The scene takes place in a garden. A canopy with a background of red and gold brocade has been erected in front of a vine-covered trellis and before it, a little to the right of the center of the picture, sits the Virgin holding the nude Christ Child on her lap. Saint Catherine is a Flemish princess of the fifteenth century. She is seated on the ground at the left and raises her left hand toward the Infant Jesus, to receive from Him the betrothal ring which He is about to slip upon her finger. Her emblems, the wheel and the sword, are before her, half hidden under the folds of her dress of brown and gold brocade. Beyond and back of Saint Catherine, the donor, a young man in black, kneels and tells his beads. On the opposite side in the foreground is Saint Barbara reading a breviary, and her tower with its three windows is in the background. Two angel musicians in priestly garments are on either side of the Virgin: the one at the left looks smilingly at the Christ Child, his hand on the keys of his organ; the other in a rich dalmatic sings softly as he touches the harp strings. Beyond the flower-covered space where the figures are, is a quiet landscape. A plain with trees, a horseman passing along a road which leads to a towered gate in a wall, people on an arched bridge over a little river, a round building, and a low hill are the items which make up the picture, of which the loveliness and tranquil piety escape the power of words.
No theme fitted the qualities of Memling’s genius so perfectly as the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine. Three versions of the subject by him are known. The earliest of these, the triptych of Sir John Donne, so called from the English nobleman who commissioned the work, is in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire in Chatsworth House. The arrangement of the central panel of this triptych is similar to the Altman picture, except that the figures of Sir John Donne, his wife, and daughter kneel in the foreground and that the setting is an open hall with columns instead of the garden. It is probable that this painting was executed about 1468 when Sir John visited Flanders in the train of Margaret of York at the time of the marriage of that princess to Charles the Bold of Burgundy.
After this in date comes the astounding Mystic Marriage of the Hospital of Saint John at Bruges, begun in 1475 and finished in four years. As every one knows, it is also a triptych, and the central panel is a modification of the triptych of Sir John Donne. Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist have been added and the simple columns of the early version, like those of a cloister, are here arranged like the columns of the ambulatory of the apse in a cathedrala forest of columns.
Our picture must have followed soon after the finishing of the Bruges triptych. Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara are almost identical in type and pose, and the costumes similar. But the regal beauty of the Bruges masterpiece has been transformed in the Altman panel to something gracious and intimate. There the Mary is the Queen of Heaven who holds a God in her arms, while here she is a tender mother looking down at her baby and He for His part is a little roguish and amused at the pretty scene in which He plays the principal part. Then the austere figures of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist are lacking in our variant and the maze of pillars and the pavement covered with an Eastern carpet have given place to the smiling countryside and the wild flowers growing in the grass. These changes account in part for the differing expressions.
It is not known who the young man for whom it was painted is, the one who kneels in our picture. The earliest record of the painting is when it belonged to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Before Mr. Altman bought the work it was in the collection of Leopold Goldschmidt in Paris.