There was a brand new art born in the Netherlands in the 15th century – the new style in painting, so called “ars nova”. It was famous for illusionistic effects and incredible precision of depicting everyday objects. Some scholars say that the 15th century Netherlandish painting is “a mirror of its times”, which refers to both religious and non-religious depictions. All the paintings show architecture, objects and clothes of that time. You can actually follow people’s lives from birth to death. One of the most important elements of that art is also so called “disguised symbolism” – probably all the objects shown in the pictures have symbolic meanings.
We don’t know for sure who started that “ars nova” – it is possible that it was born in the workshop of Jan van Eyck (scholars still argue about that). Today we will take a look on the masterpiece that was created by another workshop of that time – so called Master of Flémalle, in the first half of the 15th century Tournai.
For quite a long time it was believed that anonymous Master of Flémalle may be identified with a painter called Robert Campin, but nowadays most of the scholars don’t think so anymore, as the paintings attributed to the Master of Flémalle are too different from each other to had been created by one artist. To make long story short: the safest idea is to say that “Master of Flémalle” was not a single artist, but a workshop, probably the one Robert Campin ran in Tournai. There were various painters working in that workshop (including Rogier van der Weyden and Jaques Daret). We don’t know who created the triptych that is a subject of this post – probably it is a piece by more than one painter. It was made ca 1430 (maybe the central part was created first, and the wings a bit later). It is now kept in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
It is called the Mérode Triptych, and it is one of the most important masterpieces of the Netherlandish painting, but it still makes the scholars argue about its meaning. Central part shows the Annunciation; two donors are depicted in the left wing, and the right wing shows Saint Joseph at work. There are many tools around him, and something else is lying on the table… is it a mousetrap?
Some of the scholars agree with the hypothesis about the “disguised symbolism”, and the others assume that carefully depicted everyday objects did not have any hidden meaning, but rather enabled the viewers to contemplate the scenes by identifying with the characters depicted in the altars. In 1945 Meyer Schapiro analyzed the mousetrap in this triptych, juxtaposing it with the sermons of Saint Augustine, in which Lord’s cross was called “a mousetrap for the devil” (M. Schapiro, „Muscipula Diaboli“: the symbolism of the Merode Altarpiece, The Art Bulletin 27, 1945). A very interesting discussion was published in 1966 in „The Burlington Magazine”: at first Irving Zupnick denied the idea that the object showed in the wing is a mousetrap at all; then John Jacob replied that he actually built such an object and managed to catch a mouse with it. As for historians of art, such an empiric approach is quite unusual… The discussion was closed by Helmut Nickel, who published the article about other similar depictions of mousetraps in the 15th century painting.
But why a mousetrap is supposed to be connected to the devil at all? The answer is simple: because the mouse may actually symbolise the devil. There were the books called “Bestiaries” in the Middle Ages (you can see a fragment of such book above) that contained descriptions of animals, as well as the explanations of their symbolic meaning. A mouse is a pest, so it was linked with the forces of evil. Annunciation, showed in the central part of the triptych, is a moment of the Incarnation – that is a moment of the defeat of Satan. It is not a coincidence, that in some Annunciations you may see a cat, which is actually a living mousetrap!
How can we link a mousetrap for devil with Saint Joseph? It is actually quite easy. The devil knew, that Messiah would be born of a Virgin, so Joseph, as a husband of Mary, took her off the hook… the devil would not consider her, as she was married. So, the devil got trapped – but how did this situation work for Joseph? Meyer Schapiro, whom I mentioned before, interpreted Josephs’ activity of drilling holes in the wood as a sign of sexual frustration (he based it on the Freud’s theories).
Personally, I do not think that the painter of the wings of Mérode Triptych considered Saint Joseph a frustrated man. I suppose he would rather agree with an image created in the poem by Andrzej Bursa:
Ze wszystkich świętych katolickich
najbardziej lubię Józefa
bo to nie był żaden masochista
ani inny zboczeniec
zawsze z tą siekierą
bez siekiery chyba się czuł
jakby miał ramię kalekie
i chociaż ciężko mu było
o którym wiedział
ze nie jest jego synem
albo kogo innego
a jak uciekali przed policją
w sztafażu nieludzkiej architektury Ramzesów
(stąd chyba policjantów nazywają faraonami)
i najcięższy koszyk.
[Of all the Catholic Saints
The one I like the best is Saint Joseph
Because he was no masochist
Or other pervert
He was a handy-man
Always with the hatchet
Without the hatchet he would probably feel
As if his arm were crippled
And although it was hard
He raised the Kid
Of whom he knew
That he was not his son
Or someone else’s
And when they fled from the police
In the night
In the staffage of inhumane architecture of the Rammesesses
(that is probably why the police is sometimes called the pharaohs)
he carried the Child
and the heaviest basket. ]
Complex review of the theories on the Mérode Triptych may be found in the catalogue of an exhibition “The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden”, ed. by S.Kemperdick and J. Sander (2009).