The Hidden Meanings of the Merode Altarpiece by Campin
Robert Campin’s Annunciation triptych, the Merode Altarpiece, is full of hidden symbols meant to lead the viewer into deep reflection on the mysteries of the Incarnation, or God taking on a human form in the person of Jesus. Before the work could be attributed to Campin the artist who painted this was referred to as either the Master of the Merode Altarpiece, or the Master of Flamelle. Regardless of what name we assign the artist, his mastery is not in doubt.
Here we have a perfect example of the distinctives of Northern Renaissance painter, particularly their love of hiding deep religious truths in common household items. These ‘hidden’ symbols encouraged the viewer to connect their everyday life with the truths of God.
In a previous post we examined the backstory of this work, you can find that post here.
Left Panel of Campin’s Merode Altarpiece
On the left panel of the Altarpiece are the donor and his wife. They are kneeling in front of a door, as if they can view the the encounter 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 triptych was purchased. At the same time the man standing in the background was also painted in. The figures 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.
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 could not have been present in the scene being portrayed.
The Walled Garden
A walled garden is a common reference to Mary’s protected virginity, we can assume that is not the intention here as there is an open door onto the street. A garden was also a symbol of the gates of heaven, and in this painting many interpret the open door as somewhat presumptuous, as it signaled the donor had access to the gates of heaven. Since both of these interpretations are problematic, I’m going to go with a third.
The gate to Paradise was closed when Adam and Eve fell, and after their expulsion from the garden the entrance was guarded by an angel. With the obedience of Mary (the second Eve) and the coming sacrifice of Christ all men would have access to God and paradise, the gate would be open once again. This seems a more likely interpretation.
In the garden is a rose bush in bloom. Red roses reference the Passion of Christ and his death. Medieval sources said roses are red because Christ’s blood ran on them. As we’ve seen before, references to Christ’s death in paintings pertaining to His birth are common. Other flowers that have been identified in the grasses of this painting are forget-me-nots, also called ‘the eyes of Mary’, and violets which are a symbol of humility.
Moving to the panel on the right we have Joseph working in his shop. This is a new development in the portrayal of Joseph, to show him as the provider. Often Joseph is presented as feeble, sleeping, and insignificant. Campin has given Joseph dignity. He has painted him as the provider of the holy family, a hard worker who is a participant in the salvation narrative.
Apparently, Mary is in Joseph’s home. 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.
Board of Spikes
Joseph is drilling holes into a small, square board. Northern artists sometimes portrayed Christ as he was carrying the cross to the crucifixion with a rope tied around his waist. Attached to these ropes were boards that looked just like this board that Joseph is making. In the holes of the board spikes were inserted, so that, as Christ walked they would bang against his legs and shins adding another layer to his suffering. We can see the boards when they were completed in this painting by Bosch, another northern artist. Christ is stepping on one and the other is hitting his ankle.
Those boards are just one reference to the future work that Christ will take on behalf of humanity. The saw in the bottom left of the panel is believed to reference the sword that the Apostle Peter will use to slice the ear off of a Roman Soldier on the night Jesus is arrested. And the other tools spread throughout the work-space are references to other moments of the Passion narrative.
The most remarked upon detail of this panel in Campin’s altarpiece, however, is the mousetrap. There is one on the workbench and another sitting on the window sill as if advertising Joseph’s work to passersby. The mousetrap is a symbol for Christ dying on the cross and trapping Satan.
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.
Another common belief was that the marriage between Mary and Joseph was a part of the deception. Medieval theologians believed it was critical to keep God’s ‘trap’ a secret so that Satan would be thwarted. Having the Virgin Mary get married led to questions and hid Christ’s divinity from Satan, setting the trap more fully.
Center Panel of Campin’s Merode Altarpiece
The center panel of the altarpiece is a traditional annunciation scene. The annunciation is when the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary to announce that she is to bear a son. For believers this is a critical moment in the story of Christ, as this is when Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, enters Mary and she becomes pregnant. The incarnation, or God taking on human flesh in the form of Jesus, is a central tenet of Christianity and one that has been controversial throughout history. For centuries Christian art had stressed Christ’s divinity, countering the heresies that had developed around the nature of Christ. During the Renaissance artists began to focus on the humanity of Christ and the sacrifice of God to agree to live as a man.
The Virgin Mary
As we examine this panel we will start with the figure of Mary. Mary is seated on the footstool of the bench, or on the floor. It is hard to determine with her voluminous robes. This is a position of humility. There were several accepted ways to paint the virgin. We have seen on Duccio’s Maesta the Enthroned Madonna, and here we have the Virgin of Humility. Her position reinforces her character as one of humility before God.
“Virginity is worthy of praise, but humility is more necessary. The first is recommended, but the second is prescribed. I would dare say that without humility, even the virginity of Mary would not have been pleasing to God” ( Speculum Humanae Salvationis – An anonymous theological work written in the early 1300’s).
Both Mary and the Angel’s clothing have distinctive, angular folds. 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 a detail that helps identify a Northern Renaissance painting. As we focus on folds, 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.
Additionally, her gown is red. Red is used to denote humanity, as humans have blood. It is additionally used to remind us of Christ’s Passion, that he is coming to earth with the sole purpose of dying. When Mary is wearing red some scholars believe we are to associate Christ’s Passion with the sorrow that Mary will experience as she walks through those last days with him. I don’t believe there is any reason to choose one interpretation. In Campin’s Merode altarpiece the artist probably wished to layer meaning over meaning, giving the viewer more to contemplate.
Mary is reading a book of hours, a personal devotional. She is evidently so absorbed in her reading that she hasn’t noticed the angel. The book is covered with a white cloth to keep her hands from getting it dirty. We might find her actions charming, but in an age when books were expensive and precious, precautions while handling them was quite normal.
Mary sits before the darkened fireplace, suggesting the gates of hell. She symbolically blocks that opening, as her obedience will provide the way for humanity to avoid hell and enter heaven.
The bench in front of the fireplace has a carving of a lion which references the throne of King Solomon. King Solomon’s throne had two lions carved onto it. The virgin Mary, in whom Jesus stayed and lived, is sometimes symbolized as Solomon’s throne.
The Angel Gabriel
The Angel Gabriel is 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 caused by his entry. Mary, seated, has not yet noticed the arrival of the heavenly messenger. Gabriel’s hand is raised in greeting and blessing and he is beginning to kneel. Kneeling is always a sign of respect and the angel is kneeling down to Mary, recognizing her as a woman worthy of praise.
As we noted with Mary’s robes, Gabriel’s also have the distinctive angular folds. The border on his robe is the same as the vestment of a Deacon in the church, and this serves to emphasize the church’s role in the story of salvation.
A table sits between Mary and Gabriel and brings a rather jarring note to the scene. While much of the painting has amazing realism and detail, the perspective of the room is off. Most notably, the table is not foreshortened properly and leaves the viewer feeling the room is tipped. The bench and lines of the room also 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. Perhaps the unsettling element is meant to clue the viewer into the fact that, in this moment, all of history is being disrupted, tilted and changed. We are meant to feel unsettled as God enters into the human narrative in a transformative, revolutionary way.
Others say that in Campin’s Merode altarpiece, the artist had simply not mastered the use of perspective. You can decide which side of the debate you fall on.
The tabletop has 16 sides, referencing the 16 most important prophets of the Old Testament. As Jesus will be the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies it is fitting that they be represented in an annunciation scene.
A Book, Scroll, Candlestick, and Vase
A book and scroll together reference the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament (scroll) tells why a messiah is needed and provides prophecies about Christ’s coming. The New Testament tells of Christ and the plan for mankind’s salvation. The pages of the New Testament are ruffled by the breeze that the angel’s arrival has caused.
Also on the table is a majolica vase filled with lilies. Lilies are the most common symbol in annunciation works of art and signify Mary’s purity. The fact that there are three lilies is a reference to the trinity.
A candle on the table, with smoke still spiraling up as if recently snuffed, is used to signify God’s presence. There is precedence in the Bible for fire indicating God is present. Two notable instances are Moses speaking to the burning bush, and 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.
Additionally, during the middle ages a candle was said to reference Christ. The wax was his flesh, the wick his soul, and the light his divinity. Mary was understood to be the candlestick, which, for a time, held Christ. While Christ remains fully divine in his incarnation, the emphasis here is on his humanity.
Through the window in the back of the work 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, one crest for his family and the other for his wife’s.
Behind the table, hanging in a niche, we see 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. Vessels were also symbols for Mary as she is destined to be the vessel holding Jesus. Together the basin and towel are used for making us clean, just as Christ’s death will cleanse us from all ungodliness.
Beyond these meanings, the basin and towel recall the liturgical washing station the priest uses before communion. Again, there is a connection to washing the soul clean and to the work that Christ has come to accomplish.
Next we come to imagery that might seem strange to the modern mind, particularly if one is not Catholic. 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.
St. Bernard said, “Just as the brilliance of the sun fills and penetrates a glass window without damaging it when emerging, so light pierces its solid form with imperceptible subtlety neither hurting it when entering nor destroying it when emerging. Thus the word of God, the splendor of the Father, entered the virgin chamber and then came forth from a closed womb.
Rays of light in Campin’s Merode Altarpiece
The baby is arriving on 7 rays of light. Seven is the number of the incarnation, referencing the doctrine that Christ is fully God and fully Man. The number 3 is representative of God, as he is a trinity. The number 4 is the number of mankind. When the two are combined we get 7, which references Christ. The rays of light also indicate the presence of the Holy spirit.
This work is full of rich details that were meant to aid an individual and his family in their devotions. Every detail is layered with symbolic meaning. Balanced composition, crisp lighting, and striking colors bring a message of beauty and hope. 570 Years later viewers continue to reflect on the painting, to discuss its meaning, and to argue over the theology presented. I hope you have enjoyed learning more about this work. Again, if you missed the first post introducing the backstory on this work you can find that here.
If you enjoyed this article I hope you will explore other works of art I’ve written about, or go to my youtube channel and watch one of the art history video’s I’ve posted there.
If you are reading this as a part of the Advent in Art Series, continue that journey with Day 9 Donatello.
Here is a video version of this article.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History (Laurence King Pulishing Ltd., London, England 2018)
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
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.