Welcome to Day 8.
Today we are moving north into Flanders, or modern day Belgium, which was part of France in the 1300’s. It’s confusing, and fascinating to trace the geography, but that is for another time. What is important is that Robert Campin was part of the Northern Renaissance. The work we will be examining is the Merode Altarpiece, sometimes called The Annunciation Triptych, and it is in The Cloisters, a part of The Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
Only recently has Campin received the recognition he deserves. He was a very well known, and well documented painter, however, he was routinely referred to as the Master of Flemalle. Only recently have art historians concluded that the Master of Flemalle was Robert Campin. In the past many of his works have been attributed to other artists, and some are still disputed. Painters in the early 1400’s rarely signed their works, or they signed the frame. Frames do not always survive, so without a signature experts must resort to detective work and make a best guess. As more information comes to light, new evaluations need to be made.
The piece we are going to look at is a portable altarpiece. It is not large, 2 feet high and four feet wide. This meant the work could be easily transported and was intended for personal worship. The central panel was painted first, then when it was purchased the donor asked for the side panels to be added. He wanted himself painted in on the left wing. It was common for the person who purchased a work to have themselves painted in. The side panels are hinged so that the piece can be folded up.
This painting is done on a wood panel with oil paint. Oil was a recent innovation in the north. When painting with tempera, the paint is opaque, and therefore does not reflect light. After a painting was finished a varnish was added to make the surface reflective. This also added depth to the colors. Without a varnish tempera paint has the look of pastels. Tempera was made by mixing pigments with water, then egg yolks, and generally one other binding ingredient. Without an additional ‘glue’ element the tempera would crack and even flake off. Tempera is also not suited to painting on canvas.
Oil paint is pigment suspended in an oil, typically linseed oil. This medium allows a higher pigment load and deeper colors. The oil also allows a great deal more variation in colors, which meant artists could paint with greater precision. The oil was also translucent, light could pass through it. When applied in layers artist could create a great deal of depth and shadow creating effects similar to deeply colored jewels. They could slowly build up layers, solving a bit of the mystery behind those fine filmy layers sometimes seen. Oil dried slowly, which allowed artist more freedom, to correct and change as they worked.
Northern painting is especially noted for it’s use of light and color. I, personally, am drawn to the work of these Northern artists, more than their Italian counterparts, and I think it is because I prefer the clear, intense colors and crisp light. Once you become familiar with several Northern painters, it becomes possible to make educated guesses when looking at a new work as to whether it is a work from the North. There is a distinctive element to it that is hard to define with words.
As we examine Campin’s work more closely, note the colors and the play of light, it is gorgeous. Of course, nothing compares to seeing these works in person. In reproductions you lose the play of light and the exquisite details.
Beyond the actual paint, there are a few other characteristics of Northern painting to keep in mind. The Northern Renaissance developed on it’s own, in ways that differed from the Renaissance in Italy. In Italy the combination of religion, humanism, and classicism was key. This meant ancient architectural details and an emphasis on linear (discussed in yesterday’s post) and aerial perspective (which we will be exploring on day 10). In classical art the artist tried to ‘trick the eye’ to fool the viewer into thinking they were looking at the real thing. They also valued the mythical and Biblical figures, not everyday events or people.
In Northern art, classical elements are missing. Religion and humanism are evident, but without the classicism. They are interested in genre painting, or painting of everyday life, not just the heroic moments. Northern artists brought landscape painting into its own. When viewing Northern art you should pay particular attention to the landscapes in the backgrounds. Intricate details, in the smallest of things is done with precision and clarity.
In the North, much of the inspiration for the Renaissance came from the Illuminated Manuscripts. As we saw earlier, these amazing works had achieved a great deal of realism; that coupled with Gothic sculpture pushed the North into their own Renaissance.
So let’s do an overview of the altarpiece and then examine some of the iconography, or the symbols that are within it. First, you can just make out on the frame the hinges that allow the side panels to fold in.
On the left panel are the donor and his wife. They are kneeling in front of a door, as if they can view the the encounter that is going on in the center panel. We know that the wife was painted in at a later date, it is assumed that this was due to a marriage that occurred after the purchase. At the same time the man standing in the background was also painted in. They are in a walled garden, and since the door is open we can see into the town behind them. There are several theories as to who the man in the background is, some say a servant, some a self-portrait of the painter, and others, the prophet Isaiah.
In the central panel we have the angel Gabriel arriving on the left, he appears to have just arrived as his cloak is trailing behind him, and the pages of the book on the table are fluttering in the wind. Mary is seated, reading, and appears unaware of the angel’s presence. Through the window in the back we can see the sky and clouds. Originally the window area was gold leaf, but was painted over, perhaps at the same time as the addition of the donors wife. The shields in the windows were added at a later date as well, and probably reference the donors family. The room is a cozy domestic room, a typical comfortable Flemish home.
While much of the painting has amazing realism and detail, the view of the room is jarring. The perspective is off. The table is not foreshortened properly, and the bench and lines of the room don’t match up. The upward thrust of the floor makes the room feel unstable. Some have said that this lack of perspective was intentional as it serves the symbolic purpose of visually detaching the religious realm from the world of the viewers. Others say that Campin just has not mastered the use of perspective.
You should also take note of the folds in the clothing around both the angel and Mary. These angular folds are indicative of work from the North. They seem to go well with the crispness of the colors and light. Whatever the reason it is another details that can help you identify a painting.
On the right panel we have Joseph, working in his shop. This is a new development in the portrayal of Joseph, to show him as the provider. Apparently, Mary is in Joseph’s home, although at this point of the story they are engaged and not married, so it is odd. In the real world, a workshop would have been on the ground floor, but from looking out of the window on the town, it appears that the workshop is on the second story.
Northern painters were masters of secret symbolism. They enjoyed painting scenes with common household items, but they gave these items symbolic meanings that added depth to the meaning of the painting. A few of these symbols should be familiar to you now, but there are many we haven’t seen thus far.
Starting on the right panel, first, the scene is within a walled garden, a common reference to Mary’s protected virginity. The open door onto the street was considered somewhat presumptuous, as it signaled the donor had access to the gates of heaven. Also in the garden is a rose bush in bloom. Red roses were understood to reference the Passion of Christ, his death. Medieval sources said roses are red because Christ blood ran on them. As we’ve seen before references to Christ death, in paintings pertaining to His birth are common.
The donors are looking through a door which makes them viewers of the sacred story, or perhaps having a vision of what occurred. A vision was a device used by Flemish artists to facilitate painting in people who do not exist within the era of the painting.
The central panel is filled with symbolic meaning. The virgin is seated on the footstool of the bench. There were several accepted ways to paint the virgin, we have seen on Duccio’s Maesta the entrhoned madonna, and here we have the virgin of humility. Her position reinforces her character as one of humility before God. As we focus on her clothing, on her front knee we can see a star, some say the star of David, reminding us both of Mary’s lineage, and of the prophecy that the Messiah would come from that line.
Mary is reading a book of hours, a personal devotional, and on the table next to her are a Bible and a scroll. A book and scroll together reference the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (scroll) telling why a messiah is needed and providing prophecies about Christ coming. The New Testament tells of Christ and the plan for mankind’s salvation. The border on the Angel’s robe is the same as the vestment of a Deacon in the church, and emphasizes the churches role in the story of salvation.
Also on the table is a majolica vase filled with lilies. Lilies being the most common symbol in Annunciations and signifying Mary’s purity. Majolica is a tin-glazed earthenware pottery that was common in Flanders.
A candle on the table has just burned out, with smoke still spiraling up as if recently snuffed. A burning candle is used to signify God’s presence. There are many reasons for this; Moses speaking to the burning bush, the flames of fire on believers heads at Pentecost, but why is the candle snuffed out? That is because we are at the moment of conception and Christ is entering Mary. There is no reason for a symbol of God’s presence when God is actually present.
If you look closely at the tabletop itself you will note that it has 16 sides. This is believed to reference the 16 most important Prophets in the Old Testament. Behind the table hanging is a niche that has a pail for water and a towel. This is a washing station. There are multiple meanings at work here. The white towel, like the lilies, signifies the purity and virginity of Mary. The basin is a vessel that holds water, just as Mary is destined to be the vessel holding Jesus. Together the basin and towel are used for making us clean, just as Christ death will cleanse us from all ungodliness.
Continuing around we come to the two windows. If you look closely you will see a small baby figure carrying a cross descending on rays of light. This is the Christ child, carrying the cross He will die on. Obviously the child has just arrived through the window from heaven, yet, the window is neither open nor broken. This intact window pane is to remind us of Mary’s intact virginity (hymen). For us, this child coming in through the window is a charming detail that might make us smile, but to the viewer of Campin’s day the child is a source of sorrow and reflection as His coming is clearly connected to His suffering and death.
Moving to the panel on the right we have Joseph working. He is drilling holes into a small board. Although it isn’t certain, it has been suggested that this is a drainboard for wine making, and symbolizes the central rite of the Church, the Eucharist. But that is not what contemporaries of Campin would have noticed, they would notice the mousetraps. Joseph makes mousetraps, and if you look out the window you can see one on the sill is set.
St. Augustine, several times, made the analogy between a mousetrap and Christ. “What is this trap, made by a Carpenter who works in wood? God’s trap for the devil is the cross. And who is the bait, placed on the trap? It is Jesus. He himself becomes the bait.
When Christ came Satan saw his opportunity to do damage, perhaps even kill Jesus. But it was a trap, it is in Christ’s death on the cross that Satan loses all.
This work, full of rich details that call on us to carefully consider the spiritual implications of the incarnation was created for use as a personal, perhaps family, devotional piece. Created to inspire introspection, prayer, and reflection it still inspires and speaks to us 570 years later.
If you enjoyed this article you can access the rest of the series here.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
The Chora Museum www.choramuseum.com/
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.