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Mérode AltarpieceThis tiny milestone in the history of Flemish paintings is by the "Master of Flémalle." He was most probably a historical figure, Robert Campin, who worked at Tournai between 1406 and 1444, and who was the teacher of Rogier van der Weyden, the greatest painter of them all in the opinion of many connoisseurs. This delectable school of painting is one of the most charming and fascinating in the entire history of art, and each master has his own special beauties.
The center of the little Mérode triptych shows a homely interior in primitive, "steep" perspective, with a seated, reading bourgeois figure who turns out to be the Annunciate Virgin. Joseph plies his craft at the right, the donor and his wife are at the left. Hidden symbolism lurks behind these disarming early attempts at realistic genre painting, in which every material object is a metaphor of the spiritual. At the feet of Joseph, to take one example, we see an ax, a wooden rod, and a saw. This material not only illustrates Joseph's carpentry but also refers specifically to a poem in Isaiah (10.15). The mousetraps that Joseph has made - one is on display outside his shop window - are the means to catch the Devil by his own deceptions, on the authority of St. Augustine himself. (When doubt was expressed that these were really mousetraps, somebody built one and caught a mouse.) Each panel is crammed with similar details, each with arcane theological significance In the center panel we see the moment before the Annunciation. The lilies in the "Islamic" vase refer to Mary's virginity and to the incarnation. The brass candlestick with its smoking candle probably symbolizes the Virgin and Child. A spark visible in the wick is explained by the liturgy of Advent. The tiny symbol of Christ floating down toward Mary's womb from the oculus window carries a cross, thus framing his tragic life within combined images of beginning and end. The little figure's penetration of the window on its heavenly beams, without breaking the glass, is a symbol of Mary's perpetual virginity, again fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. It seems likely that the fancily dressed messenger in the left wing who holds his hat as he pauses by the gate, is meant to be Isaiah himself; he was appointed God's messenger to Jerusalem (6.9). All of this is important and fascinating; but I think that our first reaction to the altarpiece (after getting over the surprise that it is so very small) is to delight in its charming detail, painted in warm oil colors - regardless of the symbolic meanings. Everything is in its place, Mary's room is full of Joseph's fine handiwork, and through the windows we see the clouds of a Flemish sky and the houses of a Flemish street.
- From Howard Hibbard, "The Metropolitan Museum of Art"
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