Have you ever wondered who were the people whose portraits you see in museums? I have this question in my head when I watch paintings, which show something else, apart from the portrayed people – a piece of landscape, other characters or an interesting composition. I stop for a moment and try to understand what I am actually watching and why someone decided to commision this particular composition.
As in the case of the Moreel Triptych painted by Hans Memling before 1489, it commemorates the family of Willem Moreel and his wife Barbara van Vlaenderberch van Hertsvelde. The couple had 5 sons and 13 daughters. All of them, except for the two youngest ones, can be seen on the triptych. The way they are arranged is in accordance with the accepted rules – male members of the family occupy the left wing and female ones – the right wing. Each group is accompanied by a patron saint of the parent – St. Wilhelm of Maleval and St. Barbara, respectively. What surprises me a bit in that case is the main scene, where three saints appear, but it is hard to find there Madonna and Child or scenes from the Passion of Christ, which most often appear in this place.
The key to solving the mystery is the destination of the altar, which was to be placed in the Church of St James in Bruges, in the family chapel of St Maurus and Gills. And it is these two saints who accompany St. Christopher in the main scene, who is carrying a child on his shoulders. According to legend, Christopher was a wild knight, giant or even a dog-headed who helped the child to cross the river. During the crossing, he realized that the one he carries is Christ. Hence his name, Christophoros, the one who carries Christ. But why did the saint get such a visibility when neither the chapel nor the church was consecrated to him, nor did he take care of any of the presented members of the family?
Let’s go back for a moment to Willem Moreel, banker, landowner and spice merchant (a very profitable enterprise), who belonged to the city elite in Bruges – he was a powerful patrician, was twice elected mayor of the city – in 1478 and 1483. He made a name for himself in history as a brave activist for the independence of Bruges, first in the face of a threat from France, and then Maximilian I. The latter sentenced him to as much as 5 months’ imprisonment in 1481, after the agreement with the rebellious cities was reached. After the end of his sentence, Moreel commissioned a small triptych from Memling, perhaps as a votive for private devotion. Only the wings have survived from it, in the middle there was probably a figure of Madonna and Child, adored by the Moreel couple. On the outer side of the wings there are Willem’s and Barbara’s coats of arms, very carefully and decoratively depicted.
However, the conflict with the emperor did not end for good. The date written on the frame of the large triptych -1484 – is the moment when Bruges (together with Ghent) again had a dispute with Maximilian I, with a significant participation of Moreel. As a result, the emperor blocked the commercial functioning of the city – dissolved the local Hanseatic corporation, ordered all foreign merchants and bankers to move to Antwerp and blocked the port of Sluis, i.e. the connection between Bruges and the sea. This had a huge impact on the development of the city, which quickly lost its importance in favour of Antwerp. The relocation of foreign merchants was also important for the work of Hans Memling, who had so far been working mainly with the Italian community. It was at this time that the grand triptych of Moreels, the powerful Bruges patricians, was created. It should be understood as an expression of pride, resulting from both local patriotism and the quantity of family members, who, by implication, will ensure that the grandness of the city will survive supported by the next generations. The composition is Memling’s invention and is considered to be the prototype for the later collective family portraits.
Equally innovative was the depiction of St. Christopher in the very centre of the altarpiece. His figure is connected by a net of seemingly unobvious connections both with the Moreel family and the place for which the retable was intended. His presence is a reference to the church calling due to the fact that the feast of St Christopher and St James, the patron saint of the church, falls on the same day. The child on his shoulders shines with an inner light and is elevated above everyone which refers to the moment of Elevation during the Mass. As the patron saint of wanderers and pilgrims, St. Christopher provided protection against sudden death without receiving the sacraments, and therefore cared also for merchants who, in their profession, travelled many places. He was also a model of an ideal knight, so he can refer to the knightly ambitions of the Moreel family, who established themselves with burgher coats of arms.
Willem Moreel died in 1501 and remained hostile to Emperor Maximilian I until the end of his life, which caused his temporary banishments from the city. Perhaps this also contributed to the fact that, contrary to the established foundations, the Moreels were first buried in the cemetery outside of the St. Jacob’s Church. Only after the intervention of one of their sons did their bodies rest at the altar in the family chapel in 1504. Moreels’ triptych is an expression of family piety, the continuity of which is ensured by the next generations. The closed wings show the figures of St. George and St. John the Baptist en grisaille (i.e. grays imitating sculptures). These are named patrons of the sons of Moreels and scholars assume that this part of the composition is made on their behalf about 1504. In this way, they also secured for themselves an eternal remembrance among the living and a place in their prayers.