Angels We Have Heard on High: Annunciation

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Angels We Have Heard on High
The Imagery of Angels in Christian Art
Curated by Camille O'Leary

Jan van Eyck, Annunciation, 1434

The Annunciation, the moment when Mary learns that she is pregnant with the son of God, has been depicted countless times in Christian art. Van Eyck brings his characteristic skill with color and texture to this rendition, and makes a number of groundbreaking choices. He sets the scene in a finely detailed church, rather than the domestic setting of Mary's home, which was more customary. In addition, he gives the painting a vertical, not horizontal, orientation, bringing the two figures closer together with an entirely new sense of intimacy and grace.

The Archangel Gabriel's wings are painted in a stunning rainbow of colors, but more than that, his clothing stands out as extraordinary. The woven cape he wears is known as a cope, a priest's garment still in use today, which gives Gabriel an obvious connection to the Church. Richly decorated with a pattern of dianthus flowers (said to be the flower of God) and fastened with a massive jeweled clasp, Gabriel's outfit is extravagant and beautiful, typical of the trends in contemporary Netherlandish art. With a tranquil smile, he greets Mary, in Latin, with the words "Hail, full of grace." Her response, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord," is written upside down and backwards for the benefit of God looking down from heaven.

Van Eyck treats the whole scene with amazing precision and realism, taking advantage of newly introduced techniques in oil painting. The beautifully textured fabrics, signature marks of van Eyck's style, add a wonderful grandeur and richness to the scene. This fifteenth-century artist is still revered today as one of the most skilled painters of his time, perhaps ever, and with good reason.

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