Opposite the entrance to the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk is St-Janshospitaal, a sprawling complex that sheltered the sick of mind and body until well into the nineteenth century. The oldest part – at the front on Mariastraat, behind two church-like gable ends – has been turned into the slick Hospitaalmuseum, while the nineteenth-century annexe, reached along a narrow passageway on the north side of the museum, has been converted into a really rather tatty exhibition-cum-shopping centre called – rather confusingly – Oud St-Jan.
The Hospitaalmuseum divides into two, with one large section – in the former hospital ward – exploring the historical background to the hospital through documents, paintings and religious objets d’art. Highlights include a pair of sedan chairs used to carry the infirm to the hospital in emergencies, and Jan Beerblock’s The Wards of St Janshospitaal, a minutely detailed painting of the hospital ward as it was in the late eighteenth century, the patients tucked away in row upon row of tiny, cupboard-like beds. Other noteworthy paintings include an exquisite Deposition of Christ, a late fifteenth-century version of an original by Rogier van der Weyden, and a stylish, intimately observed diptych by Jan Provoost, with portraits of Christ and the donor – a friar – on the front and a skull on the back.
The old chapel inside the Hospitaalmuseum displays six wonderful paintings by Hans Memling (1433–1494). Born near Frankfurt, Memling spent most of his working life in Bruges, where Rogier van der Weyden instructed him. He adopted much of his tutor’s style and stuck to the detailed symbolism of his contemporaries, but his painterly manner was distinctly restrained, often pious and grave. Graceful and warmly coloured, his figures also had a velvet-like quality that greatly appealed to the city’s burghers, whose enthusiasm made Memling a rich man – in 1480 he was listed among the town’s major moneylenders.
Of the six works on display, the most unusual is the Reliquary of St Ursula, comprising a miniature wooden Gothic church painted with the story of St Ursula. Memling condensed the legend into six panels with Ursula and her ten companions landing at Cologne and Basle before reaching Rome at the end of their pilgrimage. Things go badly wrong on the way back: they leave Basle in good order, but are then – in the last two panels – massacred by Huns as they pass through Germany. Memling had a religious point to make, but today it’s the mass of incidental detail that makes the reliquary so enchanting, providing an intriguing evocation of the late medieval world. Equally delightful is the Mystical Marriage of St Catherine, the middle panel of a large triptych depicting St Catherine, who represents contemplation, receiving a ring from the baby Jesus to seal their spiritual union. The complementary side panels depict the beheading of St John the Baptist and a visionary St John writing the Book of Revelation on the bare and rocky island of Patmos. Again, it’s the detail that impresses: between the inner and outer rainbows above St John, for instance, the prophets play music on tiny instruments – look closely and you’ll spy a lute, a flute, a harp and a hurdy-gurdy. Across the chapel are two more Memling triptychs, a Lamentation and an Adoration of the Magi, in which there’s a gentle nervousness in the approach of the Magi, here shown as the kings of Spain, Arabia and Ethiopia.
Memling’s skill as a portraitist is demonstrated to exquisite effect in his Portrait of a Young Woman, where the richly dressed subject stares dreamily into the middle distance, her hands – in a superb optical illusion – seeming to clasp the picture frame. The lighting is subtle and sensuous, with the woman set against a dark background, her gauze veil dappling the side of her face. A high forehead was then considered a sign of great womanly beauty, so her hair is pulled right back and was probably plucked – as are her eyebrows. There’s no knowing who the woman was, but in the seventeenth century her fancy headgear convinced observers that she was one of the legendary Persian sibyls who predicted Christ’s birth; so convinced were they that they added the cartouche in the top left-hand corner, describing her as Sibylla Sambetha – and the painting is often referred to by this name.
The sixth and final painting, the Virgin and Martin van Nieuwenhove diptych, is exhibited in the adjoining side chapel. Here, the eponymous merchant has the flush of youth and a hint of arrogance: his lips pout, his hair cascades down to his shoulders and he is dressed in the most fashionable of doublets – by the middle of the 1480s, when the portrait was commissioned, no Bruges merchant wanted to appear too pious. Opposite, the Virgin gets the full stereotypical treatment from the oval face and the almond-shaped eyes through to full cheeks, thin nose and bunched lower lip.