Master of Flémalle

(Robert Campin; active 1406-1444)
   Flemish master, now identified as Robert Campin from Tournai. Campin was the teacher of Rogier van der Weyden and, along with Jan van Eyck, is considered the father of Early Netherlandish art. The name Master of Flémalle derives from three panels, now in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, that came from an abbey in Flémalle, near Liège. Campin was born in Valenciennes, possibly in 1375, and became a citizen of Tournai in 1410. In 1423, he was elected dean of the painter's guild and served in one of the city's councils until 1428. In 1432, he was banished from Tournai for immoral conduct and forced to go on pilgrimage to St. Gilles in Provence. The sentence was reduced to payment of a fine thanks to the intervention of Jacqueline of Bavaria, daughter of Count William IV of Holland, which reflects the esteem with which Campin was regarded. Scholars usually place the Entombment Triptych (c. 1415-1420; London, Collection of Count Antoine Seilern) among Campin's earliest works. It presents everyday figure types engaged in the drama of the moment, the angularity of their draperies offering an alternative to the fluid rhythms of the works of contemporaries. The shallow background and compression of the figures into a tight space suggest that Campin looked to sculpted religious imagery for which Tournai was well known, while the weeping angels and heads of the Virgin and the dead Christ pressed together suggest an awareness of the works of Giotto, the one to introduce these motifs into art. Campin's Nativity (c. 1420; Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts) develops further the naturalistic tendencies of the Entombment. Here, a road leads into a landscape, the recession into space convincingly achieved by empirically observing nature and imitating it on the panel. The work is full of symbolism, typical of Campin's art. St. Joseph, for instance, shields the flame of a candle with his right hand to denote, as the Bible instructs, that Christ is the light, a point reiterated by the rising sun behind the manger. Also, the midwife with the withered hand refers to the apocryphal account of the Nativity where one of the midwives who attended Mary during childbirth doubted Christ's virgin birth—her irreverence resulting in the problem with her hand, which was cured at the touch of the Christ Child.
   Campin's most celebrated painting is the Merode Altarpiece (c. 1426; New York, The Cloisters). The central panel in this work shows the Annunciation in an interior domestic setting, with the Virgin seated on the ground to denote her humility. A miniaturized Christ Child carrying the cross enters the room through a window and flies toward his mother's womb, marked by the star pattern formed by the folds of her drapery. The fact that the child has passed through the glass without breaking it refers to his mother's virginity preserved regardless of conception. The background niche represents the tabernacle in the temple and the towel the washing of the hands by the priest before the mass. The smoke rising from the extinguished candle confirms the presence of God in the room, while the scroll and book on the table refer to the Old and New Testaments, respectively, and the vase with lilies to the Virgin's purity. On the left wing of the altarpiece are the donors, identified as members of the Ingelbrechts and Calcum families by the coat of arms on the back window in the central panel. On the right wing is St. Joseph in his carpentry shop working on a mousetrap, an allusion to St. Augustine's statement that the Incarnation of Christ was the trap used by God to ensnare the devil. Campin followed his famed altarpiece with the Virgin and Child before a Fire Screen (c. 1428; London, National Gallery) and the Virgin in Glory (c. 1428-1430; Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet). In the first, the fire screen behind the nursing Mary forms a halo around her head. The second presents Mary and the Christ Child seated on a bench, a crescent moon at their feet, and floating above St. Peter, St. Augustine, and a donor—a scene based on the account of the Apocalypse. Both paintings show a more successful recession into space and greater unity among the compositional elements than in Campin's earlier works.
   Campin used oil as his medium, which allowed him to apply layer upon layer of color and resulted in a brilliance never before seen in panel art. He was also the first master in the North to reject the elegant, courtly scenes of the International Style in favor of the representation of the natural world and the drama of human existence. Though heavily dependent on the Northern miniaturist tradition and the sculpture of Tournai, Campin was the pioneer who established the visual conventions that would reign in the North until the end of the 15th century.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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