Contextualising Religion and Society: The Continuities and Changes in the Representation of the Annunciation in Northern Renaissance Art Before and After the Reformation (1517)

screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-9-56-17-pmFigure 1: Workshop of Robert Campin, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), c. 1427-32. Oil on oak, 64.5 x 117.8 cm. The Cloisters Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The narration of the Annunciation that is central to Christianity is based on the Gospel of Luke (1.26-38). These few verses contain the description of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and telling her she has been chosen to give birth to the Son of God and that she will conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit. The representation of the theme of the Annunciation in Northern Renaissance art during the period 1400 – 1600 maintained the essence of the narrative amid a turbulent social and religious context. This series of social and religious events effectively reoriented peoples’ perception of themselves and the church and subsequently their approach to their devotion. The peace and prosperity that came with the expansion of the Duke of Burgundy’s domain was augmented by the increase in commerce in the region, which strengthened the growing middle class. Recent discoveries of ancient Roman texts ignited further examination of the humanist philosophy as an alternative to the established scholastic tradition. By the time of the printing press, a growing middle class had unprecedented access to literature in the vernacular, mostly religious. As the century progressed, this growing bourgeois were becoming disenchanted with the dogma of the Catholic Church. With the turn of the sixteenth century, the Reformation undermined the flourishing art market through its doctrine of ‘salvation by faith alone’, making religious icons heresy. Together with the constant war with Spain for political independence, artists from the Low Countries found themselves without work. The Annunciation Triptych or Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin (fig. 1) and the Annunciation by Dieric Bouts (fig. 2) are examples of both private and public devotional art. By looking at them together with other examples, we will be able to examine how these social and religious issues affected the depiction of the theme of the Annunciation by the end of the sixteenth century especially through the use of iconography.

screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-10-06-42-pmFigure 2: Dieric (Dirk) Bouts, The Annunciation, c. 1450-55, Distemper on linen, 90 x 74.6 cm. The J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Prior to the Reformation in the early fifteenth century, Northern Europe experienced an extraordinary period of peace and economic growth enabling the arts to flourish. The theme of the Annunciation went though numerous iterations. It was one of the most popular subjects depicted in devotional art before the Reformation. Equally important at the time, the Catholic Church actively encouraged the commissioning of the these works of devotional art as they were seen as good work and would help the donor reach heaven more quickly after they died. The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin painted around 1430 is unique in its depiction of the theme but not in that it was a devotional painting that would have been used regularly as part of the owners’ personal worship at home. Campin’s painting is special in that it is the earliest example we have of the Annunciation being depicted in a contemporary domestic setting. Evidence in later paintings such as Joos van Cleve’s 1525 depiction of the Annunciation (fig. 3) support this practice where a devotional triptych sits on a cupboard in the room. This new self-awareness, now being referred to as humanism, encouraged a more personal approach to devotion by the wealthy middle class. This change in devotional practice became known as devotio moderna. The Merode Altarpiece is a highly personal work with the image of the donors deep in meditation having this vision of the Annunciation in their own house. It is easy to see how such a warm, welcoming painting like Campin’s was a prized object of the devout. In contrast to the Merode Altarpiece, the Annunciation by Dieric Bouts, produced about 30 years later, gives a very different impression of the Annunciation. Even though the narrative is clear, the absence of iconographic details give the painting a much less personal atmosphere. There is a solemnness reminiscent of a grisaille in the figures. There is no conclusive evidence that Bouts’ Annunciation was made for public display but works of tempera on linen were often made for export to Italy. There is a nineteenth century written account of a painting that is likely Bouts’. This goes some way to explain its differences and how it survived destruction after the Reformation. To summarise, there are now public and private works of art that depict the Annunciation. In these examples the private piece has traits of domesticity that we particularly associate with Northern Europe. The public piece shows more influence from across the Alps, but still retains the spirit of the narrative.

screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-10-07-44-pmFigure 3: Joos van Cleve, The Annunciation c. 1525, Oil on wood, 86.4 x 80 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Early Middle Ages depictions of the Annunciation displayed a very simple visual narrative. It was not until the later Middle Ages that additional iconography entered the composition. The depiction of the main figures has a significant impact on how we view the piece of art. The Merode Altarpiece and Bouts’ Annunciation give very different messages simply by how the figures have been portrayed. Clearly the figures are identifiable as the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel. Though in the context of the event of the Annunciation, Mary goes through a series of emotions that explains why she is behaving differently in different representations. A religiously committed fifteenth century person would be aware of these stages within the Annunciation, as they would have been explained during a sermon at mass. The ‘Conditions’ can be briefly described as firstly, ‘disquiet’ where Mary is surprised by the angels greeting. Then ‘reflection’ where Mary evaluates the message brought to her. Followed by ‘inquiry’, where she questions how it is possible for a virgin to conceive. Next ‘submission’ where Mary welcomes her humble position and finally, ‘merit’ when the angel has left and Mary lives with the acceptance that she is carrying the Son of God. Bouts’ Annunciation is clearly ‘disquiet’ as the Virgin raises her hands in surprise and the angel pulls back the curtain and points skywards evidently as a symbol of revealing the message is coming from above. In comparison Campin’s painting is a prequel to all of these emotions, as the Virgin Mary sits and continues to read her book. Our other examples display different poses like the exterior of the Jan van Eyck’s 1432 Adoration of the Mystic lamb Ghent Altarpiece (fig. 4), show submission with Mary’s arms crossed on her chest. Interestingly, Joos van Cleeve’s Annunciation has one arm across Mary’s chest, the other still on her book. The other point that influences our response to the painting is the use of colour and how it impacts our focus. Bouts’ use of sombre, almost stone-like tones means we are drawn more to the large block of the red curtain than we are to the figures. Red is a frequently used symbol of Christ’s passion so it is appropriate here as reference to the end of Christ life; though we are directed to Mary with the flashes of red in the lining of her blue dress. However, the supposedly white cloak lined with green overshadows the other colours somewhat. In contrast, Campin has used red for Mary’s dress making her the focus of the painting. Instead of toning down the colour like Bouts, Campin has used white to illustrate the radiating light of God. Van Eyck on the other hand uses both techniques, a toned down scheme in the exterior of the Ghent Altarpiece, and a bright white light in his Washington Annunciation (fig. 5). These different approaches to portraying the scenes determine whether our response is solemn or joyful. Overall, the figures reflect the Northern European fashion of portraying Mary as middle class rather than the nobility as was popular in Italy.

screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-10-15-03-pmFigure 4: Jan van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or Ghent Altarpiece 1432, Tempera and Oil on wood, 350 x 460 cm. Closer to van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece. <;, 22 June 2015

The narrative of the Annunciation is also synonymous with the Incarnation and symbolises the move from the old era to the new. In Campin’s painting this is shown as the homunculus Christ Child with a cross passing through a glass window flying in on seven rays of light toward Mary. Jan van Eyck in the Washington Annunciation used a similar symbol of the seven rays of light but with a more traditional emblem of the dove for the Holy Spirit. This version of the Annunciation by van Eyck shows the same narrative but in a church setting and even though some of the iconography is similar, van Eyck’s depiction of the pivotal moment of the Incarnation is emphasised repeatedly throughout the painting. His use of the architectural setting as a metaphor in representing the move from the old era to the new by illustrating one level as old Roman style and the other as the Gothic fashion of the time is unique. In van Cleve’s Annunciation, reference is made to the Old Testament in the wood-block print on the wall and in the subject of the altarpiece. These symbols are just as obscure as the Merode Triptychs just extinguished candle, but carry the same meaning. In fact, the effect is what Jeffrey Chips-Smith describes as the ability of the artist to produce a work of art where the viewer cannot tell whether it is of this earth or not. For many years this ‘disguised symbolism’, as promoted by Erwin Panofsky, was believed to apply to nearly every detail in the painting of this time. Scholars now question the validity of that thesis, suggesting that it would have been unreasonable for the contemporary viewer to interpret all the hidden messages suggested by Panofsky. Initially Bouts’ Annunciation seems to have paid little attention to this crucial moment of the Incarnation. An unusual answer comes from Susan Koslow’s 1986 research that suggests that the bundled curtain sack, being the shape of the uterus is a symbol of the Incarnation. This element is also present in the Joos van Cleve Annunciation where it seems more comfortable as a metaphor than in Bouts’ ecclesiastical setting. The moment of the Incarnation and Annunciation are linked. They occur together and artists have adapted their representation of the Annunciation to include this theme. They have used a variety of devices that inspire the viewers thoughts about the significance of the beginning of the New Testament.


Figure 5: Jan van Eyck, Annunciation c. 1434-36, Oil on canvas, transferred from panel, 92.7 x 36.7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The representations of the theme of the Annunciation in the paintings mentioned already show a variety of enclosed settings. This enclosed setting is widely accepted as an allegory of the Virgin as a vessel for the body of Christ or the house of God. In determining these settings of sitting room, church and bedroom what guided the demands of the patron? Even though van Eyck’s Washington Annunciation was painted at a similar time to Campin’s, it depicts a scene much more in keeping with the more isolated scholastic view of religious devotion. Furthermore, it is highly developed in its iconography. Knowing that van Eyck was an employee of the Duke of Burgundy goes some way to explain the nobler setting that was the preferred by the French and Germans. Campin’s bourgeois interior and the bedroom location by Joos van Cleve is more personal and unmistakably devotio moderna, and therefore most likely for personal use. Looking at Campin’s and the van Cleve’s painting side by side, the development of skill in the technique of perspective of is clear. The bedroom setting of van Cleve’s painting contains none of the inaccuracies that Campin’s sitting room does. We should note though, that Carla Gottlieb believes the alcove with the washbasin in Campin’s painting signifies that this is a vestry of a church used by the clergy. That aside, the favoured view is that looking at the triptych as a whole can only mean that the artist intended for us to see this as a domestic setting. The same should then apply to the Ghent Altarpiece, whose setting also contains the same alcove and basin detail, but this is also seen as a domestic setting. Looking more closely at Bouts’ Annunciation you can see why there has been so much discussion about the setting. It is unusual with the canopied bench seat placed in a barrel vaulted side aisle of a church when other artists at the time were using the domestic settings as their backdrop. If we look further afield there are examples using similar bare settings. In particular the Annunciation fresco (fig. 6) by Fra Angelico in Florence dating from 1450. The simple composition of this painting consists of an arched portico reminiscent of Florentine homes with only the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Jan van Eyck’s depiction of the Annunciation on the exterior Ghent Altarpiece also places the figures in a relatively unfurnished room. Interestingly, this Ghent Altarpiece Annunciation scene also has threads of the Merode Triptych with its domestic setting. Overall this shows that a variety of settings were used, both sacred and secular, depending on the work of art’s purpose and the wishes of the patron.

screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-10-18-28-pmFigure 6: Fra Angelico Annunciation (landing of the second floor) 1450, Fresco 230 x 321 cm. Convento di San Marco, Florence.

The Reformation created a substantial turnaround in religious teaching, which had vast consequences for the representation of the theme of the Annunciation in Northern European art. When the German, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the doors of a Wittenberg church in 1517, he set in motion changes that would change the way religious art was viewed. Luther’s public statement of dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church resonated with the population and the Reformation quickly gathered support in the German provinces. Through the use of the recently invented printing press, Luther and his supporters were able to provide cheap and easily distributable pamphlets in the local vernacular to spread their message. In the Low Countries, Catholicism remained the main religion under the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. When he died in 1556 the protestant movement gained momentum as the populace also wanted their independence from a Catholic Spain. This resulted in the Eighty Year War (1568-1648) during which very few significant works of art were produced. The main issue that faced artists of the time was that the Protestant interpretation of the scriptures differed from the Catholic in the use of religious icons. The Protestants believed that the Catholics were not abiding by the words of the second commandment, which prohibits the worship of false idols. In particular, the Protestants disagreed with the Catholic practice of praying to Mary and the Saints for guidance. Protestants believed that salvation was obtainable though faith alone and that Christ should be the focus of their devotion. Amongst all this turmoil artists in areas that remained Catholic continued to work but there are significantly fewer examples of paintings from this time. Joos van Cleve’s Annunciation is a surviving example from 1525. He was based in Antwerp, which did not fall under Protestant rule until 1566 when the Calvanist took control. During this time we see a notable increase in the production of religious images in print, both books and pamphlets that were mainly used for private devotion. As they were used in private, the Protestants were much less concerned with these printed images than the more public expressions in painting or sculpture. The German artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder produced an Annunciation print in 1511 (Fig. 7) that was accompanied by text containing a prayer and the promise of 80,000 years of indulgences. After Cranach’s conversion to Protestantism this same image of the Annunciation was reproduced without the text. This is in keeping with Luther’s view that even though elaborate emotional images of Mary were in contradiction to the second commandment, the image of Mary as a symbol of humility was consistent with the doctrine of the Lutheran Church. In the earlier examples by Campin and Bouts, Mary is seated near the floor as a symbol of her humility. The van Cleve painting has Mary kneeling but about to cross her arms over her chest in acceptance of her fate. The woodcut by Cranach continues the symbolism of the low-seated Mary, but positions her on the left, which is rare. As we read from left to right, Mary is traditionally placed on the right so the focus is on her. It is also significant that there is a halo around Mary’s head. This feature was abandoned early in the fifteenth century and does not appear in any of our other examples. A closer look at van Cleve’s Annunciation shows the Italian influence with its bright colours and architectural detail. The architectural detail is also present in the Cranach print and the much earlier Washington Annunciation. This change from the simpler settings of the Campin and Bouts Annunciations and the Ghent Altarpiece is important and confirms that with the decline of the Duke of Burgundy there was a much greater influence from Italy. The Iconoclasm, particularly against religious subjects including the Virgin Mary that resulted from Reformation had a significant influence of what artists then produced. Therefore, after the Reformation the theme of the Annunciation continued to be portrayed but public art works were uncommon particularly in Protestant dominated regions. Other more personal devotional books contained rendering of the narrative and continued to use the same iconography that adherents were used to.

screen-shot-2016-12-12-at-10-39-12-pmFigure 7: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Annunciatie c. 1511-?, woodcut, 24.6 x 16.8 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The two hundred years under examination encompasses massive religious and social changes that had a significant impact on the representation of the theme of the Annunciation in Northern Renaissance art. In the late Middle Ages and early Modern Europe, the narrative of the Annunciation was a popular theme in altarpieces, as it not only reminded the faithful of the pivotal moment in time when Jesus was conceived, but also the humility of Mary in accepting her role in the sorrow that was to follow. The changes that we see in the depiction of the narrative showed how the demands of a wealthy middle class influenced the production of more personal objects for devotion. Artists responded by providing subjects that reflected the status of their patrons through more naturalist figures. Consistent with the humanist philosophy, deeper meaning was sought. This was met with more complex iconography that was depicted in lifelike settings that made the divide between the reality and the religious a little less clear. In addition to this, the setting of these narratives changed as well. Still inside, but included sitting rooms and bedrooms for more personal art works and ecclesiastical settings for public works of art. The most significant change came with the Reformation. Of all the religious icons, the Virgin Mary suffered the most. Her portrayal after this time was reduced considerably in line with Protestant doctrine. In keeping with the taste of a Catholic audience, the narrative of the Annunciation now followed a more Italianate style rather than that of Northern Europe. Although the representation of the theme of the Annunciation in Northern Renaissance art went through changes in style and composition, essentially the narrative remained the same.


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– Susi Lamb

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