Text by Geoffrey Smith
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The central panel of the Mérode Altarpiece invites us into the comfortable confines of an early 15th century northern European bourgeois domestic interior. A curiously large bench extends the whole length of the room, its back blocking off the fireplace. Lounging on the floor, her elbow propped against the bench, the Virgin Mary (enveloped in a voluminous robe – each crease of drapery carefully modeled) is immersed in her reading of the Bible, seemingly oblivious to the import of the moment. The angel Gabriel has entered the room with a commendable lack of fanfare, perhaps through the door which opens into the left wing of the triptych. His right hand is already raised in a gesture of benefaction so he will make his presence known in the next second or two. Indeed his divine mission is very close to completion for we can see above his wings the tiny figure of a child (representing the fully formed body and soul of Jesus) transported through the circular window along a beam of light. The minuscule figure carries a cross, a bleak reminder of Christ’s eventual destiny.
The room seems to be jammed full and yet there are only two occupants and two major items of furniture. This claustrophobia has been caused by the unnaturally abrupt perspectival recession used by Campin inducing in us the feeling that we are seeing things from a bird’s eye view with the floor and the table sloping towards us. It can’t be long, we feel, before the vase, candlestick and book slide from the table into the lap of the Virgin. However, Campin was at the forefront of the new naturalism in Netherlandish art, not only in his experiments with perspective and his use of oil as a medium for his pigments but also in his wonderfully meticulous representation of everyday objects – many of which are introduced in order to elucidate the Christian message.
Lilies are usually present in any representation of the Annunciation – they are an ancient symbol of fecundity but in the Christian tradition they became associated with the Virgin Mary, their white color (echoed here in the cloth she is holding) alluding to her purity and chastity. Here Campin has positioned three lilies very centrally in a vase on the table. One flower is still in bud and it has been suggested that this may refer to the incipient arrival of Jesus in fetal form, thus completing the Trinity. Next to the vase stands a candlestick, the flame very recently extinguished, a diminutive plume of smoke rising from the still hot wick. This would seem to be a reference to St Bridget’s idea that the worldly light emitted by the flame is no match for the divine radiance associated with the arrival of Christ.
Waiting in the wings – in this case the left wing – the donor and his wife kneel at the half open door, awed to be in the presence of such exalted company. He can be identified as Pieter Ingelbrecht from the coat of arms which appears in the window of the Virgin’s chamber. He married Gretgin Schrinmechers at some point in the 1420s – her name can be translated as ‘Carpenter’ which forms a nice equivalence with Joseph’s depiction in the opposite wing.
Joseph is in his workshop surrounded by the tools of his trade, heedless of the events depicted in the rest of the triptych. Joseph, rarely represented at the Annunciation, is here shown drilling holes in a piece of wood – possibly the top for a footwarmer. However, of more interest, we can see that he has also been manufacturing mousetraps, one of which is on display – no doubt for sale – on a shelf projecting into the town square. These prosaic objects have provided lots of fun for scholars as the symbolism surrounding them seems to be many layered. Suffice it to say that the mouse was associated with the Devil, one reason being that it infested and devoured food, so St Joseph, in making a device for the destruction of mice, is symbolically victorious over the Devil. St Augustine also maintained that the marriage of Mary to Joseph only took place as a cover for the birth of the son of God, in order to deceive the Devil in the same way that the mouse is fooled by the bait in a trap. So the husband of the Virgin (who is shown in other roughly contemporary works as a rather pathetic stooge) is engaged in important work ensnaring Satan.
Until fairly recently scholarly opinion was split as to the attribution of a body of work which was variously ascribed to The Master of Flémalle, The Master of Mérode and Robert Campin. Most authorities now accept that the work of the two masters should now be attributed to Campin: and we can see in this beautiful Annunciation (one of the earliest to be set in a domestic interior rather than an ecclesiastical context) why Campin’s groundbreaking work was so important as the jumping off point for van Eyck and the Netherlandish masters of the 15th century.
1423 Gentile da Fabriano: Adoration of the Magi, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
1425 Masaccio: The Holy Trinity, Florence, Santa Maria Novella