The Man of Sorrows in the arms of the Virgin

Hans Memling(1475) {or (1479)}

National Gallery of Victoria

National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne, Australia

The scale of this work, which carries a date that may be read as either 1475 or 1479, indicates that the panel was intended to be used as a focus for private devotion on the part of the person who commissioned the work. It represents Christ as an ‘image of pity’. Jesus, displaying the wounds of his Passion, yet open eyed and thus ‘alive’, is shown cradled in the arms of his grieving mother. In the stance in which she appears in this painting, Mary is known as Our Lady of Pity, or as the Pietà. In the fifteenth century, fervent prayer in front of works of this type was considered to have the power to hasten the soul’s passage through the pains of Purgatory.

The devotional purpose of the panel also explains the use of gold leaf for the background, and the little images and symbols, related to the story of the Passion, that inhabit this field. The gold surface symbolizes the glory of heaven, which is the reward for prayerful contemplation of this painting, while each of the small figures and symbols is meant to act as a prompt to the viewer to recall individual episodes from the Passion narrative (the nails at the centre right, for example, refer to the nailing of Christ to the Cross).

The title of the work derives from Isaiah (53:3): ‘He was rejected and despised of men, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief’. This type of representation is known as the Gregorian Image of Pity – a name with its source in an ancient legend about an image of this type that appeared miraculously before Pope Gregory the Great (reigned 590–603) while he said Mass in the presence of unbelievers.

Text by Gordon Morrison from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 15.


  • Title: The Man of Sorrows in the arms of the Virgin
  • Creator: Hans Memling
  • Date Created: (1475) {or (1479)}
  • Physical Dimensions: 27.4 x 19.9 cm (Complete)
  • Type: Paintings
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1924, © National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: oil and gold leaf on wood panel
  • Provenance: With an unknown art dealer, Caen, France; from whom purchased by Théodore Grivau, Connerré, Sarthe, France, c. 1900–05, until (early 1920s); with Agnew's (dealer), London, by 1924; from where purchased, on the advice of Frank Rinder, for the Felton Bequest, 1924.
  • Biography: Originally from a small town near Frankfurt-am-Main, Hans Memling became a citizen of Bruges in 1465 and remained there until his death in 1494. During Memling’s lifetime, Bruges was a great trading entrepôt, and the wealth of its citizens supported a vibrant guild of painting masters, of whom Memling was undoubtedly the most renowned. The painters of Bruges and its sister cities of Ghent and Antwerp are popularly referred to as the northern or Netherlandish school. The artists of this school, which could be said to have begun with the van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, in the 1420s, were noted for their attention to minute detail and for their vibrant colours. Northern painters achieved these qualities by developing and using paints and glazes that were derived from linseed oil and pine resin; unlike tempera, the new paints could be applied exquisitely finely, as well as in semitransparent layers.

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