Robert Campin: The Mérode Altarpiece


Robert Campin The Mérode Altarpiece
Robert Campin and workshop, The Merode Altarpiece, oil on oak, c 1425-30, Early Netherlandish painting (14.8)

Robert Campin was an early pioneer of the naturalistic influences in northern Europe which has been applied in detail later in the renaissance period. The naturalistic style of northern Europe in the 15th century emphasizes on how god sees the world, so northern european artists at the time would create more depth preservative painting, detailed facial expression (much influenced by Gothic naturalism), and use of symbolism. Unlike the Italian Renaissance, at the time, northern european artists saw a naturalistic style of flow in figures and simplicity to portray events.

The Mérode Altarpiece was noted in the detailed facial feature of the Angel Gabriel and the virgin Mary, and the use of symbolism to portray this important event of the angel giving news to Mary that she will be bearing the son of God. Campin applies symbolism to every area of the triptych (3 panel altarpiece). For example, the lilies in a vase symbolizes Mary’s innocences and virginity, and the sixteen sided table show tribute to the sixteen main Hebrew prophets. Other observation showing the humbleness of Mary is her chamber is very common; she holding the bible with a cloth to show respect and care to the testament while Mary sitting on the chamber floor shows her humanity. These are the indication of how Campin picture the virgin to be humble or humane, and to show her nobleness to bear Christ – unlike previous centuries that depicts Mary to be a holy figure for worship.

The panel on the left are the donors, a family of wealthy merchants in Tournai, kneeling outside the Virgin’s chamber to show worship. The panel on the right depicts Joseph at work, debatably creating, mousetraps; according to Christian theologian is a metaphor to explain God’s plan for salvation, “The Cross of the Lord was the Devil’s mousetrap.”

The discovery of oil paint drastically changed how artist can depict their work. This is because oil paint has a longer duration to dry, hence artist have a longer time to paint on their work surface and leads to the ability to create layers. In northern European naturalistic style, they emphasize oil paint to create faces and figures in highly shaded shadows and bright highlights.

Campin’s details on symbolism made him well known to use complex figures, gestures, objects to depict a more in depth story to his works which inspired other artists during the Northern renaissance to learn and adapt from.