The Mérode Altarpiece[A] (or Annunciation Triptych) is an oil on oak panel triptych, now in The Cloisters, in New York City. It is unsigned and undated, but attributed to the workshop of the Early Netherlandish painter Robert Campin,[B] The three panels represent, from left to right, the donors kneeling in prayer in a garden, the moment of the Annunciation to Mary, which is set in a contemporary, domestic setting, and Saint Joseph, a carpenter with the tools of his trade. The many elements of religious symbolism include the lily and fountain (symbolising the purity of Mary), and the Holy Spirit represented by the rays of light coming falling from the left hand window.
Art historian's interest in the Mérode Altarpiece focuses mainly on the central panel, which was completed after 1422, likely between 1425 and 1428, by a member of Campin's workshop.[C] The outer panels are later additions by a workshop member, probably on request by the donor who sought to elevate the central panel to a triptych and place himself in the pictorial space. The wings contain views of the city of Liège, in today's Belgium. A version of the center panel in Brussels is earlier, and maybe Campin's original panel.
The triptych is a founding and important work in the then emerging late Gothic, Early Netherlandish style, and has been described as a "milestone between two periods; it at once summarizes the medieval tradition and lays the foundation for the development of modern painting".
The New York triptych has been at times attributed to the young Rogier van der Weyden It is today accepted as belonging to a group of paintings associated with the Master of Flémalle, assumed to be Robert Campin,[D] a mentor of Jan van Eyck. There is another version of the Annunciation panel in Brussels, slightly earlier but damaged, which may represent the original version by Campin.
Technical examination of the wood panels suggest that the New York triptych was completed by a number of hands. The wood of the central panel is different and earlier to that of the wings, while the hinging further suggest that the central panel was not intended as part of a triptych. The central panel is likely a copy of an earlier composition by Campin, while the wings were probably a later commissioned by the donor, who presumably wished that they were attached to the main panel to form a devotional altarpiece, probably (given its size) for private devotion. Areas of the panels have been reworked; both the female doner and bearded man on the left wing were painted over landscape, while the window behind the Virgin was originally painted in gold.
Campbell has dismissed the triptych's association with the Flemalle group, and thus Robert Campin. He describes the Mérode as "incoherent in design", in that it lacks spatial continuity between the panels, a trait most noticeable in the Seilern Triptych. In addition the open sky seen through the windows in the central is incongruous in point of view with the street scene in the donor panel. He further notes the poor command of perspective in the donor panel, and notes that it is "unfortunate that a line of one of the mortar courses in the garden wall disappear into the donor's mouth". Campbell disregards the wing panels as pedestrian and by lesser hands, thrown together at the will of the donor. He gives prominence to the Brussels panel, which he cautiously attributes to the Master of Flémalle.
The triptych was commissioned for private and domestic use; the central panel is a relatively small 64 × 63 cm and each wing measures 65 × 27 cm. Each panel has a steep perspective, in that the viewer seems to be looking down on the figures from an elevated point of view. In other respects the perspective is underdeveloped; neither the Virgin nor Gabriel seem to rest on solid ground, while the female donor seems to hover, and barely able to fit into the space she is positioned in.
The panels The panels are well preserved, with little over-paint, glossing, dirt layers or paint losses. They are almost entirely in oil; and establish many of the inventions that were to make the technique so successful and adaptable over the following centuries. The serenity of the works is achieved, in part, through the dominance of pale, opaque white, red and blue hues. The panels are relatively small; the at times minute attention to detail calls to mind the focus of contemporary miniatures, of the kind seem in the two illuminated manuscripts in the central panel.
The panel is one of the earliest representations of the Annunciation to Mary in a contemporary middle-class Northern European interior, perhaps a dining room. This is Campin's main innovation; showing a reading Madonna, with unbound hair in a then familiar setting; an image that lead to many adoptions, most famously Rogier van der Weyden's Reading Magdalen. The colours of the central panel are dominated by the cool grays of the plaster and the brown of the timber wall. The lower half is characterised by warmer and deeper brownish greens and reds. Art historian suggest that the success of the panel is due to the contrast between the warm reds of the Virgin's robe and the pale blue hues of the archangel Gabriel's vestment.
The perspective is very steep and unevenly distributed. The angle of the table in particular is illogical. Art historian Lorne Campbell describes these distortions as "disturbing". The panel shows the moment before the traditional scene, as Mary, absorbed in her book, is still unaware of the presence of Gabriel. Mary is in a red gown rather than the more usual blue. She is in a relaxed pose, reading from a book of hours, her hair unbound. Unusually for a medieval depiction of the Annunciation, the dove of the Holy Spirit is not included. Instead he is represented by the extinguished light of the candle, and the beam of light falling from the window to the left, which carries the Christ Child holding a cross. The Christ Child flies down towards Mary from the left oculus, signifying her impregnation by God the Father. He gazes directly at her and holds a cross. The folding-table contains a recently extinguished candle, and shows coiling smoke and a still glowing wick. This maybe a reference to the Holy Spirit, who, according to some late medieval writers, descended to the apostles "like a puff of wind".
The white lily in a Tuscan earthenware jug on the table represents Mary's virginity and purity, as does the white, ocher towel. The jug contains a series of enigmatic letters in Latin and Hebraic, deciphered by some art historians as De Campyn, that is the artist's signature. An opened manuscript is positioned on a green velvet book pouch. Unusually the book is positioned next to the Virgin rather than the shelf. The pages seem worn and handled, indicating that it has been well read. It has been suggested that the book reflects the Carthusian Ludolf of Saxony's idea of the secluded life of the Virgin - that she earlier lived with "the Holy Scriptures as her sole companion".
The right hand half of the back wall holds three windows, one of which contains a lattice screen. The beams of the ceiling are supported by a series of corbels. The sky visible through the windows is a later addition, which was painted over an earlier gold ground. The armorial shields are also later additions.
The altarpiece was commissioned either by the businessman Jan Engelbrecht, or the Cologne-born merchant Peter Engelbrecht and his wife Margarete Scrynmaker. Engelbrecht translates from German as "angel brings", while Scrynmaker means "cabinet maker", the latter perhaps influencing the choice of Joseph in the right hand panel. The donor and his wife are shown kneeling in prayer are in the left panel, looking through a half-open door into the Virgin's Hortus conclusus. The door presents a continuity oddity; although it can be seen opening into the Virgins room from the left panel, no such door entrance is visible in the center panel. Addressing this, the art historians Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen suppose that the donor is "imagining that she has entered into his house. From without, he has opened the door; with his own eyes he beholds the Mother of God and petitions her for a family".
The servant or attendant dressed in a festive outfit appears to be an later addition by a different artist, perhaps after the donor's marriage. The space contains an unlocked entrance which leads to a minutely detailed street scene. The panel is the more striking as the door leading into the Virgin's chamber is wide open, hugely presumptuous for even a mid-fifteenth century commission, and suggesting access to the gates of heaven.
It is assumed that this panel was a later commission to Campin's workshop, not part of the original single panel design. There has been speculation that it was completed by the young Rogier van der Weyden.
Saint Joseph, a carpenter by trade, occupies the right-hand panel. He is shown at work, carving a mousetrap. An unusual feature is that, although Mary and Joseph did not marry until after the Annunciation, they are apparently living together and sharing the same space. Joseph is shown with the tools of his craft, including an ax, saw and rod, laid out across a table, and a small footstool, sitting before a fire of burning logs. Joseph's presence is probably intended to invoke 10 :15 from the Book of Isaiah: "Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth there- with? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself as if was it were no wood." Isaiah's words were intended as incentatory and revolutionary, were followed by a treatise for the salvation of Israel, and protested against an Assyrian king he considered considered boorish and vainglorious. Given this, Joseph is seen by art historians as a reassuring presence, warding the devil from the center panel.
Joseph is shown as an old man wearing an eggplant coloured coat and blue turban, in a panel characterised by dark and warm colours, and framed by the shadows from the window shutters. He works on a mouse trap, probably intended as a symbol of the cross at the Crucifixion, in that it represents an imagined but literal capture of the Devil, said to have held a man in ransom because of the sin of Adam. In some scripts, Christ's naked flesh was served as bait for the devil; "He rejoiced in Christ's death, like a bailiff of death. What he rejoiced in was then his own undoing. The cross of the Lord was the devil's mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord's death."
The Iconography contains religious symbolism, although their extent and exact nature is much debated – Meyer Schapiro pioneered the study of the symbolism of the mousetrap, and Erwin Panofsky later extended, or perhaps over-extended, the analysis of symbols to cover many more details of the furniture and fittings. Similar debates exist for many Early Netherlandish paintings, and a number of the details seen for the first time here reappear in later Annunciations by other artists.
The scroll and book in front of Mary symbolize the Old and the New Testaments, and the roles Mary and the Christ child played in the fulfillment of prophecy. The lilies in the earthenware vase on the table represent Mary's virginity. Other symbols of her purity include the enclosed garden (Hortus conclusus), and the white towel, while the small windows to the right, and the half-closed windows at the rear, serve to emphasise the quite, virginal life she has lived.
The lion finials on the bench may have a symbolic role (referring to the Seat of Wisdom, or throne of Solomon) – this feature is often seen in other paintings, religious or secular (like Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait). The arrangements for washing at the back of the room, which are considered unusual for a domestic interior, may relate to the similar arrangements of a piscina for the officiating priest to wash his hands during Mass. The sixteen sides of the table may allude to the sixteen main Hebrew prophets; the table is usually seen as an altar, and the archangel Gabriel wears the vestments of a deacon.
The painting, like van Eyck's c. 1434–36 Annunciation in Washington, is one of a number that contain complicated symbolic material relating the Annunciation to the Mass and the sacrament of the Eucharist. Mary sits on the floor to show her humility.
In the right-hand panel, Saint Joseph, who was a carpenter, has constructed a mouse trap symbolizing Christ's trapping and defeat of the devil, a metaphor used three times by Saint Augustine: "The cross of the Lord was the devil's mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord's death" Joseph is making mousetraps. Mousetrap symbolism may also exist outside Joseph's window, and are visible through the shop window, again symbolizing that Jesus is used as a bait to capture Satan.
Its early history is obscure. The triptych was owned by the aristocratic Belgian Arenberg and Mérode families from 1820 to 1849 before reaching the art market, and has been is in the collection of the Cloisters, New York since 1956. Until its acquisition it had been in private collection for many years and thus inaccessible to neither scholars or the public. Its purchase was funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and was described at the time as a "major event for the history of collecting in the United States".
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