Today, March 25, is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel appeared unto Mary and she assented to God’s plan for her that she be the mother of the Savior.
This episode has been a major theme of artists for centuries. Today we’ll consider two versions of the Annunciation, both Flemish, and painted within a few years of each other in the 15th century. Both are in collections of major American museums.
The first Annunciation is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and was painted by Jan Van Eyck:
Richard Cork wrote a column about this Van Eyck Annunciation in the Wall Street Journal a year ago:
…in a tall, narrow painting made about 1435, executed with mesmerizing precision and a wealth of meanings, [Jan van Eyck] removes the setting from the Virgin’s home. Instead, “The Annunciation” now occurs in a richly detailed church. By breaking away from the domestic context favored in so many other treatments of the subject, van Eyck creates an image packed with coded messages about the triumph of the new faith over the old scriptures.
…As for the Angel, van Eyck has transformed this divine messenger into a magnificent apparition….
…there is nothing remotely alarming about this radiant messenger, and the words that issue, in Latin, from his parted lips confirm his innate gentleness: “Hail, full of grace.” Although Mary seems hesitant, she responds by declaring: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.” Yet her words are not addressed simply to the Angel. Van Eyck paints them upside-down and back to front, so that God may read them more easily from his heavenly vantage.
As well as evoking a God of Love rather than a stern God of Judgment, this inexhaustible painting is packed with references to the old Scriptures and the victory of the new faith, Christianity. Why did van Eyck set his “Annunciation” in a church? As our eyes travel over this superbly convincing location, we realize that he is telling us a great deal about the larger meaning of the dramatic event occurring here. At the top, God stands isolated in a stained-glass window and personifies the ancient Jewish belief that He was alone. But gradually, as we move down the church, the old insistence on a solitary deity is replaced by the Christian Trinity. Symbolically ranged behind Mary’s face are three windows, announcing the triple identity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost.
read the whole piece here
for more about the Richard Cork’s column, read a post from 2013 on the blog Supremacy and Survival
The second painting of the Annunciation is the Merode Altarpiece, painted by Robert Campin around the year 1430, so roughly contemporary with the Van Eyck, above.
Due to some technical difficulties with my blog today, I haven’t been able to load a photo of the altarpiece, but I will do so as soon as that issue is resolved. In the meantime, you can see the Merode Altarpiece by clicking here. If you find yourself in New York you can see the painting in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Here’s an excerpt from a 2006 Essay by Chet Raymo on the Merode Altarpiece:
This quietly unfolding drama is set in a typical 15th-century Flemish household. Beyond the open door of the courtyard and the window of Joseph’s shop we glimpse of the busy life of the town, Europe coming alive with commerce and technical innovation. What is most striking about the painting is the artist’s keen eye for “things,” for the mechanical accouterments of the rising middle class, and for the ways in which material goods are used to reinforce and symbolize the spiritual message.
The year is about 1430. It is the same time that Fra Angelico was painting another "Annunciation," one that is medieval in its simple, ethereal setting. It is also the time that Gutenburg was beginning his experiments with movable type. In the Merode Altarpiece we are poised on a cusp of history between the Middle Ages and modern times, between a world of spirit and a world of matter. The angel announces a message of otherworldliness and detachment. The “things” in the painting presage the scientific and technological revolution that is about to transform Western culture.
The master of the Merode Altarpiece is much taken by the textures of wood, metal, cloth, and stone. Here is the carefully crafted wrought iron of the candle holders and fire irons, the gleaming brass of the hanging wash basin, and the sharp-edged steel of Joseph’s tools. Here are things the well-to-do Flemish burgher would be proud to have in his household: the fine iron lock, the lacquered wood and metal towel rack, the fine porcelain vase, the splendid carved oak settle. Two lovingly protected books, one of them in Mary’s hands. The garments of the angel and the Virgin are rich and trimmed with gold.
On Joseph’s bench there is a clever mechanical mousetrap that gives the work its popular title, “The Madonna of the Mousetrap.” It is a “better” mousetrap, perhaps, that perennial symbol of progress and invention. With this one delightful image the artist has captured the spirit of his time: mechanical, inventive, forward-looking, preoccupied with matter and force. In the century that followed the painting of the Merode Altarpiece, science and technology consolidated a new alliance that led directly to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, and to a new era of material well-being for a large part of humankind.
The altarpiece evokes a harmony of material and spiritual concerns. In this simple household scene, rendered on a cusp of history, the Flemish master has given us a vision of two worlds in perfect balance.
read the whole essay here:
More about the Feast of the Annunciation: