Mérode Altarpiece

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The "Merode Altarpiece". Robert Campin or workshop, oil on oak, c. 1427–32

The Mérode Altarpiece (or Annunciation Triptych) is an oil on oak panel triptych by the Early Netherlandish painter Robert Campin or a follower copying an original by Campin.[1][2] For a period in the late 19th century Roger van der Weyden was attributed,[3] or at least an artist familiar with the outline of Liège, in today's Belgium.

It was created after 1422, likely between 1425 and 1428. The three panels represent, from left to right, the donor (Jan Ymbrechts of Malines is among a number of suggested commissioners) in a garden kneeling in prayer, the Annunciation to Mary set in a contemporary domestic setting, with the Archangel Gabriel appearing to The Virgin. The right panel shows Saint Joseph, a carpenter, in his workroom.

It is a founding and important work in the then emerging late Gothic, Early Netherlandish style. It is renowned for both its innovative use of oil and its iconographical richness. The many and varied pieces of religious symbolism include the lily and fountain, which stand for the purity of Mary, and the presence of The Holy Spirit, represented by the divine rays of light coming through the window. The triptych is Campin's best known work, helped by the charm of the domestic setting and cityscape.


The Brussels version of the central panel. The main difference from the Cloister panel is the treatment of the windows.

The hinged triptych 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.


Left panel, with attendant and street

The portraits of the donors are in the left panel, in the Virgin's Hortus Conclusus. 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.[4] The space contains an unlocked entrance, and leads out to minutely detailed a street scene.[5]

The donors 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.[6]


Detail of the center panel with beam of light representing the Holy Spirit

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. The folding-table contains a recently extinguished candle,[5] and shows coiling smoke and a still glowing wick. This maybe a reference to the Holy Spirit, who, according to some late medieval writers, descended to the apostles "like a puff of wind".[7]


Right panel, detail with street scene

An unusual scene of Saint Joseph, a carpenter by trade, occupies the right-hand panel, shown at work carving a mousetrap. A further atypical feature is that, although Mary and Joseph do not marry until after the Annunciation, here they are apparently living together at that point. He is shown will the tools of his craft, including an ax, saw and rod, layed out across a table, and a small footstool, sitting before a fire of burning logs. Joseph's presence is probably intended to invoke 10 :15 from the Book of Isiah: "Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth there- with? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself as if was it were no wood."[8] Isiah's words were intended as incentatory and revolutionary, were followed by a treatise for the salvation of Israel, and protested against an Assyrian king he considered considered boorish and vainglorious.[8]

Joseph is shown working on a mouse trap, probably intended as symbol of the cross at the Crucifixion,[9] in that it represents an imagined but literal capture of the Devil, said to have held a man in ransom because of the sin of Adam.[10] In some scripts, Christ's naked flesh was served as bait for the devil; "He rejoiced in Christ's death, like a bailiff of death. What he rejoiced in was then his own undoing. The cross of the Lord was the devil's mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord's death."[11]

The background contains a cityscape, probably fictitious, showing the spires of two churches.[12]


The triptych has been is in the collection of The Cloisters, New York since 1956.[6] 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,[13] 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 a number of the details seen for the first time here reappear in later Annunciations by other artists.

Detail, center panel, with table, book of hours, fading canal and vase

The scroll and book in front of Mary symbolize the Old and the New Testaments, and the roles 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.

Detail, center panel

The painting, like van Eyck's c. 1434-36 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.[14] 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"[15] Joseph is making mousetraps. Mousetrap symbolism may also exist outside Joseph's window, and are visible through the shop window, again symbolizing that Jesus is used as a bait to capture Satan.

Possible background to the commission[edit]

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).

Center panel, detail

Later 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. 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 1427. 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.

The donors on the left panel

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.[16] 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.[17]


  1. ^ Campbell (1998), 72, and his 1974 Burlington article JSTOR which specifically deal with authorship
  2. ^ The painting is attributed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to "Robert Campin and assistant". The "assistant" appears to relate to the figure of the female donor, rather than the main subjects.
  3. ^ Duchesne-Guillemin, 129
  4. ^ Ainsworth, (2005), 51–65
  5. ^ a b Reuterswärd (1998), 46
  6. ^ a b "Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece)". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 17 March, 2017
  7. ^ Reuterswärd (1998), 47
  8. ^ a b Minott, 267
  9. ^ Duchesne-Guillemin (1976), 129
  10. ^ Minott, 268
  11. ^ Sermo ccLcxii, "De ascensione Domini" . Migne, Pat. Lat., xxxvII, col. 1210. See Schapiro (1945) 182
  12. ^ Duchesne-Guillemin (1976), 130
  13. ^ Schapiro, Meyer. Selected Papers, Volume 3; Late Antique, Early Christian and Mediaeval Art. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980. ISBN 0-7011-2514-4
  14. ^ Lane (1984), 42–47
  15. ^ quoted Schapiro:1
  16. ^ Ainsworth (1998), 95
  17. ^ 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)


  • Ainsworth, Maryan. "Intentional Alterations of Early Netherlandish Paintings". Metropolitan Museum Journal. 2005, volume 40, 51–65
  • Ainsworth, Maryan. "Religious Painting from 1420 to 1500". Maryan Ainsworth, et al. (eds.), From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1998. ISBN 0-87099-870-6
  • Campbell, Lorne. The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings. London: National Gallery, 1998. ISBN 978-1-85709-171-7
  • Campbell, Lorne. "Robert Campin, the Master of Flémalle and the Master of Mérode". Burlington Magazine, volume 116, no. 860, November 1974
  • Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. "On the Cityscape of the Mérode Altarpiece". 'Metropolitan Museum Journal, volume 11, 1976
  • Davies, Martin. "Rogier van der Weyden: An Essay, with a Critical Catalogue of Paintings Assigned to Him and to Robert Campin". London: Phaidon, 1972
  • Harbison, Craig. "The Art of the Northern Renaissance". London: Laurence King Publishing, 1995. ISBN 1-78067-027-3
  • Minott, Charles Ilsley. "The Theme of the Mérode Altarpiece". The Art Bulletin, volume 51, No. 3, 1969
  • Lane, Barbara The Altar and the Altarpiece, Sacramental Themes in Early Netherlandish Painting. Harper & Row, 1984. ISBN 0-06-430133-8
  • Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting. London: Harper Collins, 1971. ISBN 0-06-430002-1
  • Reuterswärd, Patrik. "New light on Robert Campin". Konsthistorisk tidskrift (Journal of Art History), volume 67, nr 1, 1998
  • Schapiro, Meyer. "'Muscipula Diaboli', The Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece". The Art Bulletin, vlume 27, No. 3, 1945
  • Smith, Jeffrey Chipps. The Northern Renaissance (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7148-3867-5
  • Thürlemann, Felix. "Robert Campin: A Monographic Study with Critical Catalogue". Prestel, 2012. ISBN 978-3-7913-2778-5
  • Wolff, Martha; Hand, John Oliver. Early Netherlandish painting. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1987. ISBN 0-521-34016-0

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