Exhibition on the Depiction of the Annunciation by Early Northern Rena


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“The annunciation is the very moment of the
Incarnation when the Holy Ghost overshadowed the
Virgin and the Child conceived in her womb, the
consummation of her marriage to God.” (p.84 textbook)
     
     The Annunciation by Rogier van der Weyden, completed around 1435, is a 33 7/8” x 36 1/4” panel, which once was part of a triptych. The depiction is of Mary in a bedchamber, seated by the light of a window at the right, positioned on the floor in a stance that implies that she had been busy reading. The way that she is seated is similar to Campin’s Merode Altarpiece. (p.125 textbook) Gabriel appears to Mary’s back with a somewhat solemn face as Mary turns her head towards him.
     According to the text, Rogier uses bold lighting effects, graceful figures, and plunging perspectives, but allows the figures to stand out prominently against a more subdued background. (p. 126 textbook) Through a back window, the countryside can be seen, showing that this is a daytime setting. Symbolically, the textbook states that this scene is a ‘thalamus virginis’, and that in effect, Mary and God are symbolically sharing a marriage bedchamber. This can be explained by the depiction of Christ on a medallion hanging from the back of the bed.
     Van Eyck’s rendition of this theme, Annunciation, is thought to be the left wing of a triptych. Completed around 1435-37, it is a panel transferred to canvas, 36 1/2” x 14 3/8”. Here we see Mary in a church with both arms somewhat elevated in almost surprise fashion. Mary doesn’t appear too happy or concerned even, and both she and Gabriel seem relatively neutral in emotion, considering the situation.
     Van Eyck depicts the moment when the “Old Dispensation became the New.” (p.104 textbook) Some symbolism includes Jehovah in the stained glass window above Mary, seen with the seraphim that Isaiah envisioned of the Lord. Seven rays of light protrude from the clerestory window in the upper left of the piece, symbolizing the desention of the Holy Ghost. The stool in the lower right of the panel symbolizes Isaiah’s words, “heaven is my Throne, the earth is my footstool.” (p.104 textbook) The white lilies represent Mary’s purity.
     The Annunciation by Jacquemart de Hesdin, and possibly his shop, dates to around 1400. This piece, is from the Tres-Belles de Jehan de France, Duc de Berry. Mary is seated inside an open structure, as usual, disturbed by her devotional reading.

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Gabriel floats outside the transparent front wall, with Mary turned to look right up at him. These earlier figures are less elaborately decorated than later works by Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck.
     Halos of both characters are thickly outlined. God is depicted above the figures as looking down in an utterly accepting manner. While this miniature is much smaller than the two panels previously discussed, the theme of the annunciation remains the same.
     Master Bertram’s panel from the Saint Peter Altarpiece, Annunciation, is 31 1/2” x 21 5/8”, dating to 1379. In the previous three works, Mary has been portrayed at a lower level than Gabriel, with her book and body facing right. Here we see her more frontal in pose and less engaged in her devotions. God the Father sends forth a small white dove, symbolizing the Holy Ghost, and a small child, aiming for the Virgin’s head.
     Compositionally, this piece differs from the previous works in the manner of play between the harsh diagonal from the upper left to the soft curves of the halos and clothing.
     The four works selected for an exhibition on the depiction of the annunciation in early Northern Renaissance works, show different takes on a theme, while still maintaining important religious elements, such as Mary seated at the right side of the picture plane, interrupted in her reading, by the angel Gabriel, who appears at her back left. The light shines on the Virgin and God provides her with his child, a tribute to their symbolic marriage.


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