Lee Sandlin     Squibs    Essays    Books    Home 

With a Clash of Symbols: The Meeting of Heaven and Earth

Jan van Eyck's Annunciation at the Art Institute

Art review, August 8, 1997

The Art Institute has the loan for the summer of one of the masterpieces of Christian art, Jan van Eyck's Annunciation. This isn't what you'd call a major show. It basically consists of one small painting, around three feet tall and a foot wide--an object less than a tenth the size of the van Eyck banner hanging above the front entrance. The Art Institute curators have tried to jazz up our viewing experience a little by surrounding the painting with a gallery's worth of tangential artifacts: an illuminated manuscript like the one the Virgin Mary is reading, a velvet antependium resembling the one the archangel Gabriel has wrapped himself in, and so on. As far as I can see, this was a lot of work for nothing--it comes off as just a haphazard assemblage of medieval souvenirs.

And it's of no use at all for its intended purpose, which is the cracking of the Annunciation's many riddles. Neither is the Art Institute bookstore--the day I was there it didn't have a single book about van Eyck on the shelves. (There was no room, what with the five zillion catalogs for this fall's Renoir show already on sale.) So when it comes to introductions to the Art Institute's summer houseguest we're evidently on our own.

Fortunately it's a dazzling painting even if you aren't up on medieval Christian symbolism. Van Eyck's luminous colors still shine with eerie brightness after so many centuries, and his draftsmanship still takes the breath away. His trademark stylistic tic--the microscopically exact rendering of surface detail--can't be exhausted by the most fanatical inspection. The shadowy depths of the church interior setting, the elaborate splendor of the angel, the intricacies of the carved floor--all bloom with fresh wonderments on every viewing. 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?

There's a certain common form of religious experience in which the familiar objects of the world suddenly take on a previously unsuspected aura of significance. It can be set off by anything--a vase of lilies on a tiled floor, the way shafts of sunlight fall from a high window--but the result is that everything around you suddenly seems to reveal its part in a profound and mysterious allegory. It's as though a truer pattern of reality is shining through the surface appearances of life. I think this is what all these symbols mean for van Eyck: they're clues and glimpses of the real world that underlies the painted one.

Since van Eyck was a devout Christian, these clues inevitably converge on the figure of Christ. In fact, the more clearly the story of Christ emerges in van Eyck's frame, the richer with glorious meaning the appearance of the world becomes. When van Eyck explicitly includes Christ in a painting, the result is a blaze of joy: in his astonishing Madonna and Child With Chancellor Rolin, for instance, the three figures sit on a balcony open to a dream city of swarming, abundant, microscopically detailed life, complete down to the passersby meeting on shady streets and straggling foot traffic on the bridge--a vision of happiness the Christ child presides over with serene assurance, as he executes his diffident blessing upon the rather incidental (and oddly smarmy) Chancellor Rolin.

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 leaded 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 of course, but it's complicated by other symbols that point directly to Christ himself. The lilies, for instance, are Easter lilies--an extra edge of meaning within the ordinary one. The stained-glass window on the rear wall shows Christ perched on a globe of the world. And there's the church setting itself, whose very existence is a symbolic reminder of Christ's Passion. Meanwhile yet another layer of symbolism seeps up from below: the floor tiles are carved with freakishly intricate designs that prove to be a series of Old Testament scenes interspersed with medallions bearing the signs of the zodiac. There are no repeats in the tiles we can see, and I believe we're supposed to imagine that the whole floor makes up a complete set of scriptural illustrations--add the zodiac signs and you have a pretty strong symbol for the earth and the cosmos together. In other words, the scene is a kind of iceberg field containing submerged references to the whole of the Old and New Testaments, the history of the human race, and the design of the heavens. This slightly run-down small-town church encloses the entire world--a world in which the glory of the divine is only beginning to be revealed.

The light of heaven is clearly emerging around the figure of the archangel Gabriel. Other artists might have been content to represent his celestial glamour by means of his iridescent wings or his eerie smile, but van Eyck was only getting warmed up with incidental details like those. He expends his full powers on Gabriel's outfit. Gabriel traditionally wore white robes for the Annunciation; sometimes he would arrive in a tasteful pastel robe with a gold fringe. Van Eyck drapes him in a spectacular floral, gold-embroidered velvet antependium with a staggering jeweled border; by a rough guess given the portions on view, the whole thing would have to contain at least a hundred large gemstones and more than a thousand pearls. It's such a heedlessly munificent explosion of wealth that it seems to have inadvertently scattered pearls into Mary's plain circlet.

This is the aspect of van Eyck's imagination that people find most troublesome: his tendency to equate heaven with such a vulgar symbol of earthly wealth as jewelry. It goes together with another of his more dubious tendencies--not on view in the Annunciation, but unavoidable in some of his major works: a casual willingness to ennoble in paint some of the more disagreeable people in the local power structure. Chancellor Rolin was evidently nobody you wanted to cross; the Canon van der Paele (guest star of another Virgin and Child painting) wasn't much more sympathetic; and the church worthies included in the Ghent Adoration are as disagreeable as the tough guys you'd meet in a mob lineup. But van Eyck painted them all, evidently without irony, as though he didn't accept just the church's notion of acceptable iconography, but its own complacent assessment that wealth and power are proof of God's grace.

Yet there's another way to read van Eyck here. Perhaps he's less craven than he seems, if not more sympathetic. Maybe his point is that even the Vatican at its richest can't equal the storms of glittering wealth that routinely erupt in heaven. Gabriel is actually dressed down next to the celestial beings in the Ghent altarpiece. There Mary has exchanged her modest circlet for a ruby- and sapphire-encrusted tiara and her plain dress for a cape layered in so many rows of gemstones you can't imagine how she could walk. Even the wild man of the desert, John the Baptist, sports a gleaming green velvet robe with opal tassels. Meanwhile the dignitaries in the Adoration are all weighed down by crowns of such lavishness they look ridiculous--as though the riches these thugs had all hungered after on earth were made a mockery by the endless abundance of God.

So was van Eyck sneaking in some subversive political message? Maybe. At the very least, he can't have thought much of his earthly subjects--if he'd really admired them or wanted to buy their favor, he'd never have made Rolin look like a weasel or van der Paele like a pompous bore. But I think the truth is that van Eyck was at bottom indifferent. Putting these people into his paintings was just part of the job, one more obligation he had to fulfill. If he thought about their failings at all, he doubtless figured that all men are equally guilty in the sight of the Lord. His true interest in them was technical: to paint those beady eyes or complacent jowls with the same fanatical care with which he rendered the cracks in marble tile or the grain of polished wood. The real message of his paintings may be that all surfaces are equally interesting in the sight of the Lord.

I think that's ultimately the reason his paintings are so difficult to crack. It's not the symbolism as such; other painters were able to use the same symbols to create richly apprehensible human dramas (Fra Angelico's Annunciation, for instance). It's that van Eyck had no distinct interest in human beings as opposed to any other natural form. They were all inscribed with the signatures of the divine--the underlying patterns of holiness were just as visible in stones and lumber as in human faces. Van Eyck wasn't even particularly interested, as so many other artists have been, in Christ as a symbol of human suffering. The lamb in the Ghent Adoration might be suffering--it is, after all, shedding its blood into a chalice--but the truth is that it's a figure of such luminous mystery you can't tell whether an earthly concept like "suffering" applies. In the end van Eyck seemed to regard even Christ's Passion as just another pattern embedded in the world, as radiantly lovely as the laws that generate flowers and frost.

This is not a pleasant or comforting vision. Van Eyck in a lot of ways exemplifies Nietzsche's famous warning: "Gaze into the void for long enough, and the void will gaze into thee." Van Eyck stares into the depths of the divine with such fervor that what blazes back out of his canvases is a kind of fierce, alien splendor. The light of heaven is bejeweled, but it's cold; in its glare, human passions shrivel into nothingness, and the ordinary concerns of Christianity look puny. What can mere personal salvation mean compared to the miracle that van Eyck sees? It's there in the intricacies of woven fabrics and in the symbols of resurrection, in the legends of a virgin birth and in the mysterious transparencies of glass: he paints the dawning moment when every object begins to reveal its origins in the unimaginable mind of God.