The Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin

The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (c.1432)
The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (c.1432)

I travel a lot around Europe and during my stays in the various towns and cities I always try and spend some time in the local art galleries.  The one thing that I do enjoy, which is not often afforded to me in my own country, is the ability to visit local churches in which, especially in France and Italy, one can find beautiful works of art, frescoes and exquisite altarpieces.  In this blog I want to look at one of the great altarpieces of the fifteenth century.  It was not a huge work of art destined for a church or cathedral but a small devotional work which was to be placed in a room of a wealthy merchant, who had commissioned the altarpiece.   The altarpiece I am referring to is an Annunciation triptych known as the Mérode Altarpiece.  The work, which was completed sometime between 1425 and 1428, is now part of the Metropolitan Museum collection in New York and the exquisite and beautiful work is attributed to the early Netherlandish painter, Robert Campin and his workshop assistants.

Robert Campin is often referred to the Master of Flémalle.  The title “Master of….” was term often used by art historians to attribute an anonymous work or even groups of works.  It was a common attribution used in the nineteenth century by German art historians when discussing Early Netherlandish paintings.    So how did Campin end up with his title?   It is believed that it was due to the fact that three paintings in the Städliches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt were said to have come from the abbey of Flémalle, a town close to Liège, but have since been attributed to Campin.

Robert Campin was born around 1375 but it is not until thirty years later that his name appears in records.   It seems that he settled in Tournai, the Walloon town of Belgium.  Tournai is unlikely to have been his birthplace as records show that in 1410 he bought citizenship of the town, which he would not have had to do if it had been his birthplace.  Some would have us believe he was born in Valenciennes, now a French town bordering Southern Belgium.  This assertion is based upon the fact that the name Campin was very common surname at the time in that town.  In the records, Campin’s profession was given as a Master Painter and we know he became a free master of the local Corporation of Goldsmiths and Painters and in 1423 became the sub-dean of the society and later held the post of Eswardeur.  During his early years at Tournai, Campin worked for the municipality painting banners and he went on to be employed to paint sculptures in various churches, including the town’s Church of St Brice, and a number of municipal buildings, notably the Halle des Doyens in Tournai .  This colouring of sculptures was termed polychromy.  He had a good working relationship with the local sculptors including the famous sculptor, Jacques de Braibant.

Robert Campin was good at what he did and soon he and his work became very popular and he received many commissions.  His wealth grew and through his commissions and his investments Campin owned a number of properties in Tournai.  His standing in the community was high.  He was warden of the church of St Pierre as well as procurator of the Convent of the Haute-Vie.  All was going so well for Campin.  He was running a large successful workshop and had skilled apprentices including a young painter, Rogier de le Pasture who is believed to be Rogier van der Weyden. So life was good until he got involved in local politics and the disturbances in the city between two political factions.  Sadly for him he backed the losing side and for his part in the 1429 disturbances and his reluctance to testify against the leaders of the uprising he was sentenced to go on a pilgrimage to Saint-Gilles in Provence.  Such a sentence was common in those days as it was thought that during such a pilgrimage one could think about one’s wrong-doings.  The local authorities never forgave Campin for his part in the uprising and for a number of years hounded him.

It came to a head three years later, in July 1432.   Campin was in trouble again.  This time it was because of his adultery.  He was married to Ysabiel de Stocquain but at this time was living with another woman, Leurence Polette.  The courts took a dim view of this sexual liaison and he was charged with adultery and was once again sentenced to go on a twelve-month pilgrimage.  This would have ended his artistic work and the closure of his workshop but this time he was saved from this banishment.  His saviour was none other than Margaret of Burgundy, the Countess Dowager of Hinault and the powerful daughter of Philip the Bold and wife of William of Bavaria and his pilgrimage sentence was reduced to a fine.   Maybe it was one court appearance too many for after this last incident little was heard of Campin in the archives of Tournai and his lucrative commissions dwindled.  Robert Campin died in Tournai in 1444.

And so to the featured work of art by Robert Campin and his workshop assistants, the oil on oak panel entitled The Annunciation Triptych often referred to as The Mérode Altarpiece which was completed around 1432 and is now housed in the Cloisters museum and gardens, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is given over to the art and architecture of medieval Europe that largely date from the twelfth through the fifteenth century.  The building and its cloistered gardens are located in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan.  Although termed an altarpiece, because of its small size (centre panel is 64cms x 63cms and each wing is just 64cms x 27cms), this was never destined for the altar of a church or cathedral.  This was destined for a devotional room in a private house.  It is one of Campin’s greatest works. It is thought that originally the painting which comprised of just the central panel was completed around 1430 and then later on the request of the prospective buyer, two hinged wings were added and the work became a devotional triptych.  It is also understood that the paintings depicted on the wings were painted by different artists, probably Campin’s assistants at his workshop.

The centre panel (The Annunciation) by Robert Campin
The centre panel (The Annunciation) by Robert Campin

The centre panel is a depiction of the Annunciation, which was a common subject for paintings in the fifteenth century.   In this depiction Campin has decided the setting of the scene should be a place of domesticity recognisable to people of his time and not set in some palace-like location.  The setting is not, as often depicted, the bed chamber of Mary but a living room.  Maybe Campin wanted observers of this altarpiece to empathise with Mary and for that she needed to be looked upon as an ordinary young woman – hence no halo!  The room is clean and tidy and in some ways defines Mary as a diligent and house-proud female.  Look closely at this panel and the first thing which may strike you as being strange is the depiction of Mary.  She is sitting on a cushion on the floor and not on the bench to her left.  This could be to illustrate her humility. She is totally absorbed in reading a book but is so careful not to dirty the tome by touching it and so she holds it in a white cloth.   She is wearing a long red dress and Campin has cleverly depicted the folds of the dress with the light playing on them so that they form a bright white star.  As she sits and reads from her book she seems quite oblivious to the presence of the Angel Gabriel who is to her right dressed in the vestments of a deacon.  Between Gabriel and Mary there is a sixteen-sided table which some art historians believe alludes to the sixteen main Hebrew prophets.  On the table there is an open book and a scroll, which could have been reference works which were used by Mary as she read her book.   The act of reading what was probably a religious work and the presence of a reference book and scroll open on the table portray Mary as a learned and devout woman.

There is a blue patterned majolica pitcher on the table in which there is a lily.  The lily represents the purity of Mary.   Margaret Freeman, Curator of The Cloisters, comments on the symbolism of the lily quoting St Bernard who wrote:

“…Mary is the violet of humility, the lily of chastity, the rose of charity and the glory and splendour of the heavens…”

Detail of central panel
Detail of central panel

We see a highly-polished bronze fifteenth century Flemish candlestick holder with its newly extinguished candle on the table.  The flame, which had once been present, represented God and now it is gone, to be replaced by the tiny Christ Child which enters the room on the rays of the sun which beam through the window at the left of the painting.  It is a symbol of the Incarnation.

15th century Flemish bronze hanging-laver
15th century Flemish bronze hanging-laver

In the left background we see, hanging in an alcove, a highly polished bronze laver.  This was the implement originally used by priests when they washed their hands and feet before entering into and coming out of a holy place.  Campin’s depiction is of a 15th century Flemish laver. Once again the highly polished laver and candle holder are testament to Mary being a hard working woman who took pride in her house.

The central panel’s Annunciation scene depicts the Angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she is about to conceive the Christ Child. The Holy Spirit, in the form of the Christ Child, which impregnates Mary, appears descending towards Mary on rays of light emanating from the round window to the left of this centre panel.

Christ Child descending into room on a beam of light
Christ Child descending into room on a beam of light

When I first looked at this centre panel I completely missed the small figure of the Christ Child with a wooden cross on his back reminding us of the future crucifixion.   So why this inclusion?   It has been included in this depiction of the Annunciation as what we see before us is also about the Incarnation, the point in time when God becomes man.

Lion finial
Lion finial

There are other little pieces of iconography which are easily missed.  Look at the bench seat which Mary rests against.  Look at the small carved lions on the top of the arms of the bench.  These carvings are known as finials and mark the top or end of some object.  Some art historians believe that such an inclusion of the finials refers back to the throne of Solomon.  These finials have appeared in many paintings – take a look at the top of the arms of the seat in the background of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.

The left panel
The left panel – the donor and his new wife

Now look at the left hand panel of this triptych and we see a man and a woman kneeling down in prayer.  It is generally agreed that the man is the person who commissioned Campin to produce the work and the lady next to him is his new wife, so new that it is thought she was added later. – but who are they?  The answer seems to come from various clues dotted around the triptych.  If you look back at the central panel and the transom of the left hand window at the back of the room you will see a coat of arms.   This was the coat of arms of the Engelbrecht or Ingelbrecht family of Mechelen who according to records were living in Tournai at the time the altarpiece was being painted and the man was Jan Engelbrecht, a wealthy and prosperous businessman.  The painting is thought to have been a wedding gift for his wife and one reason why he commissioned a depiction of the Annunciation could be because of the family name Engelbrecht which translated means “angel brings”.  Behind the couple we see a man wearing a straw hat.  He is wearing the badge of Mechelen and is believed to be a Mechelen town messenger.

Right panel of triptych - Saint Joseph at work
Right panel of triptych – Saint Joseph at work

In the right-hand panel, we see Saint Joseph, who we know was a carpenter.  Again, like the central panel, there is an air of domesticity about the depiction with Joseph busying himself with his carpentry.  He sits at his bench busily drilling holes in a piece of wood.  On the table next to him we see all the tools of his trade.  Art historians believe each has its own symbolic meaning – the saw refers to the implement that St Peter used to cut off the ear of Malchus, during Christ’s betrayal and arrest; the log alludes to the cross of the crucifixion; the nails, hammers, chisels, pliers and screwdrivers are all likely references to the instruments of the Passion.

Mousetrap and tools
Mousetrap and tools

Also on the table there is a mousetrap and another on the window ledge, which Joseph has previously made.  According the American art historian, Meyer Schapiro, Joseph fashioning mousetraps had a theological meaning and talks about how Saint Augustine used the mousetrap metaphor to explain the redemption of man by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.  He explained the necessity of the Incarnation and that human flesh was the bait for the devil who by seizing it brings about his own ruin. Saint Augustine wrote:

“…The devil exulted when Christ died, but by this very death of Christ the devil is vanquished as if he had swallowed the bait in the mousetrap.  He rejoiced in Christ’s death, like a baliff of death.  What he rejoiced in was his own undoing.  The cross of Lord was the Lord’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death…”

View from window of St Joseph's workshop
View from window of St Joseph’s workshop

In my last blog I looked at some works by Joachim Patinir in which he combined biblical scenes with landscapes and townscapes but for Patinir the landscape was the most important part of the depiction.  Look now how Campin has in some way combined a small townscape with this religious work. Look at the scene as seen through the window behind Saint Joseph.  The window of Joseph’s workshop overlooks a city square around which are various houses, churches and shops. This is not a depiction of a town in the Holy Land at the time of Mary but of a town in 15th century Flanders.  It could be that Campin had incorporated a scene from his birthplace, Valenciennes or Tournai or possibly Mechelen, which was the town of the commissioner of this work.

So that is the Annunciation triptych or the Merode Triptych and I suppose the only question you have is why “Mérode Triptych” and not The Engelbrecht Triptych?  The answer to that is simple.  In the nineteenth century, this altarpiece was owned by Augustine Marie Nicolette, princess van Arenberg, having been given it by her father as a wedding present when she married Charles Antoine Ghislain de Mérode.

The Annunciation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Annunciation by Rossetti (1850)

My Daily Art Display today is, like my last offering, another painting depicting a scene from the Bible.   The scene is The Annunciation and has featured in paintings by many of the Renaissance Masters.  However this painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Rossetti has some subtle differences from these earlier works by the likes of Fra Angelico, Raphaello Santi, El Greco, van Eyck and Botticelli.

The story of the Annunciation is probably known by most and it is documented in the bible in the book of Luke (1: 26-38)

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

The painting I am featuring today is entitled The Annunciation which Rossetti painted in 1850.  That was not its original title given to it by the artist, Gabriel Rossetti.  He had originally decided to call the painting Ecce Ancilla Domini meaning “behold the handmaid of the Lord” but at the last moment changed his mind.  In the painting, Rossetti has just used the three primary colours, red, blue and yellow along with white.  The use of these colours by the artist is symbolic.  We have white for feminine purity, blue for the Virgin Mary, red for the Passion of Christ and yellow or gold which symbolises holiness.   There are other things in the painting which are symbolic.   The Angel Gabriel holds a lily and in the foreground we see a red cloth on to which we can see that Mary has embroidered white lilies.  Maybe this signifies the young girl’s decision to live a very pure life.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Rossetti (1849)

Mary and her mother, St Anne, can be seen embroidering that very cloth in Rossetti’s painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin which he painted a year earlier.   Lilies symbolize purity, chastity, and innocence and white lilies represent the purity of the Virgin Mary.  In most paintings of the Annunciation we see the Angel Gabriel presenting Mary with a white lily when he announced to her that she would give birth to the Son of God.

The setting Rossetti has given this scene is very unusual.  In Renaissance paintings of The Annunciation we look at settings which are sumptuous.  Tapestries and heavy velvet curtains often abound.  Light frequently can be seen entering the scene through exquisite stained glass windows lighting up elaborate furnishings and floor coverings.  Rossetti chose not to go down that line.  As we look upon the scene the first thing that strikes us is the claustrophobic compactness of Mary’s room.  It could almost be termed minimalistic in its accoutrements.  Look at the window opening on the back wall.  There was no attempt by Rossetti to give a feeling of depth to this painting by depicting a town somewhere in the far distance.  The window opening is plain and uncovered and through it we just see part of a solitary tree against a blue sky, the colour of which mirrors that of the colour of the screen at the end of Mary’s bed.

In most depictions of this scene we see Mary dressed in blue robes quietly and in some cases joyously receiving the news that she will give birth to the Christ child.  However Rossetti has depicted Mary’s mood differently.  We see Mary dressed in a white shift dress shrinking back from the Angel Gabriel.  Rossetti has added the colour blue which is associated with the Virgin Mary in the form of a blue cloth screen hanging behind her.

Rossetti has also included a dove which embodies the Holy Spirit.  He has depicted the golden-haired Angel Gabriel without wings, which was the norm for Annunciation paintings.  Gabriel’s face is in shade and his facial features are almost hidden from us.    He can be seen in this painting hovering just above the floor with flames all around his feet.  I wonder if I am just imagining it but it looks as if he is pointing the lily stem at Mary’s womb.  It is little wonder that the combination of his words and this action make the young girl almost cower and recoil against her bedroom wall.

Take a while and look at Mary’s expression.  How do you read Rossetti’s depiction of this young woman?  Look at her facial expression.  This is not one of acquiescence or pleasure.  This is a look almost of horror at what she has just been told.    This terrified look adds a great deal of power to Rossetti’s  painting.  Mary herself in Rossetti’s painting looks much younger than we are used to seeing in similar scenes.  She exudes a youthful beauty but only seems to be a mere adolescent with her long un-brushed auburn hair contrasting sharply with her white dress.  She is painfully thin and her hesitance and sad look tinged with fear endears her to us.  We can empathize with her situation.  Rossetti through this painting wants us to put ourselves in the position of Mary at hearing the news of what has been mapped out as her future.  The various Christian religions would have us believe that Mary has been honoured by being chosen as the future Mother of God but Rossetti is asking us to consider carefully whether this young girl, Mary, has been given a wonderful opportunity or whether her life has been saddled with an onerous responsibility.  You need to study her face and decide for yourself.  The model for Mary was Christina Rossetti, the poet, and the artist’s sister

I believe a number of the “standard” Annunciation paintings were meant to inspire us to lead a “good” life and for that reason we see the Virgin Mary delighted to be given the role as Mother of God.  The “standard” depiction of Mary with her happy smiling face leads us to believe that leading a pure and holy life will give us similar pleasure.  However Rossetti’s depiction of the Annunciation questions Mary’s happiness to accept her future role in life.  It is a role that will take away many of the pleasures a young girl would be looking forward to enjoying as she enters adulthood.

I suppose how you look at the painting and how you interpret what you see will depend on your religious belief.