In the Medieval to the Renaissance periods, religious figures and events dominate the art scene. The Merode Altarpiece is one of those paintings that hold many symbolism that relate to Catholicism. While the painting is clearly that of Annunciation, there are other meanings that could be derived from the three-part work of Flemish artist Robert Campin. The painting is said to symbolize salvation and the triumph of good over evil. This paper will largely discuss the symbols and their meanings found on the Merode Altarpiece.
The Merode Altarpiece, created by Robert Campin between 1425 to 1428, is comprised of three panels or a triptych, a form of art that was adopted from the Middle Ages.
Campin, from the Belgian town of Tournai, is widely considered as the “Master of Flemalle.” Among his known works, the Merode is considered a masterpiece because of how he integrated objects with sacred and metaphysical meanings.
The altarpiece was created using oil on wood and is currently on display at the Cloisters section of the Metropolitan Museums of Art in New York. It is believed that the painting was commissioned by a private individual before going to the Merode families. From there, the piece went to the art market and was later acquired by the Metropolitan Museum through Rosenberg & Stiebel and included it as part of its collection. The disharmonies, lack of perspective and the bulky robes speak of Medieval influences rather than Renaissance. These characteristics were already unpopular in Italy, the heart of the Renaissance movement.
The central panel depicts the Annunciation where an angel is kneeling in front of Mary, who was sitting on the floor and partly reclining on a bench while reading what looks like a book or if not reading, was doing needlework. It seems that Mary has not seen the angel yet or indifferent to his presence. The room has one table, whose tabletop is a bit skewed, a long bench with cushions, a window, and a boiling pot hanging at the door. On the left panel, a priest and a woman are about to enter an open door while a man at the background was pressed to the wall as if spying on them. Or the man is a guard standing near the town’s entry doorway. On the right panel, a man, presumably Joseph, is doing carpentry work while sitting on his workbench. There is a another bench where Joseph placed some of this tools. Other tools are on the floor. From the window, the view is of a town and from the angle, it could be said that Joseph’s room is on a higher floor.
Overall, the artist portrayed a domestic interior that overlooks a busy thoroughfare. Using oil, Campin painted the details the gleaming images and surfaces and the shadows. But more than what meets the eye, there are hidden symbols included in the triptych.
The lilies on the vase and the white cloth held by Mary are there to signify her purity and chastity. Although a more realistic look at the white cloth could simply mean that Mary holds it to keep the binding of the book clean. The newly snuffed candle provides a sense of silence that befits a grandiose moment when the angel prepares to tell Mary of the news. Mary’s shining dress alludes to the shine of a star, which could mean that the lady is a star among stars. The tiny figure of Christ holding a cross is symbolic of the spirit entering Mary’s womb to be conceived by a pure woman.
The table is painted in an awkward angle suggestive of Netherlandish style, which makes the objects on the tabletop appear about to slide down. Looking at it on a different perspective, it would probably mean that Campin made the table look like that to draw the eyes on the objects it has on top. At the same time, it draws the eyes toward the sitting figure of Mary on the floor. But being greatly influenced by the Middle Ages’ form of art, perspective is something that Campin was not particularly concerned with.
There could also be a symbolism presented by where the scenes of the panels to have occurred. The center and right panels are obviously not on the ground floor, while the left panel could only be on the ground floor. From this, it could be assumed that the people on the left panel, gazing wide-eyed on a scene inside the door, are about to enter a new level of awareness. By knowing of the Annunciation, the two people on the left panel are lifted on a higher level of awareness symbolic of the scenes in the higher floors. This could also be symbolic of man’s faith. Those who believe in God could take the leap and would not wonder at the change. For Campin, it takes a leap of faith to enter into another world that has been promised since the day of the Annunciation.
The Merode has a lot of domains, distinct from each other. There is a wall with a guard that leads into a castle and the town square. The house where the Annunciation happened is outside this wall. The people on the left panel could have come from the other side of the wall, once part of a world that is separate from that of Mary and Joseph’s. By making the leap and passing through the wall to the house outside, the man and woman are about to enter into salvation. The open door where a guard stands signify that the other townspeople are not exempted from finding their way to God. They only need to recognize that there is a way. It’s curious why a guard would stand outside the town rather than inside it. This could signify that that person has actually opened the door and pointed people to the abode outside the town. The man and the woman on the left panel are the first two people to have heeded the call.
The scene on the right panel holds a symbolism for earthly and material temptations. The open window showing the town invites Joseph to be part of the revelry and the pursuit of earthly gains. But Joseph turns his back from the view, signifying his denial of that from this world. Joseph appears to be making a mousetrap that symbolizes the defeat of the evil in this world. The bait seems to be Jesus whose very humanity and death would trap and overcome the prevailing stench of sin.
The Merode Altarpiece invites the viewers to look behind the figures and examine the significance of a homely scene that could have passed as ordinary without the presence of an angel. Although the viewer could take the scenes at face value and enjoy them based on the artists’ skill and craftsmanship, the experience would be heightened when the viewer is aware of how the artist has put into three simple scenes the beginning of man’s salvation.
- Cotter, Holland. “Art Review; Giving Icons Real Life and Humans a Paradise.”
- The New York Times, September 25, 1998. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html? res=9C06E5DB1739F936A1575AC0A96 E958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2 (Accessed October 20, 2008).
- de Vos, Dirk. The Flemish Primitives: The Masterpieces. Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Haber, John. “Robert Campin’s Uncanny Leap: The Merode Altarpiece” January 3, 1999. http://www.haberarts.com/campin.htm (Accessed October 20, 2008).
- “The Merode Altarpiece.” Portico. http://www.portifex.com/LArts/Merode.htm (Accessed October 20, 2008).
- “Robert Campin: Merode Altarpiece.” Artchive.com. http://www.artchive.com/artchive/C/campin.html (Accessed October 20, 2008).
-  Holland Cotter, “Art Review; Giving Icons Real Life and Humans a Paradise,” The New York Times, September 25, 1998, Arts section.
 “The Merode Altarpiece,” Portico Home Page, 2004, http://www.portifex.com/LArts/Merode.htm
 Dirk de Vos, “The Flemish Primitives: The Masterpieces,” Princeton University Press, 2003.
 John Haber, “The Merode Altarpiece,” Robert Campin’s Uncanny Leap, January 3, 1999, http://www.haberarts.com/campin.htm
 “Robert Campin: Merode Altarpiece,” Artchive.com, http://www.artchive.com/artchive/C/campin.html