The Early Modern World, C. 1300–1600

Northern European Renaissance

What are the symbolic meanings of the many objects in the Mérode Altarpiece?

The Mérode Altarpiece is filled with religious symbolism related to the Annunciation. On the table next to Mary are lilies in a vase. The lilies represent Mary’s purity and the fact that there are three of them suggest the Holy Trinity. Next to the lilies is a candle. The candle’s flame has been recently extinguished and the wick smokes gently; this is a symbol of Christ’s incarnation. A small image of Infant Christ holding a wooden cross can be seen in the upper left; He flies on a ray of light and has just entered the room through a closed, yet unbroken window, which is a reference to Mary’s virginity. In the back of the room is a small, brass basin and washcloth, symbols of Christ who cleanses the sins of the world. In the right panel, St. Joseph, Mary’s husband, is making mousetraps. This might sound strange, but the activity symbolizes St. Joseph’s role as protector of Mary and Christ and shows him as a family man.


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