Stunning film of 15th century painting reveals previously unseen details and its gripping dark history
A short film revealing fascinating, hard-to-see details of northern Poland’s premier artwork has been launched on a new website that aims to bring the astonishing medieval painting to new audiences.
The fifteenth-century triptych, the ‘Last Judgement’, is one of the most outstanding and best-preserved examples of Dutch painting in the world.
Over 500 years since being created by German painter Hans Memling, it still amazes viewers with its luminous, pure colours and the richness of its dramatic content.
The masterpiece’s high status is also bound up with its turbulent history, which for centuries has linked the painting with Gdańsk.
Its terrifying vision of the end of the world and the last judgement is by far the most valuable painting north of Warsaw and can be seen in the Gdańsk branch of the National Museum.
However, due to its priceless status, the oil painting dating to 1467-71 can only be viewed behind a protective transparent plastic screen in a special room in the museum’s former Franciscan monastery home, which makes viewing the intricate mass of figures on their way to heaven or hell a challenge.
To remedy this, the Fala Kultury foundation and the City of Gdańsk have launched a multimedia website (www.sadostateczny.pl) featuring a seven-minute film that brings into sharp focus fascinating elements from the painting.
Anna Maria Czarzasta from Fala Kultury said: “Thanks to the materials made available to us by the museum, viewers of the film can see close up individual fragments of Memling's work. When you are in the museum it is impossible to get so close to the details.”
Viewers of the film will be exposed to Memling’s terrifying depictions of hell the day of the final judgment described in the Revelation of St. John.
Naked men and women with agonised expressions can be seen falling into eternal pits of fire, goaded by savage cloven-hooved beasts brandishing red-hot spiked clubs.
Some of the images may be amusing to today’s audiences, such as the Chewbacca-like hairy man doing the devil’s work, but they would certainly have stoked fear in 15th-century audiences.
On the other side of the three-panelled work, the forces of light shepherd the saved to their eternal salvation. Their faces, in contrast, emanate a calm serenity.
Along with the film, the website offers teaching and learning materials that can be used by schoolteachers or pupils working by themselves.
While the painting exudes action and drama, the story of how it came to be in Gdańsk is no less exciting.
Hans Memling, who was originally from Germany, painted the Last Judgement in Bruges in what is today Belgium after being commissioned by a rich Florentine merchant Angelo Tani. The triptych was intended to hand above the altar table in the private St. Michael's Chapel in St. Bartholomew's Church in Fiesole near Florence.
However, the galleon San Matteo with the triptych aboard never reached Italy after it left the Dutch port of Sluis in 1473.
Near the English coast the ship was attacked by the Gdańsk privateer Paul Beneke from his vessel the Peter von Danczk.
The battle was the result of a conflict between England and the Hanseatic League to which Gdańsk belonged. The stolen cargo, together with the Last Judgement fell into the possession of the privateers.
They handed the work to local Gdańsk nobles, who in turn gave it to what is now St. Mary's Basilica in the centre of Gdańsk.
For 330 years, the triptych was admired on one of the pillars of the chapel of St. George inside the basilica, though it was often eyed greedily by Europe’s rulers.
In the sixteenth century, Emperor Rudolf II Habsburg admired the triptych and wanted to buy it for 40,000 thalers. However, his offer was turned down by Gdańsk.
In 1716, Tsar Peter I demanded that the Last Judgment be handed over as a token of gratitude for peace negotiations that were favourable for the city. Gdańsk’s city fathers once again held firm.
However, when the French arrived in 1807, they sent the painting to the newly established Napoleon Museum in the Louvre in Paris, where it was erroneously considered to be the work of Jan van Eyck.
After eight years, the triptych left Paris and was sent to Berlin. It returned to Gdańsk in 1817, thanks to diplomatic efforts by Gdańsk City Council. It was placed again in St. Mary’s Basilica where it stayed until the final days of World War Two.
When the eastern front approached, church bosses hid the work in a small church in Thuringia, but it was stolen by the Red Army and taken to the Hermitage in Leningrad as war booty.
The Last Judgement was sent to Poland in 1956, which after the war had become its new rightful owner under international treaties after the war.
It was initially held in the National Museum in Warsaw, then it ended its long journey when it arrived at the Pomeranian Museum, which became the National Museum in Gdańsk in 1972.