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Van Eyck's Annunciation

Jan Van Eyck painted this version of The Annunciation some time in the mid to late 1430s. It's housed at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. today, maybe the only Van Eyck in the US. I'll have to check on that.

As a major patron of the arts, the Church commissioned thousands of such scenes over the centuries: paintings, sculpture, passion plays, stained glass, you name it. Art was a way to bring the faith’s foundational stories to predominantly illiterate worshipers. As an artist, I think that of all the Biblical stories available, the Annunciation would be particularly difficult to pull off.

For starters, not a whole lot actually happens in the New Testament story. It’s a fairly brief exchange between the Angel Gabriel and Mary. But even so the story is sparse on action, this is a deeply theological and mysterious moment to believers. Capturing that significance in a scene of pure dialogue would be a tall order. Connecting viewers with the piece is one thing, connecting them with their God at the same time, is another. So one thing I enjoy most about Annunciation scenes is thinking about how that specific artist approached it.

In addition to a panorama of symbols to occupy the viewer’s mind, Van Eyck handled it with his trademark realism. In a devotional piece like this, intricacy brings the spiritual dimension as close to the real world as a painting can get. Viewers in the 15th century could be excused for thinking they were watching it happen through a window right there in the town church. My image may not be high resolution so try to find one if it isn’t. Zoom in and look at the opulent robes, the windows, and the jewels, especially. You’ll see why Van Eyck’s skill with oil paint is legendary. He must have used an arsenal of fine-tipped brushes to deliver those kinds of lines. And layer after layer of glaze trap and reflect light to give luster and sheen right where you’d most expect them. If you know the story, the painting isn’t true to the Biblical setting. Everything about the piece is 15th century Flemish rather than first century Mediterranean, but that was likely intentional. If he wanted to connect the faithful to one of their most entrancing stories, what better way to accomplish it than to situate it in their own time and place? They can be transported to another world without leaving their own.

There is a lot more to talk about in the piece but I try to keep these posts short so I'll cap it off with one last comment.

If art should be in some way transporting or elevating, this is a supreme achievement.

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