Cher’s Famous Art
18 December 2020
The Merode Altarpiece
by Robert Campin, ca. 1425-1428, Late Medieval/Early Renaissance Flanders
Travel Tip: New York City Cloisters
As we move through the Advent season, the first stop is the Annunciation; the angel Gabriel comes to the virgin Mary to “announce” (annunciation) to her that she will bear the Christ-child miraculously through the Holy Spirit.
The modern viewer needs to keep in mind that the Flemish artists and their patron donors (individuals who ordered and paid for the work) were not at all concerned about authenticity of the setting as we are today. They wanted something familiar and something lovely to look at in their chapels and homes. The setting of this altarpiece is what one would experience 500 years ago in a home in Flanders (modern-day Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg). It is not the setting in Palestine during the birth of Christ, 2000 years ago!
The annunciation, as prophesied in Isaiah 7:14, and fulfilled in Luke 1:26-38, is a common and popular theme of art through the ages of western art, especially during the medieval era. But… placing the humble virgin in a well-kept Flemish home? Dressing her in luxurious draping, impractical costumes? This is not at all authentic to what we know historically of the biblical scene today. Mary and Joseph were poor, common folk. They lived in Nazareth, a poor village in northern Palestine–in the Middle East–not northern Europe!
From an artistic standpoint, what is especially significant in this altarpiece is the symbolism involved. There is a reason for nearly every thing in the painting.
In the center panel, the Virgin’s purity and her divine mission are symbolized by the lilies on the table, extinguished candle, book, towels, copper basin in the corner niche, bench and fire screen. Look carefully, in the upper left corner, just below and between the circular windows; there is a small white dove. Symbolizing the Holy Spirit, trace the beams of light as they shine down on Mary who is about the experience a miracle.
Joseph, in the right panel, is apparently unaware of the angel’s arrival. He has constructed two-mouse-traps, symbolizing the theological concept that Christ is bait to catch the Devil, set in the trap of the world. In the foreground, Campin includes items that are not only tools of the carpenter’s trade, but also items mentioned in Isaiah 10:15: the ax, saw, and rod.
The closed garden on the left panel is symbolic of Mary’s purity; Campin includes flowers that relate to Mary’s virtues, especially humility. This panel also includes the donor, a wealthy merchant and his wife, kneeling as they witness the event through the open door. Interestingly, the names of the donors are also symbolized in the altarpiece: his last name means “angel bearer” and hers means “cabinet- or shrine-makers.”
The Cloisters Medieval Museum
The Merode Altarpiece is a rare gem tucked away in The Cloisters, a setting matching its origins, far from the big New York museums. Sitting atop a hill in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, in the far north reaches of New York’s Manhattan Island, is The Cloisters, much more than just a medieval museum. Owned by the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the museum is comprised of architectural features collected from sites of medieval Europe and specializes in European medieval art, mainly Romanesque and Gothic artifacts.
The Cloisters complex is not only the museum but also several cloistered gardens for prayer and reflection. They include heirloom herbal gardens grown from medieval seeds. The building looks across the Hudson River to a lush green park with towering trees, providing a very medieval, monastic atmosphere. The visitor can easily forget that one is just a short train ride from the hustle and bustle of the skyscrapers of New York City. I am very grateful for the philanthropic Rockefeller family who purchased the land across the river so that The Cloisters would remain as they were designed to be: secluded, quiet and private.
TRAVEL TIP: On a trip to New York City, it is well worth the time to visit this museum. Allow about five hours for the excursion: about 3 hours in the museum, including time to enjoy the gardens and sip a cold beverage in their quaint, casual little cafe at the edge of a cloister. There is also a picturesque cafe on the grounds which I did not have time to visit, but it looked enchanting–and a bit more expensive than the one inside, but the ambiance seemed worth it! There are also lovely walking paths in the park; allow a bit more time if it is a lovely day and you want to explore this as well. Fort Tryon is easy to get to, but it is the last stop on the subway line so plan on 1 hour each way in travel time just to be safe.
The Cloisters: main entrance
The Cloisters: actual cloisters
The Cloisters: aerial view