The Mérode Altarpiece is a triptych by the Early Netherlandish painter Robert Campin, although believed by some to be by a follower, probably copying an original by Campin. It is currently described by the Metropolitan as by "Robert Campin and assistant". It was created after 1422, likely between 1425 and 1428.
As arguably the finest Early Netherlandish work in New York, and in North America after the Washington Van Eyck Annunciation was acquired in 1939, it has become Campin's best known work, helped by the undoubted charm of the domestic setting and townscape outside the windows.
The piece is a hinged triptych, or three part panel. It was probably commissioned for private use, as the central panel is a relatively small 64 x 63 cm and each wing measures 65 x 27 cm. The portraits of the donors are in the left panel; the figure of the female donor, and the servant behind her, appear to have been added to the painting after completion by a different artist, perhaps after the donor married. They are identifiable as bourgeoisie from nearby Mechelen who are documented in Tournai in 1427, by the coats-of-arms in stained-glass in the window of the central panel. The central panel shows an Annunciation to Mary or, strictly, the moment before, as Mary is still unaware of the angel. A tiny figure of Christ, holding a cross, flies down towards Mary, representing her impregnation by God. An unusual scene of Saint Joseph at work as a carpenter occupies the right-hand panel. A further unusual feature is that although Mary and Joseph do not marry until after the Annunciation, here they are shown apparently living together at that point.
The work is at The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There is another version of the central panel in Brussels, which may represent the original version by Campin. The work was owned by the aristocratic Belgian Arenberg and Mérode families before reaching the art market.
The Iconography contains religious symbolism, although the extent and exact nature of this is much debated - Meyer Schapiro pioneered the study of the symbolism of the mousetrap, and Erwin Panofsky later extended, or perhaps over-extended, the analysis of symbols to cover many more details of the furniture and fittings. Similar debates exist for many Early Netherlandish paintings, and many of the details seen for the first time here reappear in later Annunciations by other artists.
A scroll and book are in front of Mary, symbolizing the Old and the New Testaments, and the part that Mary and the Christ child played in the fulfillment of prophecy. The lilies in the earthenware vase on the table represent Mary's virginity. The lion finials on the bench may have a symbolic role (referring to the Seat of Wisdom, or throne of Solomon) - this feature is often seen in other paintings, religious or secular (like van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait). The arrangements for washing at the back of the room, which are considered unusual for a domestic interior, may relate to the similar arrangements of a piscina for the officiating priest to wash his hands during Mass. The sixteen sides of the table may allude to the sixteen main Hebrew prophets; the table is usually seen as an altar, and the archangel Gabriel wears the vestments of a deacon. The painting, like the van Eyck's Annunciation in Washington, is one of a number that contain complicated symbolic material relating the Annunciation to the Mass and the sacrament of the Eucharist. Mary sits on the floor to show her humility, and the folds of her dress, and the way the light plays on them, create a star, probably alluding to many theological comparisons of Mary to a star or stars.
In the right-hand panel, Saint Joseph, who was a carpenter, has constructed a mouse trap symbolizing Christ's trapping and defeat of the devil, a metaphor used three times by Saint Augustine: "The cross of the Lord was the devil's mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord's death" In the moment depicted, Joseph is making wine-making equipment used at that time, which symbolizes Eucharistic wine and Christ's passion. Mousetrap symbolism may also exist outside Joseph's window, where mousetraps are said to be visible through the shop window, again symbolizing that Jesus is used as a bait to capture Satan. This theme is much rarer, though some parallels exist.
Possible background to the commission 
The triptych has been associated with Mechelen in Belgium for some time, as the male escutcheon on the central panel is probably that of the Mechelen family of Ymbrechts, Imbrechts or Inghelbrechts. A discovery in 1966 by Helmut Nickel reinforced the connection: the small bearded figure at the rear of the left panel (who was added late in the painting process) appears to be dressed in a costume which was typical of a town messenger, with a badge sewn on his chest of the Mechelen city arms (in gold three pales in gules).
Further research in the archives of the Mechelen register of aldermen showed that a family called Imbrechts was engaged in trade in Mechelen from at least the end of the 14th century and that some of its members maintained commercial relations with Tournai. This Imbrechts family was closely involved with the Teutonic Order, an important commandery of which had been founded in Mechelen in the first half of the 13th century and which was hierarchically dependent upon the sovereign regional commandery of Koblenz. It can be shown that at least four of the officer-holders of this commandery living in the period 1330-1480 were either related to or had business connections with the family Engelbrecht of Cologne, which is not very far from Koblenz.
It may well have been the presence of these Imbrechts-Engelbrechts that led to Rombaut Engelbrecht's decision to settle down in Mechelen. This Cologne man appears as a Mechelen merchant in the municipal accounts of Tournay in 1927. He bought the Mechelen burgership only after many years of residence. After Rombaut his brother Peter Engelbrecht became resident in Mechelen after 1450. Their father had been "Ratsherr" (Councillor) in Cologne. Peter and Heinrich, one of his brothers were councillors as well, as was a son of Peter. Peter or Petrus Engelbrecht, born around 1400, was probably a merchant of cloth and wool, and was very well off, with property in Antwerp, Mechelen and Luxembourg, and through his first wife in the duchy of Gulik and in Cologne in addition. He ordered a chapel to be added to the oldest parish church in Mechelen, employing a private chaplain and founding in his chapel a chantry chaplainry well endowed with property. Peter came to Mechelen after he had been involved in a murder in 1450, when he and his brother Rombaut were accused of killing a priest. As a result of this affair, he, Rombaut (a citizen of Mechelen at the time), and his sister who had married a Mechelen man, served prison sentences in Cologne.
The affair was related to business and linked with a quarrel between the brothers Peter and Hendrik Engelbrecht and the widow of one of their associates with whom the assassinated priest had close connections. It was only after one of their associates had been executed and the duke of Burgundy and the prince-bishop of Liège had mediated, that the Engelbrecht prisoners were set free. On the formal undertaking to keep the peace to which they engaged themselves on oath on their release, Peter's seal has arms which are identical to those used by the Ymbrechts of Mechelen. Other members of the Engelbrecht family in Cologne did not use these before 1450. His brother Rombaut used a seal with a monogram on the same charter. It may be that those arms were imposed on Peter as a punishment, with the chain on the chevron referring to his imprisonment.
Peter shifted his activities from Cologne to Antwerp and eventually to Mechelen. In Mechelen he was well known as a respected member of the Woolcraft or the guild of the cloth-merchants, holding several positions in the administration of both the guild and the town. He held these important positions only after 1467, when an unsuccessful rebellion of the citizens of Mechelen offered Charles the Bold the opportunity to put a submissive new local government in charge of the town. Peter may have repaid the assistance that Duke Charles's father had rendered to him in 1450.
He had at least three marriages; firstly a woman from Cologne (between 1425 and 1428) whose name of Scrynmakere or Schrinemecher (meaning "cabinetmaker") may be paraphrased by the peculiar occupation of St. Joseph on the left panel. She was very wealthy and died around the time Peter left Cologne. Secondly, he married Heylwich Bille from Breda. One theory holds that the woman shown on the left wing is Bille, added after the death of the first wife. It is also believed that Bille's coat of arms that appears on the right window on the back wall. His third wife was Margareta De Kempenere whom he left a fortune and who outlived him. In Antwerp he was known as a dynamic merchant who had several houses of his own and who was the lessee of the weighing house. This characterizes him as a rich and influential farmer.
It has been suggested that the messenger in the background is a carrier of the important letterpost between Mechelen, Cologne and the Duke. That correspondence led to the release of the Engelbrechts. The iconographic interpretation of the names Schrinemecher or Schrijnmakere has been suggested by Thürlemann, who suggests a similar allegory on the names Engelbrecht - Ymbrechts, based upon the theme that is depicted on the central panel and, what is more, once was an ex-voto for a marriage.
- for example by Campbell in: National Gallery Catalogues (new series): The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, p. 72, Lorne Campbell, 1998, ISBN 1-85709-171-X and his 1974 Burlington article JSTOR specifically dealing with the authorship of the work
- See link below. The "assistant" appears to relate to the figure of the female donor, rather than the main subjects.
- Ainsworth, Maryan. "Intentional Alterations of Early Netherlandish Paintings". Metropolitan Museum Journal. 2005, volume 40, 51-65
- See Metropolitan link, and also the final section here
- JSTOR, Art Bulletin reprinted in: Meyer Schapiro, Selected Papers, volume 3, Late Antique, Early Christian and Mediaeval Art, 1980, Chatto & Windus, London, ISBN 0-7011-2514-4
- Lane, Barbara G. (1984). The Altar and the Altarpiece, Sacramental Themes in Early Netherlandish Painting. Harper & Row. pp. 42–47. ISBN 0-06-430133-8.
- quoted Shapiro:1
- Ainsworth, Maryan (1998). From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. p. 95. ISBN 0870998706.
- H. Installé. The Merode-triptych. A mnemonic evocation of a merchant family that fled from Cologne and settled down in Mechelen. Le triptique Merode: Evocation mnémonique d'une famille de marchands colonais, réfugiée à Malines. In: Handelingen van de Koninklijke Kring voor Oudheidkunde, Letteren en Kunst van Mechelen, 1992, , nr. 1 , pp. 55-154. (English summary included)
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