The Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1425) by Robert Campin is a triptych oil painting on a wooden panel that depicts the Biblical story of the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel; the outer panels depict the donors and Joseph. This article will discuss the Mérode Altarpiece’s symbolism and stylistic techniques in more detail and what has made it one of the most famous Northern Renaissance paintings.
Table of Contents
- 1 Artist Abstract: Who Was Robert Campin?
- 2 Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1425) by Robert Campin in Context
- 3 Formal Analysis: A Brief Compositional Overview
- 4 The Mérode Altarpiece: A Wonderland of Detail
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
Artist Abstract: Who Was Robert Campin?
Robert Campin, also known as the Master of Flémalle, was considered one of the pioneering painters from the Early Netherlandish era during the Northern Renaissance period and the pioneers of what was known as New Realism, which also included the work of Jan van Eyck. There are minimal records of his early life and where he was born, but reportedly he was born in 1375 and died in 1444.
He was also believed to have been born in Northern France in Valenciennes and later moved to Tournai in Belgium where he was first put on record in around 1406 as what is known as a “free master” and became a citizen in 1410. Campin was also a pioneer in the use of oil paints and was remembered for having a thriving workshop.
Another artwork, Annunciation (1420 – 1425), by Robert Campin, demonstrating his style. Located in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain; Robert Campin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1425) by Robert Campin in Context
|Artist||Workshop of Robert Campin|
|Date Painted||c. 1425|
|Medium||Oil on oak panel (triptych)|
|Period / Movement||Early Netherlandish/Northern Renaissance|
|Dimensions||273.1 x 644.5 centimeters|
|Series / Versions||N/A|
|Where Is It Housed?||The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters Museum in Fort Tryon Park, New York City|
|What It Is Worth||N/A|
Below we will provide a brief contextual analysis of the Mérode Altarpiece, who painted it, and what its purpose would have been. Additionally, there is a wealth of religious iconography in this altarpiece, and we will discuss these in more depth alongside a formal analysis below, which will explore the subject matter and stylistic aspects like color, light, and perspective.
Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1425) by the workshop of Robert Campin, located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, United States; Robert Campin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Contextual Analysis: A Brief Socio-Historical Overview
The Mérode Altarpiece is described as falling within an Early Netherlandish art style, which moved away from the late Gothic art styles in Northern Europe, in fact, some sources describe Robert Campin’s work as still falling within the late Gothic style. It is described by Theodore Rousseau, Jr. as the “milestone” between these art periods; he explains in his journal article titled The Mérode Altarpiece, published in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (Volume 16, Number 4, December 1957), that it “summarizes the medieval tradition and lays the foundation for the development of modern painting”.
The “Mérode” triptych by Robert Campin is not large, it measures around two feet high and four feet wide. It is unique in its purpose, compared to other early Flemish altarpieces, which would have been created for a church altar, for example, the “Ghent Altarpiece” (c. 1432) by Jan van Eyck, but it has also been attributed to his brother, Hubert van Eyck, who reportedly started it.
A version of the central panel, The Annunciation, at one time attributed to Jacques Daret (a pupil of Campin’s) and located in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. This panel was painted earlier than the New York version and may be the original; Master of Flémalle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It was utilized and kept in the private setting of a home, and due to its compact size, it was more mobile. This is further illustrated by the central panel painting, which depicts The Annunciation scene set in a home, we can also notice the urban environment through the door on the left panel and the window on the right panel. However, because of the emerging merchant class during the 15th century, more people commissioned altarpieces for themselves to use for “private prayer”. This brings us to the question of who commissioned the Mérode Altarpiece?
Scholars are still unclear about who the exact donors were, painted in the left panel. Some state it was the businessman named Jan Engelbrecht and others state it was Peter Ingelbrecht, reportedly a cloth merchant from Cologne, and Margarete Scrynmaker, his wife. Scholarly debates also explore the meaning of the surname “Engelbrecht”, which translates to “angel bright” or “bright angel”, suggesting that the painting was commissioned for the family and possible marriage.
There are also two coats of arms depicted on the window in the central panel of the triptych, which may indicate the origins of the surname. The left is believed to be the “Ingelbrechts of Malines” and the right is believed to be the “Calcum family”.
Who Painted the Mérode Altarpiece?
The Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin was undated and unsigned with extensive scholarly research undertaken to ascertain who the true creator was behind this triptych. Many sources state that it was created by several artists.
Additionally, it is believed the “Mérode Altarpiece” was painted in different stages and belonged to other paintings from what was known as the Tournai Workshop of Robert Campin. He reportedly had apprentices who assisted with each panel, namely, Rogier van der Weyden and Jacques Daret.
Both above-mentioned artists worked with Robert Campin, however, Rogier van der Weyden is acclaimed as one of the masters of Early Flemish art, alongside Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck, who were collectively referred to as the “Flemish Primitives”.
Formal Analysis: A Brief Compositional Overview
Below we will explore the Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin in more detail, looking at the three panels’ subject matter including the Mérode Altarpiece symbolism, followed by the stylistic details applied, for example, color, light, as well as perspective.
Subject Matter: The Mérode Altarpiece in Three Panels
It is believed the central panel of the Mérode triptych was painted first and the outer wings were added at a later stage, possibly when the donor commissioned it, which explains why the left panel depicts the donor and his wife.
Furthermore, due to his wife’s odd positioning, it is believed she was painted at a later stage, probably when they were first married. Let us start here, with the left panel.
The Left Panel: The Donors
The left panel depicts the two donors in an enclosed courtyard or garden space, which is referred to in Latin as the Hortus conclusus. There is a high stone wall surrounding this garden and a wooden door that is open. We can also see several birds sitting on top of the wall’s stony structure.
The donors are in the forefront of the composition, kneeling on the pathway right in front of three stone steps that lead to a half-open wooden door along the right side. In the bottom left corner, there is a patch of grass with flowers, some include Forget Me Nots, which are also referred to as “The Eyes of Mary”, and Violets, which symbolize modesty, faithfulness, and spiritual wisdom.
While some sources describe the donors as aristocracy, they have been identified as burghers, otherwise knowns as wealthy bourgeois.
The left panel of the Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1425) by the workshop of Robert Campin, located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, United States; Robert Campin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The man is holding on to his black hat in front of his chest while the woman, his wife, is staring out in front of her; her hands are clasped together with what appears to be a rosary hanging from it. Both appear in deep reverence. In the background, a man is standing behind another open door and to his left (our right) there is a rose bush with red roses. He appears to be keeping the door open, assuming he opened it for the donors to enter the space.
Through the open door is the town outside, of which we can see a man on a horse, a woman sitting on a bench, and what appears to be a merchant selling items of clothing.
This man is wearing a different outfit compared to the donors, it is described as more “festive” than their outfits too. He has been theorized as being either the town crier, a servant, the Prophet Isaiah, or even a portrait of the artist who painted it. However, other sources suggest that he could also be a marriage broker due to the emblem on the shield hanging around his neck.
The Central Panel: The Annunciation
If we look at the central panel, there is significant detail here; the primary narrative is that of “The Annunciation”, from the Gospel of Luke, 1: 26-38 in the Bible when the Archangel Gabriel brings news to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to Jesus Christ. We see angel Gabriel to the left, he holds up his right hand and is in the process of kneeling, he appears gentle in his approach to the Virgin Mary, who is seated to the right side, reading the devotional Book of Hours.
She is leaning against the long bench, which has a footrest, on which she appears to sit. This seated position symbolizes humility and is a position often utilized to depict the Virgin Mary, referring to her as the Virgin of Humility. She seems unaware of the Archangel Gabriel coming toward her, which suggests that this is depicting the moment just as it is about to occur.
Furthermore, according to The Annunciation story, the Virgin Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. This is depicted by the small figure of a baby child, Jesus Christ, holding the cross and coming towards Mary in seven golden rays of light from the round window to the left. The seven rays of light are symbolic of what could be the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost and are often depicted with a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, only here it is the figure of Jesus Christ.
The central panel of the Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1425) by the workshop of Robert Campin, located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, United States; Robert Campin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The interior of the scene depicts a living room, there is an oval-shaped wooden table in the center, and to our right is the long wooden bench where the Virgin Mary is seated, behind her is a fireplace that appears dark; some sources state this symbolizes hell, but due to her dedication to her way of life she is blocking it.
Other Mérode Altarpiece symbolism includes the vase on the table with three white Lilies inside, which symbolizes the Virgin Mary’s purity as well as alluding to the Trinity. The letters on the vase have been attributed to a form of Hebrew. There is another book and a scroll on the table on top of a green purse, this is thought to refer to the Old and New Testaments in the Bible.
We will also notice there is a candle on the table with curling loops of smoke moving upwards as if it has just been extinguished; this symbolizes the Holy Spirit’s presence. Furthermore, the candlestick could also symbolize Mary as the vessel who held Jesus Christ. Notice the missing candle in the candle holder on the fireplace mantel.
The Virgin Mary’s purity is further alluded to by the white towel with horizontal blue lines on it, hanging in the left background corner. Here we will also notice a metal basin hanging in the alcove. This is a washing area, which also symbolizes the idea of purity and cleanliness. There are two windows towards the right in the background with a blue sky outside. Reportedly, the blue sky was originally painted in gold.
The Right Panel: Joseph
The right panel depicts the figure of Joseph, seated on a wooden bench, busying himself in his carpentry shop and he appears to be making holes or spokes into a wooden plank with a handheld boring tool. He is surrounded by various carpentry tools, for example, on the table in front of him is a hammer, pliers, a broad-handled gimlet, nails, and what appears to be a mousetrap, or a woodworking plane.
On the floor, to the right, is an ax in a piece of wood, there is a thin wooden stick partially lying on top of it, and to the left is a saw, its handle is on a footstool; there are wooden shavings strewn on the floor. There is a window in the background, towards Joseph’s right side. There is an opened wooden shutter, which seemingly doubles as a table of sorts, on which is another mousetrap.
The mouse traps here have been viewed as symbols, or “theological metaphors”, of Jesus Christ’s Crucifixion and notably the Cross, referring to Jesus as the bait for Satan.
The right panel of the Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1425) by the workshop of Robert Campin, located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, United States; Workshop of Robert Campin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Many scholars reference St Augustine’s writings about the above, namely, “the cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death”. If we look at the exterior setting, it depicts the townscape, although here we see more of the urban environment compared to what we see in the left panel; there are more people walking in the streets and coming in and out of the buildings. There also appear to be two churches in the far distance evident by the two steeples.
Another interesting fact about the composition is that it is assumed the Virgin Mary is living with Joseph, suggested by the continuity of the altarpiece subject matter, but in fact, many sources point out that they did not live together because they were not yet married when the events of the Annunciation took place.
Color and Light
If we look at several formal elements like color and light in this Annunciation triptych, there is significant detail in terms of shading and highlighting. For example, in the central panel, we can see the different layers of shadows as they fall from how the light hits them. They are distinctive on the wall from the wooden shutters of the window, the hanging towel and basin, the candle holders on the mantel, and the other furniture around the room. It is clear there are several light sources and possibly some out of our view.
Some scholarly sources also state that the shading was not according to any “natural logic but rather as effective and pleasing variations of the surface”.
Visible white highlights are also visible throughout the Annunciation triptych, which accentuates the forms and figures, for example, in the left panel we see it on the buttons and beads of the donor’s wife and the man standing in the background. On the donor himself, we see it on the purse and dagger on his side. We can also see these highlights on the right panel on Joseph’s tools as well as in the central panel on various objects and furniture.
Detail of the central panel with table, book of hours, fading candle, and vase, demonstrating the use of color and light; Robert Campin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Mérode Altarpiece has been described as having a cool color harmony, evident in the left and right panels with warmer and more striking colors in the central panel from the large areas of color in angel Gabriel’s and the Virgin Mary’s robes. The above figures’ robes are also a contrast of warm and cool colors, the cooler light blue of angel Gabriel’s robe and the warm red of the Virgin Mary’s robe.
It also appears as if there is a light source emphasizing the majestic qualities of the flowing robes worn by both figures, we see this, especially near the Virgin Mary’s knee as the material molds around its shape, and the dark shading in the folds of the angel Gabriel’s robe near his waist as he kneels. There are other hints of color like the darker blue from the cushions and the green from the purse on the table, but these are all brought out by the neutral tones of the surrounding room, for example, the beige/gray from the walls and then the earthy greens from the floor tiles.
While there are so many more examples we can discuss regarding color and the play on light and shadow in the “Mérode” triptych, it is safe to say that it is imbued with the skillful and intricate qualities so characteristic of Northern Renaissance painting during the 15th century.
This also brings us to the texture of the painting, and the artist’s brush strokes, which are so smoothly applied that we cannot see the brushstrokes. This also adds to the realistic qualities of the overall painting as well as the mastery that the artist had with oil painting, which was one of the prominent mediums of paint of the time.
Furthermore, reportedly Robert Campin was one of the first artists to utilize oil painting.
Detail of the left panel with a street scene and attendant, demonstrating the texture of the artwork; Master of Flémalle, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
An important point to note about texture and how Campin utilized his paintbrush is that he had considerable skill and a keen eye for detail, this could possibly be due to his experience with miniature paintings and illuminated manuscript painting prevalent in the Northern parts of Europe.
The Mérode Altarpiece’s perspective varies throughout the panels, for example, in the left and right panels the perspective is eye-level, there is a sense of spatial depth between the background and foreground, and it is almost as if we are looking into the scene.
The central panel is depicted from what appears to be an elevated viewpoint, described by some scholars as “steeper” in its view.
Detail of the right panel with a street scene and view of Liège, demonstrating the use of perspective; Workshop of Robert Campin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
We also see this perspective in the objects, which are also rendered as if we can see into them, for example, the washing basin and the vase on the table. Furthermore, the room is also significantly narrow and seemingly cramped.
According to Theodore Rousseau Jr., reasons for this use of perspective have pointed to the artist’s lack of knowledge about the rules of perspective or that the artist intentionally depicted the objects to “show more of the surface since that was what the artist most enjoyed painting”. Additionally, Rousseau Jr. explains another reason, which is the “relationship between painters and sculptors”.
Painters like Campin reportedly created the designs for sculptures, specifically bas-reliefs. This also explains why Campin may have painted the central panel in such a specific perspective modeled on sculptural perspectives.
The Mérode Altarpiece: A Wonderland of Detail
The Mérode Altarpiece by Robert Campin and his apprentices remains one of the masterpieces of early Netherlandish art to this day. There is much more to discuss in this painting, however, we encourage you to look at it in even deeper detail and find all the gems hidden in not only its painting techniques but also the wealth of information it holds about how people lived during the 15th century and their religious devotions.
The “Mérode Altarpiece” symbolism creates a wonderland of detail because it can entertain and astound viewers with all its rich imagery and symbols. This recalls the description of it from Theodore Rousseau Jr. in his informative text about this Annunciation triptych, that it has the “quality of a precious object, epitomizing all the affectionate and conscientious carefulness of the medieval craftsman. It inspires profound and unhurried contemplation; and the longer one studies it, the more rewarding it becomes”.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who Painted the Mérode Altarpiece?
The Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1425) has been attributed to the Flemish painter Robert Campin, also known as the Master of Flémalle, and his Tournai workshop where he reportedly had assistance from two other painters, namely, Jacques Daret and Rogier van der Weyden.
What Is the Mérode Altarpiece About?
The Mérode Altarpiece (c. 1425) is a triptych depicting the Annunciation scene from the Bible. The left panel depicts the donors who seemingly peer into the open door that leads into the central panel where the archangel Gabriel approaches the Virgin Mary to tell her that she will give birth to Jesus Christ. The third panel depicts Joseph in his woodwork shop. There are various religious references that allude to the Biblical passages about Jesus Christ, His birth, and His sacrifice on the Cross.
Where Is the Mérode Altarpiece?
The Mérode Altarpiece is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Cloisters Museum in New York City.