Sunday, March 3, 2013

Northern European Renaissance (pt. 3)

Campin's Merode Altarpiece is not only an example of a fine oil painting but is also a definitive painting of the Northern European Renaissance.  It is a triptych, which is a painting on three hinged panels that can be folded together.  The three panels of Campin's altarpiece show three images: the donors of the work kneeling in a garden, the Annunciation, and Joseph working in his carpentry shop.
First off on the left panel we see the patrons who commissioned Campin to paint this.  They are kneeling humbly and the woman is holding prayer beads, so it's safe to say these patrons wanted to be remembered for their religious devotion.  The man has even removed his hat.
On the right panel is Joseph the carpenter seen with woodworking tools of the time.  Campin took time to paint the realistic wood shavings, nails, and lines—stunning attention to detail.  The tools at the bottom of the picture serve as hidden symbolism, something Campin mastered.  The saw, axe, and rod all refer to Isaiah 10:15.
The center panel, the Annunciation, contains lots of symbolism, so take another look.
This is the moment when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to announce her pregnancy with the Messiah.  The angel is of course wearing white, signaling his purity, and Mary is wearing a red dress once again, symbolic of Christ's blood to be shed.  By the way, Campin's precision with detail here again shown: look at all the creases and folds of her dress.  It also makes her appear a lot larger than she really is.  She is sitting calmly, reading her Bible.  The white linen towels hanging on the wall behind her further proclaim her purity—white linen is symbolic of purity.  The empty pot next to those denotes that Mary is "a clean vessel to be filled."  (I'm not making this up.)  On the table we see an open book, the pages of which are turning (perhaps the angel entered with a gust of wind that caused the pages to turn—at any rate it doesn't faze Mary from her devotion to the Word).  There is a candle on the table—remember that candles and light are a symbol of God's presence.  But this candle is extinguished—there is a lit one above the fireplace, though—foreshadowing Christ's death.  There are three flowers in the vase, representing the Trinity, one of which has not bloomed yet (the Messiah, who actually makes an appearance in this painting).  Lastly, the embryo (I guess?) of our Lord, carrying His own miniature cross, comes down from Heaven, enters through the window, and is seen heading straight for Mary's belly.

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