Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Image of the Month

March 2023

  • 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
  • Subjects: 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.
  • 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.

The Feminae database presents images of medieval art with descriptions, data, and subject indexing. Each thumbnail picture has a link to a higher quality image often with a zoom view and added content from a museum. Images included represent women and gender 450 to 1500 C.E. in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Beginning in June 2012 we have highlighted each month a newly added image that is rich in documentary evidence or iconographic significance.

As images build up in the database, users can browse for aggregated evidence. The Donor field groups people together in the categories layman/men, laywoman/women, female religious and male religious. The Current Location field allows users to see artwork that is all housed in the same museum. Image records are integrated with all the other Feminae content, so that a search on Mary Magdalen will include results for essays, journal articles, translations, book reviews, and images (which come at the end of the list which is sorted by date). Feminae Research Assistants

Feminae Research Assistants:

Collin Kawan-Hemler worked on Feminae during the summer of 2021. He is majoring in History at Haverford College with a minor in Health Studies.

Caroline Ford was the Feminae intern during the 2020-21 academic year. She majored in English at Haverford College with a minor in psychology.

Joe Ding worked on Feminae during the summer of 2020. She is majoring in Mathematics and Philosophy at Haverford College.

Rebecca Chen was the Feminae intern during the summer of 2020. She is an English major at Haverford College with interests in pursuing medicine.

Jonathan Sudo worked on Feminae in summer 2019. He majored in History and East Asian Studies at Haverford College.

Drew Forte worked on images from Spring 2018 through Spring 2020 . He had a particular interest in the occult and magic as represented in medieval art.

Jessica Urban researched and wrote about images from fall 2016 through fall 2017. She concentrated on archaeology and material culture. She majored in Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College.

Bill Ristow worked on manuscript images during the 2015-16 academic year. He majored in history and wrote his senior thesis on medieval kingship with reference to Wace's Roman de Rou and Henry II.

Rachel Davies worked on the brass rubbings during the 2013 summer session for the exhibit Lasting Impressions. During 2015-16 she researched and wrote entries concerning Spanish art.

Leigh Peterson worked on images during the Fall 2012 through Spring 2015 academic years. She was an undergraduate student who majored in art history at Bryn Mawr College. She was an intern at the Cloisters Museum during summer 2013.

Shannon Steiner added images during the summer and fall of 2013. Shannon was a doctoral student in History of Art at Bryn Mawr College. She holds a B.A. from Temple University (2009) and M.A.s from The University of Texas at Austin (2011) and
Bryn Mawr College (2013). Her research focused on the visual culture of saints' cults and the role of art in forming community and gender identities in Byzantium.

Sarah Celentano worked on the initial 300 image records. She was a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focused on the visual culture of female monastic communities with a specialization in twelfth-century German-speaking areas. Her dissertation, "Embodied Reading as Political Action in the Hortus deliciarum," explored the textual and visual responses in the twelfth-century Hortus deliciarum to papal schism and imperial challenges to Church authority. Additional areas of examination were the use of medieval mnemonic techniques, and conduits of artistic exchange between northern and southern Europe.

Independent College Programs 142 Women and Gender in the Middle Ages: Representations in Art Margaret Schaus Haverford College, Spring 2021
Students in the class researched and wrote about medieval art in groups and as individual projects. They contributed their work to Feminae as image records.

Elinor Berger is a Literatures in English and Medieval Studies double major at Bryn Mawr College.

Jia Jing Ding is a History of Art and Economics double major at Bryn Mawr College.

Helena Frisbie-Firsching is a Physics major and Health Studies minor at Haverford College.

Bella Gerstmann is a prospective Linguistics or Anthropology major at Bryn Mawr College.

Leela Krishnan is a Math major and a Chemistry minor at Haverford College.

Faith Meacham is a Computer Science major and Math and Visual Studies minor at Bryn Mawr College.

Lipi Paladugu is a Computer Science major with minors in Visual Studies and Math at Bryn Mawr College.

Sadie Pileggi-Proud is a Political Science major with a concentration in Peace, Justice, and Human Rights at Haverford College.

Caroline Quillen is an English major at Haverford College.

Esmé Read is a History of Art major, with a prospective minor in French and Francophone studies at Bryn Mawr College.

Annabelle Renshaw is a History of Art major and a Classical and Near-Eastern Archaeology minor at Bryn Mawr College.

Aviva Soll is a prospective Biology or Chemistry major and Environmental Studies minor with a Biochemistry concentration at Haverford College.

Lauryn White is at Haverford College, and their major is Religion.