The Right Panel
Paintings or illustrations in general can be very valuable when it comes to studying the traditions of our craft. As a child I would often get lost in the world of a book especially when it contained intriguing pictures of old paintings. My own little time capsule that teleported me to the days of yore for the duration of my fantasy trip. Roaming around history, the depicted image and obscure ideas of what life might have looked like. A part of me might still be stuck in my youth since I still do the same thing quite often today.
I will never grow tired of devouring history books especially when they contain rich illustrations that make my neural circuits work overtime. Today I ran into this painting which brought back a lot of childhood memories. I hadn’t looked at it for at least 18 years, back then my interest in carpentry and woodwork wasn’t as prominent as today so it was interesting to notice how different my analysis was. Please note that if you click the image you can enjoy it in a higher resolution and examine the details clearly.
It is the Mérode Altarpiece probably painted by Robert Campin one of the Flemish Primitives. Whether he was the actual painter remains open for debate. I have always been a fan of this school, not because I am Flemish but simply because I feel attracted to their style.
Details and Iconography
Campin is known for his attention to detail and his realistic observations are generally considered unprecedented. This fact makes it even more interesting when we take a closer look at the woodworking and carpentry details depicted in his paintings. As a woodworker it is obvious why the right panel was the first to catch my eye.
The carpenter is no one less then Joseph father of Christ making mouse traps. (Note that there are no power tools in his shop.) A finished trap is displayed on a window shutter hinged horizontally, another one on the table.
These paintings are typically overloaded with iconography and their interpretations or just that. Trying to understand them gives more depth to the work so I will share some of the underlying intentions with you.
When I found out he was making mousetraps I was intrigued and wanted to understand more. Panofsky and Heckscher were the ones to lift the curtain and I learned that the traps have been connected to Saint Augustinus who stated: “the devil is overcome by the death of Christ as if he ate the bate in a mousetrap”. Maria married Joseph so the divine nature of Christ would remain hidden for the devil.
A brace, nail puller, hammer, chisel, an awl and something that might be a large carving knife of some sort is what he keeps at hand on a table that serves as his workbench. I like the grating of the bench which seemed to be nailed at every intersection. Looking closely across the street you can see a pretty timber frame with an extended second floor, crossed braces and arched barge boards. I would dare to assume that the skyline in the background represents an existing city but have no idea which one. These thoughts always make me wonder how much of the painting is real and what is just the fruit of Robert Campin’s imagination.
Stuck in a chopping block aside the bench is a small axe that might have been used to split and rough dimension stock. The saw that rests on the little stool is a type that you often see in illustrations of that period. I suspect this type was common at the time. I would love to use such a saw and wonder why they went out of fashion and why we later ended up with handels that are almost in a right angle to the teeth. Very interesting is the small cross on the blade of the saw which could be a makers mark or religious/superstitious decoration as sometimes seen on the blades of hewing axes and even swords.
Actually these tools in the foreground again refer to the devil and a text from Jesaja: “Barren trees should be cut down, the hardness of the infidels to be sawn and those who do not accept discipline should be beaten with a rod.”
So far for my personal interpretation.
Scene of Salvation
On the other panels we find more details to ponder. These panels portray religious scenes set in a contemporary setting of the time. On the central panel we see the annunciation or the very moment of incarnation where the son of God becomes human, the outset of salvation. We see Jesus flying through the window into the virgin’s womb already carrying the cross.
Imagine representing this biblical story in a scene with a refrigerator on the background an a tablet computer on the table the actors dressed in Versace. That is what Campin was doing with this painting at the time, very modern. What sparks my interest here are the window shutters, notice the miter between stile and rail which is not at 45° because of the difference in width. The proportions between upper and lower panel are noteworthy but I can’t figure out how the hinged right panel works exactly. The wooden corbel pieces are worth a closer look as well, they seem very thin, much thinner than the ones I have seen before and they are nailed to the beams above.
Besides the joinery and carved braces on the bench this piece of furniture has more interesting aspects. When we take a close look at the backrest we can see that it can actually hinge at the center of the armrests. You could sit on the bench choosing either to face the heart or table. This mechanism is noteworthy and we will see it again later. The two carved lions and dogs sitting on the arm rest symbolize marriage, they are symbols of the power of a man and loyalty of a woman. Representing the steadiness of marriage which on it’s turn relates to the patrons portrayed on the left panel who commissioned the painting.
The wooden heat screen, if that’s what it is, in front of the heart is intriguing. It seems as if it is made from one wide panel, the light colored sapwood is left on the board and the differences in color reminds me of the Ash I have in my own stock. The nails applied in a diagonal pattern applied seem to have no structural value and are probably mainly decorative. The table I find less attractive but I noticed a pattern on the leg that might represent the rays which you clearly see on quarter sawn Oak. I will not discuss the left panel and leave it to your own imagination to come up with a story around it.
Another Right Panel
Also worth a quick glance is The Werl Triptych, another work attributed to Campin. We will only look at the right panel, the middle one is lost, let me know if you find it. Named after the commissioner it shows Saint Barbara locked up in a tower reading.
Iconography aside here we see another bench with swinging back rest and interesting shutters with plenty of nails. You will probably think I am weird but I ended up staring at the joinery of the braces holding up the beams instead of paying attention to so many other details that are probably worth more attention. I find it striking that the pegs on either side of the chimney are driven in towards each other. It makes me wonder, only a carpenter would pay attention to these things while assembling a frame. What was Campin’s example, was he depicting an existing interior or is the whole scene just the fruit of his imagination or vivid memory?
It is time to end my assumptions and move on. However we can be sure that whoever made the study for this painting (it remains unsure wether Robert Campin actually painted it) had a clear understanding of carpentry and woodworking and aimed to be as accurate as possible. As a work of art it serves many purposes but it is unlikely that it was intended to educate us about the contemporary carpentry practices at the time. It is now time to pour myself a good glass of wine and enjoy the scenes of my own imagination while staring at these vivid images. Just as I did when I was a child, back then without the wine.
We will now conclude our museum tour, posters and postcards of these works can be obtained in the gift shop I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to leave a comment in the guestbook below on your way out.