A communion of artists and saints

This is the central panel of a triptych known as the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament. The work was commissioned in 1464 by the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament for St Peter’s church in Leuven, where it is still displayed, and completed in 1468.

There are four other paintings attached in pairs either side of the centre panel, all related to the Last Supper and its Institution of the Eucharist narrative.

The Flemish Primitives website provides a comprehensive biography about the artist Dieric Bouts and a visual description of the Altarpiece of the Last Supper painting, as well as access to view the painting in a large format.

It is possible to identify the apostles around the table with the iconography clues embedded by Dierec Bouts, but less obvious are some of the second identities Bouts has also included. They are mainly artists, his contemporaries. But Bouts picks out one artist in particular, Rogier van Weyden, the figure standing on the right side of the frame who historians generally describe as one of the servants on hand.

Historians are also uncertain about the identities of the two men framed on the back wall, peering through a serving hatch. Generally thought to portray “members of the confraternity responsible for commissioning the altarpiece” they are, in fact, two artists: Dieric Bouts (left) and Hans Memling (right). The German painter is said to have spent time working in Van der Weyden’s Brussels workshop, while Bouts was also influenced by Rogier who died in 1464, just three months after Bouts had agreed the contract to produce the altarpiece.

Another artist said to have greatly influenced Bouts was Jan van Eyck. He is the figure in red, seated in front of Van der Weyden and portrayed as St James the Lesser, a pointer to the quatrain on the Ghent Altarpiece in which Jan acknowledges his brother Hubert as the greater artist.

Variations of Hans Memling: As Jan van Winckele, as a servant, St John and St Michael

But what about Hans Memling’s contribution to the altarpiece, if any? Memling was probably the youngest among the group of featured artists and so it would not be unreasonable to focus on the youngest of the disciples, John, sat on the left of Jesus. There is a resemblance to the Memling portrait in the serving hatch but a more convincing connection are components from The Last Judgment triptych painted by Memling between 1467 and 1471. The faces of the two St Michael figures (Membling?) resemble St John, probably because the writing of the Book of Revelation is attributed to the Evangelist, while Memling’s group of artists as heavenly apostles is seemingly inspired by the group of artists as apostles in the Bouts painting.

A section from Memling’s Last Judgment showing Jesus and his apostles in heaven.
National Museum, Gdansk, Poland

The Memling portrait in the serving hatch is adapted from an earlier portrait by Bouts painted in 1462 and located in the National Gallery, London. The sitter is questionably said to be Jan van Winckele. The gallery’s description explains that it is “the earliest surviving dated Netherlandish portrait to include a view through a window, although such views were included in Netherlandish paintings with religious subjects.”

Dieric Bouts alongside Hans Memling, and the National Gallery’s ‘Jan van Winckele?’

By linking the two paintings in this way, and then portraying Memling alongside his own portrait, but looking in the opposite direction, was Bouts suggesting that both men had been working on producing triptychs at the same time that shared a similar narrative – the apostles as artists – but viewed from different perspectives, apostles on earth and apostles in heaven? Bouts as the ‘master’ and Memling as the ‘disciple’ he favoured?

As to the other standing figure beside the serving hatch, he is not an artist but a patron. The clue to his identity is that Bouts has placed him standing behind the apostle Peter who represents the foundation of the Church. He shares the same name as the apostle – a second Peter, so to speak. He is Peter II, a member of the influential Adornes family of merchants from Bruges. He is represented as a deacon attending to Jesus in his role as priest, the Last Supper being the first Mass.

There is a particular reason why Bouts has depicted Peter II Adornes and Rogier van der Weyden as standing figures. Both men died in 1464, the year the painting was commissioned. Not only is Bouts suggesting that they were upright and respected figures in society, but their standing is symbolic of being raised up and resurrected. A communion of saints.

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