Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin
Interpretation of Flemish Annunciation Triptych

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Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin
Merode Altarpiece
(aka Annunciation Triptych)
By Robert Campin.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Merode Altarpiece (1435)


Interpretation of Merode Altarpiece
Further Resources


Artist: Robert Campin/Master of Flemalle (c.1378-1444)
Medium: Oil on oak panel
Genre: Devotional religious art
Movement: Netherlandish Renaissance
Museum: Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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Interpretation of Merode Altarpiece


The fifteenth century Flemish oil painting known as the Merode Altarpiece (c.1425), is a domestic altarpiece painted by the Flemish artist Robert Campin (1378-1444), also known as the Master of Flemalle. Taking its name from the aristocratic Merode family of Belgium who owned it during the nineteenth century, this masterpiece of Christian art from the early Northern Renaissance consists of three panel paintings, and depicts the moment when the archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she has been chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Cloisters), New York, the work is also known as The Annunciation Triptych.



More Analysis of Merode Altarpiece

The Merode Altarpiece is relatively small in size, measuring roughly 4 feet in width by 2 feet in height, and like the earlier Seilern (Entombment) Triptych, was designed as a private devotional piece for use in the home. It consists of three hinged panels (triptych format): the left panel depicts the donor and his wife; the central and most important panel shows the Annunciation itself, and its two main characters, Mary and Archangel Gabriel; the right panel portrays Joseph in his workshop. The triptych is unsigned and undated, and only since the early 20th century has Robert Campin been identified as its creator, albeit with help from his assistants, one of whom may have been his greatest pupil Roger van der Weyden (1400-64).

Analysis, Meaning, Interpretation

The most radical feature of the painting is its domestic setting. The Annunciation is the starting point for the Christian story of salvation, and to mark its significance, Gothic and Early Renaissance painters traditionally set it in a palace or church, commonly against a golden background. Campin, however, sets the scene in an urban, middle class house.

Reflecting perhaps the teachings of the Franciscan Order, whose monks took care to interpret the Bible in terms that their listeners understood and could relate to, an approach which was especially popular in Northern Europe, Campin amplifies the domestic nature of the scene and keeps religious conventions and formalities to a minimum. Thus neither Mary nor the Archangel wear halos. There is no dove to represent the Holy Ghost. Instead, Campin places Mary in a comfortable well-sized room (albeit slightly claustrophic due to the exaggerated perspectival recession he uses) along with a table, a bench running the length of one wall, windows and fireplace. Details are lovingly recorded, including how the wooden bench and ceiling have been constructed.

Theological Symbolism

Even so, the Annunciation scene is filled with symbols of theological importance. Above Gabriel's wings, a tiny naked figure of a child - symbolizing the body and soul of Jesus - is being transported on seven golden rays of light from one of the living room windows. He carries a cross, a sombre reminder of his sacrificial destiny. The white lilies, the vessel of water and the white towel all allude to Mary's purity - the small windows at the side of the room and the half-closed windows at the back, emphasizing the enclosed, virginal life she follows. The recently extinguished candle may be an allusion to either the sudden entrance of an invisible presence like the Holy Ghost, or the idea that the light emitted by the candle flame is no match for Christ's divine radiance.


Domesticity runs over into the right hand panel, where Mary's Joseph is pictured working in his carpentry workshop. The tools and other details of his trade are meticulously rendered. They are also hugely symbolic: the saw refers to the implement that St Peter used to cut off the ear of Malchus, during Christ's betrayal and arrest; the log alludes to the cross of the crucifixion; the nails, hammers, chisels, pliers and screwdrivers are all likely references to the instruments of the Passion. The meaning of the mouse-trap on Joseph's table remains obscure. Art experts believe it may allude to St Augustine's description of Jesus being the devil's mouse-trap.

Although Campin's portrayal of Joseph is deliberately intended to show respect for artisan values and the virtues of the Christian citizen, his wooden workshop is a poor comparison with Mary's better stone-built living space, while the lack of communicating doors excludes him from the sacred event taking place. The window in Joseph's room overlooks a city square containing numerous houses, churches and shops. Possible locations include Liege, Ghent, Tournai (Campin's home) or even Mechelen (the home of the donor).

One final point to note is that according to traditional Catholic gospel dogma, Joseph (the father of six children by a previous marriage) was only Mary's betrothed, not her husband. Moreover, the couple did not co-habit. Campin's pictorial rendering of their domestic situation is therefore almost unique, in the history of art.

The Donor

In the left panel, we see pictures of the donor and his wife, kneeling piously. These were added later, possibly because the triptych was painted before their marriage. In the background behind them, with the straw hat, stands the Mechelen town crier. The identity of the donor remains unconfirmed: research centres around the coats-of-arms in the windows of the central panel. According to the present owners of the work, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the donor was Jan Engelbrecht, a prosperous businessman. However, according to the German art historian Felix Thurlemann, the patron was the Cologne-born cloth merchant Peter Inghelbrecht/Engelbrecht. The translation of Engelbrecht is "angel brings", suggesting a family reason for commissioning an Annunciation. In any event, the work seems to have been a pious request for a family, commissioned to celebrate a forthcoming marriage.

Robert Campin, Master of Flemalle

The Merode Altarpiece remains one of Campin's best-known religious paintings, and is ranked amongst the greatest Renaissance paintings of Northern Europe. Netherlandish painting in the early 15th century represented a radical break from the courtly International Gothic style, and introduced a far more realist approach. Note for example the stunningly lifelike rendering of the drapery of the robes worn by the Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel and Joseph. Campin, together with Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), was a co-founder of Flemish painting. By way of a final thought, there is a curious and unexpected affinity between the rather primitive style of perspective which Campin uses in the Merode Altarpiece, and that employed in the 20th century Cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso.

See also: How To Appreciate Paintings.



Further Resources

If you're interested in Netherlandish Renaissance painting, try these resources:

Hans Memling (c.1433-94)
Bruges portrait artist, and religious painter.
Hugo Van Der Goes (1440–1482)
Flemish religious artist.
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)
Dutch moralist painter.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569)
Visionary Flemish painter.

Other Famous 15th Century Northern Renaissance Altarpieces

Ghent Altarpiece (1432, St Bavo's Cathedral) by Hubert/Jan van Eyck.
Beaune Altarpiece (c.1450, Beaune, France) by Roger Van der Weyden.
Last Supper (1464-8, St Pieterskerk, Leuven) by Dieric Bouts the Elder.
Last Judgment Triptych (1471, Gdansk) by Hans Memling.
Portinari Altarpiece (1476-79, Uffizi, Florence) by Hugo Van Der Goes.
Donne Triptych (1477-80, National Gallery, London) by Hans Memling.

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