Welcome to day 11.
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed Luke 1
It has been said that the Flemish wish is to paint more than the eye can see, and almost more than the mind can comprehend. This statement seems to sum up Jan Van Eyck. He sees the world with a luminous clarity that takes into account every detail and imbues each with spiritual meaning.
Jan Van Eyck is a Netherlandish painter who astonishes with his use of light, color, and meaningful details. An educated man who knew some Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and a great deal of theology, Van Eyck was the trusted painter of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, not just painting for him but taking on secret missions and acting as his emissary.
Along with his signature, on many works, Van Eyck often included his personal motto. “Als ich chan”(As best I can).
Information about his early training is unclear, but it is believed he and a brother, Hubert, received training in illustrated manuscripts. This would make sense when one considers the amazing small details in his paintings.
The work we are considering today is his Annunciation. It is a single panel that was probably once a part of a triptych, a 3 panel altarpiece. I feel the need to again remind you that looking at a reproduction of a work is not the same as seeing it in person. This particular painting has had a long history, some sad attempts at conservation, and some great restoration, a long and exacting process. This work was painted on a wood panel, but was later transferred to canvas.
Van Eyck is able to paint so that the viewer can distinguish between textures, from hard edged stone, to thick, sumptuous fabrics. While looking at this painting you feel you know how each surface would feel if touched. The use of light is extraordinary and has been compared to Vermeer.
Van Eyck has been credited with inventing oil painting, this is not true. Oil painting had been used for some time, however he did invent new mixes, and his use of the medium was so exceptional that it must have seemed as if he had created something brand new. Artist had been mixing oil into tempera paint to give it a longer drying time and more luminosity. However the Van Eyck brothers (Hubert and Jan) were able to develop a stable varnish using linseed oil and resins into which they added the pigments directly. This transformed the paint into a jewel-like medium, perfectly suited to paint metals and jewels, and also to convincingly paint light.
Art historian Sister Wendy Beckett in her book, The Story of Painting, says, “Van Eyck’s inspired observations of light and its effects, executed with technical virtuosity through this new transparent medium, enabled him to create a brilliant and lucid kind of reality. The invention of this technique transformed the appearance of painting.”
As we examine this painting there is so much to admire in terms of it’s visual characteristics, the composition, the colors, the light, but to really understand what Van Eyck has accomplished we need cultural and religious context. With those tools we take our appreciation to a new level.
Many of the symbols in this work should be familiar to those of you who have been with us on the Advent journey. I’ll go through the familiar ones quickly before moving on to the additional symbols this work introduces. I’ve linked to older articles that have explained some of these details.
We have Mary robed in blue. Blue is the color of the cloth laid over the Ark of the Covenant by the Jews. God’s presence with His people was believed to be in the Ark, in the same way Mary would have the divine dwelling within her. Blue is also the color of the heavens, and Mary will become the Queen of Heaven after her death. In the foreground we have white lilies, a symbol of Mary’s purity and virginity. The angel wears rich clothing and crown to remind us that Gabriel comes from heaven and is not of this earth.
Above Mary’s head we have the dove descending on beams of light, the dove representing the Holy Spirit who is to come upon Mary and miraculously bring about her pregnancy.
We also have the words spoken between Mary and Gabriel in writing, you have to look closely to see them. The angel says, “e gratia plena”, Hail, full of Grace, or Hail favored one. Mary responds with “ecce ancilla domini” or Behold, the handmaiden of the Lord. The words that Mary utters are upside down, as in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. This is so that God can read the words.
We also have the use of heiretic scale, which means Mary and Gabriel are larger than they should be. This is related to their importance, rather than their size being realistic. In this instance we might also have Mary representing the church. Some of the other imagery that we will be discussing points to this being a possibility.
So what is new that Van Eyck has included. Well, first of all, we are not inside of a walled garden or Mary’s house. This is a church. Van Eyck was well aware that this was historically inaccurate, so we know that he was making another statement with his choice. To understand the imagery of this church, one must understand the expanding revelation that occurs from the Old to the New Testament, or how that “illumination” was understood by Van Eyck, who very well could have had a theologian advising him. Having a religious adviser when painting works for the church was not uncommon, although the consensus seems to be the painter had a religious education.
The Old Testament introduces the law, and man is judged by how he keeps the law. The New Testament announces incarnational grace. Man is guilty and his only hope of salvation is God’s mercy or grace. Everything in this painting is about this transition from the old law to the new era of grace. The moment depicted is the moment that the new era is being ushered in. God is coming in the flesh (incarnation) to save His people. The Virgin Mary is the mediary between the old and the new.
In this ‘church’ that Mary is standing in, the upper areas are darker, and they have the rounded arches of Romanesque architecture. The lower part of the church is filled with light and the arches have changed to the newer Gothic Style. The building itself shows the transition from the old to the new, from law to grace. Romanesque architecture had recently given way to the new Gothic style. With the new style, windows were more easily incorporated and filling buildings with light was easier. Christ is often called ‘the light of the world’. So we have the relative darkness, before Christ of the Old Testament in the upper reaches of the church, and Christ-light and the new era of grace filling the lower part of the church with light. In the uppermost level on the left we see the golden shafts of light coming down to Mary. The light (Christ) who will soon be born into a dark world finds His source in the Old Testament.
Additionally, the upper part of the church, which is associated with the Old Testament is also associated with Christ’s Divine nature. Christ is fully God, and fully man, a doctrine that is complex and difficult to understand. Before the incarnation, or during the period of the law, we emphasize Christ’s divine nature. The lower part of the church, with it’s main focus being the incarnation, emphasizes Christ’s human nature, the taking on of flesh.
In the top of the building at the back is a stained glass window of God the Father standing on a globe. The three arched windows behind Mary are emblematic of the Trinity. In the Old Testament the emphasis is on the one God, the Jewish command to worship the one true God is at the core of Judaism, and consequently Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most complex and difficult to understand, yet central to Christian faith. God is three persons in one essence. The three persons are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, yet still One God. In the New Testament the emphasis has shifted to Jesus Christ and to the Holy Spirit.
Van Eyck has portrayed the Old Testament emphasis on one God through the stained glassed window, and the New Testament emphasis on the trinity with the three windows, and the light that comes in through them. For Christian believers this is the very instant of the Incarnation, when the Word is made flesh. This is the moment that Paul calls the “fulness of time,” the plan of salvation coming to light. All paintings of the annunciation are attempts to make visible the abiding mystery of the incarnation.
There are two Old Testament scenes painted in an older style in this church, up next to the stained glass window. They are two scenes from the life of Moses that serve to demonstrate how Moses prefigured Christ. In one we have Moses as an infant being handed to the Egyptian princess, and in the other Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, or the Law.
Both Moses and Christ were given to women of royal blood. Although Mary was far from living the life of a princess, she was of the line of King David, and so in this way Moses prefigures Christ. The Ten Commandments given to Moses shows him receiving the Law, and transmitting the old covenant to God’s People. In the same way the new covenant of grace which began with the Incarnation of Christ is transmitted to the Church through Jesus.
If we jump from the very back of the painting to the floor in the foreground we see that each of the tiles on the floor tells a Biblical story from the Old Testament. The ones that can be identified were meant to be interpreted again, as Old Testament prefigurations of events in the New Testament. Many of these contain stories of Samson. Samson’s name means ‘little sun’, and medieval theologians believed that the name meant he prefigured Christ as the light of the world.
Several times in Samson’s life he delivers Israel from her enemies, in the same way that Christ will deliver his church from Satan or from sin. One of the tiles is Samson being betrayed by Delilah who tells Samson’s enemies that his strength is in his hair. This prefigures Christ being betrayed by the Synagogue and the religious leaders of his time. This plays on imagery that might not be clear. Delilah was Samson’s wife. In the New Testament the Church is the Bride of Christ. This imagery of union between God and his people is used throughout the Old and New Testaments. So, betrayal of a spouse in the story of Samson, would equate to betrayal by the Church, or then the Jewish Synagogue, of Jesus. The betrayal was that they didn’t recognize Christ when he came to them. Also included is Samson destroying a temple, which also resulted in his own death, this prefiguring Christ crucifixion.
Beyond the Samson stories we have David slaying Goliath which is supposed to remind us of Christ’s victory over Satan. There are other tiles which are just fragments, but that Art Historians believe they have identified. One is the death of Abimelech, who was then associated with the Antichrist, and the death of Absalom. Absalom was King David’s son and he rebelled against his father and tried to seize the throne. This would make him an ‘antichrist’ as well.
The borders around the tiles combine columbine (a flower), clover, and zodiac signs. Clover signifies the trinity, and columbine had been associated with the Passion of Christ. The zodiac symbols are a bit more complicated, at least for modern viewers. We tend to associate the zodiac signs with Astrology, which would definitely not be a Christian practice. However, Zodiac signs were sometimes incorporated into the floors of Medieval churches to show that God had control over the entire universe. Along with that general meaning Van Eyck has used them more specifically here. He’s included signs for March, when the Annunciation is supposed to have occurred, the sign associated with Mary, and the one indicating that Christ would be born on December 25.
If we look more closely at the golden rays that are coming from the window above, and at the lilies that are blooming we will note that there are 7 of each. This was an allusion to 7 gifts that Christ was to receive based on Isaiah 11:2-3. These gifts were wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, purity, and fear. Over the centuries various groups within the church have developed theories about numbers. Seven is generally held to be universally important.
In the foreground we have a red footstool. This is significant because in the stained glass window at the top we have God the Father standing on a globe of the earth, and in Isaiah 66 God says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?” So from the back of the painting to the very front, in this church that is symbolically representing all the transition from the Old to the New we have God saying that all of it is His.
Lastly we will look at a very striking feature of this painting. That is the wings of the angel Gabriel. There are two distinctive things about these wings, rainbows and peacock feathers. Rainbows are found in several places in the Bible, the most obvious being at the end of the story of Noah. Noah is another example of an Old Testament story foreshadowing the work that Christ will do on the Cross, and saving God’s people. Additionally, through an extra-Biblical story in the Book of Enoch, during the time of Noah, Gabriel interceded on the behalf of men.
Only when painting Gabriel in an Annunciation scene does Van Eyck give Gabriel rainbow wings, in other paintings where Gabriel appears his wings are colored, but not with the distinctive pattern. Because of this, it is believed we are to make the connection between Noah and Christ. The extra Biblical stories were more widely known during the 1400’s than they are today. The rainbow is also mentioned in Revelation. The throne that Christ sits on as he judges men’s souls is surrounded by a rainbow. So we have two instances of judgement, cleansing, and the righteous being saved. They are connected by the Incarnation as Christ death will enable one to survive the judgement and enter paradise. Gabriel is the announcer of Christ’s long prophesied birth, and will be present when Christ judges men’s souls.
Peacock feathers use originates in a belief of the Ancient Greeks. They believed that the flesh of the peacock didn’t decay after death. In Christian imagery this translated into peacock feathers being a symbol of immortality. Greek mythology also includes the story of Argus, a servant of the goddess Hera, who had eyes all over his body. When he was killed, Hera immortalized him by placing his eyes on peacock feathers. Thus they became the symbol of God being all-seeing.
If you are still with me, congratulations. This is a complex and layered work with a great deal to take in and reflect on.
If you would like to read other articles in this series you can follow this link.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
This is a video of the painting with music. Great look at all of the details.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
John Oliver Hand, Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, National Gallery of Art.
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.