The surprise of Hans Memling’s triptych in Bruges, Belgium

17 November 2022 | Apocalypse in discussion, Blog | 0 comments

Kees Zoeteman and Astrid van Zon

A treasure from the 15th century on the Apocalypse

The history of Bruges

Ah, how over the centuries Belgian Bruges has been cut off from its lifeline, the North Sea! From the 12th to the 15th century, Bruges was the center of world trade. The Zwin, the open inlet, located south of what we now know as the Western Scheldt sea arm, was the gateway to the world. This great inlet was, at least at high tide, accessible to seagoing ships in those times and gave life to the reclining tidal ports of Damme (1180), Mude (1213), Monikerede (1226), Hoeke (1250) and Sluis (1290), which developed from necessity north of Bruges. (

These Zwin ports, located ever closer to the sea in the struggle against silting, formed with Bruges the meeting place for the busy commercial activity, halfway on the sea route between the Baltic cities in northern Europe and the Mediterranean coasts in the South. Later, Zeebrugge, Antwerp and Dutch Rotterdam gradually took over these functions, leaving Bruges, once the residence of the Burgundian dynasty, a memorable monument in which treasures of bygone centuries can still be admired.

One of these treasures is found in St. John’s Hospital, which, as a museum-church, displays works by the Flemish painter Hans Memling (c. 1440-1494), among others, and in particular the triptych created by him for the altar of this church in 1479. 

Side view of St. John’s Hospital museum in Bruges (photo Kees Zoeteman)

Memling’s triptych

Except on Sundays and holidays, the triptych by Memling’s hand was closed by both panels which then showed the portraits of the financiers of the artwork. Now, it is on permanent display in open form. It strikes the visitor immediately because of its large size (about 2 by 4 meters) and fresh colors. The hefty size allowed Memling to insert into the vistas many details about life in the city in the background of the main characters. The middle section shows Mary with child, and both John, the writer of the Apocalypse, and the two hospital saints Catherine and Barbara. There are also urban scenes in the background at the left panel, which is dedicated to the beheaded John the Baptist. On the right panel, which had our special interest because it depicts John of the Apocalypse, nothing of everyday life is found. Here, Memling has surprisingly depicted the sequence of visions, as described successively in the Apocalypse, nearing further and further the horizon.

Hans Memling’s triptych (1479), St. John’s Hospital in Bruges; Mary and child and the two Johns, on the left John the Baptist and on the right John the author of the Apocalypse (photo Kees Zoeteman)

If we take the time to contemplate the triptych longer and with a calm mood, we can immerse ourselves in the imagination and connect with it, which can stay alive in our memory for days. The imagination of John the author of the Apocalypse draws our attention because of the bright moody colors Memling uses. The colors evoke a mood that acts as a bridge to come closer to John. Seated on the high rock, hands resting on the book, head slightly raised, he accentuates the world laying behind him, observing and listening and absorbing what is revealed. A contemplative image.

A door is opened in heaven

In the upper left of the right panel we see in a rainbow circle the central and recurring vision of the throne of God with the Lamb and around it the 24 elders in white robes. Again John is depicted here, now seen from behind, as he, after being lifted up in spirit, receives the vision of the throne (text fragment 12, Rev. 4:1): Then I saw. And behold: in heaven an opened door. In this circular rainbow, we see around the throne another smaller rainbow depicted. And if we look even closer we see a third rainbow, which consists of the reflection of the large rainbow in the water, behind the rock on which John is seated. And a fourth one appears near the figure under the thundercloud. These rainbows emphasize that what is depicted reflects the world beyond the visible light. All the individual figures that appear to John in the spiritual world encircle the throne of God.

Below the great circle we see the horsemen who appear at the opening of the first four seals of the book on the lap of the one seated on the throne. We see the horsemen on the white, red, black and pale horse (text fragments 13, 14, 15 and 16). The caverns in which people try to hide refer to the opening of the sixth seal.

Just above this, we see an island next to which a huge burning rock falls down and ships are sinking. This and the images painted to its right of warriors on horses while fire falls from the sky, represent the consequences of the blowing of the various trumpets (text fragments 23 to 28).     

Right panel showing images from the Apocalypse; Hans Memling 1479 (photo Kees Zoeteman)

Going still further up, we see in the distance the figure of the angel with one foot on the land and one foot on the sea, announcing that there will be no more time (text fragment 29).

Above the horizon pictured here, we enter the realm of great heavenly visions. First we see a huge thunderstorm which reflects that we are approaching a higher spiritual sphere. Only now can John perceive the vision of the promise of the heavenly virgin who gives birth to the male child, the child who represents man’s divine calling to become a self-conscious being who chooses selfless love (text fragment 33). And the life of this child is threatened by the fire-red dragon with seven heads. Here we have arrived at the center of the Apocalypse.

Detail of the right panel

It is amazing how Memling is able to display in this right panel a comprehensive overview of so many parts of the Apocalypse. Actually, the entire first half of this book is shown in one image before the viewer including the highest level our human consciousness can reach: God’s throne.

John writer of the Apocalypse and John the Baptist

The image of John the writer of the Apocalypse, sitting on the rock, occupies half of the right panel. This raises the question of who he is. Why was he able to receive this revelation? This also brings attention back to the entire triptych and the context in which the story of the Apocalypse is situated. On the center panel we see this John depicted together with John the Baptist, each on one side of the Madonna with the child. John the Baptist is depicted with the Lamb, and the other John with the chalice, a somewhat lesser-known symbol for him. The left panel shows the death of John the Baptist. What is the connection between these two John figures?                                                             

Both Johns have a special role in the life of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist appears at the beginning of Jesus’ life. The mother of Jesus and the mother of John are cousins and as the Bible records, when they meet, both still pregnant, the unborn child John jumps up in his mother’s womb because it recognizes the unborn child Jesus. Later he baptizes Jesus, and at that moment the cosmic Christ descends into the human Jesus. John the Baptist points to the new time that commences with this action. The Christ power must increase and he himself, John the Baptist, as a representative of an old age, must decrease. Man must learn to awaken Christ within himself.

John the evangelist and writer of the Apocalypse stands at the end of Christ’s life at the cross, together with Jesus’ mother Mary. He is the only one of the apostles able to be present at the crucifiction of Jesus Christ. He is consciously present at his dying. This is linked to John’s publicly received initiation from Christ after which he lives further as Lazarus-John. Rudolf Steiner has revealed that Lazarus and John the apostle and in a sense John the Baptist merged into each-other at the occasion of Lazarus’ resurrection (GA 112, p.135). See also Judith von Halle, (Vom Mysterium des Lazarus und der drei Johannes, 2009, Dornach: Verlag fur Anthroposophie) and e.g. Loek Dullaart (Johannes, the Baptist and the Evangelist, 2006, Assen: Nearchus, p. 26). Both Johns stand at the beginning and at the end of Christ’s life, one as forerunner, the other as follower.

John, the writer of the Apocalypse, is an image of man as we may become in the future.  Memling’s painting gives us a picture of this special mystery, in which the two Johns, John the writer of the Apocalypse and john the Baptist, are linked together as in a mystical marriage. This mystery is shown to us by Memling. The picture itself is, as it were, an open door for us to another world. Without perhaps even understanding it, we can absorb these images into our soul. The silent surrender to the imagination can resonate for a long time. We can recall the image over and over in ourselves, live with it, question it, examine it. This can help to be awakened to a spiritual world that is perceptible on earth and which manifests itself in our inner life. This may lead us to the open door, as was presented to John.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.