Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Merode Altarpiece: The Annunciation, with Donors and St. Joseph

Harry Rand, senior curator of cultural history at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, writes about Robert Campin's Masterpiece, the Merode Altarpiece, now displayed at The Cloisters in New York City, in The Wall Street Journal:

Sadly, relatively few of these works survived the iconoclastic frenzy that accompanied the Netherlands' subsequent embrace of Protestantism. Another problem that long barred the recognition and appreciation of their creators was the elevation of the Italian Renaissance as the universal criterion of artistic quality, an alien standard that automatically demoted these Flemish masters.

Among the obscured painters one of their geniuses languished, long known only as the Master of Flémalle—named for a town now in Belgium. Today we know him as Robert Campin (c.1375-1444), generally recognized as the teacher of the more famous Rogier (Roger) van de Weyden.

Now in the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's upper-Manhattan outpost for Medieval art, Campin's Mérode Altarpiece (c.1427-32) can still startle with its revolutionary formal and technical innovations. A wooden triptych only 25½ inches tall, the work seems too diminutive for so important a painting. But its size derives from its intended use for private worship and meditation. It was probably commissioned by Peter Ingelbrecht, a wealthy merchant; Campin produced what seems, at first, an unremarkable "Annunciation with donors." Yet behind its calm appearance the work delivers a magnificently ambitious ensemble, staggering in visual sumptuousness and breathtaking in its symbolic message. 

The Mérode Altarpiece has never been surpassed in symbolic complexity. Campin saturates his scene with emblems designed to show Providence's unceasing hand shaping and guiding the world of Campin's faith.

Read the rest here. Image credit: detail of the center panel.

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