Throughout the Renaissance the most popular choice for church altarpieces was a polyptych showing the story of the Crucifixion. The early Netherlandish painter Hans Memling (c 1433–1494) painted many, most commonly triptychs, but in about 1470 he created a unique view of the Passion in Scenes from the Passion of Christ. This features no less than twenty-three scenes, starting with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and ending with four showing the Resurrection. These are all integrated into a single fictional aerial view of Jerusalem, in what was possibly the first use of this startling narrative technique.
This painting was commissioned by an Italian banker based in Bruges, Tommaso Portinari, who as the donor earned himself a place at the lower left corner, with his wife Maria Baroncelli at the lower right. Spread across the rest of this relatively small oak panel are scenes which require the words of six chapters of the Gospel of Saint Luke, each fully integrated into a single visual narrative.
I have marked up each of the scenes and the links between them in this image, and step through them with detail views.
As is characteristic of the period, Memling’s Jerusalem is a walled mediaeval city, familiar in appearance to those in northern Europe. Some of its towers have an oriental flavour, but nothing that the contemporary viewer would find too strange. The narrative path taken through these buildings starts at the upper left and, with few exceptions, winds its way without crossing its own path and confusing the viewer. Its only real navigational complexity arises between the ninth and thirteenth scenes. Otherwise it sweeps down to the foreground procession to Calvary at the top, and concludes at the upper right. The donor and his wife are neatly integrated at the lower corners, in the traditional posture for prayer.
The sequence opens with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, highlighted at the top left. From there, he drives the money-changers from the Temple. Close to that is the betrayal by Judas to the High Priests, which leads down to the Last Supper, also highlighted. Memling adopts a conventional view of the table, with Christ recognisable in the same dark blue robes.
Jesus is obvious as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, and again when he is arrested. Judas is seen kissing him, and Peter has severed the ear of Malchus. The narrative path then moves up to find Peter denying Christ, with a cock crowing in the window above him.
With Christ now under arrest, the narrative continues inside the city walls, going from Peter to Jesus brought before Pilate, who is sat on his throne. Christ is then stripped and whipped in the centre of the panel; to ensure consistent identification, his dark blue robes are draped on the threshold in front of him.
Here the narrative path becomes more difficult to trace, as it jumps over two later scenes to Pilate’s second interrogation further to the right, before returning to the crowning of thorns, with Christ sat partly dressed in his robe. The other dominant scene in this section follows, as Christ is led out to the crowd in the scene widely known as Ecce Homo, behold the man, in which he is condemned to death by the people.
In the yard in front of the scene of the Flagellation, two men are making the cross. Following that the procession leaves the city, Christ having fallen to his knees under the weight of the cross. Simon of Cyrene is seen helping him bear its weight. Pilate, distinguished by his hat and clothing (matching those seen earlier), is shown behind them, as he’s about to ride out through the city gate. Further to the front of the procession are the two thieves, their hands tied behind their backs.
The winding road to the place of execution leads the narrative up to the first of three scenes of the Crucifixion, in which Christ is nailed to the cross as it rests on the ground. The left of the two skyline scenes shows the three dying on their crosses, then to the right is the Descent from the Cross, as Christ’s body is lowered and taken on to the Entombment.
When Christ’s body is placed in the tomb, it’s swathed in white, which is replaced by red when he enters Limbo, bearing a staff with a crucifix at the top. Directly above that is the start of the Resurrection series, with Christ (still in red robes) standing by the entrance to the tomb, as the guards are asleep in front of him.
Above that, the resurrected Christ meets Mary Magdalene in the scene known as Noli Me Tangere. He appears again on the road to Emmaus above that, and finally to the Apostles in the far distance, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Memling uses a narrative technique which was popular during the Renaissance, which I term multiplex, often referred to as continuous narrative elsewhere. It was widely used from classical Roman times to incorporate three sequential scenes into a single image, and in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s The Garden of Eden (1530) reached a peak of six scenes, but Memling’s twenty-three appears to set a record. It works by substituting space for time, so that individual events which occurred in sequence are separated by their location in the image. This might appear alien to the modern mind, so heavily influenced by serial media such as literature and movies, but different approaches to time in the past seem to have accommodated it well.
Inevitably, Memling’s Passion was soon imitated by others, with at least one slightly later painting by an anonymous artist being known. Memling also used the same technique about a decade later in his painting for the altar of the Tanners’ guild in Our Lady’s Church in Bruges, although I think rather less successfully.
Memling’s Advent and Triumph of Christ (1480) uses the same technique with twenty-five scenes from the whole life of Christ, starting with the Annunciation at the top left, omitting the Crucifixion itself, and ending with the Assumption of Mary at the lower right. The narrative thread is unfortunately more fragmented than in his Scenes from the Passion of Christ, and this doesn’t appear to have been attempted again after 1500.