June 7, 2012

Art History Lesson: Strange perspective at The Cloisters

Lately I've been spending time up at The Cloisters, a branch of The Metropolitan Museum located in Fort Tyron Park, overlooking the Hudson River. Located in a 1938 replica of a medieval monastery, The Cloisters specializes in art from medieval Europe, dating from about the ninth to the sixteenth century. The building is surrounded by lovely gardens planted according to horticultural information found in medieval treatises, poetry, and paintings. The setting is beautiful, but the main reason I go is to study the odd perspective in paintings like The Annunciation Triptych.

Workshop of Robert Campin (Netherlandish, ca. 1375–1444 Tournai), The Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), ca. 1427–32. Click to enlarge!

According to Wikipedia, Campin, also known as the Master of Flémalle, was one of the first painters to work from observation and use oil-based, rather than egg-based paint, two techniques which enabled him to develop greater illusions of three-dimensionality. Along with Jan van Eyck, Campin is considered one of the first Northern Renaissance masters.

Here are some details that I grabbed off the website.

 The little stool at Joseph's feet. Interesting shoes, too.

 The tabletop seems to flip up, but the objects are firmly planted on it.

 Shouldn't all those tools just roll off the workbench?

A gold pot of liquid might spill on the archangel Gabriel's head. On the left side, Jesus flies in the ray of light with a cross .

And I love the heaps of fabric on the floor.

The catalogue description:
The Annunciation Triptych displays the hallmarks of the emergent Early Netherlandish style. A fascination with the natural world dominates.The smallest details are meticulously worked to reflect reality on a two-dimensional plane. Illusionistic effects are enhanced by the technical innovation of overlaying translucent oil pigments on aqueous opaque pigments. The resulting luminous, enamel-like surface achieves apparent depth, rich gradations of light, and a broad distribution of color values. 
 The Annunciation Triptych was conceived as an object of private devotion. Although scholars have given complex interpretations for its iconography, the significance of the imagery must have been understood by the ordinary educated person of its time. The center panel focuses on the Virgin in prayer. As she has not yet recognized the presence of the archangel Gabriel, the event depicted is the moment just before the Annunciation. Some objects, such as the lily and the laver, symbolize the Virgin's purity expressed through the divine birth of Christ. The tiny figure of the Christ Child bearing a cross and descending on rays of light from the round window indicates that the primary subject is the Incarnation. This understanding is borne out by the flame of the candle, symbolic of God's divinity, which has just been extinguished, a further reference to the Incarnation, the moment when God became man. This significant detail is placed in the exact center of the composition.

The presence on the right panel of Joseph, who is not usually attendant at the Annunciation, can also be explained in the context of the Incarnation. Joseph has made two mousetraps, whose meaning is elucidated by the Augustinian speculation that the Incarnation was God's means of ensnaring the devil, much as bait entraps a mouse.

The coat of arms depicted in the left window transom in the central panel has been identified as that of the Ingelbrechts of Malines, who are documented in Tournai in 1427. The donatrix and the messenger in the background of the left panel may have been added at a later date, presumably after the donor's marriage.
 An old picture of The Cloisters before the plantings matured. From the Met's website.

The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, Fort Tyron Park, Upper Manhattan, New York, NY.
Hours and Admission


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I love fabric in works like this, too. Seems to have been the main thing artists of about this period tried to get totally right.