Robert Campin and the Merode Altarpiece

Robert Campin (Master of Flémalle), Mérode Altarpiece, c. 1425-1428

One of the leading Flemish painters in the early 15th century was Robert Campin.  His best known works is the Merode Altarpiece, now in the collection of the Cloisters Museum in New York City.   Another example of a devotional altarpiece, this triptych was commissioned by Peter Engelbrecht, a wealthy merchant, who is pictured in the left hand panel with his wife, kneeling in an enclosed garden as tehy peer through a door that seems to lead into the center panel where the Annunciation is taking place.  The miraculous story unfolds in a typical Flemish interior, much like the home that the Engelbrechts probably lived in, making it seem vividly real and part of their earthly world.  The right hand panel shows Joseph (Mary’s husband) at work in his workshop.

Like Giotto, Campin uses modeling with light and shade to give his figures three dimensional volume and weight.  By making the figures seem palpably present and real, the artist humanizes the story by making it a part of our world.  But the new oil painting medium enabled Campin to take this even further by making it possible to focus on rich details, from the texture of wood, cloth, and hair, to the reflective surfaces of metal, and glass.  This attention to minute detail makes this scene all the more concrete and real, as if it was something we could touch and feel.

Robert Campin, Merode Altarpiece, tempera and oil on panel, 1425-28 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

Disguised symbolism
Like most Flemish paintings, the Merode Altarpiece is filled with disguised symbols — every day objects that actually have a kind of secret religious message.  For example, the enclosed garden is a symbol of Mary’s purity, as is the lily; the snuffed candle indicates that God has entered the room (suggesting that God’s light outshines all earthly light), and the mousetrap that Joseph is working on is a symbol of Christ as “bait” for the devil.  The use of disguised symbolism reflects the Flemish belief that God’s presence infuses every aspect of our daily lives.

See the picture in amazing detail at Google Art Project

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