From a pitch dark background emerge the faces of a man and a woman, facing each other with hands folded in prayer. Their countenances appear austere, their clothing plain and simple. In fact, if it weren’t for the lady’s luxuriously jeweled necklace, the otherwise monochromatic painting might just escape our attention, lost amidst the multifarious masterpieces in the Netherlandish galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But upon closer inspection, this moderately sized double-portrait yields much richer details, which betray the most refined taste of these sitters. The minute fibers along the edge of the lady’s garment and cuff hints at the high quality of the fur she wears, while the dark burgundy hue of the velvet gown exudes a subtle and subdued elegance. Similarly, the man is clad in a black velvet jacket with dark decorative patterns, barely visible today due to the discoloration of the oil paints. Indeed, these garments reflect the highest court fashion in 15th-century Bruges, where the couple had the panels made to commemorate their marriage.
The two sitters Tommaso and Maria Portinari came originally from Florence, Italy, where trade and culture flourished under the stewardship of the powerful Medici family. As the successful Medici bank expanded its business into the Netherlands, Tommaso found work at its Bruges branch and eventually became a full partner and the branch manager in 1465.
By the time of their marriage in 1470, Tommaso was about 42 years old, and Maria 14. But by virtue of the painter’s artifice, the husband appears younger in the portrait and the wife much older. While wrinkles appear around Tommaso’s eyes and forehead, they’re either covered by his curling hair or rendered colorless, blending so well into the varying skin tones as to become almost invisible. Whether for her matured features, majestic dress, or calm composure, Maria is presented with a matronly gravitas that harmoniously balances Tommaso’s virile severity.
This artist was Hans Memling, the most sought-after portraitist of the day. Having mastered the technique of oil painting, he exploited its potentials for the naturalistic depiction of the surface qualities of the jewels and garment, as well as the facial features of his sitters. The close attention to the tonal gradation of the skin, the anatomical structure of the skull, and the subtle physical details served well to capture the real likeness of the figures. But most extraordinary is the painter’s ability to express his patron’s state of mind, rendering spiritual qualities with mere material pigments.
That state of mind, as Memling and the Portinari emphatically insist, is one of religious piety. Indeed, the pair of portraits originally formed a devotional triptych centering around a lost image of the Virgin and Child, similar to another panel painted by Memling around the same time, now at the National Gallery in London. Through the hypothetical reconstruction, we get a sense of the triptych’s original appearance. Here, the couple pray not to each other, but to Christ and the Virgin. The monochromy of the portraits contrasts with the splendid colorism of the ethereal icon, and the sitters, as if physically coming out of the illusionistic picture frames, take on a concrete presence as secular beings of this world
Gazing still at the image of God, the couple convey no ordinary human emotion such as happiness, anger, or melancholy, not to mention such extreme passions as ecstasy, hatred, fear, and misery. Rather, their countenances remains serene with an adamant light in their eyes—a sign that these external expressions reflect the virtues that they hold within.
With their wealth, in fact, the Portinari contributed generously to the financial well-being of local churches and religious orders, and patronized promising artists just as the Medici did in Florence. They played an important role in court politics, civic religion, and society. But amid all such secular affairs, the elegant portrait that shows the couple in steadfast devotion was probably a reminder for themselves and for posterity, that worldly wealth boasts nothing without faith and virtue.