The Cloisters may be New York's least-touristed major attraction. Perched high on a hill in upper Manhattan, surrounded by a quiet park and views of the Palisades, this museum hold the Unicorn Tapestries and the most important Renaissance painting in America. Yet it is largely unknown even to many New Yorkers. I had my first visit in nearly a decade.
Like far too many tourist traps, it is a historical re-creation, but oh what a creation. The Metropolitan Museum reconstructed its cloisters from genuine fragments, with gardens now in bloom and a fine Romanesque chapel. Many of the paintings will interest mostly specialists, but not Robert Campin's Annunciation. This triptych, painted in 1426 or so, reached the Metropolitan only within this century, through the American dealer Rosenberg & Stiebel.
In a sense, Campin is himself a historical re-creation, a hugely successful artist with no well-documented surviving work. Even now, art students learn the controversial origins of the Northern Renaissance, in manuscripts and half-documented panel painters. Yet art historians also came to attribute a number of paintings to a single artist, whom they called the Master of Flémalle. This painter's style has much in common with another great artist and Campin's almost certain pupil, Rogier van der Weyden. Put these paradoxes and parallels together, and one has a breakthrough.
Any innovation, however shattering, is incremental. I can even imagine Giotto reshuffling old elements to create the drama of consistent space. Some scholars, most forcefully Lorne Campbell in 1974, leave all but a handful of paintings to Campin's workshop. For them, the Annunciation is a lesser innovation among many. But in the Mérode Altarpiece, as it is known, I come face to face with one man creating a new art all at once, almost out of nothing.
There it all is, a domestic interior overlooking a busy street in taut perspective. The new oil medium builds, detail by detail, these gleaming surfaces and multiply reflecting shadows. Now Joseph, as a dignified man intent on his craft, has a part to play in sacred history, other than as a joke and a cuckold. Not even an influential illuminated manuscript before Campin, by the Limbourg brothers, went so far. Soon after, one sees the carpenter at work alongside the Holy Family in a prominent Book of Hours.
Now, too, viewers come to know a new technique of hidden symbols, with icons not as emblems of the holy alone, but as the holy invested in nature. Lilies on the table and a towel in its niche echo Mary's purity. The snuffed candle lends a dramatic hush to the Incarnation. The folds on Mary's dress shine as a star. They combine sudden wonder at the natural world with the slow movement of a ritual.
I looked again at the perspective in that small chamber, where the angel Gabriel comes to Mary. Campin applies the same awkward exaggeration in an early Netherlandish diptych. There, too, things look as if they should slide right off the table. For the first time, I wondered if Campin had not intended it, as a way of keeping those symbols before the viewer at prayer. It also focuses all lines of sight on the floor, where Mary sits in her humility.
Perhaps, too, he was trying to prove that perspective is not a disturbing trick, but instead perfectly compatible with the old, flat space. See, gentlemen, it all fits in the picture plane! So what if he himself was to learn better? I was looking at a first experiment in a new technique. And techniques arise to nurture, transform, and create ideas.
Of course, Campin is exploring an age's new-found relationship between humanity and the supernatural, long before popular culture banked on art to salvage precisely that suspicious aura. Even Mary's doctrinal humility becomes part of it—bringing the uncanny down to earth while all the earth takes on the greatness of the uncanny. Maybe that is why the altarpiece's small size continues to catch me by surprise.
I thought again about that new relationship. I had always noticed that the center and right panel take place on the top floor, while the painting's donors kneel to the left, in my ground-floor space. Or is it that simple? A wall and a guard stand behind them, so that they too are part of the closed world of Mary's virginity. Meanwhile, they look through a door, open-eyed, as if they are gaping at her miracle. It is as if stepping through that door, to Mary's space, comes with a leap upward, all of its own accord.
Can the human eye leap from donors, perched at an open door, to the miracle on the second floor? Renaissance art often took that leap. A scholar has even connected it to changes in religious practice. Back then a frequent Eucharist was giving way to ordinary church attendance—to ceremonies focused on the Host. The taking of God through the mouth was giving way to the taking of God through the eye.
The foreground plain tilts sharply upward. It implies a gradual recession into depth and gives the actors ample space for a timeless drama. Above then and behind them, the top of the panel tells a different story. There the landscape recedes quickly into depth. The perspective just will not add up, because it is out to create distinct realms of experience.
In the fifty years after Campin, artists, even in manuscripts, learn to eliminate any dual perspective. They want no glitches in their command of their art. They increasingly crowd out the sacred. They give another shape—and another voice—to the sanctity of experience. Art, in short, will increasingly exchange miracle for meaning.
When I was in college studying physics, a blackboard sketch summed up pretty well a student's pitiful understanding. The joke showed each step of a proof, except for a long arrow near the end. "And then a miracle occurs." For Campin or van Eyck, a road through this world leads the pilgrim to another world, in front of temporal experience, but it takes a leap.
The Mérode Altarpiece holds many such leaps, many carefully distinct domains, and many more alternatives to time's arrow. A guarded wall separates the donors firmly from the town behind them. It also suggests their route to salvation. If art historians have it figured out, a breached garden wall signals more still than Mary's virginity after the annunciation. The guard may stand for the prophet Isaiah.
Joseph, with his own wing, occupies yet another realm. Only he has an open window on the town, and he turns his back. Campin fills the right panel with earthly temptations, and Joseph is set to fight them. The mousetrap in his hands will trap the devil.
Through that window, one sees clearly a narrow street leading into depth, the natural flow of space and human time. There one can see a tiny child, led by the hand. It offers yet one more reminder of a world in which people grow old and die. Campin delineates each realm between that world, my world, and a world outside time. Each one—a guard, the donors, the Virgin, the gleaming reality before her, and a miracle—offers the viewer a subtly distinct but vital intermediary between earth and heaven. Doctrine demanded constant recourse to intermediaries for salvation, and this painting served as one, for that small size reminds one of its function in an individual observance.
Art historians have shown how painters after Campin inserted temporal and spatial disruptions into their art. As Keith Acre wrote not long ago, it could be a crucifix over the Christ child. It could be the contrast in Rogier between a dazzling foreground and the procession of the world far behind—or the signs of faith and privilege in portraits by Rogier's leading pupil, Hans Memling. As religious art rediscovered this world, it had to relocate a timeless one as well. Yet, much as with Campin's achievement, the breakthrough to another world depends on many incremental leaps. Like a revolution in art history, or like the tiny brushstrokes that create the illusion of light itself, human insight takes endless study, and it must recreate itself every day.
Textbooks distort the new humanism. It demands not just a "real" world for humanity, no more than a fully separate religious realm. Rather, the sacred may not ever appear in one's life, but it has the potential to be experienced by anyone. The potential can be tapped only with the patience, precision, and contradictions of human understanding—and human art.
The Mérode Altarpiece, from the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is in the Cloisters. One could not visit portions of the Cloisters when I began this, owing to architectural restoration, and so the painting and the Unicorn Tapestries moved temporarily to the Met. During that time, the altarpiece appeared in a show of the Met's entire holdings in Northern Renaissance art, through January 3, 1999. I visited the Cloisters again in 2010, by which time the Met's curators had endorsed the minority point of view, which attributes the altarpiece to Campin's workshop. It is their arrogance—and their loss.