Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 25th May 2014
25 May 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
This morning I shall be talking about St John through the artistic work of Hans Memling who died in 1494 and was one of the most important artists working in the southern Netherlands in the fifteenth century. About twenty of his altarpieces survive, most of them are large and consist of several panels. During the Gothic Revival at the beginning of the nineteenth century Memling was singled out by the Romantics as being the very symbol of mystic Christian medieval art.
On your sheet you have two pictures. On one side the full altar triptych and on the other a larger version of the right hand panel. This morning I shall be talking about this right panel which features St John the Evangelist on Patmos. (Unfortunately this great work of art is no longer above the high altar at Bruges, but now resides in the Memling Museum in the same town). Banished to Patmos in the Aegean Sea, St John sits with a book on his lap, and dips a pen into an ink-pot, with his pen-knife at the ready. He stares upwards, where his visions take shape in the air, on water and on land. God appears beneath a stone canopy supported by columns, wearing a red and green robe. He has a greenish glow about his face and hands, and is surrounded by a rainbow.
Seven lamps burn around the canopy and flames shoot from the rainbow. The twenty-four elders (only thirteen of whom are visible) are seated around the throne wearing golden crowns and dressed in white robes. The throne stands on a crystal surface in which everything is reflected. God is accompanied by four beasts covered with eyes and with six wings: one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a man, and one like an eagle. The vision of heaven as a whole is enclosed in a second circular rainbow. The subsequent vision of the Lamb and the sealed book is incorporated in the first. God’s right hand rests on a book with seven seals. An angel at the front of the scene points to it and addresses John. A lamb with seven horns and eyes holds the book between its front paws.
Memling took another detail from the Book of Revelation (5: 8–9): ‘Each of the elders had a harp and they were singing a new song’ and adjusted it slightly, giving them a variety of musical instruments. The Lamb then breaks six seals, one after the other, causing the four horsemen to appear, unleashing cosmic disasters. The sequence of the horsemen, each on a little island, reads from left to right: a white rider with a crown on a white horse who fires off an arrow to his rear; a knight in black armour armed with a sword on a light brown horse (the text refers to a red horse); a figure with a long robe on a black horse, carrying a pair of scales; and a pale brown horse ridden by Death, followed by a burning monster’s head, in whose mouth human bodies shrivel.
Memling didn’t include the breaking of the fifth seal. The breaking of the sixth seal causes an eclipse of the sun and the stars to fall from the sky. Rich and poor flee into caves. This can be seen high above in the sky, while to Death’s right we see the figures of a slave, a king and a freeman hiding in rocky crags. When the seventh seal is broken, seven angels are given seven trumpets. Memling included this episode at the top of the circular rainbow. The trumpets are handed out by an arm that emerges from behind a cloud in the topmost corner. Another angel kneels before an altar. He spreads incense from a golden censer towards the figure of God. Glowing coals lie on the altar, which he will shortly throw to the earth, causing peals of thunder and earthquakes. Memling also included the following events, each announced by one of the trumpets, in a series of increasingly distant and small scenes: hail and fire, rain upon the land, and the grass burns, the burning mountain is hurled into the sea and destroys the ships, and a star falls like a torch from the heavens into the rivers and springs, poisoning them. The latter can be seen on the right-hand edge.
Memling also followed the biblical text word-for-word for the remainder of the portrayal: the seven thunders are represented as explosions above the angel, who lifts his right arm to heaven to hand over John’s book, while the author stands a small distance away, his hands raised. The final scenes focus on the Woman and the Dragon and the creation of the blasphemous Beast. The Virgin Mary appears high in the sky, holding her Child beyond the reach of the red, seven-headed dragon. The latter’s tail sweeps the stars from the heavens (falling stars as symbols of disasters). On the right, the Dragon is vanquished by St Michael and below pursues Mary (who now has wings). Finally, on the horizon of the sea, the Dragon confers its authority on a seven-headed beast, with the body of a leopard, which rises from the waters.
Here we see how Hans Memling’s great contribution lay in his ability to apply realism to devotional and mystical subjects. In medieval times, just seeing an image like this was thought to bring Christians even closer to the reality of God through a very real and affective power. In other words, belief could be experienced through visual sensation. This understanding of sensory perception is one that I think that lives on for us today; there’s no doubt that fine art can indeed enhance, deepen, and enliven Christian faith. This is often called ‘ocular communion’, when a special relationship develops between viewer and image, when we see something of the divine in art, when art reveals another dimension to both scripture and the divine presence before us.