The Canon Gilles Joye

According to inscriptions on this painting’s frame, Gilles Joye, a priest and composer, was 47 years old when Memling painted his portrait. The artist favored realism over flattery, recording wrinkles around the sitter’s eyes and on his neck. Joye’s coat of arms can be seen on his ring and again on the frame. Despite the priest’s pious demeanor, church records suggest a more colorful personality—he was reprimanded for brawling, using offensive language, and living with a woman.

Long thought to be an anonymous man in prayer, the canon Gilles Joye was identified by the coat of arms on the frame, which is actually an integral part of the painting, and on one of the rings that he wears. Born in 1425, he served as a priest in the diocese of Tournai and was then appointed a canon at the church of Our Lady in Cleves. In 1459 he was at the church of Saint Donatus in Bruges. Joye later became the pastor of the church of Saint Hippolitus in Delft. A composer and musician, he was also attached to the musical chapel of the court of Burgundy, where he served the dukes Philip the Good and Charles the Bold from 1462 to 1469, first as clerk and later as chaplain. Joye retired to Bruges in 1469 and died on December 31, 1483. He was buried in the church of Saint Donatus.

Hans Memling was certainly one of the most gifted painters in Bruges in the fifteenth century. He was in great demand for both portraits and church pieces, and his work was much copied. Typical of Memling’s portraits, Canon Gilles Joye is a masterpiece of natural detail and precision. Though modest in its composition, the painting shows Memling’s brilliance in the treatment of Joye’s facial features and hair, his fur collar, and the rings that he wears. Memling also captured the serenity, humility, and dignity of a man of the canon’s experience and position. [Despite his pious demeanor, however, church records from the 1450s indicate that Joye was occasionally reprimanded for immoral behavior, such as fighting in the street, using offensive language, and living with a disreputable woman.]

—Steven Kern, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), p. 24.

Hans Memling

South Netherlandish, 1430/40–1494

The Canon Gilles Joye


Tempera with oil on panel in original painted frame

14 13/16 x 11 7/16 in. (37.6 x 29.1 cm) Frame: 21 7/8 x 18 1/2 x 2 1/16 in. (55.6 x 47 x 5.2 cm)

Acquired by Sterling and Francine Clark, 1919