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The Annunciation is a particularly good showpiece for van Eyck's obsession with the texture of fabrics: both the Virgin Mary and Gabriel are swathed in lavish robes that fold and hang with surreal, wholly gratuitous complexity. Van Eyck painted clothes, a critic once observed, the way other artists paint mountain ranges. The problem is, once you get past the first wash of amazement the painting becomes reticent and impersonal. The Annunciation is one of the most frequently painted subjects in Christian art--it derives from Luke 1:26-38, where Gabriel tells Mary she will bear the Christ child, and Mary meekly replies, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord"--and you look in vain for an individualizing edge in van Eyck's version. All you find after an extended study are a lot of inscrutable details. If Mary is supposed to be a humble resident of some backwater Judean village, for instance, why is she wearing a circlet studded with pearls? She seems to have been doing very well for herself before Gabriel showed up. And if this is the moment that she first learns her destiny, then why is the setting so plainly a Christian church, with Jesus in stained glass on the back wall--aren't we getting a little ahead of the story? Of course we know that all these details have some sort of allegorical significance. That's just what's so tiresome about medieval art: there's always that vast weight of church authority bearing down on artist and spectator alike. Every painting is overloaded with the same clutter of officially sanctioned symbolism, assembled mechanically, without regard to logic or emotional common sense. Van Eyck's Annunciation accumulates the same crowd of usual suspects you find in a thousand other Annunciations: that incongruous dove floating arbitrarily over Mary's head like a lightbulb going off in a comic strip, the angel making his vaguely salacious gesture of pointing toward heaven, Mary wearing a bland, unsurprised expression of pious acceptance--in van Eyck's version you'd swear she's bored to tears. Whatever personal or private meanings the painting may have, they're encoded in a visual system so tedious and oppressive we can barely bring ourselves to contemplate it. Still, if we assume that an artist like van Eyck found his religious beliefs enlivening rather than crushing, we might be able to consider some of the theological background without dread. Let's take the story of the Annunciation< as it appears in the Gospel of Luke. The important point about it is that it's only one of several curious folktale-ish scenes scattered through the narrative of Christ's passion: Luke had a taste for the fanciful and poetic (so much so that some of the sterner early Christians thought his Gospel should be left out of the New Testament), and he wove these stories into a kind of decorative floral border around the main text. This is essentially how van Eyck regarded his Annunciation. It was never meant to be viewed as an independent work. Its small size and unusual shape can only mean that it was originally a side panel flanking a much larger central painting, now lost--subject unknown, except that it had to have been directly about Christ. Nor is it possible to be sure how many side paintings there were; the Annunciation was probably part of a triptych, but van Eyck's altarpiece at Ghent is made up of a central painting of the Adoration of the Lamb surrounded by a galaxy of 23 separate smaller paintings (including a four-panel Annunciation scene). In other words, the Annunciation as we have it was supposed to be viewed as only a minor offshoot of the main subject. In van Eyck's time Biblical stories were told and retold constantly--painted, sermonized, allegorized, dramatized. The result was that every episode in the great narrative, no matter how marginal or subsidiary, accumulated its own comet's tail of folk legends and metaphors and fanciful speculations. Van Eyck's Annunciation is crowded with dozens of examples of...
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