Monday, July 8, 2013

Iconography of Anounciation of Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin

Robert Campin and apprentice, Annunciation triptych, Merode Altarpiece,  1427-1430 Cloisters, New York

This version of Annunciation is rich in symbolism which was easily understood by average person of the days this altarpiece was commissioned. Today anyone interested can see it at the Cloisters, branch of Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but in today's world an average person doesn't understand its symbolism. Usually someone notices what is going on and who is there, as we are trained to understand different type of symbols. This painting belongs to Northern Renaissance but has still many elements of Late Gothic. Click on the picture to see it bigger.

Who is there?  From right to left: Joseph, engaged in wood working in his workshop, secluded an din a different landscape as we see through the window. Virgin Mary, absorbed in reading a book and she is not noticing the Archangel Gabriel yet. Archangel just arrived, he looks as he is about to kneel.  Above him in the air  on the rays of light there is a tiny baby Jesus with the cross. Merode couple kneeling outside, open or semi-open door at front of them.Maybe they are watching the scene. And close to the wall in the background we see a messenger. As for those who dismiss Virgin Mary as Virgin Mary on artistic depictions anytime she is dressed in red: this is Virgin Mary indeed, and she was often depicted in this color, specially in Northern school to which the painting belongs, and no, she is not pregnant. The bump under heavy draped robe is just  her knee.

Joseph made two mouse traps. This relates to the sermon by St Augustine who described incarnation of Jesus as a bite for Satan, in some way as mice are trapped in mouse traps. There are two traps, if they represent Jesus and Mary as two participants in the process of incarnation, etc. I prefer to say I don't know instead of giving you my guesses. This can mean many things, and there is debate among scholars, so, as I am not someone specializing in this part of art history, I leave it at this point how it is, no point of adding my opinions to it.

The central panel has symbols of Mary's purity: white as color symbolizing purity, white vase and white lily (chastity), also the wash basin and towel: Mary was called a pure vessel.  Archangel Gabriel also dressed like a deacon, in white, underlines the idea of purity. I like the respect shown for books, they were considered precious objects and this painting shows it.

On the table the scroll represents  Testament, the book is the New Testament. Book represents law, here is the fulfillment of what was written in the book. Green of the cache for the book  is the color of hope, Paradise and resurrection. It is not symbolizing fertility in this case, as it is religious painting, not secular one, and green is tied to Paradise and resurrection. The incarnation of the divine here is not regular event relating to natural earthly fertility.

The candle which is extinguished symbolizes divine light extinguished in order to become human, in order to incarnate in human body. The divine light in eternal aspect is shown on the wings of Archangel: gold or yellow in its place was also symbolizing divine light. The window which now shows the sky and family crests was painted in gold earlier, before over-painting with what we see today. Seven rays on which baby Jesus is traveling stands for divine light, seven rays: seven is the sacred number. Bu the dark color on the wings stands for depth of divine mysteries, for which black stood. The tiny carved lions on the bench are symbols of the seat of Salomon.

 Red robe of the Virgin symbolizes her love: ( agape the unconditional love), charity, redemption by the sacrifice on the cross, but also is a fashionable robe of the days in a very expensive color. Campin showed a domestic setting, and fashion of the days, which was typical. Old paintings are also valuable resources for costume historians and costume designers, as there is so much historical information, specially in the case of the painters with great attention to details and skills in rendering them. What we see also is an interior of a typical home in a city. Usually Annunciation was shown in a church or palace, here we have an interior of a real home. Campin was a painter for the city people, not a painter for aristocrats or churches. This small altarpiece was not intended to be installed in a church, but was an object of private domestic devotion.

The courtyard where the three people who are real life persons of Campin's days are present (donor with his wife and the messenger) is alluding to garden, but is not the same as in depiction of Virgin Mary in gardens: here it is is more cloistered, not much vegetation. Those gardens were cloistered gardens, in which the Virgin was depicted but had more vegetation, here it is more sparse. Still it is enclosed garden, hortus conclusus, which symbolizes Mary's virginity. Here the vegetation relates less to Paradise, which was typical in those hortus conclusus types of paintings, but the flowers represent the virtues of the Virgin: rose stand for her charity, violet for her humility.

The scenes are like almost everyday situations, except angel showing up. In Gothic slowly the divide between sacred and real human life started to narrow. Here we see religious scene happening like in real life, the saintly people don't even have halos, it was unusual. Painting saints without halos happened one century later, in Renaissance Italy.

Perspective in this painting is partially correct. It is not a typical linear perspective, where mathematics rules.Here those rules are bend and we have some twisted angles, like for example the table is painted correctly to the rules, this is not realistic, but allowed the painter to show more details. Sometimes artists do such things in order to make greater visual impact. For example Pieta by Michelangelo, where Mary is so much bigger than Jesus, yet for viewers it looks very natural.

 Bellow we have another painting of Virgin, this time with baby, in an interior by Campin, for comparison. I think now you will be able to read with ease the symbols contained in this domestic scene.