Art in Advent 2015: The Annunciation
The Annunciation is an oil painting by the Early Netherlandish master Jan van Eyck, from around 1434-1436. It is in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington D.C. It was originally on panel but has been transferred to canvas.
The first moment in the Christmas story is the arrival of the Archangel Gabriel to tell Mary that she has been chosen to give birth to the son of God. Many painters have painted this event, non better than the Jan van Eyck. As befits a man who seemed to mix espionage with painting for his patron, van Eyck’s picture is full of half concealed messages. It has had an extraordinary afterlife, having been sold by the Soviets against the wishes of the Hermitage Museum and bought by a secretive American millionaire who hid it away in a cellar.
Van Eyck is considered one of the greatest painters of any period. Advances in oil techniques helped him paint the physical world in minute detail and with a degree of realism never before possible. It was said he knew fabrics like a weaver, buildings like an architect, and plants like a botanist. Here it is hard to believe that the angel’s gleaming brocade is yellow pigment, not true gold, “woven” with brushstrokes, not threads.
In this painting Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the son of God. She modestly draws back and responds, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.” Her words are printed upside down for the Lord above to see. The Holy Spirit descends to her on seven rays of light. This is the moment God’s plan for salvation is set in motion. Through Christ’s human incarnation the old era of the Law is transformed into a new era of Grace.
Almost every element in the painting contributes to this theme. The architecture moves from older, round Romanesque forms to pointed Gothic arches. In the floor tiles, scenes from the Old Testament prefigure New Testament events; David’s slaying of Goliath, for example, fore tends Christ’s triumph over the devil. The single top window, where Jehovah stands, contrasts the triple windows below, which suggest the Christian trinity. Even Mary’s overlarge figure inside the chapel operates symbolically to underscore her identification with the Church. The lilies beside her refer to her purity.
God, who called Mary
To motherhood and servanthood
And entrusted to her the care of your Son,
Envelop us with your life, so that
In surrendering ourselves to you,
You may dwell in us
And we may dwell in you.