Easter: the whole story
Hans Memling (c.1430 -1494): Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1470-71; oil on wood panel; 56.7 × 92.2 cm. Turin: Galleria Sabauda)
This gem of a painting tells the entire Easter story as a literal procession of events through Jerusalem. Beginning with the triumphal entry in the top left-hand corner, the story unfolds down the left-hand side, as Jesus drives the money-changers from the Temple; Judas conspires with the Jewish leaders in a dark alley; Jesus celebrates the Last Supper in the upper room; and then he goes out to the Garden of Gethsemane where he is arrested.
In the central section we re-enter Jersualem where Jesus is tried before Pilate, in the left-hand of the five scenes at the back of the courtyard. We then get the sense of the shuttling between trials that Jesus endured, as he then appears on the right-hand side in front of Herod, before being brought back to the centre where he is mocked and then scourged. Finally, he is led out by Pilate in the ‘Ecce homo’ scene.
The procession then leaves the city at the bottom of the central section, where we see Jesus stumbling under the cross and being helped by Simon of Cyrene. Ahead of him the two thieves, stripped and bound, are in the crowd heading up the hill to Golgotha, where we see Jesus crucified, and then later, to the right, taken down from the cross.
To the right of the procession that left the city we see three scenes following the crucifixion: at the top Jesus is laid in the tomb by Joseph and Nicodemus; at the bottom, set against the mouth of a cave is the ‘harrowing of hell’, and in between is the resurrection, as Jesus stands at the mouth of the tomb.
Finally, in the top right-hand corner are three scenes in which Jesus demonstrated the reality of his resurrection: the meeting with Mary Magdalene, the journey to Emmaus and the miraculous catch of fish (we can just make out a boat on the lake, and a single figure standing on the shoreline). Perhaps, by implication, the story then moves on to Samaria and the ends of the earth.
The painting is unified by the fall of light from the right. So the story starts in the dark on the left, and then moves in the direction of the light, pointing us to the rising of the sun on Easter Sunday, and the dawning of not just a new day but a new era, as the good news of new life goes out into all the world. The image is bustling with energy, with the wealth of figures, activity and detail. The work is also unified by the beautiful city of Jerusalem, shown here as a typically medieval Flemish walled town, albeit Romanesque rather than Gothic, as a possible nod to the historical nature of the events.
The painting was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an Italian banker living in Bruges, and his wife Maria Baroncelli: we see them kneeling in the bottom left and right corners. The Portnari family had their own chapel in the church of St Jacob in Bruges, and this may well have been where the painting first hung. But they presumably took it back to Italy at some point, because the first extant recording of the painting is in the collection of Cosimo I of Florence in 1550.
It is a delightful painting, showing the Easter story with vivid realism through richly imaginative story-telling, detail and colour. But I find it particularly moving because it encapsulates the whole story, unlike most Easter-related paintings that focus on one particular event.
It reminds us that the wholeness of the Easter story is vital. The crucifixion without the resurrection would be tragic. But as part of a story that begins with the King entering his capital city on a humble donkey, and ends with the triumph of his resurrection, it resonates with hope.
The crown of thorns on its own would be an act of cruel mockery: but in the context of the whole story it is pregnant with meaning, for Jesus really is the King, and this is how he rules; and this is why they wanted to get rid of him.
In isolation, Peter’s denial and the crowing of the cockerel (seen high up in a niche just as the arresting party re-enters the city) would be a permanent shame on him. But in the context of the whole story it is a beacon of hope that all of us can be forgiven and restored through what Jesus achieved on the cross. For there Peter is again – at least in our imagination - in the boat at the top right, leaping into the water to come to Jesus, who reinstates him.
The coherence and unity of the story is vital and compelling, hopeful and joyful; and this painting conveys that story with a compelling and beautiful simplicity.
* * * * *
Hans Memling was born c. 1440 in Seligenstadt, near Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. He studied in Cologne and then in the Netherlands under Rogier van der Weyden (1399 – 1464). He continued to live in the Netherlands, where he enjoyed great success as a painter, with commissions to paint around thirty altarpieces, many religious works and over thirty portraits. In c. 1480 he painted a second ‘narrative’ painting, The Advent and Triumph of Christ, now in the Alte Pinakotek, Munich. He died in Bruges in 1494.
[An edited version of this article was published by ArtWay, 2 April 2017. To subscribe to the weekly ArtWay visual meditations, or view other articles in the series, go to www.artway.eu.]