Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Annunciation
  • Creator: Rogier van der Weyden, painter
  • Description:

    Van der Weyden’s painting presents the Annunciation, the event in which the archangel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that as a virgin, she would give birth to the Son of God. Symbols, gestures and setting all convey important meanings. The lilies in the left foreground are white, signifying Mary’s virginal purity but also indicating the season, spring. March 25 is the day on which the Annunciation is celebrated. The windows are open, as seen by the open shutter above Mary in the foreground, and the fireplace behind Gabriel is dark and blocked by a bench, signifying that it is not in use.

    Mary is presented as a figure of obedience and humility in this work, as she often is in late medieval iconography of the Annunciation. When Mary receives word from Gabriel, her palm faces outward. This gesture signals her acceptance of the news. Her placement on a cushion positions her lower than the angel, and this is viewed as her submission to the orders of the Lord. The open book in her hands implies that she was in prayer before the angel arrived. The book is a symbol of the Old Testament’s events that come before the Annunciation, and its presence reinforces Mary’s decision to accept God’s mission for her. Mary’s humility is illustrated by her plain, black robe. In contrast the angel wears embroidered, priestly robes and elaborate gold and jewelry indicating his holiness. Neither Gabriel nor Mary have halos, a practice in line with other early Netherlandish art that depicts Mary's humanity. This image of Mary provides a role model for women. When viewing the painting, they see the importance of obedience to the word of God and the path to salvation.

    There is also evidence of the holiness of the moment through the use of light. There are various pieces of shiny metal in the chandelier, the ewer by the bed, and the medallion above the bed. There is also a glass container filled with oil on a shelf that reflects from the window in front of Mary. The light on Mary’s face, on the page she was reading, on the angel’s robes, and on the bed all show the glory of the moment. Furthermore, light passing through the windows stands as a metaphor for the Incarnation. Mary's chastity is preserved, just as the sun passes through glass without breaking it.

    Fifteenth century Flemish painters depicted religious scenes in luxurious bourgeois rooms with high-end furnishings and rich materials. One piece of furniture that stands out is the red canopy bed behind Mary. The bed, known as thalamus, is a visual metaphor for the union of the divine and human and consequently, Mary’s virginal divine motherhood. The bed was also seen by theologians as a symbol of the Virgin’s fallow womb where Jesus spiritually marries his virgin Mother. Viewing the bed in its grand, vibrant, and neat presentation highlights the transformative implications of the Annunciation.

    Furthermore, the enclosed room that surrounds Mary when Gabriel arrives physically protects her from a world filled with sin, and provides solitude for her dedication to prayer and reading. For viewers the inclusion of Mary’s book promotes the importance of literacy as well as engagement with the Bible and prayer. Female literacy was legitimized with images such as the Annunciation, and it also called for solitary readings of scripture. In fact, Christian works that encouraged active devotion often opened with an image of the Annunciation wherein which Mary is seen reading. Viewing this scene assured the devotee that she or he was performing a successful act of prayer.

    This work was originally a triptych, a work of art that is made up of three panels connected by hinges that can be opened and closed. The original location and purpose of this Annunciation triptych is unknown, but it was likely an altarpiece in a Belgian church. Altarpieces were usually found on altars throughout Europe beginning in the thirteenth century if not earlier. The creation of altarpieces was influenced by the changing shape of the altar itself. By becoming wider and thinner, altars invited the display of artwork. The sensory experience of viewing altarpieces consisted of chanting, candles burning, bells chiming, and incense wafting in the church. Viewing vibrantly painted religious scenes aroused all the senses of the worshipers.

    In this triptych, the Annunciation is the centerpiece, the leftmost panel depicted the donor with folded hands and rose-colored robes, and the right panel showed the Visitation. The original patron was a member of the de Villa family. They were Piedmontese financiers with family living in Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels. The Annunciation was painted by Rogier van der Weyden, and it is likely that the outer panels were painted by other artists in his workshop. Van der Weyden was a Flemish artist, and he specialized in painting religious triptychs, altarpieces, and portraits with a wide range of rich colors and shades. His religious triptychs were painted using life models and he created statuesque renditions of them in his work. The facial expressions of his figures are often sympathetic. He became the official painter of Brussels, Belgium in 1435 and received commissions from Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and other noblemen. Today he is recognized as one of the most influential Northern painters of the fifteenth century though his career is not very well documented.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Angels in Art Books in Art Humility Iconography Mary, Virgin, Saint-Annunciation Obedience
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca. 1435
  • Related Work: Rogier van der Weyden, Annunciation in reconstructed triptych. The donor and Visitation panels are in Turin at the Galleria Sabauda.
    Rogier van der Weyden, Annunciation panel, Saint Columba altarpiece, ca 1455, Munich, Alte Pinakothek.
    Robert Campin, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), 1427-1432, New York, Metropolitan Museum.
    Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation, 1434-1436, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art.
    Hans Memling, The Annunciation, 1465 - 1470, New York, Metropolitan Museum.
    Fra Angelico, Annunciation panel from the Cortona Altarpiece, 1433-1434, Cortona, Museo Diocesano.
    Sandro Botticelli, Annunciation, 1485-1492, New York, Metropolitan Museum.
  • Current Location: Paris, Musée du Louvre, INV 1982
  • Original Location: Brussels, Belgium
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood panel; Oil paints
  • Donor: Layman (?); Member of the Villa family, Italian bankers working in the Low Countries. In Italy they were connected to the town of Chieri near Turin.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Blum, Shirley Neilsen. The New Art of the Fifteenth Century: Faith and Art in Florence and the Netherlands. Abbeville Press Publishers, 2015.

    Grootenboer, Hanneke. “Reading the Annunciation,” Art History 30, 3 (2007): 349–63.

    Miles, Laura Saetveit. "The Origins and Development of the Virgin Mary's Book at the Annunciation." Speculum 89, 3 (2014): 632-669.

    Nuechterlein, Jeanne. "The Domesticity of Sacred Space in the Fifteenth-Century Netherlands." Defining the Holy: Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Edited by Sarah Hamilton and Andrew Spicer. Ashgate, 2005. Pages 49-79.

    Richardson, Carol M. Locating Renaissance Art. Yale University Press, 2007.

    Rogier van der Weyden 1400–1464: Master of Passions. Edited by Lorne Campbell and Jan Van der Stock. Davidsfonds, 2009.