Portrait of an Old Woman (1470-1475)
“This meditative lady represents a northern European bourgeois ideal. Well but soberly dressed, she neither despises the things of this world, nor is captive to them, but keeps her thoughts on higher things. In the context of this painting, the road in the back symbolizes the journey of life.”[i]
The interpretive notes are quite remarkable in that they reveal several very deep insights into the nature of reality. The author Alexandra Bonfante-Warren may be projecting her own understanding onto the painting in the historical context as she understands it, but in any case, we are very much in sympathy with her “feeling” about this painting.
Now it’s time for us to do our own projecting. First, the context. “She keeps her thoughts on higher things.” In short, she is “in this world, but not of it.” The old woman in the painting understands the all-important principle of impermanence. Nothing in the world of form lasts so to become attached to any aspect of form is to invite suffering by ignoring the nature of reality itself. She appreciates but is not attached to the experience of life. She sees the “journey of life” as a process that culminates in Transcendence.
The ultimate reality of the human experience will take us beyond the world of the senses and the intellect to a vivid experience of the heart, an experience of ecstasy. She seems on the verge of that experience. Hans Memling has been a dutiful servant of the Church in assisting the clergy in communicating the message of the Gospel.
[i] Bonfante-Warren, Alexandra. The Louvre. New York: Barnes and Noble Books. 2000, page 110.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.