Monday, April 30, 2012

A balance that does not tremble cannot weigh

Someone asked me yesterday, "I see you have a book called The Virgin and the Mousetrap. What's with the mousetrap?"

I might have said, "Read the book," but the book has been long out of print. It had the shortest shelf life of anything I've ever published.

The title comes from my analysis in that book of the Merode Altarpiece, a painting on three panels by a 15th-century master many scholars believe to be Robert Campin. The original now hangs in the Cloisters gallery of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Click to enlarge.)

The central panel of the painting shows the Annunciation, the archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she is to become the mother of Christ. The traditional iconography is here: the red gown and the lilies. Scholars have also assigned symbolic meaning to the snuffed candle, the books, the star in the folds of Mary's gown, and so on. But what struck me most forcefully is the artist's keen eye for things, the textures of wood, metal, cloth and stone. The carefully wrought iron of the candle sconces and fire irons. The gleaming brass of the hanging wash basin. The porcelain vase. The carved oak settle. We are escaping here from the oppressive supernaturalism of the Middle Ages, with its distrust of everything material, and entering a world in which human comfort is not to be despised. I love this central panel for its sense of repose, craft, intellectuality, ease, material contentment.

I wrote in the book: "The altarpiece evokes a harmony of material and spiritual concerns, a confluence of practical knowledge and moral aspirations. In this simple household scene, rendered on a cusp of history, the Flemish master has given us a vision of two worlds in perfect balance."

And now to the right panel, Joseph in his workshop. The setting is somewhat darker, the honed blades ominous, the furnishings and clothing Spartan. That ingenious mousetrap on the workbench (and another on the sill) has an iconographic meaning too; Saint Augustine on several occasions refers to Christ's crucifixion as "the devil's mousetrap " by which Satan is snared. But the mousetrap can also be read as a "better mousetrap," that proverbial symbol of science and invention, and, just possibly, a triumph over pestilence and disease.

In the century that followed the painting of the Merode altarpiece, science and technology consolidated a new alliance that led to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. We can see outside Joseph's window a bit of the new commercial urban bustle that will give rise to the possibility of comfortable middle-class life we view in the central panel. But now, as I look afresh at Joseph in his shop, I am stuck by a kind a melancholy I did not sufficiently notice before, a certain anticipation by the artist of a dour materialism ungraced by art, spiritual yearning, or moral aspiration. Where have I seen this before? Oh, yes.