Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Joseph, from the Merode Altarpiece
  • Creator: Workshop of Robert Campin
  • Description:

    This image is the right panel of a three part altarpiece. The painting is ascribed to the workshop of Robert Campin (also known as the Master of Flemalle) and may have involved the work of a young Rogier van der Weyden who was an assistant in the workshop. The painting is part of the Cloisters Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was probably originally made for a private altar. The work is representative of the beginning of the naturalist or realist movement in Flanders.

    This section depicts Joseph working in his carpentry shop with an accurate depiction of a fifteenth-century Flemish town in the background. A completed mousetrap is on the work bench and another on display outside the window. There has been much speculation about the symbolism of this mousetrap including arguments that it represents a trap for the devil or a reference to Joseph’s cuckoldry. As Joseph faces away from the central scene, he displays his ignorance of the Incarnation. The drilling of holes into the plank could symbolize his impotence. Furthermore the mouse is an animal associated with the erotic as well as with evil. Knowing this, the trap could be representative of the desire for the female body and also a symbolic tool for destroying sexual temptation.

    It can be said that the Merode altarpiece has an incoherent design. The door on the left panel is supposed to connect to a doorway in the center panel, but they do not properly align. The color scheme, too, contributes to this disorganization. The donor is represented on the left wing in the back by the door. His figure is too dark and large in comparison to the other figures in the work. The faces are not as expressive as those in contemporary works.

    The rays of sunlight coming through the window in the central panel of the Annunciation represent the miraculous insemination. It foretells the Incarnation and humankind’s redemption. This symbolism is found in written art forms as well, such as this hymn:

    “As a ray of the sun
    Through a window can pass,
    And yet no hurt is done
    The translucent glass,

    So, but more subtly,
    Of a mother untried,
    God, the son of God,
    Comes forth from his bride.”

    The objects in the room of the second panel, too, symbolize the Virgin’s body including the door, the lilies, and the candle. All of this supports the religious interpretation of the mousetrap as Christ and the mouse as the Devil, a common trope at the time. A quote from a sermon by St. Augustine illustrates this trope: “The devil exulted when Christ died, but by this very death of Christ the devil is vanquished, as if he had swallowed the bait in the mousetrap...The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death.”

    The painting was created during a surge of devotion in the cult of Joseph, which had been undeveloped until the end of the 14th century. The Franciscan order began celebrating the feast of Joseph (March 19) in 1399, followed by the Dominican order. The holy day became part of the Roman breviary in 1479 and became obligatory for the church in 1621. Cardinal Peter d’Ailly (1350-1425) and his student John Gerson (1363-1429) were the main leaders in the development of St Joseph’s cult which presented him as an exemplar of masculinity and of paternal care. At the same time Joseph was often depicted as an old man, demonstrating an incapacity to produce a child and thus underscoring Mary’s virginity. His role of protector and guardian carried the paradoxical stigma of cuckold in accordance with the divine plan of deceiving the devil about Christ’s incarnation.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights:
  • Subject (See Also): Campin, Robert, Painter Cuckolds Humor, Bawdy Iconography Joseph, Saint Mary, Virgin, Saint- Annunciation Masculinity Mousetraps
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1427–1432
  • Related Work: Mérode Altarpiece panel with donors:
    Mérode Altarpiece central panel of the annunciation:
    Mérode Altarpiece on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Its size makes it suitable for personal devotion: https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/Images/110images/sl3images/campin_merode_cloisters.jpg
  • Current Location: New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection, 1956, 56.70a–c
  • Original Location: Tournai, South Netherlands
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Panel paintings; Oil
  • Donor: Layman; The male donor was painted alone originally. His wife was added to the panel sometime in the 1430s along with the messenger at the gate.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 64.5/27.3/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Alberti, Francesca. “’Divine cuckolds’: Joseph and Vulcan in Renaissance Art and Literature.” Cuckoldry. Impotence and Adultery in Europe (15th-17th Century. Edited by Sara F. Matthews-Grieco. Ashgate, 2014. Pages 149-182;
    Campbell, Lorne. “Robert Campin, the Master of Flémalle and the Master of Mérode.” Burlington Magazine 116, 860 (1974): 634–646;
    Hahn, Cynthia. “’Joseph Will Perfect, Mary Enlighten and Jesus Save Thee’: The Holy Family as Marriage Model in the Mérode Triptych.” Art Bulletin 68 (1986): 54-66;
    Schapiro, Meyer. “Muscipula Diaboli," the Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece.” Art Bulletin 27,3 (1945): 182–187;
    Vasvari, Louise O. “Joseph on the Margin: The Mérode Triptych and Medieval Spectacle.” Mediaevalia 18 (1995): 163-189. Online: https://www.academia.edu/2290934/_Joseph_on_the_Margin_in_the_M%C3%A9rode_Mousetrap._In_Martin_Stevens_and_Milla_C._Riggio_eds._Medieval_and_Early_Renaissance_Drama_Re considerations._Mediaevalia_18_1995_163-_189