Today is the Feast of the Annunciation.
After the Crucifixion and scenes of the Nativity from Christmas and Epiphany the Annunciation must be the most widely pictured scene in western Christian art. At no time was it more popular than in the high and later middle ages and it was to provide remarkable opportunities for artists to display their skills.
Amongst so many one that is notable, if only because of the artist, but for much more as well, is Jan van Eyck’s depiction from 1434-36. It was, apparently, originally the left hand wing of a triptych commissioned by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy for the Carthusian house of Champmol at Dijon. The monastery was becoming the burial place of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy and the Dukes were notable artistic benefactors to the community, and to a number of major artists, in order to ornament it. One such commission was this altarpiece from van Eyck.
The painting, the use of symbolism in the composition and its history is set out in some considerable detail on Wikipedia at Annunciation (van Eyck, Washington)
Tragically all we now have of the triptych is this one wing. The treasures of Champmol were plundered and scattered in the years after 1789, and much was lost or damaged, or relocated as in the case of the Ducal tombs and a considerable part of Schluter’s sculpture. There is an acount of all this, again from Wikipedia, at Champmol
The van Eyck travelled to what is now Belgium, became part of the collection of King Willem II of the Netherlands, but was sold after his death in 1849. One wonders what the House of Orange were thinking about at the time. It was bought by his brother-in-law the Emperor of Russia and went to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. In the late 1920s it was surreptitiously sold by the Soviets and was acquired by Paul Mellon and as part of a deal to escape a politically motivated prosecution under Roosevelt was part of Mellon’s foundation gift to the National Gallery in Washington DC. This is all, more or less set out in the Wikipedia article about the painting, but I first encountered the story in a BBC television programme a few years ago. This detailed the recent restoration of the glaze of the Virgin’s robe, which has recreated the rich hue van Eyck intended.
This had been muted by time and, probably, by the process of transferring the painting to canvas from its original wooden panel in St Petersburg in the years after its arrival. The programme appears not to be on YouTube but if you get the opportunity do watch it. This reconstructs the process whereby the wood was chiselled away, leaving just the paint layer, which was then ironed, with a simple warm flat iron, onto a fresh canvas. As someone who at the time worked part-time in an art gallery it was hair-raising to watch the dramatic reconstruction - one’s heart was in one’s mouth. One side-effect of this was to probably remove the top varnish layer. A fragment of the original which survived under the frame provided the evidence to reconstruct it.
There seems something miraculous that this part of the whole has survived, and its innate fragility and vulnerability seems very appropriate the theme of the Annunciation, and all that depended upon Our Lady’s ‘Fiat’.
I regret that the image I have downloaded is rather dark in its tones - other online images, which obstinately refused to download, give a better idea if the richness of the palate and the refinement of the surfaces.
Our Lady Annunciate Pray for us