Van Eyck's Washington 'Annunciation': narrative time and metaphoric tradition.

Author:Purtle, Carol J.
Position:Jan van Eyck's painting

It is the goal of this article to consider the iconographic implications of Jan van Eyck's compositional decisions in his Annunciation at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in light of the painting's recent examination (see E. Melanie Gifford, "Van Eyck's Washington Annunciation: Technical Evidence for Iconographic Development," which precedes this article). Rather than attempting a full review of all aspects of iconography associated with this work, the discussion here focuses on decisions apparently open to the artist at specific stages of the painting's production. Evidence suggests that van Eyck (or his advisers) sought to add important historical and theological dimensions to the viewer's perception of the Annunciation event as the painting's iconography evolved.

Of fundamental concern in this technical endeavor, of course, is the affirmation of authenticity. This painting appears entirely consistent with the known practice of Jan van Eyck insofar as that is possible to determine by technical comparison.(1) This affirmation also offers the art historian firm ground from which to examine several newly revealed iconographic and compositional decisions as meaningful directions token during the course of the painting's development. Since Elisabeth Dhanens believed that van Eyck never copied or repeated himself,(2) this new evidence could also lead to an altered or expanded notion of the artist's metaphoric vocabulary as well as to a fuller assessment of his final intention for the finished panel.

Our new understanding of the compositional stages evident in the painting's execution should lead us through van Eyck's initial plan to depict the Annunciation in an undecorated church interior, to his subsequent adjustment of the floor and back wall designs in favor of a specific set of allusions to the signs of the zodiac and the Hebrew Scriptures, and then to a consideration of his majolica vase with lilies, a decision that could well have involved an attempt to bring the panel conceptually closer to its adjacent space: either the actual altar of the donor's chapel or the imagined space of additional panels completing a configuration to the right.

It appears that van Eyck, drawing on an extensive knowledge of medieval metaphor and an accomplished awareness of contemporary practice, planned to portray this Annunciation within a fully developed ecclesiastical interior. He was the first artist we know of to develop a panel in which the Annunciation is enacted entirely surrounded by the fully articulated architecture of a church.(3) Although his Annunciation configuration seems to have followed the iconographic practice established by the Parisian workshop of the Boucicaut Master some years earlier [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED],(4) van Eyck rejected the practice common among miniaturists of rendering the church interior as a small stage set. His initial intention with regard to the structure of this church, however, bears further scrutiny at this point in the painting's history. While the scientific examination suggests no substantial iconographic revisions to either the positions or costumes of Gabriel and Mary as they follow their roles in the drama of the Missa Aurea,(5) this evidence notes that important changes were made to the church's architectural derails during the course of the painting's evolution. An examination of the style and structure of this church at several different points in its development(6) may clarify the artist's purpose in making these changes.

Following the stages of composition evident from the technical examination derailed by E. Melanie Gifford, we must first concern ourselves with the initial concept of the church interior, indicated by the underdrawing and such painted details as appear to have followed the artist's original articulation. Thus we must envision a building of uniform style on side and back walls, the pilasters found above the capitols on the left wall extending almost to the ceiling on both side and back wall surfaces (see Gifford, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 4, 6 OMITTED]). Window placement was not altered, so the entrance of light from the exterior to the interior was devised in much the same manner as we see it today.

The initial composition suggested a slightly smaller cushioned seat in the foreground, which would have received light from the right, accounting for shadows cast on a geometrically drawn floor of alternating diamond and lobed patterns (see Gifford, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 10 OMITTED]). Above, a ceiling of wooden boards was joined with long beams, the boards eventually decorated with small painted patterns of red and blue.

The finished composition, however, shows the wooden planks of van Eyck's church ceiling in serious disrepair (see Gifford, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1, 4 OMITTED]). Some boards are completely missing, while other planks are broken off, leaving dark gaps visible in the covering of an otherwise solidly constructed building.(7) Since we have no other instance of architectural or structural imperfection visible in Eyckian buildings, we are drawn to examine this church for its intentional metaphoric content, bypassing the temptation to see van Eyck's architectural setting as simply the natural rendering of an actual church interior.(8)

The detail of the ruined ceiling suggests that van Eyck intended to draw on a common allusion that compared ruined structures to the era under Jewish law that would soon be replaced by a new structure and a new law with the coming of the Messiah.(9) We find this device most often accompanying the birth of Jesus, as in the Dijon Nativity attributed to the Campin group [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. Here, in the soon-to-be-abandoned structure of a field shelter, we see that the enterprising carpenter had already used recycled materials for both vertical and horizontal supports. Thus the old law and all earlier structures, while still standing at the coming of the Messiah, were destined to give way to a new law and a new structure with the birth of the Savior and the foundation of the Church.

Though we can be relatively certain that van Eyck devised the ceiling gaps as part of his initial concept,(10) the stages of development evident in the iconography of the floor and back wall indicate that he literally built additional meaning into the architecture as the painting progressed. If we assume the underdrawing to reflect the initial compositional stage, we see that the structure was probably planned without figurative detail apart from the image of the Godhead in the central stained-glass window, a detail important to the iconography of the Annunciation. The damaged wooden ceiling would certainly qualify as a major feature at this initial stage. This indicates that the "old structure/Old Law" parallel could well have been van Eyck's original metaphoric intention for the architecture, whereby the old structure, in need of repair, was to form the context for the Annunciation and then provide the basis for the evolution of a new structure when the New Law was established with the coming of the Messiah.

As the next compositional stage evolved, a number of narrative details were added to the church interior, leaving us with the architectural structure we see today. As it is extremely difficult to know the sequence by which these new iconographic features were added to the church, it appears important to examine the entire metaphoric content of the original building before moving on to a discussion of its later decoration.

At this point, then, we must consider in detail the question of van Eyck's intentional use of Romanesque and Gothic elements to further indicate a passage from the Old Law to the New. When speaking of potential architectural metaphors connected with this structure, traditional scholarship has called attention to a difference in style between the upper and lower portions of the church. The upper area, including the single arched window on the back wall, appears to be constructed essentially of Romanesque elements, while the lower portion, with its high arcade and slightly pointed arches, suggests a slightly later early Gothic orientation. If we grant this distinction as intentional on the part of van Eyck, as we looked from the upper limit of the panel to the position of Gabriel and the Virgin on the pavement below, we would see the building moving from a state of disrepair to its most recent historic style.(11)

While the ruined ceiling would have indicated faults in the structure in the same area as the rounded arches traditionally identified with Romanesque architecture, just as the foreground descent of the dove and the positioning of Gabriel and Mary are silhouetted against an architecture viewed as early Gothic, the combination of these styles in actual buildings of the Burgundian region makes it hard to defend a strictly metaphoric use of distinct styles on van Eyck's part.(12) The viewer's first impression of this building could well have been calculated to recall a familiar rectangular transept reminiscent of Burgundian church interiors. In order to assess more thoroughly the context of van Eyck's decisions we must investigate at least a few structural contexts in which other artists of the period clearly suggest meaningful contrasts between Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles.

As early as 1399, we find Melchior Broederlam inventing an enigmatic...

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