A few years ago, in New York for a conference, I made a pilgrimage to The Cloisters museum and gardens. I use the term “pilgrimage” advisedly. Like a medieval traveler going to a shrine, I went to see a sacred object—the painting known as the Merode Altarpiece by Flemish artist Robert Campin. From Midtown, the Cloisters was enough out of the way to make the journey a little difficult, the gratification a bit delayed. The museum’s medieval setting enhanced my sense of sacred purpose.
Once at the Cloisters, I discovered that Campin’s painting has its own gallery, called the Merode Room. I made straight for it. At the time of my visit, the altarpiece hung above a medieval bench opposite the gallery entrance. By some miracle, the room was empty. The painting beckoned me forward, and I walked toward it as to an altar.
I saw, at first, what other viewers do—a charming moment in the life of the Holy Family, a suspended moment just before the world changes. In the central panel, the angel Gabriel is about to announce to Mary that she will bear the Christ child, who, holding a cross, descends on golden rays toward her seated figure. In the right panel, Joseph drills holes in a workshop. These interior scenes boast a multitude of objects that dazzle the eye even as they have long dumbfounded the scholar, at least, the scholar who seeks to unlock a hidden meaning based in disguised symbols and erudite allusions.
That day in the Cloisters, Campin’s painting revealed its meaning loud and clear. Its not-so-hidden message was encoded in the left panel, where a man and woman, the patrons of the altarpiece, kneel at the door to Mary’s chamber. They peer in at the Holy Family as we do, as I did, and they discover the heart of their faith.
Much art historical ink has been spilled trying to identify this couple. What mattered to me was the way in which the man and woman echoed my own footsteps. Just as I had journeyed to the altarpiece, they had traveled a path—beginning in the town visible in the background and passing through a gate and into an enclosed garden—that led to the threshold of the Beloved. Having completed their journey, they are rewarded with a glimpse of the divine.
The couple models spiritual pilgrimage, a theme common in late medieval devotion and one that remains relevant today. In the texts of mystics such as Walter Hilton, physical pilgrimage is symbolic of every Christian’s interior travels. When we pray, read Scripture, or meditate on sacred truths, we take a journey of sorts. We go in our hearts to Jesus, leaving behind the distractions of the world and entering through the gate into the garden of our faith. In the quiet, we kneel in the presence of the divine, and we are restored. In the bustling city that is our life, our faith is an oasis to which we must journey daily.
Standing before the painting, my physical journey also became a spiritual one. When I made this trip to the Cloisters, I had just left my academic job and had no prospects. I didn’t know who I was or what to believe about myself. Yet standing before Campin’s painting, I could affirm two things. I still loved art. And I still loved Jesus. I believed everything Campin placed before my eyes. The historical moment of the Annunciation. The Virgin birth. The Trinity. The cross. Just as Campin’s painting was built of layer upon layer of nearly translucent brushstrokes, so a layer was added to my faith that day. I left having taken a pilgrimage as vivid as the painted couple’s journey.
I began to think of Campin not just as a Flemish master but also as a guide or mentor in my journey of faith. “You can have dead mentors,” I heard someone say recently. In fact, Campin positions himself as a spiritual guide. In the background of the left panel, a figure stands by the garden gate. He is dressed as a town messenger or herald. An older tradition says that Campin gave his own features to this figure.
If this is true, we can say that the artist himself acts as a herald, ushering the painted couple—and all viewers who are willing to go through the gate—to the threshold of their faith. This is what great art does; it takes us to the edge of what we believe. Sometimes, it gives us a little nudge. It cannot complete the journey for us, but it can help us peer through the doorway. With Jesus’ help, we go through.
But this travel narrative has a twist. Campin is not only a guide but is himself a pilgrim, and not the kind we might expect. Reading up on the painter after my visit, I learned that in 1429, he was accused of political fulmination and sentenced to go on pilgrimage to St. Gilles, a shrine along one of the routes to Santiago de Compostela. In 1432, he was sentenced to another pilgrimage for immoral living (this latter pilgrimage was, however, commuted to a fine).
We tend to think of pilgrimage as a voluntary journey to fulfill a vow or to renew one’s faith. But in the Middle Ages, penitential pilgrimage was just as common. It could be imposed not only by a confessor but also by a civic court, especially for crimes of a sexual or political nature. Criminals and even murderers were sent to a shrine, often barefoot, sometimes chained. Upon return they were to submit proof that the pilgrimage was completed—although what court could look into the heart and see the change such penitence had (hopefully) wrought?
We don’t have proof that Campin completed his pilgrimage to St. Gilles. We only have the figure by the garden gate. Scholars believe this figure was added to the left panel of the Merode Altarpiece in the early 1430s—that is, after Campin’s 1429 sentence and perhaps even after his 1432 conviction for immoral living. Did Campin mark his return by stepping through the gate and into his painting? Is his portrait a proof of pilgrimage or perhaps even a confession?
I confess to experiencing a moment of disillusionment upon discovering Campin’s sentences, the kind you feel when your spiritual mentor stumbles. It was difficult to reconcile Campin’s role as guide with his hefty rap sheet. But in the end, I couldn’t hold on to my self-righteousness. What am I if not a fellow sinner? What do I need if not someone to model the journey of repentance?
When I saw the painting next, I paid special attention to the figure in the background. And the meaning of his painting deepened. Of course I couldn’t look into Campin’s heart, but I could see the testimony he left, like a footnote (or footprint?), nearly buried in the background of his painting. I imagined that this man, painter-cum-criminal, had just returned from his penitential journey. Too abashed to come forward, he stays by the gate, his gaze turned toward the Holy Family and directing our own eyes there once again. His quiet presence reveals another aspect of spiritual pilgrimage: there is no faith without repentance. When we walk to Jesus, we carry our sins chained to us, like a medieval pilgrim on the road. Jesus unshackles them and takes them from us, freeing us to set out on a new path.
I still travel with Campin, although my footsteps do not take me to the Cloisters as often as I would like. When they do, Campin’s altarpiece always takes me on a journey. In the presence of the Merode Altarpiece, I affirm who I am. Like the painter, I am a pilgrim. Every day, I go through the gate and kneel in the presence of the Beloved. Every day, I rely on him to unburden me of my sin.
Only Jesus can take me over the threshold of my faith. But I will always find a traveling companion in the unassuming figure by the garden gate.
Lisa Deam has a Ph.D. in art history and writes on late medieval art and spirituality. She is the author of “A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps”(Cascade, 2015) and blogs at lisadeam.com.