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
Directions

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1 thought on “Art History Lesson: Strange perspective at The Cloisters”

  1. Bizarre.

    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.

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