In this altarpiece,the donor and his wife are painted on the left panel. This follows a long tradition of painting the person paying for a work into the painting in an attitude of worship. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance these portraits, sometimes called votive portraits, were often on side panels as if the figures are present, watching the sacred stories unfold.

You are watching: Robert campin’s merode altarpiece

The word votive means consecrated or performed out of devotion. If a person purchased an altarpiece for a public building their generous gift would ensure that they would have prayers for their souls in perpetuity. Sometimes the donors were groups of people, perhaps a guild or confraternity.

Donors were often painted much smaller than the Biblical figures, and would be kneeling. Most often the Biblical figures appear unaware of the presence of the kneeling donor, but a patron saint might be with the donor, perhaps with a hand upon their shoulder.

In later Renaissance works artists began to work the donors into the paintings themselves, making them a face in the crowd, a soldier etc.

Oil Painting

Tempera paint, used during the Italian Renaissance, is opaque and quick to dry. Tempera was made by mixing pigments with water, then egg yolks, and generally one other binding ingredient. Without an additional ‘glue’ element the tempera would crack and even flake off. Artists often covered a work with a varnish to give it some of the shine and deep color that oil paints achieved, but varnishes darkened with time and couldn’t create the light reflecting properties of oil. Tempera was the medium used in fresco paintings, or paintings on plaster walls that were typical in Italian churches and palaces.

By contrast, the Merode Altarpiece is an oil painting on a wood panel. Wooden panels while not unheard of in Italy, were far more common in the Northern areas of Europe. The panels were better suited to the medium of oil and Campin and his contemporaries pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved with oils.

Oil painting was being perfected in the North where its luminous qualities, and the ability to paint with more clarity and detail were prized. The pigment is suspended in an oil, typically linseed. This allows a higher pigment load and deeper colors. The oil also allows a great deal more variation in colors, which meant artists could paint with greater precision. Oil is translucent, light could pass through it. When applied in layers artists could create a great deal of depth and shadow creating effects similar to deeply colored jewels. They could slowly build up layers, solving a bit of the mystery behind those fine filmy layers sometimes seen. Oil dried slowly and this allowed artists more freedom to correct and change as they worked.

These layers of oil paint gave objects a depth and beauty that was startling to a world used to the flat appearance of tempera paint.

Northern Light and Color

Northern painting is especially noted for its use of light and color, which was largely possible by the adoption of oils. I am drawn to the work of these Northern artists because I prefer the clear, intense colors and crisp light. Once you become familiar with several Northern painters, they are easy to identify. There is a distinctive feel that is hard to define with words.

As we examine Campin’s work more closely, note the colors and the play of light. It is gorgeous. Of course, in reproductions, you lose the play of light through the oils. The exquisite details are hard to appreciate. However, even a reproduction gives us a hint of the depth of color achieved. When viewed in person, works like this one, take the breath away. I hope you will have the opportunity to view some in person.

Beyond the actual paint, there are a few other characteristics of Northern painting to keep in mind. The Northern Renaissance developed independently, in ways that differed from the Renaissance in Italy. In Italy the combination of religion, humanism, and classicism was key. This meant ancient architectural details and an emphasis on linear perspective (discussed here) and aerial perspective (discussed here), were emphasized. In classical art the artists tried to ‘trick the eye’ to fool the viewer that they were looking at the real thing. They also valued mythical and Biblical figures, not everyday events or people.

In Northern art, classical elements are missing. Religion and humanism are evident, but without the classical elements. Artists in the North approached the subjects of their paintings differently. There was an interest in, and elevation of, everyday life, not just the heroic moments of history or myth. While painting the nobility was certainly done, there were also paintings of common people going about their days. This created a whole new category of work, the genre painting.

Much of the inspiration for the Northern Renaissance came from the Illuminated Manuscripts. As we saw earlier, these amazing works had achieved a great deal of realism and obsessive attention to detail. The artists of the North didn’t just paint details, they made them intricate, sharp, and clear. Often the details were imbued with meanings. Later in our discussion of this piece we will see that even the small carvings on the bench carried meaning and added to the story being told.

In fact, the north valued a certain secretive element to the meaning of the details. Some symbols such as bread and wine for the Eucharist were universally understood, but others required thought and detective work to piece together. This intellectual exercise was meant to extend the contemplative value of a work. There was always more than meets the eye, more to discover the longer one considers a painting.

The hidden meanings within this work are so extensive I’ve dedicated another post to their discussion, you can find it here. If you’d like to see art history videos that I’ve done you can check out my youtube channel here.

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E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History (Laurence King Pulishing Ltd., London, England 2018)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov

Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org

The Getty Center www.getty.edu


And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.