Bible Review 14:1, February 1998


Bible Review

A Trap for the Devil

A complete set of woodworking tools, including drill, hammer, gouge, calipers and nails, are spread out on a carpenter’s workbench. Displayed among them is one of the craftsman’s finished projects—a wooden mousetrap, with a tempting morsel of cheese resting on it.

The workbench appears in the right-hand panel of the Mérode Altarpiece (right panel of painting), attributed to the Flemish artist Robert Campin and dated to the 1420s. The tools belong to Joseph, husband of Mary, who sits beside them, intently drilling holes in a board. The central panel depicts the Annunciation, with the archangel Gabriel quietly approaching Mary as she reads a book (not a scroll). The patrons who commissioned the triptych appear in the left panel.

The inclusion of Joseph in a painting of the Annunciation is highly unusual. The mousetrap, as the art historian Meyer Schapiro has noted, may help explain his presence. According to Schapiro, the trap is more than just a lure for murine critters crawling about the workshop: It represents a symbolic trap for the devil. In a sermon, the early Christian theologian St. Augustine (354–430) wrote: “The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap; the bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death.”

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