MASTER of Flémalle
(b. ca. 1375, Valenciennes, d. 1444, Tournai)

Mérode Altarpiece

c. 1427
Oil on wood, 64,1 x 117,8 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The subject of the altarpiece is the Annunciation. Unusually for this theme, the right wing depicts Joseph at work in his carpenter's shop. The Catholic Church has traditionally held that Joseph had six children by a previous marriage, and since at that time he was only Mary's fiancé, not her husband, the couple did not live together. This peculiar assemblage of subjects is therefore extremely rare, not to say unique, in the history of painting. The objects in Joseph's workshop are chosen so as to symbolically prefigure the Passion: the sword-shaped saw in the foreground alludes to the weapon that St Peter would use to cut off Malchus' ear while Christ was being arrested; the log that lies nearby recalls the wood of the cross; the stick propped against it, of the crown of thorns; nails, hammers, pliers and screwdrivers all prefigure the instruments of the Passion. The moustrap which Joseph is making may be a reference either to Christ's arrest (the mouse being associated, in popular tradition, with the soul) or to the Augustinian doctrine that the Virgin's marriage and Christ's Incarnation were planned by Providence as a trap in which to catch the devil, like a mouse lured by a bait.

It is also possible, however, that this painting is not, in fact, an Annunciation. In the left wing, it is clear from the landscape visible behind the donor that it is springtime. The snow flakes falling in the small square that can be glimpsed through the window behind Joseph, on the other hand, suggest that it is winter. If both are true, then the triptych may well be intended to symbolize the time that passed between 25 March and 25 December, between Christ's conception and his birth. In which case, it would best be described as a Nativity.