From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Mérode Altarpiece is a triptych by the Early Netherlandish painter Robert Campin, although believed by some to be by a follower, probably copying an original by Campin. It is currently described by the Metropolitan as by "Robert Campin and assistant". It was created after 1422, likely between 1425 and 1428.
As arguably the finest Early Netherlandish work in New York, and in North America until the Washington Van Eyck Annunciation was acquired, it has become Campin's best known work, helped by the undoubted charm of the domestic setting and townscape outside the windows.
The Iconography contains religious symbolism, although the extent and exact nature of this is much debated - Meyer Schapiro pioneered the study of the symbolism of the mousetrap, and Erwin Panofsky later extended, or perhaps over-extended, the analysis of symbols to cover many more details of the furniture and fittings. Similar debates exist for many Early Netherlandish paintings, and many of the details seen for the first time here reappear in later Annunciations by other artists.
A scroll and book are in front of Mary, symbolizing the Old and the New Testaments, and the part that Mary and the Christ child played in the fulfillment of prophecy. The lilies in the earthenware vase on the table represent Mary's virginity. The lion finials on the bench may have a symbolic role (referring to the Seat of Wisdom, or throne of Solomon) - this feature is often seen in other paintings, religious or secular (like van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait). The arrangements for washing at the back of the room, which are considered unusual for a domestic interior, may relate to the similar arrangements of a piscina for the officiating priest to wash his hands during Mass. The sixteen sides of the table may allude to the sixteen main Hebrew prophets; the table is usually seen as an altar, and the archangel Gabriel wears the vestments of a deacon. The painting, like the van Eyck's Annunciation in Washington, is one of a number that contain complicated symbolic material relating the Annunciation to the Mass and the sacrament of the Eucharist. Mary sits on the floor to show her humility, and the folds of her dress, and the way the light plays on them, create a star, probably alluding to many theological comparisons of Mary to a star or stars.
In the right-hand panel, Saint Joseph, who was a carpenter, has constructed a mouse trap symbolizing Christ's trapping and defeat of the devil, a metaphor used three times by Saint Augustine: "The cross of the Lord was the devil's mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord's death" In the moment depicted, Joseph is making wine-making equipment used at that time, which symbolizes Eucharistic wine and Christ's passion. Mousetrap symbolism may also exist outside Joseph's window, where mousetraps are said to be visible through the shop window, again symbolizing that Jesus is used as a bait to capture Satan. This theme is much rarer, though some parallels exist.