Last Weekend I finally made it to the Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I have been wanting to go there for the 20 years I have been here in America, and had intended to go last August when I was at the MET, but realised there would not be enough time. It was a good thing I did not try, because it took me the entire day to see almost everything. They were shutting for the evening as I was making my way through the last gallery.
|The Mérode Altarpiece in the Cloisters, New York|
One of the highlights of the Cloisters, as far as artwork is concerned, is the Mérode Altarpiece. which was (probably) painted in the second half of the second decade of the 15th century, (1425-30) and is most often attributed to Robert Campin, though this is not a universally accepted fact. Sadly, the painting bears no artist's signature so we will probably never know, with absolute certainty, who painted it.
This pieces is important for those, like me, who have an interest in furniture and interiors from the medieval period, I have poured over pictures of it in books, for more than thirty years. Once pictures began to be available online, I studied more close-up pictures via this medium. There are remarkable details, and lifelike representation abound in this triptych, causing people to jump to the conclusion that it is a 'photo-representational' image of an actual interior. It is not.
This is still artwork, just as much as the Easter Island figures are, and it was made for much the same purpose; namely an artist giving expression to what he wished to convey to his audience by utilising his skills to the best of his ability. In fact, there are several details in the painting which demonstrate that it is not a photographic representation, as some details have been omitted or are not properly represented, such as the fact that the teeth on the saw are much too large for the scale of the other objects on the floor. If one were to take everything at face value in this image, the saw would be what is termed in modern tools as a 2.5TPI rip-saw, in other words, it has about 2 and 1/2 teeth for each inch (25mm) of length. This would be on a scale of a very heavy rip saw for large timbers, not a carpenters saw for cutting the sorts of things that he is seen working on.
Although this is not a representation of an actual setting, many of its details were obviously observed first-hand by the artist, and thus give us some valuable glimpses into 15th century life. One of the things that I was most interested in, was the towel bar on the back wall. This represents a very nicely carved and painted object. My interest in it is primarily because it clearly represents a glossy painted finish. Most people assume medieval paint to have been dull and flat, but this clearly shows a high gloss finish on this object.
|Whilst the details to the carving and metalwork are very clear, the means|
with which it is attached to the wall remains ambiguous.
My second new observation from a in-person study of this painting came in a happy observation of Saint Joseph's shoe. I have long suspected that respectable people's shoes would have been polished, but until last week, had no clear evidence for it. On studying this painting, however, one can see the clear representation of a well polished wax finish to his shoe. There are a surprising number of shoes from throughout the medieval period preserved in museums, but they are predictably in very shabby condition, and thus not an accurate representation of their original appearance. This detail in the Mérode Altarpiece gives us a wonderful glimpse of an early 15th century shoe in good condition.
|A fine shine on a well formed pair of shoes|
The shoe is inside a patten, which was a wooden sole one wore over their
shoes when going out of doors in poor weather or on bad streets; it was
intended to keep the mud off of of ones shoes
|This is about the best condition one could hope to find of a medieval shoe,|
but it was no match for the ravishes of the intervening 600+ years.
(late 14th century shoe on a special exhibit at the MET)
Lastly, as a tool enthusiast, I cannot pass up on mentioning the well used, but well cared-for condition of the handles of the tools pictured on St Joseph's workbench. These are tools which have been carefully crafted and well oiled with a soft glowing luster to them. I recognised the look at once, because many of my own tools have that same look. I am happy to see this, because most medieval tools one sees are too badly deteriorated to give any indication of their original finish and most modern reenactors leave their tools unfinished and raw, which gives a false impression of how they would have originally been. Tools were expensive, and people who owned them would have taken care of them; they were the means of their very existence.
|Some of my own tools, with handles made by myself, save the antique cramp.|
When one knows his business it is easy to spot those same details in a painting.