Jan van Eyck : symbolism, virtuosity, and a Vasari myth

December 22, 2010

Jan van Eyck's Annunciation (1434) is one of the most treasured pieces at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Regardless of one's religious leanings - it is hard not to be transfixed by the mastery displayed in this work.

Van Eyck himself is a perennial man of mystery when one looks into the details of his life. There are reports of his involvement in Court espionage, as well as intimations of his interest in alchemical symbols and practises. While historians speculate on those points, the world remains enthralled by his amazing visual legacy.

The astounding detail of Gabriel's cloak was partly inspired by vestments worn by priests of the era

His most well known works in Europe are the famous Ghent Altarpiece, and the Arnolfini Portrait - the latter now being housed at the National Gallery London.

In the US, the Annunciation was a key part of the highly politicised bequest of Andrew W. Mellon, the politician, industrialist and art collector whom founded the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The tale of the acquisition of van Eyck's masterpiece from the Hermitage Museum during Stalin's pre-war mechanisation of the Soviet Union is quite fascinating. The original collection accumulated by Mr. Mellon was kept in storage during the depression, as a negative public reaction was anticipated if knowledge of such extravagant spending became widely known.

Numerous Old Testament references establish the evolution of Christian teachings represented in The Annunciation. The tile pictured is an illustration depicting  the tale of Samson.

The painting was transferred from wood panel to canvas during its stay in the Hermitage Museum, which accounts for its less than perfect appearance upon close inspection. Since arriving at the NGA, further analysis and  restoration work has been performed, including re-application of the original glaze, which evaporated during the ironing stage of the canvas transfer process.

It is interesting to ponder how the Northern Renaissance influenced artistic developments occurring in Italy. Jan van Eyck is one of the short list of Flemish artists lauded by Vasari - primarily mentioned in the entry for Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina.

The interplay between the northern and southern styles seems to be an uneasy one. There appears to be a greater predilection for northern influence seen in artists in the north of Italy, particularly evident in Venetian artists such as Carpaccio, and to a lesser extent, Giorgione - with his reverence of nature.

Professor Susie Nash (Courtauld Institute London) sums up the Italian perception of Northern Renaissance quite nicely in her 2008 volume Northern Renaissance Art
Outside of Italy, and indeed to an extent outside Florence, it would seem people did not write about art in this self-conscious or explicit way...One of the consequences of this is that the fifteenth-century literary appreciations we do have of northern art are entirely by Italians, such as Cyricacus d'Ancona (1449), Bartolommeo Fazio (1456), Francesco Florio (1477), and Giovanni Santi (1482). Again, this is testimony to the fame of Netherlandish painters, but it also means that our contemporary view of their achievements is primarily an Italian one and this has had certain consequences.

As Professor Nash goes on to elaborate, the Florentine view of the northern style was overall positive, as evidenced by this account of a comment made by Michelangelo on the topic:

In Flanders they paint with a view to external exactness such things as may cheer you and of which you cannot speak ill.  - Michelanagelo on Flemish painting, as reported by da Hollanda c.1540.

Vasari was also in praise of van Eyck, though did make the somewhat misleading statement that the van Eyck brothers were the progenitors of oil painting. This was turned on its head in 2008 when mid 7th Century CE oil paintings of Buddhist subjects were found in caves in Afghanistan.

The use of drying oils for the application of cosmetics had been known since antiquity and could have been used by artists then, though no definitive evidence of this has been found yet. In any event, the romanticised  Vasari account of the van Eyck brothers as the inventors of the dazzling medium of oil paint needs to be treated with a deal of scepticism. Without being too harsh on poor Giorgio, perhaps we can at least say "as far as he knew it to be the case."

Like all of van Eyck's work, his Annunciation is brimming with symbols, each giving a fascinating insight into the message of van Eyck's piece, and his skill in depicting subjects with a virtuosity that astounds viewers to this day.

Infra-red reflectography reveals an astonishing level of detail in van Eyck's under-drawing

To learn more about the myriad symbols used, and the inspiration and techniques utilised to depict the stunning attire of the Angel Gabriel, watch this excerpt from the Private Life of a Christmas Masterpiece. If you'd like to see more, it can be purchased on DVD from places like amazon - and also includes an exploration of Christmas themed works by Gauguin and Bruegel the Elder.

Finally, to all who have traversed 3PP over the last 12 months, I'd like to say a hearty thank you, with best wishes for the end of year festive season, and the new year beyond. About 50,000 visitors have passed through, which is something I never envisaged when I started tinkering away on this blog last year! I hope to keep 3PP relevant and interesting in 2011! Cheers!


Anonymous said...

Please please please do more posts on van eyck and flemish painting. Oh, and mannerism too. I'd love this place even more if you did. :)

Alberti's Window said...

Great post! I especially liked your discussion of Vasari and oil painting. I know of at least one Northern Renaissance scholar who would be pleased to see that you are discussing this topic - one of my professors often tried to emphasize that Van Eyck did not invent oil painting, contrary to what Vasari wrote.

I wasn't aware of the Buddhist discovery, though - that's really fascinating news!

Anyhow, even though we can't credit Van Eyck with the discovery of oil paint, I think it's safe to say that Van Eyck (and several other Northern painters, such as Campin) perfected the usage of oil paint as an artistic medium. The amazing details and luminous colors of Northern paintings are unparalleled.

P.S. I'm pretty sure that Erwin Panofsky discussed the symbolism of this painting (particularly in regards to the architecture). I'll have to dig through my files and see if I can find his discussion, but it may take me a few days. :)

Unknown said...

Cheer anon and M!

@Anon... yes more Van Eyck and Northern Renaissance is on the cards!

@M - Panofsky introduced me to Van Eyck with that book I found at age 9!


Dr. F said...


A very fine post with a terrific video. I especially enjoyed the discussion of the painter's techniques,

When I visited Washington a few years ago, I was surprised that they had hung VanEyck's Annunciation in an out of the way corner. It was as if they didn't want anyone to see it. We found it though and even bought a print which hangs in my little office right across from the Tempest.

Is it true that Mary is the only woman named in the Koran? I also think that Moslems believe that she and her Son were the only two people "not touched by the Devil" when they entered the world.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder if you are reading my mind! I am brand new art history teacher and currently building my curriculum. Thank you so much for your work! Each and every day I look forward to seeing what new nugget you will dig up.

Peace from Oregon

Unknown said...

@Frank - Mary(Meryem) is the only woman named, though there are references to other women from Judaism/Early Christian traditions. There is a decent summary of this at wiki

A lot of Muslims do also have a degree of reverence for Kadija, Mohammed's wife - many people name their daughters after her - even in relatively secular Turkey/Cyprus, it is a popular name.

@Anon - I'm pleased you are enjoying the site! Make sure you check out some of the others in the "Persons of Interest" list in the sidebar - I particularly recommend M's "Alberti's Window" - my fave art history blog! Also, the Susie Nash book I've linked to in the post is unmissable if you are a fan of Northern Renaissance Art!

Kind Regards

Anonymous said...

There's also some examples of oil painting in english art of the 12th century, although its pretty unsophisticated and pretty much just looks like tempera. I think its safe to say the van eyck brothers discovered the possibilities of glazing to create what at the time was an unparalleled mimicry of surface texture, although if there are any earlier examples I'd love to know about them. Also, I think Hubert's part in this discovery is vastly overlooked, I suppose because he didn't sign his paintings in the way that van eyck did and he died very early but if you look at his images its easy to trace quite a different aesthetic than van eycks. Also, van eyck's comment on the Ghent alterpiece that he was "second in the art" to his brother is an interesting one. Good post 3p :)

Anonymous said...

Err, on second thought I think its 13th century?? :S But never mind, a german wrote a manual with instructions on oil paint in the 12th; its surprising how long it took for oil to become the conventional painting medium considering all its benefits over tempera.

Unknown said...

Cheers Anon - I think you are referring to the German Monk Theophilus. There is a nice little web page on the history of organics in painting here - with references.

Cyberlipid: The History of Oil Painting


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