Workshop of Robert Campin (South Netherlandish, active by 1406, died 1444)
South Netherlands (modern Belgium), Tournai
Oil paint on oak
Central panel 25 1/4 x 24 7/8 in. (64.1 x 63.2 cm); each wing 25 3/8 x 10 3/4 in. (64.5 x 27.3 cm)
The Cloisters Collection, 1956 (56.70)
Having just entered the room, the angel Gabriel is about to tell the Virgin Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus. Golden rays pouring in through the left oculus carry a miniature figure with a cross. In the right wing, Joseph, betrothed to the Virgin, works in his carpenter's shop drilling holes in a board. The two mousetraps are thought to allude to a line from the Sermones of Saint Augustine: "The cross of the Lord was the devil's mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord's death.” In the left wing, the kneeling donor appears to witness the central scene through the open door. His wife kneels behind him as a town messenger stands at the garden gate. The owners would have purchased the triptych as an aide in private devotions. Moreover, an image of Christ's conception in an interior not unlike the one in which they lived may have reinforced their own hope for children.
One of the most celebrated early Netherlandish paintings—particularly for its detailed observation, rich imagery, and superb condition—this triptych belongs to a group of paintings associated with the Tournai workshop of Robert Campin (about 1375–1444), who is sometimes referred to as the Master of Flémalle. Documents indicate that he hired at least two assistants, the young Rogier van der Weyden (about 1400–1464) and Jacques Daret (about 1404–1468). Stylistic and technical evidence suggests that the altarpiece was executed in phases. Following a slightly earlier composition of the workshop, the Annunciation was probably painted without a commission. Shortly thereafter, the male donor ordered the wings to be added. These appear to have been painted by two different artists. At a later point, in the 1430s, presumably following his marriage, the portrait of the donor's wife and the messenger were added. The windows of the central panel, originally covered with gold leaf, were painted with a blue sky and the armorial shields were added.