The Last Judgment by Hans Memling is undoubtedly the most valuable and one of the most interesting pieces of art in the Gdańsk museums collection, which can be seen at the National Museum in Gdańsk. The painting is not only beautiful but also has its own history, connecting it with a vast marine past and the most famous ship of Gdańsk and the most famous Gdańsk sailor.
The painting was commissioned at the end of 15th century to Hans Memling, one of the most recognized artists of the times, living in Bruges, today’s Belgium. It was intended to be placed in the altar of one of the churches in Florence. After it was finished the painting was packed along with many precious goods and placed on a ship sent on a long trip round Europe to Italy. The ship was due to stop in London and was directed there by the captain. There was a war between the Hanseatic League and England which took place mainly on the the waters of English Channel. Gdańsk was very active in that war and England was scared of its ships. Pawel Beneke, a privateer from Gdańsk, well known across Europe, who was in charge of a ship Peter von Danzig (St.Peter of Gdansk), caught up with the ship carrying the precious cargo at the mouth of the Thames. After a hard battle the ship from Gdańsk won and, the loot was amazing. After exchanging most of the goods for money and having paid his team the victorious privateer came back to Gdańsk. One of the co-owners of the ship donated the precious and troublesome triptych to St. Mary’s Church and hence the painting sent to Florence ended up in Gdańsk. It decorated the splendid interiors of St. Mary’s Church recalling the history of the proud City and the great achievements of its sailors.
Triptych depicts the last judgement in a very persuasive way. It shows the weighing of deeds, the division into redeemed and and condemned ones, some people ascending to heaven and some being cast into hell.
The trip from Bruges to Italy which ended in Gdańsk was not the only trip of the triptych. At the beginning of the 19th century it was stolen by the French and taken to the Louvre by them, then evacuated west by the Germans at the end of WWII but taken over by the Red Army and for a longer period it was became a part of the art collection of Petersburg. Previously this was dreamed of by Czar Peter I, who could not force Gdańsk to donate the painting. Upon the return of the painting it was not put back into St. Mary’s Church but sent to the then Pomeranian Museum, now known as the National Museum in Gdańsk.
The story of the painting and of the people related to it could be used as a script for a fine movie. The painting itself, full of symbols and strong messages, encourages reflection on the human condition and provokes admiration for its creator. A full description in words is impossible - the painting has to be seen! There is a copy of the painting in St. Mary’s Church, but however good it is, the original painting by Memling located in the National Museum in Gdańsk should be seen in its full glory next to other exhibits reflecting the history of art in Gdańsk.