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Annunciation

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The Annunciation is a particularly good showpiece for van Eyck's obsession with the texture of fabrics: both the Virgin Mary and Gabriel are swathed in lavish robes that fold and hang with surreal, wholly gratuitous complexity. Van Eyck painted clothes, a critic once observed, the way other artists paint mountain ranges.

The problem is, once you get past the first wash of amazement the painting becomes reticent and impersonal. The Annunciation is one of the most frequently painted subjects in Christian art--it derives from Luke 1:26-38, where Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the Christ child, and Mary meekly replies, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord"--and you look in vain for an individualizing edge in van Eyck's version. All you find after an extended study are a lot of inscrutable details. If Mary is supposed to be a humble resident of some backwater Judean village, for instance, why is she wearing a circlet studded with pearls? She seems to have been doing very well for herself before Gabriel showed up. And if this is the moment that she first learns her destiny, then why is the setting so plainly a Christian church, with Jesus in stained glass on the back wall--aren't we getting a little ahead of the story?

Of course we know that all these details have some sort of allegorical significance. That's just what's so tiresome about medieval art: there's always that vast weight of church authority bearing down on artist and spectator alike. Every painting is overloaded with the same clutter of officially sanctioned symbolism, assembled mechanically, without regard to logic or emotional common sense. Van Eyck's Annunciation accumulates the same crowd of usual suspects you find in a thousand other Annunciations: that incongruous dove floating arbitrarily over Mary's head like a lightbulb going off in a comic strip, the angel making his vaguely salacious gesture of pointing toward heaven, Mary wearing a bland, unsurprised expression of pious acceptance--in van Eyck's version you'd swear she's bored to tears. Whatever personal or private meanings the painting may have, they're encoded in a visual system so tedious and oppressive we can barely bring ourselves to contemplate it.

Still, if we assume that an artist like van Eyck found his religious beliefs enlivening rather than crushing, we might be able to consider some of the theological background without dread. Let's take the story of the Annunciation< as it appears in the Gospel of Luke. The important point about it is that it's only one of several curious folktale-ish scenes scattered through the narrative of Christ's passion: Luke had a taste for the fanciful and poetic (so much so that some of the sterner early Christians thought his Gospel should be left out of the New Testament), and he wove these stories into a kind of decorative floral border around the main text. This is essentially how van Eyck regarded his Annunciation. It was never meant to be viewed as an independent work. Its small size and unusual shape can only mean that it was originally a side panel flanking a much larger central painting, now lost--subject unknown, except that it had to have been directly about Christ. Nor is it possible to be sure how many side paintings there were; the Annunciation was probably part of a triptych, but van Eyck's altarpiece at Ghent is made up of a central painting of the Adoration of the Lamb surrounded by a galaxy of 23 separate smaller paintings (including a four-panel Annunciation scene). In other words, the Annunciation as we have it was supposed to be viewed as only a minor offshoot of the main subject.

In van Eyck's time Biblical stories were told and retold constantly--painted, sermonized, allegorized, dramatized. The result was that every episode in the great narrative, no matter how marginal or subsidiary, accumulated its own comet's tail of folk legends and metaphors and fanciful speculations. Van Eyck's Annunciation is crowded with dozens of examples of Annunciation lore. Mary was supposed to be a modest and studious girl, for instance, so the tradition was to show her (as van Eyck does) reading the scriptures when Gabriel arrives. Another tradition was that she was raised in a temple, so medieval artists often set the scene in the best local equivalent--a church. Lilies were a symbol of virginity, so there's a vase of lilies at Mary's feet (in the Ghent Annunciation Gabriel hands Mary a bouquet of lilies). It was said that Mary conceived at the exact moment she said "Behold"--that's why the dove (symbolizing the Holy Ghost) is descending toward her along a golden line of light. The idea that she could remain a virgin even though she'd conceived a child was sometimes illustrated by sunlight passing through glass without destroying its purity--and van Eyck's painting happens to have the divine rays coming through high upper windows of clear glass.

I could go on, but you get the idea. When the artists of van Eyck's time set out to paint any scene from the Bible, they had an elaborate repertoire of visual cliches to draw on. It wasn't completely systematized; a lot of alternative traditions were heaped together, so that van Eyck could, without any psychic dissonance, set this Annunciation in a church and the Ghent Annunciation in Mary's home. But even if he had some latitude in his choice of symbols, we're still left with the question of why he used a standardized symbolic vocabulary at all. What is this particular assemblage of prefab meanings supposed to convey?

But with the Annunciation, we're at an earlier, less exalted peak of spiritual intensity. Christ is being announced, but he hasn't arrived yet; so there are no vistas of wonderment before us. Instead we see an interior scene enclosed by windows of opaque bull's-eye glass. The space is rendered with van Eyck's usual hallucinatory exactitude: you can tell that the ceiling needs a little repair, and the frescoes dimly visible on the back wall could probably stand a touch-up, and the stained-glass window is second-rate--probably it was executed by the local hack glassblower rather than an imported master craftsman. But the rich textures of the wider world have been carefully reduced to a hint of potential: you have to look closely behind Gabriel's wing to catch a glimpse, through the led

diamond panes in the next room, of the meticulously detailed house fronts across the street. (Like all of van Eyck's settings, by the way, this scene is out of his own head--nobody has ever succeeded in matching it with a real church.)

At the same time a kind of latent symbolic energy is forcing its way into the frame. The scene is scattered with signs and portents: there's the standard Annunciation symbolism

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