Essay on Symbolism of the Merode Triptych
The Merode Triptych represents domesticity unlike any other 15th-century devotional altarpiece through its use of disguised religious symbolism in everyday household items such as pitchers, mousetraps, and books; as well as featuring Mary`s spouse, Joseph, who rarely appears in religious scenes. Campin designed the Triptych to serve as a devotional altarpiece made for a personal client of his. The altarpiece which is painted in oil has intense attention to detail that makes the piece come to life. The inclusion of the Flemish town in the background of the left and right panel makes audience feel part of the piece.
The simplicity of the cottage in the center panel leads one to notice the everyday household objects in Mary's domestic life. Additionally, we observe Mary seated on a bench lowered toward the ground making her humility shine through. Disguised religious symbols can be witnessed in everyday household objects like the fluttering pages of a book or lilies sitting in a blue pitcher. The right panel shows Joseph in a workshop that also include objects of religious symbols like the mousetrap which is thought to represent the devil. From these everyday objects, we can observe hidden religious meanings.
The iconography of the Merode altarpiece is important to acknowledge as it's filled with everyday household objects that point to hidden religious symbols. Freeman writes “He is certainly the first to paint a fully developed domestic setting for the Annunciation” (130). No other artist has completely interpreted the Annunciation so completely which makes Campins piece remarkable. Domesticity can be seen in the fact that Mary was a good housekeeper as her cottage was clean. She is also seen resting comfortably on the couch located towards the ground emphasizes her humility. Seating down is seen as the accepted position for the virgin of humility. Other objects that further illustrate Mary's virginity is the candle made from virgin bees represents the flesh of Christ as well as the light entering mary's room. This divine light is observed as emanating from God himself.
To better understand each characters role within this altarpiece we need to understand their religious symbolism. Mary, for example, is often associated as a virgin, which was ideal as sex was considered a sin. Warner writes “According to St. Augustine, the marriage of Mary and Joseph, in which there was no sexual intercourse, was the ideal, and continuance was the best expression of love between a husband and wife” (77) In the Merode altarpiece we acknowledge Mary's virginity as being represented by the lilies in the blue pitcher on the table situated next to her. Thus, the lilies represent the disguised religious symbolism of virginity within the altarpiece itself. Warner further illustrates the concept of virginity by writing “Through virginity and self-inflicted hardship, the faults of female nature could be corrected” (69) Being a virgin is the definition of being the perfect women and our character Mary fit this to a tee. The lilies in the pitcher made Mary's core religious responsibilities known to the audience viewing the Merode Triptych.
The concept of virginity holds significant religious importance because it means women remain pure and clean. Mary's own immaculate conception and that of Jesus Christ was done by the hand of God himself. Callmann writes “Like other household goods in the picture, the pitcher that holds the lilies is most probably imbued (to keep wet) with symbolic significance and it has been thought to represent the body and the womb of Mary”(1) The pitcher the author is referring to is located in center panel of the triptych. The blue and white Florentine pitchers of the 15th century have a characteristically bulbous body, a trilobed opening and a broad flat handle (Callman). The pitcher also displayed birds which ranged from being aggressive to highly dignified. Campin, wouldn't have put the pitcher with lilies in the painting if it wasn`t religiously symbolic. Alluding to this concept is other forms of disguised religious symbolism in everyday household objects like the book pages blowing in the wind on the table.
Another disguised religious symbol within the Merode altarpiece is pilgrimage represented by a mysterious figure standing behind the couple in the left panel. Botvinick writes “The worshiper before the altarpiece can rest assured that he is not lavishing his attention on an image that has otherwise been ignored, for he is never the first pilgrim to arrive.” (9) This quote alludes to the many examples of pilgrimage present throughout the merode. Some of which include mysterious figure who stands behind the couple in the left panel and the townspeople being seen through the windows of Mary's holy cottage. Pilgrimage provides an extensive network of social, spiritual and spatial relations and was thought of as a visionary (Botvinick). To engage with this piece means to go on a journey with it just like a pilgrim would. The altarpiece encourages viewers to identify with the scene resembling a flemish town outside of the windows in the center and right panel. Thus, we observe that the disguised religious symbol of pilgrimage is present throughout the entire altarpiece.
The scene on the right panel with Joseph the carpenter is critical because he is almost never included in any annunciation scenes. The religious symbolism in this scene serves to give importance to the human family of Jesus Christ. Hahn writes “The panels of the Mérode Triptych offer a privileged glimpse into the daily life of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, her spouse” (54) We get a real sense of what daily life was like for Mary and Joseph because of this incredible paintings. Additionally, Joseph's role in the painting has spiritual value which is not noted in other paintings during the 15th century. Han writes “This réévaluation of Joseph as powerful and dignified pater familias will lead to an understanding of the triptych as a vision of the general quality of marriage and the family.” (55) Joseph is therefore seen as a hard-working provider for the family in the late medieval ages. The carpenter plays a supporting role rather than a subordinate role to the family which is new for this time period.
The mousetraps in Joseph workshop provide significant religious symbolism that is difficult to recognize right away. Minott writes “The mouse traps that appear in the right wing of the triptych are symbols of the Cross of Christ, the means of the Devil's final capture as a result of the deception” (268) They are the “devil's mouse traps” even though they were tediously made by a hard working carpenter. There is hidden religious symbolism in the mouse traps because a mousetrap is something that would be commonly seen in a workshop and not necessarily associated with the work of the devil. Zupnick writes “There is no reason to doubt that St Joseph has something to do with mousetraps in this painting, although there is no known reference, either scriptural or exegetical” (127) St. Joseph connection to mouse traps may be indirect but they are certainly noticeable throughout the right panel. The fact that St. Joseph is even included in is a big deal.
From what we`ve seen from the examples provided throughout this essay we can tell that there is significant hidden religious symbolism and signs of domesticity throughout the piece. Weather that religious symbols come in the form of lilies or mouse traps, or the turning pages of a book blown by God's presence it's important to acknowledge their existence. Campin challenged us to look beyond the typical version of the Annunciation we see in most 15th century paintings. His inclusion of Joseph is noted as being significant in this work as well. This altarpiece allowed its audience to become enthralled with a different version of the Annunciation giving them a sense of adventure in their quest for finding religious meaning. The Merode shows St. Joseph occupation must be given creative and religious rite. Additionally, it alludes to the fact the Carpenters, like all people, work to serve God.