prof. dr hab. Beata Możejko, University of Gdańsk

Before the triptych appeared in Gdańsk

Hans Memling’s now famous triptych ‘The Last Judgement ‘ was commissioned around 1468 in Bruges by a Florentine banker, Angelo Tani. The altarpiece was supposed to go to the private chapel in Badia Fiesolana of Angelo Tani and his just-married wife Catarina Tanagli. Instead, as a result of turbulent circumstances, it ended up in Gdansk and hung in the Mariánski Church. 

The whole story began much earlier, namely in 1462, when the great caravel “Pierre de la Rochelle” set off for Gdansk on its first voyage from the French port of La Rochelle, on the Bay of Biscay (a bay in the Atlantic Ocean), with a cargo of Atlantic salt on board. The three-masted vessel was really big, more than 50 metres long and 12 metres wide, and could take up to 350 people on board. She was owned by the La Rochelle merchant Pierre Beuf and captained by Aymar Beuf. In the spring of 1462, the great caravel arrived in Gdansk, but as a result of stormy weather it was very badly damaged, the main mast broke and falling, destroyed part of the ship’s structure. For more than 9 years the “Pierre la Rochelle” stopped on the Motlawa River. In 1463, Captain Aymar set sail for La Rochelle, leaving Pierre Bizart and Pierre de Nantes as deputies in Gdansk. After Pierre Bizart’s death, it was Pierre de Nantes who cared for the caravel, taking the dramatic decision in 1464 to pledge it to the Danzigers to cover the rising costs of repairs. Meanwhile, as a result of complicated circumstances, the caravel became the property of the French King Louis XI, but the Danzigers refused to hand over the ship, demanding in vain that the pledged sums be returned. The caravel, which had to be repaired because of this impasse, deteriorated over the following years until, in 1470, the dramatic decision was taken to remove it from the Motława, judging it to be decayed and a danger to the movement of other ships. However, the war between the Hanseatic League (to which Gdansk also belonged) and England broke out and it was decided to rebuild the caravel into a ship. In the early autumn of 1471, the great caravel, now named “Peter von Danzig”, set out under the command of the Danzig councillor Berndt Pawest to fight the English. After serving at sea for more than a year, Berndt Pawest was discouraged by the setbacks and persuaded the Danzig city council to replace him with Danzig’s caper Paul Beneke. He was already well known for his successful sea campaigns. 

Meanwhile, in the early spring of 1473, two galleys (propelled by oars and sail) set sail from the port of Pisa on their next voyage, the larger ‘St Matthew’ and the smaller ‘St George’, owned by the Medici but operating under the flag of the Duchy of Burgundy. It was known from previous voyages that they usually carried a cargo of the precious mineral alum, used among other things to preserve the colours of fabrics; valuables and luxury textiles. They would first head for the Zwin Canal , connecting Bruges with the North Sea, there they would be transhipped – taking, inter alia, Flanders cloth, and sail up the Thames to deliver goods to London and then back to Pisa. This was to be the case this time too, the ships called at Zwin, where Tommaso Portinari was responsible for loading them , it was then that the altar intended for Tani was probably found in the hold of one of the galleys. 

On 27 April 1473, both galleys, heading for England, were attacked at Dunkirk by the commander of the great caravel “Peter von Danzig”, Paul Benke. In the ensuing sea battle, the galley “St. George” began to flee, taking a course for Southampton, where she arrived safely on 29 April. The attack by Paul Beneke concentrated on the larger galley “St Matthew”. The attack concentrated on the larger galley “St Matthew” and resulted in a boarding party with 8-13 killed and wounded aboard the Florentine. Paul Beneke seized the galley, manned it with his men and headed for Hamburg . However, he did not stop there, but in the nearby Stadt. The Danzig caper divided the booty between his crew and his men and gave the painting “Last Judgement” to the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Danzig.

Paul Beneke’s action caused an international reaction, especially because of the valuable cargo, containing fabrics, valuables, gold coins, alum – all estimated at 30,000 – 40,000 florins. The list of losses also mentioned two paintings (today we believe one was the Last Judgement, the other is unknown). Among those affected by Paul Beneke’s actions were, in addition to numerous Italian merchants, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Pope Sixtus IV and the Medici.

Charles the Bold, to whom the aggrieved Italian and English merchants complained, sent letters to Paul Beneke urging him to return the galleys and cargo. Unsuccessfully, when questioned in Hamburg, Paul explained that he had a letter of caper allowing him to attack ships hostile to the Hanseatic League, which he considered to be galleys carrying goods belonging to the English. This explanation was eventually accepted. Paul Beneke died in 1477 and the letter from Pope Sixtus IV calling for the return of the seized goods or the payment of compensation for them, especially for valuables, alum and cloth, did not reach him again. No one was particularly interested in the painting at the time. 

In Danzig, silence fell after Paul Beneke’s action for many years, and it was only in the second half of the 16th century that he began to be made a hero. For a long time, however, it was not known who had painted the triptych he had donated, of which the people of Danzig were very proud.

In the spring of 1716, during his stay in Gdansk, the painting was admired by Tsar Peter I of Russia. However, the citizens of Gdańsk resolutely refused to hand over the altarpiece to him as a contribution. When Gdańsk was captured by Napoleon’s army, the triptych was taken to the Louvre by order of the director of the National Museum in Paris, and after Napoleon’s defeat it was sent to Berlin in 1815, and from there to Gdañsk on 18 January 1817, again to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In 1843. Heinirch Gustav Hotho first attributed the triptych to Hans Memling, while in 1901 Aby Warburg identified the coats of arms of the founders, the aforementioned Angelo Tania and his wife. Since then, most scholars recognise that the author of the Last Judgement was Hans Memling.

During the Second World War (probably in September 1944), the triptych was taken with other objects from Danzig deep into Germany and hidden in the Evangelical church in Helmerhausen, where it was found by the Soviet army. It made its way to what was then Leningrad (now St Petersburg) where it was officially displayed at an exhibition opened at the Hermitage on 9 May 1956. In the summer of 1956, a Polish commission of art historians, headed by Professor Stanisław Lorentz , then director of the National Museum in Warsaw, visited Moscow and Leningrad to confirm receipt of the works returned by the Soviets. However, the exact circumstances of the return are not known. 21 September 1956. “The Last Judgement” returned to Gdańsk, this time to the then Pomeranian Museum, now the National Museum in Gdańsk. A copy of it hangs in St Mary’s Church.

Next to Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’, Hans Memling’s ‘Last Judgement’ triptych is at the forefront of our cultural heritage in Poland. The “Danzig” triptych is considered to be one of the best works by this artist. As the name suggests, the triptych consists of three parts: the central panel and the side panels (these in turn consist of obverses and reverses). The central panel shows two scenes, the first of which depicts Christ seated on a rainbow, resting his feet on a golden sphere, the symbol of the universe. Christ is depicted as the Judge, giving a blessing with his right hand while pointing downwards with his left, indicating the saved and the damned. The rainbow refers to the biblical account of the covenant between God and man, after the end of the Flood; the symbol of this covenant was to be an arch stretched across the sky. Above Christ’s head are angels holding the instruments of his passion: a column, cross, crown of thorns, spear, reed with a sponge soaked in vinegar, hammer and nails. To the right and left of Christ sit the apostles, while below them, in the clouds, are the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Below, the scene shows the dead rising from their graves and the main motif of the scene is the soul-weighing figure of the Archangel Michael, shown as a winged knight clad in golden armour, in whose armour the Judgement scene is reflected as in a mirror. On the right wing (left for the viewer), a procession of the saved is depicted. Already A. Warburg surmised that among them were portrayed representatives of the Italian elite, from the Medici Bank in Bruges. The figures ascending the crystal staircase are greeted by St Peter, while angels distribute robes to the saved. A gateway leads to Paradise; the tympanum shows a throned Christ surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists. The columns show Old Testament figures, and a medallion depicts the creation of Eve. The balcony scene shows a group of angels playing music and singing. The drama unfolds on the left wing (right for the viewer) , a terrible hell engulfs the damned, tormented by winged devils equipped with talons and curved beaks. The obverses of the wings depict the founders: Angelo Tani, protégé of Our Lady and Child, and Caterina Tanagli, protégé of the Archangel Michael.