Jan Van Eyck’s Annunciation, is a work that shimmers with a luminous clarity, infusing spiritual meaning into every small detail. Van Eyck is true to the Flemish tradition of hiding symbols in the everyday and using complicated iconography. In particular, Van Eyck explores the connections between the Old and New Testament of the Bible, the juxtaposition of law and grace, and how Mary is the connection between these two eras.
Jan Van Eyck, the consummate Flemish painter
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.” Van Eyck might be the reason for that quote. He was an educated man who knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and a great deal of theology, He used this education to his advantage in his art.
Adept at finding ways to make visual, complex theological concepts, made Van Eyck popular among the well-educated patrons of his day. He was the trusted painter of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good. In fact, Van Eyck didn’t just act as his painter, but also was sent on diplomatic missions, including, negotiating for his marriage.
His art and his relationships give us a glimpse of the man, but perhaps the most enlightening bit of information we have about Van Eyck is in his personal motto. “Als ich chan” (As best I can). A good motto to live life by. Van Eyck included this, along with his signature, on many of his works
A long history
The work we are considering today is Van Eyck’s Annunciation. It is a single panel that was probably once a part of a triptych, a 3-panel altarpiece.
This particular painting has a long history, over 580 years. First, the work was painted on a wood panel, but at a later date transferred to canvas. Then, over the years, there were a few attempts at conservation. Currently, the painting came to be at the National Gallery in Washington DC where it underwent more restoration work. Restoring works of art is an exacting process and conservators have to make difficult decisions about what to restore and what to leave, to show the history of the piece. When works are this old, their restoration history becomes a part of their story.
I realize that the image I’ve included is large, but I’m hoping this will allow you to note the details as you scroll down, and to be able to come back when we are done to re-examine this extraordinary painting.
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 revolutionized painting itself.
Artists had begun mixing oil into tempera paint to give it a longer drying time and more luminosity. 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 painting metals and precious stones. The new mix allowed a precision that made the images tangible, bringing scenes to life.
Living in an era with cameras that can create amazing photographs, it can be hard to appreciate what Van Eyck has achieved in this work. We can distinguish between textures, from hard edged stone, to thick, sumptuous fabrics. The softness of the velvet footstool is as convincing, as the jewels in the angel’s crown.
The National Gallery in Washington D.C. sums up Van Eyck’s accomplishment well. “By recreating the material world with specificity and precision, he gives us a tangible sense that the painted world is continuous with our own. ‘
Additionally, the advances Van Eyck achieved with oil paints created an extraordinary use of light which has been compared to Vermeer.
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.”
The Iconography common to all Annunciations
As we examine Van Eyck’s Annunciation there is so much to admire in terms of its visual characteristics, the composition, the colors, the light, we can get sidetracked, 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 are familiar to other Annunciation paintings, others are unique to this work. We find proof of Van Eyck’s education in the theology he has packed in.
Mary is robed in blue, the color of divinity. Primarily, this is a reminder that Mary carries the divine (Christ) within her. In Christian doctrine the Annunciation is the moment of conception and Mary is traditionally wearing a blue robe to remind the viewer that God has come to earth and taken on flesh.
Blue is also the color of the heavens and prompts the believer to remember that Mary will become the Queen of Heaven after her death. (Mary also wears a small, jeweled circlet around her head, a precursor to a crown.)
Finally, blue is the color of the cloth laid over the Ark of the Covenant by the Jews. The Ark contained God’s presence with his people. Mary was sometimes referred to as the new Ark of the Covenant because she also contained God’s presence and was bringing Jesus to His people.
In the foreground we have one of the most common symbols included in Annunciation works, white lilies. The lily is a symbol of Mary’s purity and virginity.
A first look at Gabriel
The angel Gabriel wears rich clothing and a crown to remind us that he comes from heaven and is not of this earth. Gabriel’s crown and robe are encrusted with jewels. The richness of the fabric contrasts with the plain blue of Mary’s robe, drawing the contrast between heaven and earth.
We will note here the beautiful rainbow-colored wings, but a full explanation of their significance will have to wait.
United by words and size
Connecting Mary and Gabriel are the words written between 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 the words she speaks are oriented toward God who will be reading them from above.
We also have the use of hieratic scale, which means Mary and Gabriel are larger than they should be given the size of the building. Hieratic scale is a device used to show the importance of particular figures. Realism takes second place to the symbolic message that Gabriel and Mary are what are significant in this work.
Van Eyck adds Annunciation iconography that is all about the Old and the New
The Old Testament of the Bible is based on the Law given by God to Moses and lays out how man and God relate to one another. God is Holy, and man, because he fails to keep the law is not. The Old Testament gives us an elaborate system of sacrifice to deal with this separation from God, but the system is falls short.
The New Testament is the story of Christ and his work which saves humanity. God sends his son, Jesus, into the world as a human and the perfect sacrifice. Through his sacrifice, relationship with God is restored. In the New Testament the law is replaced with God’s mercy and grace.
The overriding theme of Van Eyck’s Annunciation is the transition from the old era of the law to the new era of grace. What connects these two eras is the incarnation, or God coming in the flesh. Mary is the mediary between these two eras; she is the vehicle of the incarnation. With her acceptance of the angel’s words, she becomes the connecting link between the old and the new.
Old and New in Architecture in Van Eyck’s Annunciation
Typically, Annunciations are set in either a garden or Mary’s home, however, Van Eyck has placed his Annunciation scene in a church. Van Eyck was well aware that this was historically inaccurate, churches did not exist in Jesus’ day. Therefore, it is obvious that Van Eyck is making a statement with his choice, and we would be wise to look more closely.
Examining the building I note two things. The window shape changes as we move from the top story to the bottom, and the top of the church is dark, while the lower level is filled with light.
The windows in the uppermost reaches of the church have the rounded arches of Romanesque architecture, which had been in use for hundreds of years. In other words, Romanesque was an old style of architecture. The lower part of the church has the peaked arches that are the signature of the newer Gothic style. Van Eyck has used the building itself to make visual the transition from old to new.
One of the advantages of the Gothic windows was that they let in more light, and we can see that the lower section of the church is fully illuminated. Christ is often called the light of the world. Before Christ coming the world was in darkness, lost in their sins; then, Christ burst on the scene and fills the world with light.
In Christian theology Christ has a dual nature, he is fully God and fully man.
The upper reaches of this church are associated with Christ’s divine nature. There is a stained-glass window that shows God the Father standing on a globe. In the Old Testament the emphasis is on the one God of the Jews. The Old Testament states that the Jews were to worship the one true God and this monotheism is at the core of Judaism and consequently, Christianity. Before Christ came to earth, or during the period of the law, Christ’s divine nature is emphasized.
The lower part of the church has the incarnation as its focus. The incarnation is God taking on human flesh, and in the New Testament the emphasis is on Christ’s human nature. In this scene, the angel is announcing to Mary that she will conceive. It is the starting point of the story of the incarnation, and is, obviously, the central focus of this work.
However, Van Eyck’s Annunciation has included other details that also point to the role Christ will play in the New Testament story of grace. First, as we’ve discussed there is the light flooding the space, but much of the light is coming in through a trio of windows in the background. These three windows symbolize the Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most complex and difficult to understand, yet central doctrines of the 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 from God the Father to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Above Mary’s head we have a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, descending on rays of light toward Mary. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, according to Christian Doctrine, and the Biblical narrative says that Mary will conceive through the Holy Spirit. The dove’s descent begins from a window in the upper story of the church, indicating that the story of salvation find’s its source or origin in the Old Testament.
While the dove has entered by the window, we can see that the window isn’t open, yet the windowpane is intact. The dove has miraculously entered the church. This alludes to the Catholic understanding of the Virgin birth. Jesus was conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit without losing her virginity. In technical terms, her hymen was still intact. Many believed that Mary also miraculously delivered the baby without breaking her hymen and remained a virgin her entire life.
If we look more closely, there are golden rays that are coming from the window above, and in the foreground of the painting there are lilies that are blooming. Note that there are 7 of each. Lilies are the traditional flower associated with Mary and signify her purity. The number seven is 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 and seven is generally held to be universally important.
Old/Moses vs New/Christ
There are two Old Testament scenes painted in the Byzantine style (an old style) next to the stained-glass window of God the Father. They portray 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.
In the first scene Van Eyck shows the baby Moses, condemned to death, being rescued from the Nile by an Egyptian princess. Mary, while not living as a princess, is from the line of King David. Both Moses and Christ were given to women of royal blood. In this way Moses prefigures Christ.
The second scene shows Moses receiving the Ten commandments or the Law. Moses is part of an old covenant that God has with his people based on the law. In the same way, there is now a new covenant of grace which began with the Incarnation of Christ and is transmitted to the Church (or God’s people) through Jesus.
Even the tiles on the floor connect the old with the new in Van Eyck’s Annunciation
If we jump from the very back of Van Eyck’s Annunciation 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 prefiguration 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. In the New Testament the Church is referred to as the Bride of Christ. So, betrayal of a spouse in the story of Samson, would equate to betrayal by the church, or then, the Jewish leaders, of Jesus. The betrayal was that they didn’t recognize Christ when he appeared.
Another tile is of Samson destroying a temple, which resulted in his own death. This prefigures Christ’s crucifixion. In the gospel of John, Jesus refers to himself as the temple saying, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up…but he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
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 stories in the tiles are all from the Old Testament but are foundational (as they are the floor) to understanding the importance of the moment of the Annunciation.
The decorative borders
The borders around the tiles combine columbine (a flower), clover, and zodiac signs. Clover signifies the trinity, and columbine has 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.
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. In the Noah story, after the flood God places a rainbow in the sky as his promise not to destroy all of the earth in another flood. Noah is another example of an Old Testament story foreshadowing the work that Christ will do. Noah obeyed God and saved humanity from extinction, and Jesus’ death on the Cross also saves humanity.
Additionally, through an extra-Biblical source, the Book of Enoch, we find a story that occurred during the time of Noah when Gabriel interceded for men.
Only when painting Gabriel in an Annunciation scene does Van Eyck include rainbow wings. In other paintings where Gabriel appears, his wings are colored, but not with this distinctive pattern. Because of this, it is believed Van Eyck intended the viewer to make the connection between Noah and Christ. The extra Biblical stories were more widely known during the 1400’s, so it is likely others knew that Gabriel had personally intervened during the Noah story. The rainbow is also mentioned in Revelation. The throne that Christ sits on as he judges men’s souls is surrounded by a rainbow.
In the both the Noah story and the judgement scene in Revelation we have judgement, cleansing, and the righteous being saved. These elements connect to the story of Christ death which will enable humanity to survive the judgement and enter paradise. Gabriel is the announcer of Christ’s long prophesied birth, and Gabriel will be present when Christ judges men’s souls. Gabriel’s presence is threaded throughout these narratives.
The wings also contain peacock feathers, and their use originates in a belief of the Ancient Greeks. Ancient cultures 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.
The globe and the footstool bring old and new together
In the foreground we have a red footstool. This is significant, because, in the stained-glass window at the top of the painting God the Father is standing on a globe. 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 the transition from the Old to the New, Van Eyck is emphasizing that everything is God’s.
And at the center is Mary
If you are still with me, congratulations. This is a complex and layered work with a great deal to take in and reflect on.
I hope I’ve communicated that Van Eyck, with skill and beauty, has painted an Annunciation that deftly illustrates the central role that Mary will play in bridging the old era of the law, with the new era of grace.
This work is held by the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and in their description of the work they include its connection to the devotio moderna movement and the Golden Mass. You can follow this link if you want to read more.
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.
Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 12 Lippi
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.