Thursday 21 November 2019

What lies beneath... A Young Man in Prayer

A Young Man in Prayer by Hans Memling, oil on oak panel, Upton House, Oxfordshire

A Young Man in Prayer by Hans Memling
A Young Man in Prayer by Hans Memling

Niall MacMonagle

Monks get up at all hours of the morning. The Poor Clares on Nun's Island in Galway are on their knees soon after 5.30 am. Muslims, called to prayer five times a day, face the Holy Mosque in the city of Mecca and then all Muslims, worldwide, are united in prayer as they stand, bow, prostrate themselves and sit.

You can pray just everywhere and anywhere. RTE Ireland still pauses twice a day for the Angelus and praying doesn't cost anything, most of the time. That said, if you want to say a Hail Mary in the Sistine Chapel you buy the ticket first.

The 15th-century artist Hans Memling made several studies of young men in prayer, and it has been observed that "A single picture by Memling is delightful, but a collection of several monotonous." Perhaps there were just more young men praying back then? And there's nothing monotonous, whatsoever, about this particular image from circa 1487. Though tiny, it's six-and-a-half inches by five, the realistic face, the serious expression in this brown-eyed boy, the beautifully joined hands create a very calm, thoughtful, prayerful image. The dark-brown hair and the lighter-brown furred collar complement each other and the arched structure is suitably "churchy". The steady gaze is not the usual heavenward one. Perhaps he's hoping for a better time on earth. But Memling, born in Mainz and buried in St Giles's Church in Bruges, calls this work "A Young Man in Prayer". "In" not "at" prayer; that "in" suggests an immersive experience.

When Memling died on 11 August, 1494, a diary entry, by an ecclesiastical notary, declared that he was "the most skilled and most excellent painter of the whole Christian world". And I bet the same fellow said his prayers as well as painting those who did.

But we all pray in different ways. Edna O'Brien remembers how, in an empty church in Limerick, "having knelt to pray, I then sat up to wish, and a woman doing the Stations of the Cross came over to me and said that 'Our Lady blushes every time a woman crosses her legs'." Ms O'Brien uncrossed her legs. Praying and wishing, wishing and praying. It's all the one.

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