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Hans Memling’s ‘St. John Altarpiece’, and its role in medieval healthcare


St. John’s Hospital (mid-12th century) in Bruges, Belgium is one of Europe’s oldest hospitals, extending its medical functions until 1977. After this, part of the complex was transformed into a museum focusing on the work of German-Flemish painter Hans Memling (around 1430), who created a large body of work for St. Johns, through commissions from the hospital’s nuns. On December 16, 2023, the museum reopened after extensive renovations, as a space dedicated to exploring the history of care and hospitality, alongside existing painting works; these played an important role in caregiving at the hospital through the spiritual strength they bestowed on the infirmed. The museum’s conversion has been overseen by Musea Brugge, a Flemish heritage institution that oversees the operations of various museums all over the city of Bruges. Anna Koopstra, Curator of early Netherlandish painting, Musea Brugge, and Anne van Oosterwijk, Director of Collections, Musea Brugge join STIR in an interview that explores the tryst between the St. John Altarpiece (around1479)—Memling’s most striking work at the hospital—and the institution’s history of caregiving.



‘Triptych of Adriaan Reins’, oil on oak, 1480, Hans Memling | STIRworld
Triptych of Adriaan Reins, oil on oak, 1480, Hans Memling Image: Dominique Provost; Courtesy of St. John’s Hospital Museum and Musea Brugge


Memling is believed to have purchased citizenship in Bruges in 1465, eventually rising through the city’s social ranks to become one of its richest citizens. His social and financial success owed to his skill as a painter, which he employed to create religious works, often incorporating donor portraits. The Memling collection at St. John’s Hospital happens to be the second largest in the world, with his works having been commissioned by the nuns as a part of their commitment to upholding Christian values, as well as to provide the sick and infirm in their care some measure of solace during their convalescence. Memling’s contributions to the hospital include the massive St. John Altarpiece, (around 1479), which is a triptych that folds out and is richly painted on both its outer and inner panels. Along with the altarpiece, several other religious works by the artists, along with gowns worn by nuns of ages past are on display at the museum, in conjunction with medieval medical instruments, medicine jars, a pharmacy and a herb garden. Together, these reinforce the idea that in an era before the advanced medical technologies we now have access to, medicine and faith were closely linked, and that caregiving considered both the body and the spirit.



‘St. John Altarpiece’, oil on oak, 1479, Hans Memling | STIRworld
St. John Altarpiece, oil on oak, 1479, Hans Memling Image: Johannes De Doper and Dominique Provost; Courtesy of St. John’s Hospital Museum and Musea Brugge


The outer panels of the St. John Altarpiece feature portraits of donors kneeling in prayer before their patron saints. When opened, we witness three vibrant panels, with the leftmost depicting the beheading of John the Baptist, the rightmost portraying John the Evangelist seated before a vision of the apocalypse, and the central panel featuring an enthroned Virgin and Child.



‘Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove’, oil on panel, 1487, Hans Memling | STIRworld
Diptych of Maarten van Nieuwenhove, oil on panel, 1487, Hans Memling Image: Maartenfoto and Hugo Maertens; Courtesy of St. John’s Hospital Museum and Musea Brugge


The work has been pored over by various scholars over the years, each bringing new insights to its reading. For example, art historian Craig Harbison pays close attention to Memling’s separation of seemingly mundane and divine affairs on the outer and inner panels of the altarpiece as a conscious separation of the earthly and heavenly realms. Koopstra and van Oosterwijk offer a different interpretation, telling STIR “The division between the donor figures on the exterior—the friars and nuns in charge of governing Saint John’s hospital—and the heavenly realm of Saints John the Evangelist and the Baptist on the interior, is a matter of custom and has to do with the function of altarpieces with foldable wings. In practice, it also means that the figures on the exterior would be on view for most of the time, as the altarpiece would only be opened on Sundays and other Feast Days when Mass was celebrated.”



A sculpture of a human heart at the St John’s Hospital Museum | STIRworld
A sculpture of a human heart at the St John’s Hospital Museum Image: Courtesy of St. John’s Hospital Museum and Musea Brugge


Koopstra does not believe that Memling’s St. John Altarpiece presents a particularly strict division of realities, and supports this with the example of a friar close to the right-hand edge of the central painting in the inner panels. The curator duo tell STIR, “It is the genius of the artist Hans Memling to be able to seamlessly weave together these different realities—of the heavenly/eternal and of the everyday—in this grand, monumental altarpiece, rather than to separate them.” They believe that the hospital’s patients would be in awe at the sight of this lifelike depiction of the earthly and heavenly realms intertwined and that the altarpiece, like many of Memling’s other works at St. John’s would give them solace that even if they were to pass away, they would be rewarded in the next world for adhering to Christian values.



A view within the St John’s Hospital Museum | STIRworld
A view within the St John’s Hospital Museum Image: Courtesy of St. John’s Hospital Museum and Musea Brugge


The altarpiece’s depiction of St. John the Baptist’s execution, which is believed to have occurred in 28 C.E., was regarded as a brutal act of political persecution even in its own era. One wonders how referencing such a shocking event could ever have had a calming effect on the infirmed in the hospital. And then there are the visions of the apocalypse as well, which feature the Four Horsemen running rampant on Earth as locusts descend from the skies. Koopstra and van Oosterwijk explain that these violent events are defining moments in the lives of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist and that they reflect on the human experience of those who lived at the time that the altarpiece was completed. In their words, “Death was a part of everyday life. The Last Judgment was something everyone could relate to, especially those who were very close to death. Memling’s altarpiece stimulated the viewers to think about these matters.” They add that, just as the division between the worldly and heavenly in the late Middle Ages was less strict than it would appear to be, so too was the division between body and soul. “Being sick and cured was a matter concerning both faith and medicine.”

Being sick and cured was a matter concerning both faith and medicine.
– Anna Koopstra, Curator of early Netherlandish painting, Musea Brugge, and Anne van Oosterwijk, Director of Collections, Musea Brugge

The duo end their interview with STIR by reminding us that Memling’s works, created nearly 550 years ago, still hold their ability to make us think deeply about the passing of time and eternal human values, and that it is in these meditations that the solace within his art is to be found.

The Museum St. John’s Hospital is open to visitors in Bruges from Tuesdays to Sundays, 9:30 am to 5:00 pm.



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