Artists of Northern Europe, Illuminated manuscripts, poetry and portraiture

The Annunciation

In Christmas week our focus is on the birth of Christ on Christmas day, but the story really starts nine months earlier with the visitation of an angel to a young woman.  The angel is Gabriel, who reveals to a young woman called Mary that she has been chosen by God and will bear a son who will be the Saviour of mankind.

For a modern audience, it is probably Sting’s recording that captures the moment Gabriel speaks to the Virgin Mary[i].

The angel Gabriel from heaven came
His wings as drifted snow
His eyes as flame
“All hail” said he “thou lowly maiden Mary
Most highly favored lady, ” Gloria, Gloria

“For known a blessed mother thou shalt be
All generations laud and honor thee
Thy Son shall be Emanuel
By seers foretold
Most highly favored maid, ” Gloria, Gloria

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God, ” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify His holy name.”
Most highly favored lady, Gloria, Gloria.

However, these words from 1988 could equally have been written to describe the painted altarpieces and illuminated manuscripts created prior to the Reformation.  Back in the 15thcentury, the Annunciation inspired some of the most beautiful early Flemish Renaissance works of art from Van Eyck, Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes.  These artists are the father’s of the 15thcentury Flemish school of art.  Their ability to create emotional and realistic interiors was innovative in the 15thcentury and still moves those who see their work today. Their works inspired the various Ghent Bruges School of illuminators.

In Madrid Jan van Eyck’s grisaille diptych, which measures only 39 x 24 cms, was clearly made for private devotion.  Van Eyck’s skill is such that we have to pinch ourselves to remember that these are not two statues, but painted on a flat surface to resemble sculptures.  What is also obvious, these ‘statues’ are placed against a polished black surface to ensure we are fooled into thinking they are three dimensional.

The Annunciation, 1434-35: Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441). Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

Painted slightly earlier in 1428 Robert Campin’s Merode altarpiece (below), now in the Cloisters Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, shows Mary in a 15thcentury interior, dressed all in red and seated on the floor reading a book. Unlike van Eyck’s Mary, who has raised her eyes to look at the Holy Spirit as it descends , Campin has captured the moment immediately prior to Mary’s realisation that she is not alone.  She is leaning her elbow on the seat of a bench and is clearly unaware of the appearance of the angel Gabriel, as she is still wrapt in the text she is studying.

Gabriel is about to speak, and through the circular window we see a tiny naked figure sliding down seven golden rays towards the seated woman. This figure carries a cross as a reminder of His future sacrifice.

Merode Altarpiece - Campin
Merode Altarpiece, 1428: Workshop of Robert Campin. The Cloisters Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The seven golden rays represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit to mankind. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the first four gifts represent wisdom, understanding, knowledge (also known as counsel) and intellect.  The next three represent spiritual fortitude, piety and respect (fear) of the Lord, and these three are given through the will of God.[ii]  In this historiated letter D from Walters Ms 171 folio53r (left)

Walters Ms 171 f53r - 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit
Walters Ms 171 f53r. Walters Museum, Boston, USA>

the unknown artist has chosen to show these seven gifts as white doves, which reflects where the gifts come from since the Holy Spirit is traditionally portrayed as a white dove.

In the right hand panel of the Merode altarpiece, Joseph is depicted in his workshop and we can see a contemporary Flemish scene through the open shutters, while in the left hand panel the donor and his wife kneel outside the door that has been unlocked so they can observe the miracle of the immaculate conception.  The keys represent the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and the open door God’s forgiveness of sins of Mankind allowing Man to enter through the gates of heaven to paradise.  This link will take you to the Met’s page on this altarpiece so you can see the detail. Merode Altarpiece

Rogier van der Weyden’s altarpiece focusing on the Annunciation now in the Louvre, is set in Mary’s most private space – a 15th century room with a bed.  Like Campin’s altarpiece, this is a triptych and van der Weyden gives us another piece of the story  – Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the wife of Zachariah.  After years of barrenness Elizabeth had also been visited by the angel Gabriel six months prior to Mary’s encounter and told she too was to carry a son, who we know as John the Baptist.  Each woman has a hand on the other’s belly as a mutual acknowledgement of their immaculate conceptions.

Rogier van der Weyden - annunciation - Louvre
The Annunciation (& Visitation), with donor in left hand panel c1440: Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400 – 1464). Central panel – Louvre, Paris.  Outer wings Galleria Sabauda, Turin.

Van der Weyden’s Mary is dressed all in blue and has raised her right hand while Gabriel appears to be speaking.  Here are the words, according to the Gospel of St Luke.[iii]

Gabriel: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

Then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.For with God nothing shall be impossible.

And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word”. 

In the Merode altarpiece, the candle on the table shows a wisp of smoke as if it has just been extinguished.  We could take this to mean that it will be re-lit immediately Mary becomes impregnated as he is to be the Light of the World.  In van der Weyden’s altarpiece, the chandelier has a single candle that is half spent, but that too is extinguished, and the message is the same.

This online image is a reconstruction since the central panel is in the Louvre, Paris and the outer wings in the Galleria Sabauda, which is a collection held in Turin, Italy.

The second generation of Flemish artists was led by Hugo van der Goes who has portrayed the Annunciation on the outside of the wings of his Portinari Altarpiece, (now in Florence).

closed portinari Altarpiece
Portinari Altarpiece (closed) 1473. Hugo van der Goes (1442-1482). Uffizi, Florence.

Mary and Gabriel are set in niches and as in the van Eyck diptych the use of grisaille makes them appear as statues.  It was usual to use grisaille as the medium for any portrayal on the outside of wings of an altarpiece so that the congregation would be able to meditate on these images when the altarpiece was closed.  By choosing to portray the Annunciation as if carved of stone, perhaps both artists were also taking the opportunity of placing a reminder in the minds of the faithful of Christ’s words to his disciple Simon Peter: “That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”.[iv]  

The great illuminators of the Ghent Bruges school tend to be called “The Master’s of . . .” because they are recognised by the styles of their various commissioned works.  One of the greatest Flemish illuminators was The Master of the Prayerbook of James IV of Scotland.  We see his work in this full page illumination of the Annunciation in the Spinola Hours (now in the John Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

SPINOLA HRS Annunciation - James IV of Scotland Mstr
Master of James IV of Scotland (Flemish, before 1465 – about 1541)
The Annunciation, about 1510 – 1520, Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment
Leaf: 23.2 × 16.7 cm (9 1/8 × 6 9/16 in.), Ms. Ludwig IX 18, fol. 92v
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Gabriel appears to Mary, but this time the archangel is accompanied by an angelic host. The Virgin crosses her hands across her breast in meek compliance to the message from this spiritual being.  In the margin we see another angel who appears to be on the doorstep as if they are trying to join the heavenly throng inside. For those who have taken school parties on trips might recognised this large angel as being placed there to ensure the behaviour of the smaller angels.  Their presence tells us this is clearly a private image of celebration witnessed only by the viewer and these heavenly beings.

Two angels have remained outside.  Perhaps they have not been allowed to witness Gabriel’s announcement of the immaculate conception.  One angel bends down and appears to be plucking a lily .  Matthew tells us, “Consider how the lilies of the field grow: They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these.” [v]which has been interpreted as Christ’s teaching to refrain from ostentation. That the angel is plucking a lily, a flower associated with the Virgin, gives this image a further layer of meaning for contemplation by the devout.  

In the British Library is a book of hours once owned by Anne Boleyn with the reference Kings Ms 9.  This too is by a Netherlandish workshop, but the skill of this artist is not as good as that of The Master of the Prayerbook of James IV of Scotland.  Under the full page illumination of the Annuciation, Anne has written “Be daley prove you shall me fynde to be to you bothe lovinge and kynde”.  The page is not the same size as the others and it is probable that Anne’s signature, or possibly a more overt note, was removed by the next owner, Henry Reppes and his wife Elizabeth.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 18.52.44
The Annunciation (f66v) Kings Ms 9: British Library, London.

We do not know when Anne wrote this note, but considering the nature of this page was Anne telling Henry she was pregnant.  It is possible that she wrote it in late 1532, or very early 1533 because Henry replies in French under the full page illumination as Christ as the Man of Sorrows on folio 231v as follows: “Si silon mon affection la sufvenance sera en voz prieres ne seray gers oblie car votre suis Henry. A jammays”.  Henry’s words translate as: “If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry R. forever”.

Perhaps Anne was telling Henry he is about to be a father and Anne had clearly chosen the image for a reason.  Henry’s reply under the image of the Man of Sorrows could suggest this declaration was made while he was still married to Katherine of Aragon.  Henry had assumed the title of Head of the Church in 1531, so perhaps that was why he chose the Man of Sorrows for his reply.  The couple were married in secret at the end of January 1533 and their union was declared legal on 28th May, just 15 days after Archbishop Cranmer had declared Henry’s marriage to Queen Katherine null and void on the grounds that it was contrary to divine law.  We all know that Henry was desperate to have a son.  Sadly Anne did not provide Henry with his much longed for male heir, but gave birth to a girl they named Elizabeth who, after many trials and tribulations, became England’s Virgin queen in November 1558.

By the late 16th century popish images such as those seen on altarpieces and in illuminated manuscripts were no longer seen in English churches. All Catholic illuminated religious books had either been destroyed, smuggled out of the country or hidden from view.   That did not mean that the English had turned into a nation of heathens.  On the contrary, the focus was now on the Word of God, inspiring poets and musicians as opposed to paintings and illuminated books. To conclude this examination of representations of the Annunciation, I turn to the one of the greatest metaphysical poets, John Donne (1572-1631).

Donne wrote Man is not only a contributory creature, but a total creature; he does not only make one, but he is all; he is not a piece of the world, but the world itself; and next to the glory of God, the reason why there is a world.”[vi]  Since Donne was not only a lawyer and poet, but also a priest, this suggests that his underlying message is Christ being born in human form. He had been born into a Catholic family, and his mother was the grand niece of Sir Thomas More.  It is thought Donne may have converted to Anglicanism c1597 during the time he was private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Keeper of the Great Seal of England. His “Pseudo Martyr”, published in 1610,  is an invective against the Catholic faith and shortly after publication Donne was ordained. In 1615 he was appointed to the position of Royal Chaplain.

Another of Donne’s quotes is “Art is the most passionate orgy within man’s grasp.” Perhaps he was considering the altarpieces and illuminated manuscripts of the Catholic faith that he abjured in 1610.

I leave you with Donne’s poem celebrating the Annunciation. 


Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

John Donne (1572-1631)



[i]Songwriters: Edgar Pettman / Sabine Baring-Gould.  Gabriel’s Message lyrics © EMI Music Publishing

[ii]Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica.

[iii]Luke 1: 30-38 King James’ Version.

[iv]Matthew 16:18 King James’ Version.

[v]Matthew 6:29

[vi]John Donne (1572-1631) Sermon No 35.


The Bible: King James’ Version 1611.

Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica.

Thyssen-Bornemiza Collection, Madrid: Jan van Eyck: Annunciation diptych.

Cloisters Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: workshop of Robert Campin: Merode altarpiece; oil on panel.

Walters Museum, Boston, USA. Walters Ms 171.

Louvre, Paris: Rogier van der Weyden: The Annunciation; oil on panel

Uffizi: Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Altarpiece:

John Paul Getty Museum: Ludwig IX 19 – Spinola Hours.

British Library digitised manuscripts. Kings Ms 9 accessed 17th December 2018.


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