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The Merode Altarpiece

The Annunciation triptych known as the Merode Altarpiece, and attributed to Robert Campin (also known as the Master of Flémalle), hangs as a matter of course on a wall in Manhattan, but ordinarily the wall is up at the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses the bulk of the Met’s medieval collection. As the Cloisters sits at the extreme northern end of the island, much farther from our apartment than the Met itself, I made as much as I could of the opportunity to see the work while it was on view downtown. I’m not sure that I’d call it one of the five greatest paintings in the world, but there’s no question that it remains among my five favorites.

For a look at the Altarpiece, Visit the Met Online. 

The triptych has been brought to the main Met to take its place in a show of the museum’s very impressive holdings of fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting. You might ask why they’re not all up the Cloisters, but in fact it’s the Merode Altarpiece that barely belongs there. Its being an oil painting puts it not so much at the end of the medieval tradition as at the start of the following one. To our eyes, the triptych has the look of the middle ages: the perspectives aren’t quite right, and the figures of Mary and Gabriel are swamped in their voluminous robes – just to name two characteristics that had already become thoroughly unfashionable in Italy. A more careful look, however, one that contrasts the triptych not with Italian painting but with earlier Northern art, or even, for that matter, the roughly contemporary manuscript illuminations in the ‘Belles Heures de Jean de Berry,’ which really does belong at the Cloisters, reveals that the triptych is up to something new. By installing Mary in a comfortable, but far from palatial, domestic interior, one whose symbolic richness is matched by the abundance of furniture, appliances, and knickknacks, the painter has made a bourgeoise of the Virgin. And why not? She is, after all, the wife of an artisan – Joseph’s busy making mousetraps (to catch Satan) in his workshop on the left-hand panel. Mary is curled up by the fire, or as curled up as anyone could be before the invention of upholstery, with a Good Book, leaning on a reversible bench (a nifty detail). I used to think that the cloth between her hands and the book signified the holiness of something, but now I realize that it’s just a practical way of keeping leather binding clean. Writing up the show in the The New York Times, Holland Cotter hilariously described Mary’s expression as a "studied, subway-rider’s resolve to keep her eyes glued to the page till the end of the chapter, come what may." Campin has done a great deal to make the scene approachable. This is no icon.

Approachable, yes; but not everyday. There’s nothing everyday about Mary’s robes, which go on and on with the luxuriance of a Heian outfit, and make it clear that she hasn’t been doing any housework lately. Gabriel’s only slightly less striking costume seems to have been borrowed from the vestry of a very rich church, and of course he’s got those wings. (Like unicorns, angels are hard not to believe in, and surely one of the great achievements of the middle ages was the attachment of plausible-looking wings to the backs of youths - although just as surely nobody stopped to reflect that the only actual creatures with six limbs are insects.); Then there’s the tiny figure of the Christ child, carrying a cross and flying in through the closed window. The figure is almost too pictorial to be symbolic, but it does ‘tell’ us that Christ entered Mary’s womb as light penetrates glass. I gather from the catalogue that it’s no longer fashionable to decode the painting as minutely as Erwin Panofsky did in 1953; sometimes, the lion’s-head finial on a bench is just a finial, and not necessarily an allusion to the throne of the Queen of Heaven. But why not have it both ways? If Kathleen didn’t find their fragrance overpowering indoors, I might very well stick some white lilies in a majolica vase just like Mary’s; but they wouldn’t be the same lilies, because lilies, in the company of Mary, trumpet ‘Purity,’ a quality I’m not known for. Campin has the knack of making his iconology as plausible as Gabriel’s wings. It’s cool, at a certain age, to be able to tell your companion that the basin and the towel refer to the ritual cleansing with which the Catholic Mass begins, but surely fifteenth-century homes were equipped with basins and towels. Like the cluttered domestic atmosphere of the central panel and Joseph’s workshop, the symbols in this Annunciation are comfortable. You can take them or make them.

The catalogue for ‘From Van Eyck to Bruegel,’ as the Met’s show is called, explores lots of disruptive possibilities about the Merode Altarpiece. Was it painted as a unit? Did Campin paint the whole thing? We know that the figure of the female donor was painted in later, as was one set of stained-glass arms on the window behind Mary. Isn’t that exciting! Hardly. It’s rather like looking at old family photographs and not being to identify the man sitting at the end of the couch or the little girl sulking in the foreground. If mysteries have already sprouted from one’s grandparents’ snapshots, then we should not be surprised to find them in a painting nearly six hundred years old. They’re there to be savored, as reminders that, while nothing stays the same, nothing changes, either.

Notes: The Merode Altarpiece was painted circa 1425. Holland Cotter’s review of ‘From Van Eyck to Bruegel’ was published in the Times on September 25, 1998.

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