Advent, the Annunciation and the Mérode Altarpiece

The Mérode Altarpiece abounds in theological symbolism.

Robert Campin, “Mérode Altarpiece,” c. 1430
Robert Campin, “Mérode Altarpiece,” c. 1430

The Gospel for the Sunday closest to Christmas (which can fall anytime from Dec. 18-24) always features some aspect of the Annunciation. This is wholly logical, though perhaps less so in societies whose cultures experience the corrosive impact of the so-called “right to abortion.” The Incarnation – the coming of the Son of God into humanity — occurred not on Christmas but at the Annunciation (which is why, until the 16th century, the civil New Year began on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas).  Also, affirming that mother and child are not mortal enemies, the Solemnity of Christmas is itself “bracketed” by a Marian focus: the Sunday before Christmas focuses on the Annunciation, the Sunday after Christmas on the Holy Family, and Jan. 1, the Octave Day of Christmas, is itself a holyday of obligation as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.

The Annunciation is unique to Luke’s Gospel (1:26-38), which is this year’s Gospel. Because the Church’s Sunday readings are on a three year cycle but the strict account of the Annunciation is found in only one of them, the Church alludes to the Annunciation by focusing on “indirect” Annunciations. Last year, the Gospel (Matthew 1:18-25) explained the Annunciation to Joseph (“what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit”). Next year, the Gospel (Luke 1:39-45) will voice Elizabeth’s act of faith in the Annunciation (“Blessed are you who believed that the word spoken to you would be fulfilled”). The Church’s three-year lectionary for this Sunday forms a kind of “triptych” of the Annunciation. “Triptychs” are a type of artwork consisting of three panels, usually for an altarpiece, whose hinged outside wings could be folded in to close over the main scene. 

Jeremiah speaks for God in reminding us that “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my prophet to the nations” (1:5). Although these words would foretell in a special way the identity and mission of John the Baptist, Jeremiah understood them in reference to himself and we should do the same in reference to ourselves. God’s Plan included us from eternity. “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16). (Do we now understand the sacrilege of arrogating to ourselves the “choice” of pretending to be “Lord and Giver of Life?”)  Even Jesus’ existence was part of the Father’s Plan before it came to be.

The Annunciation is frequently the subject of depiction in art, so there are plenty of representations from which to choose. Today’s selection is “Mérode Altarpiece” (see many details developed in this essay here).  Those living near New York can see it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection, “The Cloisters,” on the northern tip of Manhattan.

The Mérode Altarpiece is also a triptych, dating from the second half of the 1420s in what is today Belgium. Most authors attribute it to Robert Campin and/or his school, though this is disputed. I consider the Altarpiece as a bridge between medieval and early modern Netherlandish painting. Some try to call it “early Renaissance” (of which there are many elements) but then the critics criticize its spatial distribution and anatomy of the figures. I think these are more residual elements of the still somewhat “flat” medieval depiction of sacred persons and the greater attention medieval painting would have paid to religious over artistic detail. 

The main scene of the Mérode Altarpiece is the Annunciation. The left panel depicts the donors paying for the triptych; the right depicts St. Joseph working on a mousetrap. Medieval theology often presented the Crucifixion as a trap by which the Devil was caught and overthrown by Christ, thus freeing man from the slavery of sin. In comparison to last week’s huge Ivanov canvas, this triptych is small: the Annunciation panel is about 25 x 25 inches.

I chose this depiction of the Annunciation for two reasons: its “timing” and its symbolism. 

Most depictions of the Annunciation show it in actu, as the Archangel Gabriel announces the Good News. The Mérode Altarpiece captures the moment just prior. Gabriel seems to have just arrived, and Mary has not yet taken notice of him. He approaches her delicately and with reverence (for she is “highly favored” with whom the Lord is with — Luke 1:28). That she is already also with the Lord is evidenced by her reading what all critics acknowledge to be a Book of Hours, or prayer book. 

The Mérode Altarpiece abounds in theological symbolism. The lilies on the table are constant iconographic representations of Mary’s virginity and purity. So, too, is the white linen towel hanging on the wall and the wash basin in the corner (which can also allude to the coming sacrament of Baptism and the newly baptized who receive a “white garment”). On Mary’s left is a bench with lions carved on its top. This, too, alludes to Nathan’s promise to David that the Messiah would come from his lineage (“Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” — 2 Samuel 7:16). Gabriel will recall that promise in a moment, telling Mary that “the Lord God will give … the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32) to her future Son. The lions recall Jesus as the conquering “Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5) who defeats the Devil who “prowls like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). 

But Mary does not sit on that bench. In addition to the virtue of virginity, the Mérode Altarpiece also showcases the virtue of humility: Mary is seated not on the bench but the ground, and the Archangel — a wholly spiritual being — kneels before this “highly favored” human daughter. 

Most depictions of the Annunciation feature the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, “who will come upon you, and the power of the Most High overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). The Mérode Altarpiece does not (at least not directly). Instead, the beginning of Jesus’ life in the Incarnation is depicted by the Soul of Christ hovering and descending (as the Holy Spirit is usually shown) between the two windows on the left. To emphasize the reason for the Incarnation — “for us men and for our salvation” — and the unity between Christmas and Easter, the Soul of Christ bears His cross. That same theme will be reinforced in the Infancy Gospels many times, e.g., when Joseph is informed of the Annunciation, he is instructed to name the child Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:23); the gifts of the Magi include myrrh, a symbol of mortality (Matthew 2:11); and Simeon prophesies Jesus as a “sign of contradiction” who will be rejected, to Mary’s own suffering, too (Luke 2:34-35).

The Holy Spirit is obviously present in the Annunciation, although I said “not directly” in this painting. Instead of the visual form of the dove, we see a candle just blown out, the smoke rising from its extinguished wick. Another name for the Holy Spirit is “the breath of God.”

The painting is clearly theological, not historical. Mary was not a well-situated city dweller in Flemish costume, anachronistically enjoying illuminated manuscripts. The young Jewish girl whose husband at her Purification (pregnancy incurred ritual uncleanness according to the Torah) would need to buy two turtle doves (Luke 2:24) did so because that was the stipulated offering in lieu of a lamb on the part of the poor (Leviticus 12:8). But history is not the point of this painting: theology is.

There are many other elements of this work worth your examination, e.g., the “flawless vessel” in the upper left, but I’ll leave them to you to explore. A blessed Christmas to all!

Dorota Grondelski, an art historian, consulted on the painting.