the entire world, and the only work by Hans Memling in Poland, from the same distance as the painter himself over five centuries ago, when he stood in his atelier in front of a primed board, on which he created his vision of the Last Judgement with a brush dipped in colour tempera, is… something one can normally only dream about.

And even then, it is difficult to dream everything that is in this painting, created with such verve and yet with a precision of a miniaturist depicting the smallest detail, such as shiny drops of tears on the faces of the damned, or the realistic reflection of different scenes and characters on Michael the Archangel’s golden armour.
Fortunately for the museum conservators and physicists, such a dream can become a reality, which then always becomes an indisputable privilege, but also a great challenge. And we – experts from the National Museum in Krakow and the Institute of Catalysis and Surface Chemistry from the Polish Academy of Sciences – were incredibly lucky to be in such close contact with Mamling’s masterpiece after we had been asked by the Director of the National Museum in Gdańsk to carry out comprehensive research, evaluation and documentation of the current conservation state of the triptych as well as the analysis of its exposition requirements in the Gdańsk museum. So we packed all our specialist research equipment and set off from Krakow to Gdańsk.

Memling, The Last Judgement

Memling’s altar, which consists of three elements – the central image and two wings painted on both sides – was removed from the cabinet, dismantled and placed on a specially prepared structure, which allowed easy access to individual images and safe research. During the works, lasting from 8 to 13 February, not only did we very closely inspect and examine every square centimetre of “The Last Judgement”, but – thanks to modern methods using different types of electromagnetic radiation – we also saw and documented what is invisible to the naked eye, and what happens under a layer of paint.

On that occasion, we once again confirmed how important and fruitful interdisciplinary research into a work of art can be. The cooperation of specialists in various fields (in this case, conservators and physicists) in addition to the assumed tasks and objectives, may – sometimes even by accident – provide us with completely new knowledge, or pose new questions. While working together in Gdańsk and admiring the mastery of Mamling’s painting skills, we marvelled at his uncompromising quest for a precise depiction of details and we repeatedly went back to the realistically painted tears on the faces of the damned.

But thanks to the physicists from our group, we learnt that the master’s quest for a comprehensive representation of details sometimes led him astray. Our colleagues – physicists – noted that the depiction of the rainbow, namely its reflection in the golden sphere under Christ’s feet, does not correspond to the laws of optics saying that a rainbow is visible only from a specific angle. So if we assume that it is the viewer standing before the painting who can see the rainbow, it cannot also be visible in the reflection on the sphere. Was Memling unaware of it and made a mistake, or did he create a magical rainbow on purpose? The question remains open.

We were able to answer the vast majority of the remaining questions which constituted the goal of our research. Last Friday (13 February), we completed our research in the Gdańsk museum and upon our return to Krakow we will begin to analyse the results. Then we’ll prepare final reports and guidelines for the conservation strategy of Memling’s triptych, and we’ll present our findings at an international conference which is planned this year by the Director of the National Museum in Gdańsk.

Janusz Czop – Deputy Director for Conservation and Collection Storage at the National Museum in Krakow.

Photos: documentation of the research into „The Last Judgement” by Hans Memling (property of the National Museum in Gdańsk). Archives of the National Museum in Krakow.

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