The Micault Triptych by Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen and Carl Bloch

Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen and Carl Bloch

The Micault Triptych (Triptych of the Micault Family), c.1539–59, Oil on panel, 145 x 125 cm (centre), 151.5 x 57 cm (wings), Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Inv. 679 - 385, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / Photo art Speltdoorn & Fils, Brussels

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‘Unbind Him and Let Him Go’

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This triptych incorporates its donors (the Micault family) into the scene of the raising of Lazarus. It was originally painted in the late 1540s for the altar of Saint Lazarus in the Holy Sacrament chapel in the Church of St Michael and St Gudula (now the Cathedral) in Brussels, the burial place of Charles V’s collector general, Jean Micault. The agglomeration of buildings in the background includes recognizable monuments to the imperial triumphs of the Emperor Charles V, and particularly the Conquest of Tunis. Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen was working contemporaneously on tapestries in celebration of these victories.

When closed, the grisaille outside panels taken together show an earlier episode in the Lazarus story, with Jesus arriving at the house of Martha and Mary. When the triptych is opened, like the grave in the biblical account, Lazarus is revealed: alive. Micault kneels on the left wing and his wife, Livine Cats van Welle, on the right, in adoration of the miracle.

In the central panel, the composition is rather compressed, the crowd is reduced to a few figures, and Christ stands in a curiously static pose at the right of Lazarus’s grave. The grave is made dramatically central and offers a diagonal thrust for the viewer’s eye into the heart of the composition where, as he rises from it, Lazarus looks towards his Saviour. It is Lazarus rather than Christ who dominates the scene.

A number of details are instantly recognizable—the figures with the hands over their faces, for example—but others are new. In particular, the child in the foreground is unusual. Is he celebrating the miracle or turning away in horror? Why is he unclothed? It seems possible that his presence might signal something about ‘the resurrection and the life’ (v.25) which Christ’s miracle proclaims: his infancy asserting vitality, and his nakedness displaying innocence. In Christian theology, as in baptismal liturgy, the restoration of both is promised to those who die and rise with Christ. We must ‘become like children’ (Matthew 18:3) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

The painted donors have crosses in their hands, indicating they are already dead. This small detail gives the triptych’s choice of subject, with its implicit hope of future resurrection, a whole new power.

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