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Hidden Symbolism in Jan van Eyck's Annunciations

Author(s): John L. Ward

Source: The Art Bulletin, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Jun., 1975), pp. 196-220
Published by: College Art Association
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John L. Ward

During the third and fourth decades of the fifteenth century,

the new style of Flemish painting developed by Robert
Campin and Hubert and Jan van Eyck created, for the
first time in the history of art, the means to metaphorize
adequately one of the central mysteries of Christianity: the
miracle of the Incarnation, in which God took on human
form. By disguising traditional religious symbols as the
scrupulously observed objects of the artist's own world and
time, by treating the very space and light of the pictures as
symbols, these painters were able to create a world that was
intimate and immediate and yet saturated with divine
presence and sacred significance, a world in which the
physical and spiritual interpenetrated, just as God and man
coexist in the person of Jesus Christ. It is perhaps for this
reason that the paintings of this period that deal with the
subject of the Incarnation present the most innovative and
complex interplay between naturalistically rendered detail
and disguised symbolism, such as Campin's Nativity in Dijon,
his Me6rode Altarpiece,1 and Jan van Eyck's Annunciationsin
Washington and on the exterior of the Ghent Altarpiece.
And it is especially in these two Annunciations,imbued as they
are with what Panofsky has described as a "transfigured
reality," that the possibilities of this synthesis are most fully
and effectively realized.
Tolnay and Panofsky have discussed the symbolism in the
Washington Annunciation (Fig. I), painted ca. 1433-34, in
some detail.2 Panofsky analyzed the symbolic architecture,
Romanesque above to represent the Old Covenant, Gothic
below for the New. Both writers noted the scenes on the floor
and wall showing Old Testament subjects that prefigure
Christ's later activities, and Panofsky observed that the
signs of the Zodiac were arranged so that Gabriel is placed
over Aries, the time of the Annunciation, the Virgin covers
Virgo, symbol of the Virgin, and the lily is next to Capricorn,
the time of Christmas.3 Panofsky also recognized that Van
Eyck uses two light sources in the picture to distinguish the
natural light that illuminates the scene from the picture's

right from the divine light that strikes the Virgin from her
right or "good" side.4 Millard Meiss noted in a classic study
that the divine light, which passes through the window
without breaking it, is equated with Christ, who passes
through the Virgin's body without destroying her virginity.5
Yet such is the truly incredible complexity, subtlety, and
inventiveness evident in the painting that these analyses
have touched on only a small part of the ideas expressed.
For example, what of the prominently placed footstool?
Panofsky says without explanation that it "may or may not
be an allusion to Isaiah LXI, I" (which I take as a misprint
for Isaiah LXVI, I), "thus saith the Lord, the heaven is
my throne, and the earth is my footstool." This is indeed
the idea represented here and, elaborated by further
associations, the footstool is a profoundly expressive image.
Together with the Virgin, it is one of the focal points of the
painting, not only visually but conceptually. The idea
conveyed is of a place prepared for the infant Christ, who
has given up his heavenly throne to become man.6 Its
modest size and placement at the bottom of the space,
farthest from the heavenly zone, express Christ's humbling
of himself. Yet the footstool is also a miniature throne prepared for the infant Christ and hints at his Second Coming
and eternal reign. With its soft, splendid cushion and its
explicit emptiness, it bears a striking resemblance to Byzantine representations of the heavenly throne vacated by
Christ upon his Incarnation and that prepared for his
Second Coming. A twelfth-century Greek manuscript represents Gabriel returning to Christ's now-empty throne,
which is both backless and cushioned (Fig. 2).
The dual implications of humility and royalty in the
footstool are also seen in the Virgin. Her plain blue dress
forms a striking contrast with the celestial messenger's
brocaded robes, crown, scepter, and rainbow-hued,
peacock-feathered wings. But the ermine trim reminds us
that she is a descendent of King David, shown in the pavement below (as the humble shepherd boy who kills the

* This study was completed with the aid of a University of Florida

faculty research grant. I am grateful to the following persons for various
assistance that they rendered me: Mark Damen, Jr., J. Marshall New,
Pamela Schneider, Marian Fox, and especially my wife, Nancy C.
N.B. A bibliography of frequently cited sources will be found at the end
of this article.
1 Recent scholarship has found in the M6rode Altarpiece a far greater
degree of symbolic complexity and coherence than was hitherto suspected.
See, in addition to Meyer Schapiro's classic study (' "Muscipula Diaboli,'
The Symbolism of the M6rode Altarpiece," Art Bulletin, xxvII, 1945,
182-87), the articles by W. S. Heckscher and C. T. Minott listed in my
2 Panofsky, 1953,
137-39, 414, n. 1391; C. de Tolnay, "Flemish
Paintings in the National Gallery of Art," Magazine of Art, xxxxv, 1941,

3 Panofsky, 1953,
138-39, 414, n. 1391. His belief that the signs were
arranged in rows of 2-3-4-3 belies his contention that the angel kneels
on Aries. In my view, there are only three rows of signs, arranged 5-4-3,
which accords with Panofsky's symbolic interpretation. Whether this
numerical progression is significant (for example, 5= the number of the
Pentateuch, 4=the number of the Gospels, 3=the appearance of the
Trinity, indicating perhaps a movement from the Old to the New
Covenant), I leave the reader to determine.
4 Panofsky, 1953,, 147-48.
5 Meiss, "Light," 179a Philip (Van Eyck, 90) makes a similar suggestion concerning the empty
central space in the Ghent Altarpiece Annunciation,and it was her discussion of that work that enabled me to recognize the significance of the
footstool in the Washington painting. Paradoxically, I am less persuaded
that the space in the Ghent Altarpiece has an analogous significance.





proud giant Goliath) (Fig. 3). And the lion in the foreground recalls the prophecy in Genesis 49:9-I0, which
says that the tribe of Judah, compared with a lion, would
rule Israel "donec veniat qui mittendus est." Christ's birthright to both an earthly and heavenly throne is expressed in
another symbol that will require some explanation. Schiller
suggests that, contrary to the general belief that lilies in the
Annunciation scenes represent the purity of the Virgin,
many fifteenth-century Flemish painters probably used the
flower as a symbol of Christ.7 That this is the meaning here
is apparent from the proximity of the lilies to Christ's footstool and to Capricorn, the sign of his birth-season (Fig. 4).
But the flower also represents a fulfilling of Isaiah's prophecy
"et egredietur virga de radice Jesse, et flos de radice eius
ascendet" (Isaiah II:). Thus the lily is Isaiah'sflos and the
Church inevitably identified the virga with the Virgo, the
Virgin Mother.8 Indeed, although the lily came to be
associated with the purity of the Virgin, it seems likely that
many if not all lilies in Annunciation scenes of this period
represent Isaiah's prophecy.9 The association of the Tree of
Jesse with lilies and with the Annunciation is made explicit
in a Westphalian painting of the early fifteenth century in
which a small Jesse appears between Gabriel and the Virgin,
with a tree, blossoming with lilies and supporting King
David, growing from his breast (Fig. 5).
Although the lilies are in a vase in Jan's picture, it is
almost completely obscured by the footstool, so that it
appears as if they were springing directly from the pavement.10 The pavement itself supports the reference to the
Tree ofJesse, with its Old Testament scenes and medallions
such as commonly appear in medieval representations of the
subject,11 although of the royal ancestors of Christ only
David is shown. The illusion that the lilies grow out of the
floor connects Christ with scenes that prefigure events in his
own life and actions after his death. The connection with
Isaiah's prophecy is further established by the seven open
lilies, which correspond to the seven beams of light entering

through the window and to Isaiah's reference to seven

spirits that will descend on theflos (Isaiah 11:2-3).12
Earlier depictions of Jesse's Tree had represented the
seven spirits that Isaiah named by seven doves above or in
the tree,13 but Van Eyck transformed a diagrammatic symbol into a living vision of the Incarnation. He expressed the
presence of the spirits by including two unopened lilies, to
indicate by contrast that the others are not merely lilies, but
lilies opened by the spirits settling on them. This is the
moment of divine insemination, when the heavenly father's
spirit is planted in the flower produced by the earthly
mother. Although here and elsewhere in his art Jan is able
to create a sensation of life and actuality through such inventions as the open lilies, the moment to which I refer is
not sustained throughout the painting. Nor could it be. In
order for Jan's hidden symbols to function, each one is taken
at its most expressive or characteristic instant. Thus the
light has penetrated the glass, which symbolizes the Conception, yet the dove is still en route to the Virgin. The
angel's words appear not to have reached the Virgin yet,
but she has already answered. She throws up her hands as if
surprised by the angel's appearance, yet she does not look
at him and already begins to assent to God's plan. The
seven rays have not yet touched the lilies, yet they are
already open. Van Eyck thus expands the segment of time
that he depicts by assembling a series of discrete moments in
the drama. But he slows down the viewer's reading of the
picture through the complexity of the detail and the even
diffusion of the subject matter so that one is not troubled by,
or perhaps even aware of, the disparity. The symbols that
permeate the painting relate the scene to the past and future
in such a way that the event we observe appears to be the
nodal point at which everything before and afterward connects and gains meaning.14
The serenity of this event, the coming of the Prince of
Peace, stands in direct contrast to the uniformly violent
tenor of the scenes depicted on the pavement, the mounted

7 Schiller, I, 62. The basis for the association of Christ with the lily is the
image from the Song of Solomon, "Ego flos campi et lilium convallium"
(2:1). Philippe de Bonne-Esp6rance associates the "flos campi" with the
flos growing from the "radix Jesse" and gives an elaborate interpretation
of the lily as an image of Christ (PL, CCII2 18-83).
8 Bongiorno, 15; Schiller, I, 26.
9 This is clear in the Annunciationfrom the Tres Riches Heures, which
shows Gabriel carrying a trinity of blooming lilies growing on a single
long stalk and in the Annunciationfrom the Belles Heures, in which he
carries three lilies, two open and one closed (see Fig. 14).
10 The side of the vase protrudes beyond the leg of the footstool, and a
small section of the vase foot can be seen between the stool legs. The vase
is similar to that which appears in Rogier's Louvre Annunciation
1953, ii, fig- 3io) and is decorated with blue designs on a white ground.
Since the density of pattern on the vase is almost the same as that on the
floor beneath it, in a black-and-white photograph its camouflage renders
it almost undetectable. On the other hand, the color reproduction in
Baldass's book (pl. 115) shows the vase to have an evanescent presence
akin to Mona Lisa's smile: it is visible when one looks for it, but when
one raises his eyes to the lilies, it vanishes. By this magic Van Eyck
expresses the flowers' symbolic import while he justifies their arangement
in physical terms.
11 Schiller, I, figs. 22-43.
12 Only six spirits are mentioned in the King James translation, because
the spirituspietatis and spiritustimorisDomini are both equated with the
spirit of the fear of the Lord.
13 Schiller, i, figs. 22-25. The Boucicault Master's Annunciationfrom the

BoucicaultHours had already shown a single stalk of lilies with seven

flowers, probably as a reference to the Tree of Jesse and the seven
spirits (Panofsky, I953, 1, fig. 6o).

14A similar kind of time is represented in Campin's M6rode Altarpiece,

except that in it there is even less sense of dramatic interaction between
the figures and objects and an even greater equality of emphasis on each
part. For this reason, recent efforts to define the moment that is represented are misconceived. Charles Ilsley Minott argues that Advent
rather than the Annunciation is shown, because the Virgin is not yet
aware of Gabriel's presence (Minott, 269). On the other hand, William
S. Heckscher thinks that the moment shown is after the Virgin's response,
which has physically extinguished the candle (Heckscher, 55-57).
Because the reading Madonna does not fit with this interpretation, he
believes that the change in head position from that shown by X-ray
photographs was forced on Campin and that the pose no longer makes
dramatic sense. Neither scholar apparently has looked closely enough to
notice that the Virgin is not reading, but has turned her eyes toward
Gabriel. But by keeping her head iconically frontal, Campin affirms his
timeless world, in which each part confronts the viewer directly and with
total presence. Certain parts evoke a sense of time - most noticeably the
extinguished candle - but that is part of their essence as symbol. An
attempt at representing a unified dramatic moment would collide with
Campin's effort to strengthen the symbolic evocativeness of each object
by increasing its presence and autonomy. In any event, it is impossible
to interpret in terms of a single moment a picture in which the unborn
Christ has passed through the symbolic glass that denotes his miraculous
conception, as does also the extinguished candle, but in which, as Minott
points out, he is literally still on his way (p.269, n. 9).





2 Gabriel'sReturn.Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. vat. gr.

SI162,fol. I30v.
soldiers carved on the capital of the corner pier (Fig. 6), and
the conflict visible among the Zodiac signs. This contrast is
found in a few other paintings depicting the events surrounding Christ's birth - especially the Adoration of the
Magi - where the violence suggests man's sinful, turbulent
nature, the breakdown of the old order, and the battle at
the end of the world before the final reign of peace.15 But the
triumph of the heroes who prefigure Christ in the most
prominently placed pavement scenes in Jan's picture also
points to his coming as a vengeful judge, as described by
Isaiah, and to the final battle with Satan described in
Four of the pavement scenes have been identified as
Samson slaying the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass
15 The closest parallel with the soldiers on the buttress occurs over the

head of the Archangel Michael in Jan van Eyck's Dresden Triptych. In

this work, Michael is more than a patron saint - he is the leader of God's
heavenly army, as explained in the inscription on the original frame
(given by Baldass, 277, but erroneously described as being on the right
wing), and the scene above his head is clearly associated with him (see

12:7-9 and 19:17-21 ). Other examples of battling figures in

scenes with the infant Christ are found in the "Small Bargello Diptych"
(Grete Ring,

A Century of French Painting 1400oo-5oo,



fig. 16), Jean Fouquet's Adorationof the Magi in the Hours of Etienne
Chevalier(intro. C. Sterling and C. Schaefer, New York, 1971, pl. 2),
and Bosch's Prado Epiphany Altarpiece (L. B. Philip, "The Prado
Epiphany by Jerome


Art Bulletin, xxxv,

1953, figs. I, 8, 9

[between 278-79] ). Philip specifically associates the warring armies that

appear in the middle ground of the latter painting with "the terrible
battle which will be instigated by the Antichrist and fought by the three
Kings of the earth" described

Washington, National Gallery of

Jan van Eyck, Annunciation.
Art, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

in Revelation


19:19, and 20:8

(p. 285). The clashing horses in the background of Leonardo's Adoration

of the Magi are probably related to this tradition. And in the Arena
Chapel, where the Annunciationhas an eminent position, a violent and
sinful humanity is shown below the figure of Injustice, personified as the
crumbling Synagogue (Bongiorno, 19).











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0)1 ,V




~ r~YAS';
Q r~'-3?~


-b - L"'p~r


3 Detail of Fig. I

(under the angel's robe), Samson and Delilah, Samson

pulling down the pillars of the temple of Dagon, and David
slaying Goliath (Fig. 3).16 It has apparently escaped notice
that the scene under the footstool is the death of Absalom,
who is run through with a spear as he hangs by his hair
from an oak tree (Fig. 4).17
A sixth scene beneath the Virgin's gown is mostly obscured and may not represent any specific subject (Fig. 7).
Yet, as Panofsky observed, Van Eyck's paintings make the
viewer "inclined to suspect a hidden significance in all and
every object," and I believe he is not disappointed here. The
dead man in armor and the tree with a thorny growth by his
head suggest the death of Abimelech, who was characterized
as a bramble in his brother's parable (Judges 9:8-20). This
subject is appropriate below the Virgin's hem, because

Abimelech (who prefigures the Antichrist)1s was killed by a

woman who dropped a piece of a millstone on his head,
although the coupdegracewas administered, upon his request,
by his armorbearer (Judges 9:54). This scene is depicted
in a thirteenth-century manuscript of Old Testament
subjects in the Pierpont Morgan Library (Fig. 8). The
illumination represents Abimelech hit by the millstone and
then dispatched by his armorbearer. Although Van Eyck
omits the millstone, the sword in the neck of the dying
figure and the symbolic thorn (not present in the illumination) confirm the identity of the subject.
Samson's violent, amoral character, as described in the
book of Judges, seems to make him an odd choice for the
comparisons with Christ so frequently made by medieval
writers and artists,19 and he would appear to be especially

16 Baldass, 277; Panofsky, 1953, 1, 138.

17 The representation is similar to that
depicted as an archivolt decoration in Campin's Prado Marriageof the Virgin,and may have been inspired by it (see Karl M. Birkmeyer, "The Arch Motif in Netherlandish
Painting in the Fifteenth Century: Part One," Art Bulletin,XLIII,March,
1961, fig. i1), although there are many comparable treatments of the

18 See Rabanus Maurus, PL, cvIII, I 175; Isidore of Seville, PL, LXXXIII,
386-88. Isidore also equates the bramble with the thorn, and in turn,
with the Antichrist. Philip ("Prado Epiphany,"273 and n. 27) discusses
the symbolic association of thorns with the Antichrist.
de l'art chretien,Paris, 1956, 1i, pt. I, 236ff.; PL,
19 L. R6au, Iconographie
Index, ccxxx, 247; M. Kahr, "Delilah," Art Bulletin,LIV,1972, 282-86.








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?_. ~a~rl~L?)C'
": ??

~t~ ~
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5 Passion Altar, Annunciationwith Tree ofjesse. Netze,

Westphalia, Evangelical Parish Church

4 Detail of Fig. I

6 Detail of Fig. i





7 Detail of Fig. I

8 TheDeathof Abimelech.
New York, Pierpont

9, io, and ii Details of Fig. I

Morgan Library, Ms638, fol. I4r.

out of place in Van Eyck's gentle world. But a number of

circumstances in his life make his use in this context extremely effective. Samson's name in Hebrew means "little
sun" or "sun-man,"20 and Isidore of Seville sees him as a
type of Christ in his guise as the Sol justitiae of Malachi 4:2.
In an engraving Albrecht Dilrer depicted him seated on
a lion, which, Panofsky points out, is the sun's mansion in
astrology.2' Samson's birth was also announced by an angel.
The spirit of the Lord is mentioned as entering and moving
Samson, just as it descends on the lilies and the Virgin in the
painting (Judges 13:25; 14:19; 15:14). Isaiah describes the
spirit of the Lord as causing the Redeemer to judge the poor

R6au, n, pt. I, 236.

E. Panofsky, TheLife andArt of AlbrechtDiirer,1943, fig. 101, 78-791953, 1, 138. Panofsky gives no source, but he is doubtless
correct, since the Philistines are a symbol of idolatry, and the Church saw
Samson's mission to be the freeing of the Jews from the Philistines, as
Christ freed mankind from the penalty of sin under the Law. The
Speculumhumanaesalvationis,however, pairs the subject with the soldiers
falling down before Christ, as described in John i8:1-6 (Lutz and Perdrizet, I, chap. xvII, 36-37; 1I, pl. 33). The depiction of the latter scene
occurs in the Limbourg Brothers' Belles Heures and Tres Riches Heures
(Panofsky, 1953, 1, fig. 87). Although Jan may have intended to suggest
this scene - and possibly the fallen soldiers of the Resurrection as well
(Memling associates Samson slaying a Philistine and Samson slaying
a lion with the Resurrection [Friedlander, via, pl. 25]) - in showing


22 Panofsky,

and meek with righteousness and equity, but also to slay the
wicked (Isaiah I 1:4). Thus Samson, an Old Testament
judge, prefigures Christ in his future role as judge of the
world. Samson's slaying of the Philistines symbolizes Christ's
victory over sin22 and his retribution at the Second Coming,
described in Isaiah 63 and Revelation 19. Samson's betrayal
by Delilah prefigures Christ's betrayal by the Synagogue,23
but more important, as noted byJohn Mayer, a seventeenthcentury scholar, "the shaving of [Samson's] haire [sets
forth] the departing of the divine helpe for a time from
[Christ], as hee cryed out, my God my God why hast thou
forsaken mee?"24 The departure of God's spirit from Samson
Samson striding over the fallen Philistines, he must have been primarily
prefiguring the prophecy of Isaiah 63:3 ("For I will tread them in mine
anger, and trample them in my fury") and Malachi 4:2-323 Isidore of Seville, PL,
LXXXIII,I 12. The Church Fathers were divided

over whether Samson was married to Delilah, since it is not mentioned

in the biblical account (see Mayer, 163). She was frequently seen as a
prostitute with whom Samson sinned, bringing on his downfall. That no
such meaning is intended here is evident from the inscription above her
head, which refers to her as Samson's wife. For examples of less complimentary pictorial interpretations of the subject, see Kahr, 282-99.
24 Mayer, 168. Remarkably, Christ, in
uttering these words, was quoting
from a psalm of David (Psalm 22:1

[21 :I]),

type of Christ, as he is in the adjacent scene.

which reveals David as a





was caused by the cutting of seven locks from Samson's

head (Judges I6:I9-20);
they correspond to the seven-fold
spirit of God descending on the Virgin and theflos, as noted
by the Venerable Godefroid in his commentary on the
story: "In septem crinibus animam Christi septiformi gratia
Spiritus sancti plenam possumus intelligere."25 Samson's
pulling down the temple prefigures Christ's death, and the
single column in place of the two mentioned in the biblical
account, coupled with Samson's pose and anguished,
blinded countenance, evoke comparison with the Flagellation and Mocking of Christ (where he is often shown
blindfolded). But paired with the scene of Samson and
Delilah, it also signifies that God's spirit returns to Samson
(preceded by the regrowth of his hair) and gives him the
strength to exact retribution on the Philistines and to destroy
the temple of their god, Dagon. The Last Judgment is
thereby prefigured, for, although Samson perishes, it is the
destruction of the Philistines that is emphasized in the depiction and accompanying inscription: SAMSON MVLTAS
Heretofore unnoticed, the two figures in the medallions
above the scene of Samson pulling down the temple do not
correspond to the Zodiac signs that should occur there,
according to the sequence of the other visible signs. Partially covered by the footstool, replacing Libra, is a half
man, half fish armed with a breastplate, helmet, sword, and
buckler (Fig. Io). Opposite him, but facing in the same
direction, half obscured by the angel's robe, is a nude
female figure holding what appears to be a stone (Fig. 9).
Although little is visible of her body below her hips, what
can be made out corresponds exactly to the scaly lower body
of the merman, and she seems clearly to be of the same race
of beings. She replaces Gemini.
Why does Van Eyck interrupt the Zodiac here, and what
do the figures represent or signify? Certainly they correspond to the half-breed nature of Capricorn, with its goat
head emerging from a snail shell (Fig. II),27 and to Sagittarius, the centaur. All three kinds of beings have close
parallels with the fantastic creatures that appear in medieval
church and manuscript decorations.28 Although most such
decorations are playful inventions whose significance, if any,
is often unclear to the modern scholar, some make clear refer-

ences to man's folly and sinfulness and (especially in church

decorations) some represent Satan's forces preying on men.29
Even in Classical times the centaur represented man's lower
nature, and Van Eyck also seems to use it and the seacreatures as images of paganism (hence identified with
Satan). More specifically, the mermaid is probably a siren,
like most medieval mermaids,30 and thus associated with
Satan and the worldly temptations that lure men to
destruction, as bestiaries and the Church Fathers point
But, although the substituted images are in keeping with
the implications of some of the Zodiac signs, this consistency
seems inadequate to account for the departure from the
expected zodiacal sequence - all the more since both of the
displaced signs would have been remarkably appropriate
in their proper order. Libra, the scales, would have been
placed by the Judgment Throne, and Gemini would have
made a perfect symbol for Christ's double nature, man and
God, since it represents Castor and Pollux, two sons of Leda,
one sired by a man and one by Jupiter, one mortal and one
immortal.32 Evidently, then, Van Eyck must have had a
compelling reason to replace symbols that could have been
remarkably effective in their own right.
In St. Jerome's translation of the Bible there is but one
reference to a siren: this occurs in a passage in which Isaiah
prophesies the destruction of Babylon, which will thenceforth be inhabited only by various wild animals, including
dragons, and, says St. Jerome, "sirenes in delubris volupIt is adjacent to such a temple of
tatis" (Isaiah 13:21-22).
pleasure (Dagon's temple, with its "gentes in convivio")
that we find this "siren" with her consort. St. Jerome may
have decided to translate the Hebrew word "tannim" as
"sirens" in this context (elsewhere translated as "dragons"33) because of the connection with Babylon: the Great
Whore of Babylon who appears in Revelation 17 is described as sitting upon many waters and may have been
thought of as a mermaid by Jerome and others in the Middle
Ages, as A. A. Barb notes.34 A parallel description by
Isaiah of the destruction of the world on the day of the
Lord's vengeance contains other images visible on the pavement: the passage describes the desolate land overgrown by
thorns and brambles and occupied by dragons (seen behind

25 The Venerable

woman, half bird, and that the representation of them as half woman,
half fish was a confusion of images. Such a combination did appear both
in the Near East and in the Classical world, however, and during the
Gothic period it became firmly established as the more usual form for a
siren. Jalabert traces this progressive supplanting of the original type in
medieval church sculptures, and Faral traces a parallel development in
written descriptions of the siren.
31 See Guillaume, Le bestiairedivin ..., intro. C. Hippeau, Geneva, 1970,

Godefroid, PL, CLXXIV, 279.

26 The Speculumhumanaesalvationis(Lutz and Perdrizet, 41) compares the

mocking of Samson and his destruction of the temple with the Mocking of
Christ and his future vengeance on his enemies at the LastJudgment.
27 The identification of Capricorn's lower body as a snail shell is supported by its resemblance to the shells from which Capricorn emerges in
the three representations of the sign in the Tres RichesHeures(Panofsky,
1953, ii, fig. 88) and elsewhere.

Snail shells, sometimes



snails and sometimes shown with the upper bodies of men protruding,
frequently appear in the margins of medieval manuscripts. (See L. M. C.
Randall, Images in the Margins of GothicManuscripts,Berkeley and Los
Angeles, 1966, figs. 158, 225, 241, 307-1 , 385, 468.)
28 See, for example, Randall,
D. Jalabert,
figs. 497-502;
"Recherches sur la faune et la flore romanes, ii, Les sirenes," Bulletin
monumental, xcv, 1936, 433-7 1.

29 For a study of an animal that frequently appears in Gothic decoration,

see H. W. Janson, Apes and Ape Lorein the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
(Studiesof the WarburgInstitute,xx), London, 1952.

E. Faral ("La queue de poisson des Sirenes," Romania, LXXIV, 1953,

433-506) and Jalabert both observe that Classical sirens were half

114-17, 224-26; Bishop Theobald, Physiologus, A Metrical Bestiary...,

trans. A. W. Rendell, London, 1928, cii, 37. St. Jerome, PL, xxIv, 222.
32 See H. J. Rose, A Handbookof GreekMythology, New York, 1959,

230-31. There is even a curious parallel established between Zeus as a

swan and God as a dove. And Gabriel's robe covers over half of the sign,
so that it divides into heavenly and earthly parts. Moreover, the sign is
placed just where Gabriel's robe descends from Heaven to Earth. If Van
Eyck has not developed this symbolic parallel, it is perhaps partly
because he did not feel comfortable equating the Christian God with
Classical deities.
33 See Faral, 434-36.
34 A. A. Barb, "Antaura the Mermaid and the Devil's Grandmother,"
Journalof the WarburgandCourtauldInstitutes,xxIx, 1966, I.


the footstool) and "daemonia onocentauris" (beasts that

were half man and half wild ass) (Isaiah 34:13-14). It is
very possible, then, that Van Eyck makes reference to
Isaiah's prophecies of God's vengeance in his Zodiac
medallions as well as in the historical scenes.
But if the mermaid can be understood as a siren (the
stone she holds may refer to the rocks on which sirens
lured sailors to wreck their ships), this interpretation cannot
account for her male companion, since there is nowhere any
mention of a male siren. What, then, does he signify ? John
Mayer provides the solution to the mystery: in his discussion
of Samson's destruction of Dagon's temple, he observes that
"Dagon is thought to come of 13 a fish; it was an idoll
having an humane shape upward, and the shape of a fish
downward, according to the forme of some monsters in the
sea."35 He notes that the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus
also thus described the Syrian goddess Derceta, whom
Mayer equates with Dagon.36 Although the merman and his
consort in Jan's painting do not literally represent Dagon
but are disguised as fantastic beings of the kind found in
medieval churches, their placement above Samson might
suggest that he is pulling down the structure that supports
them. Their placement has its parallel in numerous paintings
of this period in which battling figures decorate an architectural frame, identified with the Synagogue.37 Although
these two figures are not battling each other, but seem instead to be attacking Capricorn, the suggestion of violence is
David's defeat of Goliath prefigures Christ's triumph over
Satan; Saul and his soldiers standing beneath the tent
represent the Church and saints, as the moons and star (of
David!) on their shields make clear.38 The retreating
Philistines carry a banner showing Satan's dragon in close
proximity to a screaming dragon in a Zodiac medallion,
partially concealed by the footstool.39 This sign, coming
just before Sagittarius, should be Scorpio, and the scorpion
and dragon are used interchangeably as symbols for Satan
35 Mayer, 166. St. Jerome translates Dagon as piscis tristitae (PL, xxmi,
853) followed by Venerable Bede (PL, xcI, 529), Rabanus Maurus (PL,
(PL, CXV, 283), Hugh of St. Victor (PL,
cIx, 28, 323), Angelomus
CLXXV, 684), and Venerable Godefroid (PL, CLXXIV, 284). The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (New York and Nashville, 1962, I, 756)

claims that the idea that Dagon was half man and half fish dates to the
Rabbinic scholar David Kimchi (ca. I2001.

36Jalabert reproduces a pair of Assyro-Babylonian mermen, apparently

deities (fig. 32).
37 See Petrus Christus's Nativity (Panofsky, 1953, II, fig- 402), Dirk
Bouts's Infancy Altarpiece
1953, II, figs. 414-417),

Marriageof the Virginby an unknown Netherlandish painter (reproduced

in C. Sterling, "Observations

on Petrus Christus," Art Bulletin, LIII, 1971,

6, fig. 5), a Marriage of the Virgin in the Hours of Catherineof Cleves

(intro. J. Plummer, New York, 1966, fig. 8). Later examples are Mair
von Landshut's Nativity, Quentin Massys's St. Anne Altarpiece (both in
C. D. Cuttler, NorthernPaintingfrom Pucelleto Bruegel,New York, 1968,
fig. 407, pl. 29), and Diirer's Marriage of the Virgin from his Life of the

Virgin woodcut series (W. Kurth, The CompleteWoodcutsof Albrecht

Diirer,New York, 196q, repl. and trans. of 1927 ed., fig. I80). The Cain
and Abel figures that flank the Ghent Altarpiece interior are linked with
this tradition, as is apparent in the "Jewish Altarpiece" by the Master of
the Gathering of the Manna (Philip, Van Eyck, fig. Ii o), in which the
murder of Abel is linked with sin, violence, and Judaism, and which also
has fighting figures in the spandrels of the framing arch.
38 See Schiller, III, fig. 21, where David's victory over Goliath appears in
a Resurrection scene, and also Van Eyck's Dresden Triptych, where it is




in depictions of the Resurrection.40 But the dragon is never

used to represent Scorpio in depictions of the Zodiac.
Moreover, it is clear that the medallion that should represent Cancer in fact shows a scorpion, another disruption of
the sequence suggested by Leo, Sagittarius, and Capricorn.
The consequences of these changes is that pairs of images of
Dagon and of Satan flank the scenes that prefigure their
respective defeats.
The dragon is the image of Satan described in Revelation
12 in his struggle with the Virgin and her son, and the
scorpion and centaur recall the description of the locusts
that are released from the bottomless pit in Revelation
9:7 and I o, with a form "like unto horses . . . and their
faces were as the faces of men." "And they had tails like
unto scorpions." The Lion of Judah, identified with the
Root of David, the Lamb, and the Seven Spirits of God,
appears in Revelation to open the book that is sealed with
seven seals and loose God's judgment upon the earth
(Revelation 5:5-6); in Jan's picture he seems to be attacked
by the scorpion and centaur. Van Eyck's substitutions in the
Zodiac thus serve not only to extend the significance of the
scenes they frame but to convey a sense of cosmic disruption
by the forces of evil. Even Leo, the sign of Christ,41 can be
understood as an image of Satan and Death. It has that
significance in representations that show it trodden under
the foot of the resurrected Christ,42 or when killed by Samson or David, events that were also associated with the
Resurrection. 43
Yet, despite the invasion by satanic forces, the cosmos
maintains a semblance of order - so much so that no one
writing about this painting has hitherto pointed out that
the signs do not all correspond to their proper sequence, or
even all belong in the Zodiac.44 Van Eyck seems deliberately
to have concealed his substitutions by partially covering
three of the non-conforming signs and substituting the
scorpion for its look-alike, the crab. Contributing to the
masquerade is the fact that the lobster - an even closer
paired with another symbol of the Resurrection, the phoenix. Isidore
equates Goliath with Satan, the sun with Christ, the moon with the
Church, and the stars with the saints (Isidore of Seville, PL, LXXXIII, I 13,
992, 997)-

39Van Eyck's dragon - placed among the Zodiac signs but cowering
beneath the footstool and driven back by the Soljustitiae- may have been
inspired by the March page of the Tris RichesHeures,where a winged
dragon is shown in the sky directly beneath Aries (Panofsky, I953, II,
fig. 90). One is tempted to believe that the proximity of the dragon to the
date of the Annunciation and to the Ram, an image of Christ (the Lamb
militant) was intended, although the dragon was also associated by
legend with the castle beneath it (see J. Longnon, intro., The TresRiches
Heuresof Jean, Duke of Berry, New York, 1969, pl. 4). This idea gains
support from another illumination in the book that depicts the Archangel
Michael fighting the dragon of the Apocalypse in the sky above Mont
St.-Michel (pl. 134).
40 Schiller, III, figs. 50o,8o, 202, and
231, show a dragon or scorpion (also

equated with Satan) in Resurrection scenes.

41 For additional arguments concerning the lion as a type of Christ, see
Pseudo-Hugh of St. Victor, PL, CLXXVII,55-57.
42 Schiller, im, pls. 60-62, 64, 68-78, 82-86,

lion head appears on the shield.

and 220, where a

43 Ibid.,

44 See, for example,

Baldass, 277.




I, 414, n. 139), and





double of the scorpion - was frequently substituted for the

crab as the sign of Cancer in medieval representations.45 It
is possible that this deception may have had a further
purpose, for Cancer is the sign of the prophet or teacher,46
and the scorpion is thus a false prophet, such as the one that
is cast into the lake of fire in Revelation 19:20. In any
event, Leo, Sagittarius, Capricorn, and the pseudoCancer preserve enough of the Zodiac sequence to support
Panofsky's theory that Virgo and Aries are covered by the
Virgin and angel respectively (Aries, of course, besides
signifying the time of the Annunciation, is also the image of
Christ, the Lamb of God). Moreover, all of the signs but
Leo are threatened with eclipse by the Virgin, Gabriel, and
the footstool and its shadow: it is thus the agents and
symbols of the Incarnation itself that overwhelm the cosmic
disorder and establish the supremacy of Leo, house of the
Sol justitiae. The placement of Satan's legions beneath the
Virgin and Gabriel recalls Christ's words to his disciples:
"Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and
scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy" (Luke
0o:19). The placement of the scorpion beneath Gabriel is
echoed by Samson's treading on the Philistines revealed
beneath Gabriel's robe. The struggle between the Virgin
and the dragon is described in Revelation 12, and Van
Eyck connects the celestial struggle on the pavement with
the Annunciation above through the dragon, who screams
in terror as he sees the descending dove directly over his
The significance of Capricorn is problematic. From the
discussion of the goat in medieval bestiaries to the description of Capricorn in modern astrology books, the animal
has been associated with heights.47 For this and other reasons
it has been understood as an allegory of God or Christ.48
As the sign of Christ's birthday and in conjunction with the
lilies and footstool, it would seem that this was the meaning
intended. Christ, however, in foretelling the Last Judgment
employs goats in a different sense (Matthew 25:31-46).
He says that when the Son of Man comes in glory to sit upon
the throne he shall separate out the nations as a shepherd
divides his sheep from the goats, "And he shall set the sheep
on his right hand, but the goats on the left." And the sheep
will "inherit the kingdom prepared for [them]," but the
goats will be condemned to the "everlasting fire prepared
for the devil and his angels." If Christ on his throne were to
face the viewer (as he always does), the goat would be on
his left (and the sheep, Aries, would be on his right under
Gabriel's heavenly mantle).

The snail shell from which the goat's head emerges also
contributes to the idea that Capricorn is an agent of Satan,
not Christ. Snails seem to have been widely despised in the
Middle Ages and earlier for a variety of reasons. Lilian
Randall has demonstrated that extensive use was made of
the snail in the Gothic period, both in manuscript illuminations and writings, to satirize cowardice.49Most such written
and painted descriptions involve armed men attacking a
snail or cowering in fright before it, and the humor arises
out of the absurdity of fighting something so small and
helpless - or worse, being afraid to fight it. The snail is not
itself perceived as cowardly even when it appears intimidated by a charging knight: one would expectsuch a humble
animal to be somewhat awed by such an attack. A frightened
lion appears cowardly; a frightened snail does not. The
snail symbolizes lowliness, and it is because of this, as well as
its humorous resemblance to a horned dragon, that it
functions so well in depictions of the cowardice of its adversaries.50 Thus Van Eyck's Capricorn combines the lowly
snail with the mountain-climbing goat - an absurd conjunction of extreme opposites, but completely in keeping
with the theme of the meeting of high and low that permeates
this picture.
Capricorn is thus a symbol of pride, with the goat aspiring
to transcend its lowly origins. This, I believe, is also the
significance of the mountain-goat in Diirer's engraving The
Fall of Man: balanced on the highest summit, it inevitably
brings to mind the words "Pride goeth before destruction
and an haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs I6:I8). There
too the goat is shown on the left side of the figures and
opposite the Tree of Life on their right. In Jan's painting,
this interpretation of Capricorn is in keeping with the pride
and ambitiousness of Abimelech, Absalom, and Lucifer.
Typical of the Bible's equation of height with the cardinal
sin is a passage in Jeremiah in which the Lord says, regarding his coming judgment, "For, lo, I will make thee small
among the heathen, and despised among men. Thy terribleness hath deceived thee, and the pride of thine heart, O
thou . . . that holdest the height of the hill: though thou
shouldest make thy nest as high as the eagle, I will bring
thee down from thence" (Jeremiah 49:15-16).
One of the hazards of Van Eyck's disguised symbols especially when they are combined in as complex an
arrangement as in this picture - is that some of the meanings will be unclear. What is remarkable is how all of the
diametrically opposed meanings seem to fit in: thus, the
goat can be read as an image of Christ when seen in con-

45 See, for example, V.- H. Debidour, Le bestairesculptddu moyenage en

France,Paris, 1961, figs. 408, 409.
46J. Lynch, ed., The CoffeeTable Book of Astrology,rev. ed., New York,
1967, 103; M. E. Jones, Astrology: How and Why It Works,Baltimore,

50 See note 27 for a list of reproductions of snails.

1971, I68.

47 "De [capri] Physiologus dicit quod amant montes altos" (PseudoHugh of St. Victor,

PL, CLXXVII,63); "The symbol of the sign - the

Goat ascending the mountain - is a very appropriate one; for it is always

depicted as steadilyfollowingtheupwardpath" (Lynch, 198).
48 Pseudo-Hugh

of St. Victor,

PL, CLXXVII, 63; Guillaume,



49 L. M. C. Randall, "The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare," Speculum,


1962, 358-67.

The imagery is preserved in a nursery rhyme that makes it clear that it

is the adversaries, not the snail, who are cowardly:
Four and twenty tailors
Went to kill a snail;
The best man among them
Durst not touch her tail;
She put out her horns
Like a little Kyloe cow.
Run, tailors, run, or
She'll kill you all e'en now.
M. Arbuthnot, intro., TheReal MotherGoose,Chicago, 1916, 88.


junction with the lily and footstool; but when read with the
other images of the pavement it functions as one of the
nations that Satan deceives through their pride into taking
part in the world war of Gog and Magog (which is why it
fights with other images of evil, the merman and mermaid).51
The hanging figure of Absalom, isolated by the footstool
and placed below the lilies, is the antitype of Christ on the
Cross. He represents those who have denied Christ (as
Absalom rebelled against David, his father) and who die for
their own sins.52 David, who saves the community of the
elect in the adjoining scene, is unable to save his own son,
although the Bible repeatedly mentions his desire to do so.53
Remarkably, Van Eyck balances Absalom's defeat, caused
by his luxuriant hair, a symbol of his pride,54 with Samson's
downfall, brought about by the cutting of his hair.
Joining the Zodiac signs and framing the Old Testament
scenes are two kinds of leaves: at the bottom are leaves of
the columbine (aquilegia);55 above is clover (trifolium).56
The columbine has frequently been mentioned as an attribute of both Christ and the Holy Spirit,57 but of equal
significance is the reference in a seventeenth-century herbal
to it as the "Herba Leonis, or the herbe wherein the Lion doth
delight."58 Given this connection of the columbine with
Leo, the mansion of the sun, is it possible that Jan van Eyck
also saw the resemblance between one spelling of the plant's
German name, aglei, and the Greek word dyAao'~(splendid,
shining, bright) ?

Another biblical reference to a goat is also in keeping with this interpretation: this is the vision of Daniel of a "rough goat" that attacks a
ram (chap. 8). The vision is interpreted to Daniel by the angel Gabriel
thus: the goat is the king of Greece, and the horn that grows between
his eyes - as it does in Van Eyck's painting, where the placement seems
to be merely a Gothic spatial archaicism, but may also be symbolic - is
the first king (Alexander, as St. Jerome observes in his commentary
[PL, xxv, 535]). The ram represents the Medes and the Persians. In
Van Eyck's picture, the ram is concealed and primarily signifies Christ
and the month of his conception (although I have already argued for the
shifting meanings of a number of the Zodiac signs). But the goat appears
to be fighting the siren (identified with Babylon) and the merman
(identified with Dagon and the Philistines), which could also signify
Alexander's conquest of the Near Eastern countries. And the struggle
between the most important powers of the world at that time is a fitting
type of the Apocalyptic battle of Gog and Magog (Revelation 20:8) and
of the destruction of the Whore of Babylon by the ten-horned beast of the
Apocalypse, whose horns, like those of Daniel's goat, also represented in51

vading kings (Revelation



52 Mayer, 438. Philippe de Bonne-Esperance wrote (PL, cci, 558),

"Per David intelligimus Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, et per
Absalon accipimus genus humanum, constat pro certo, quia mors quam
desideravit David pro perditione filii sui, mortem nobis insinuat, quam
sustinuit DominusJesus pro redemptione generis humani."
53 II Samuel I8:5, 12, 29, 32, 3354 II Samuel 14:25, 26; Mayer, 422, 438; Rabanus


Maurus says that

and in the Ghent Altarpiece

(Baldass, pl. 37 [at right]).

56 The trifolium(as well as the lily and columbine) is also found in the
Ghent Altarpiece. See L. Hauman's article on trees and herbs in the
Ghent Altarpiece

(in Coremans,

124-25, pl. LII).



Clover is of course symbolic of the Trinity. It is especially

appropriate as a frame for the scene of the blinded Samson,
since it was used as a medicine to alleviate "pin and web,"
an eye disease.59 It is probably columbine, in a more
stylized form, that also appears with clover in three groups
on the brocaded cushion of the footstool. Possibly the enframing leaves are intended as a stylized rendering of lily
petals, with the sixth petal omitted because of the overlapping columbine leaf.
The scenes above the Virgin's head serve as a trinity of
events that comment on different aspects of the Annunciation (Figs. I, I2). To the left of the window, the giving of the
infant Moses to the Pharoah's daughter establishes a clear
visual analogy with the two figures below. In both cases a
woman of royal ancestry is given a child who is not of her
mortal husband, a child who will transmit God's covenant
to man. At the right of the window God gives Moses the
Second Commandment, "NO(N) ASSVMES NOM(EN)
D(E)I TVI I(N) VANVM." The words appear on a scroll
rather than the familiar tablets, which enhances the comparison with the words issuing from Gabriel's mouth, which
in turn symbolize the appearance of Christ, the Logos, in
the world.60 Gabriel's word "GRA," an abbreviation of
gratia, contrasts Man's promised salvation sub gratia with
his condemnation sub lege. But, whereas the words in the
scene above move only in one direction, in the Annunciation
they travel both ways. This point is made much of in
Church doctrine, which argues that the conception could

57 Panofsky (1953, I, 146, and 416, n. 1466) argues that the columbine was

a symbol of the Sorrows of the Virgin, based on its French name, ancolie,
and purple color (more often dark blue). In many Flemish paintings,
this is probably the correct interpretation. But in the list of eighty-five
examples given by R. Fritz ("Aquilegia, die symbolische Bedeutung
der Akelei,"





o) there are

many examples that seem clearly to be attributes of Christ or the Holy

Spirit. Most significant for our inquiry is Fritz's identification of the
floral decoration on the pavement of the Singing Angels panels in the
Ghent Altarpiece as a stylized arrangement of columbine leaves and
blossoms, especially because it is interspersed with squares containing
the letters "IHS," the Lamb, and the cabalistic name of God, "AGLA,"
which Fritz believes is equated with the columbine (aglei). Dhanens notes
that the other word repeated on the floor is "IECVC" (Jesus) (Dhanens,
84), so that the whole floor celebrates God, and Jesus in particular. The
shape of the columbine's petals, which resemble a cluster of five doves,
gives the flower its English name, and this association, together with its
frequent depiction with seven blossoms, accounts for its association with
the Holy Spirit and his Seven Gifts. (See G. Ferguson, SignsandSymbols
in ChristianArt, New York, 1954, 35; G. Jobes, Dictionaryof Mythology
Folklore and Symbols,New York, I96I, I, 360; R. A. Koch, "Flower
Symbolism in the Portinari Altar," Art Bulletin,XLVI,1964, 74-75.)
58J. Gerarde, The Herball, or generallHistorie of Plantes, London, 1636,
Io95. Funk and Wagnalls StandardDictionary of Folklore, Mythologyand
Legend, New York, 1949, I, 242, says the columbine

Absalom represents Jewry and the three spears that killed him signify
pride, avarice, and envy (or perfidy) (PL, cIx, I Io).
55 Comparison can be made with contemporary examples by Rogier
van der Weyden (Davies, pl. 81), Hugo van der Goes (J. Lassaigne,
G. C. Argan, The GreatCenturiesof Painting: TheFifteenthCentury
from Van
Eyck to Botticelli, New York, 1955,


"was once called

lion's herb from the belief that lions fed on it, and merely rubbing the
hands with the leaves imparted courage and daring."
59 Gerarde, 187 (said of trifoliumpratense,or meadow clover). Webster's
New InternationalDictionarysays that "pin and web" may have referred
to pterygium or phlyctenular conjunctivitis.
60 The actual inseminating force, present in nearly all Annunciations,
is of
course the dove, the Holy Spirit that God breathes into Mary's ear (see
Meiss, "Light," 176). But it is apparent that Gabriel's words effectively
symbolize the appearance of the Logosin the world, and, together with
the Virgin's response, the mystic intercourse between Heaven and Earth.





not take place without the Virgin's consent.61 And the

Virgin's choice of words is also significant, for in calling
herself the Ancilla Domini, or maidservant of the Lord, she
demonstrates the humility that entitles her to bear God's
son62 and reiterates the theme of the lowly being raised up
(and, conversely, the lofty descending-or being overthrown)
that pervades the painting.
A closer examination of the scene in the upper right
corner reveals that the dispenser of the Old Testament Law
is depicted in Christ's image, with a youthful countenance
and cruciform halo. This is in keeping with medieval representations of God's appearance to Moses: where he is not
shown as a hand reaching down from Heaven, he usually
appears in the likeness of Christ.63 And it affirms the doctrine ofJohn 1:1-3 that Christ, the Verbum,was already part
of the Old Testament Godhead - indeed, the creator of the
world, present from the beginning of time. That Jan intended the figure as Christ is proved by the words visible on
his scroll: the Second Commandment, which he hands to
Moses, pertains specifically to Christ. The Church Fathers
reasoned that the Nomen Dei was identical with the Verbum
and that, since mortals are vain, the commandment
actually meant, "Thou shalt not take Christ to be mortal."64
Van Eyck thus underlines the parallel between the appearance of the Word above and below,65 and shows the central
article of the Christian faith already present in the Old
Testament Law.
The third scene paralleling the Annunciation, Isaac's
blessing of Jacob, appears in the two medallions in the
spandrels above the Virgin's head (Fig. 6). The position of
the figures on either side of an arch - a traditional location
for the Annunciation66 - and their poses, like those of
Annunciate figures, relate Jacob's blessing to the blessing

of the Virgin by Gabriel. Jacob's promised sovereignty

(Genesis 27:29) is paired with the promise of Christ's
sovereignty over the house ofJacob (Luke I :32-33).67
Between the two scenes at the top, a figure appears in a
stained-glass window, identified by Tolnay as Christ and by
Panofsky as Lord Sabaoth of the Old Testament (Fig. I2).68
In support of his identification, Panofsky points to the simple,
not cruciform halo, the placement of his feet on the earth
(according to Isaiah 66:i), the cherubim with four wings
and wheels, as in Ezekiel io, and the round-arched shape
of the window. Nevertheless, the figure does not strictly
conform to any single biblical description of God's appearance to man (see Isaiah 6, Ezekiel I and Io, Daniel 7, and
Revelation 4). Moreover, artists of the Middle Ages, in
depicting Christ as the Maiestas Domini of Revelation,
frequently borrowed elements from the Old Testament
descriptions of the divine appearance - especially the placement of his feet on the earth or a footstool.69 The open book
must be the book mentioned in Revelation 5, one of the
most constant attributes of Christ in Majesty. In short,
Van Eyck seems to be depicting the God of both the Old
and New Testaments, "which is, and which was, and which
is to come, the Almighty" (Revelation i :8).
Jan van Eyck's use of symbolism in this picture is not
restricted to the representation of symbolic scenes and
objects. The placement of objects, the quality and arrangement of the lighting, the spatial organization, and the very
proportion of the panel all contribute to the work's meaning.
For example, the innocent stool casually placed in the foreground appears to be merely a repoussoir used to fill up
part of the bottom of the panel, the narrow proportions of
which suggest it was probably the left wing of an altarpiece.70 And indeed it serves this function very well. It is

See Heckscher, 58-61. The pavement medallion glimpsed beneath the

overlapping robes of the angel and Virgin should be Taurus, if we assume
that, despite the substitutions and missing signs, there is a systematic
progression. It will be, recalled that Taurus is associated with Jupiter,
who, disguised as a bull, abducted Europa and, seen here slipping under
the Virgin's skirts, it forms a curiously erotic (though extremely subdued) comparison with the Virgin's mating with God and supports
Meyer Schapiro's analysis of the repressed sexuality in Flemish painting
(" 'Muscipula Diaboli,' The Symbolism of the M6rode Altarpiece," Art

of the Word, as well as the Word dispensed, in both scenes. The propriety of identifying Christ with an angel is affirmed by St. Augustine


Bulletin, xxvII,



62 See Heckscher, 58, for further elaboration on this doctrine.

63 See, for example, Lutz and Perdrizet, in, pls. 13, I oob, or the numerous

examples reproduced in R. Mellinkoff, The HornedMoses in Medieval

Art and Thought,Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1970. St. Augustine, in
De trinitate,wrestles with the question of whether the threefold God or one
of his persons appeared to the Old Testament patriarchs. He concludes
that, God being by nature invisible, it is not generally possible to know
which part of the Godhead was present, since he must have taken on
material forms not his own to appear to man. But medieval artists, who
had to make God visible and comprehensible, consistently represented
him in the image of Christ.
64 Isidore of Seville, PL, LXXXIII, 3OI; Hugh of St. Victor, PL, CLXXVI,

121 ; St. Martin of Leon, PL, ccvIII, 782. It seems clear that the Catholic
numbering of the Ten Commandments, in which the first two are combined into one and the last one is divided into two, was worked out so
that the first three commandments could be related to the Trinity and
the last seven to mankind (for the numbering differences, see "Decalogue," Encyclopedia Americana, 1955, VIII).

65 Tolnay points out that Gabriel's ornate robe and crown (which first
appear in this painting) may be a "prophetic foreshadowing of the Rex
Mundi to be born" (p.I76), so that Christ may be seen as the dispenser

(PL, XLII, 860-6I).

Further support for this connection

is given by Marie

Tanner, "Concordia in Piero della Francesca's Baptism of Christ," Art

Quarterly, xxxv, 1972, 417, and n. 32.
66 For example, Giotto's Annunciation
in the Arena

Chapel and Masolino's

in San Clemente (Philip, VanEyck,figs. 99, 124).
67 The Church Fathers saw Isaac as a figure of God the Father,
Jacob as
the Church or Christ, Esau as the Jews or Satan, and Rebecca as the
Holy Spirit. The blessing was taken to signify the elevation of the Church
over the Synagogue. (Isidore of Seville, PL, LXXXIII,256-58; Rabanus
and Rupert, PL, CLXVII,461-62.)
Panofsky, 1953, I, 138,
414, n. i391.
69 Schiller, III, 233-49,
figs. 662-721. In the Washington
Maurus, PL, cvnI, 587-89,

picture the

sphere is inscribed "ASIA," possibly in reference to Christ's watching

over his seven churches in Asia, mentioned in Revelation 1:4, as well as
to the fact that Asia is where he physically enters the world as Jesus.
According to the medieval division of the globe, however, the Lord has
his feet in Europe and Africa as well (see Philip, VanEyck,figs. 207, 208).
70 Friedlander,

i, 63; Baldass, 277. Friedlander's


analysis of

the problems that Van Eyck faced in this panel is demonstrably objective in that he was unaware of the symbolic content and, consequently,
of the brilliance of the solution: "The comparative scale of figures and
nave seem more natural here than in any other Van Eyck painting.
"These natural proportions were forced upon the painter by the
panel's unusual format. The narrow area limited the size of the figures,
and he was left with the task of enlivening its upper half with architectural forms alone. This is the reason why he lavished such care on
decorative peculiarities like the figured sgraffitoof the floor and the murals
in the Romanesque style" (p.64).







x2 Detail of Fig. I

placed so near the viewer that he tends to look past it before

he looks at it.71 Yet it is difficult not to become subliminally
aware of its presence and, eventually, of its expressive
emptiness. It is precisely its initial unobtrusiveness that
makes the stool so poignant as the symbol of Etimasia, the
preparation of a throne for Christ for his Second Coming,72
and as the throne of David promised by Gabriel (Luke
I :32). For, as indicated above, it epitomizes the conjunction
of Heaven and Earth and of majesty and humility that is
repeated throughout the picture. Just as the Queen of
Heaven is shown as the unadorned handmaiden of God, so
Christ's heavenly throne appears as the humble footstool,
shown touching the bottom edge of the picture, the very
proportions of which express the gap between Heaven and
Earth, bridged by Christ's humbling of himself and becoming man. Just as the shepherd boy David was almost
overlooked when Samuel was sent by God to annoint one
of Jesse's sons as king of Israel (I Samuel 17), so the spatial
and functional lowliness of the footstool causes the viewer to

overlook it. And just as the young David is shown triumphing over the proud giant Goliath, so the footstool presages
Christ's judgment seat from which he will send Satan to the
fiery pit. Even the placement of the heavenly Zodiac on the
floor repeats the theme of the merging and interchanging of
the elevated and lowly.73 And Satan's placement in the
Zodiac but also on the floor beneath the footstool recalls
Isaiah's words concerning Lucifer, the fallen angel who was
equated with Satan: "For thou hast said in thine heart, I will
ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars
of God . .." "Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the
sides of the pit" (Isaiah 14:12-15).
Likewise, Abimelech,
to elevate himself as
symbolized by
And Absalom,
who sought his father's throne, is shown lifted up by his
hair - but placed at the bottom of the painting.
The perspective construction, which converges toward
the right side, probably was designed to provide greater
spatial unity with the other panels of a triptych.74 But it

71 Perhaps this is why Panofsky missed its full significance, since he once
remarked that in Van Eyck's compositions the significant objects never
"step before the footlights" (Panofsky, 1953,
143-44). It might be
more accurate to say that even when they step before
the footlights they
do not upstage the principal actors.
72 Schiller, im, 193-202, and figs. 555-7373 Millard Meiss (in his article " 'Highlands' in the Lowlands, Jan van
Eyck and the Master of Flemalle and the Franco-Italian Tradition,"
Gazettedes beaux-arts,ser. 6, LVII,1961, 273-314) demonstrates that the
symbolism of high and low occurs frequently in the work of Van Eyck
and Campin.
74 See note 70. Panofsky apparently believed the panel to be an independent work, since he saw its asymmetrical space construction as evidence
of an early date, rather than evidence of its being part of a triptych

(Panofsky, 1953, 193-94). This is precisely my interpretation of the

space construction of the ThreeMariesat the Tombin Rotterdam (Baldass,
pl. I), which, despite several recent attempts to give it to a later artist, I
still persist in attributing to Hubert van Eyck. In that work, however, the
rest of the style is also archaic and the panel shape (and symbolism) is not
suitable for a wing, whereas the Washington panel has the shape of a
typical triptych wing, and its style is not archaic (the arrangement of the
drapery folds is marked by the ruler-straight lines and absence of
rhythmic coordination that typify Van Eyck's style after 1433, but not
before). Panofsky's other evidence for an early date, the Virgin's blue
dress, is clearly essential to the symbolic opposition of the humble
Virgin to the celestial angel. On the other hand, the painting is probably
no later than 1434, since it is the apparent source for Gabriel's brocaded
cape in Rogier van der Weyden's Annunciationof ca. 1433-34, in the





also contributes to the expressive and symbolic meanings of

the work. The orthogonals of the floor, mirroring the
descending path of the dove, converge in the Virgin, the
intermediary between high and low, in whom God and
man become joined. Because she is placed so that the space,
with its tapestry of symbolic scenes and figures, seems to
flow through her still form, she also appears to be the point
toward which all past history and prophecy move and find
fulfillment in her son Christ, and from which the future of
Heaven and Earth unfold.
Thus it is evident that in this painting Van Eyck offers the
viewer not merely a group of disguised symbols to be decoded, but objects and images developed into a complex
fugue of interdependent voices, in which the meanings suggested are modified or enriched by their surrounding context and woven into the very light and space of the picture.
Whereas the Washington Annunciationis filled with detail
and a multitude of clearly symbolic images and thereby
tempts the viewer to search for hidden meanings, the room
of the Annunciationon the exterior of the Ghent Altarpiece
appears nearly empty and completely devoid of any
figurative imagery (Fig. I3). It comes as a surprise, then, to
discover that the symbolism in this scene is nearly as extensive as in the Washington picture, and the extent to which
it transfigures reality is possibly even greater. The scope of
the present paper permits me to analyze at length only the
Annunciation scene; its symbolic and expressive coordina-

75 Philip, Van Eyck, especially

Panofsky, 1953, I, i65; 421, n. i564; 423, n. 1651. The view from an

upstairs window, although much more advanced, may also reflect

awareness of the view in Campin's Virginand Child beforea Firescreenin
77 For a list of scholars' divisions of the work, see Baldass, 274-75. For a
list of scholars who believe or disbelieve in Hubert's existence and
bibliography of their arguments, see the editorial note in Friedlainder, I,
78 In addition to Philip's book, see Heinz Peters, "Die
Anbetung des
Lammes: Ein Beitrag zum Problem des Genter Altars," Das
1950, 65-77;

G. Bandmann,

"Ein Fassadenprogramm

des 12. Jahr-

hunderts und seine Stellung in der christlichen Ikonographie," Das

Miinster, v, 1952, 1-31.

79 For example, Philip quite correctly explains the perspective shift

between the central scenes of the upper story of the interior and the
flanking Adam and Eve panels as an indication of two levels of reality
(pp.- 7-18). But this explanation in no way lessens the resultant lack of
visual unity, which is apparent even when the altarpiece is placed in her
hypothetical framework (p. 26 and fig. 41). By contrast, on the exterior
which Jan either planned entirely or took over at a much earlier stage,
he convincingly demonstrates that he was able to create several levels of
reality and yet unify them into a cohesive whole.
Even weaker is Philip's explanation of the scale shift between the top
and bottom sections. She reconstructs a foreground porch in her framework through which, she argues, the Adorationof theLambwas viewed in
the distance, so that "the small size of the lower figures would appear as a
perfectly logical perspective diminution"(p. 25). Yet precisely to the
extent that Philip's reconstruction of a frame succeeds in increasing the

tion with the interior scenes has been demonstrated in great

detail in a recent study.75
Scholars have almost universally given the exterior of the
altarpiece to Jan van Eyck, and this seems warranted not
only because of the niche with the laver and towel, which
derive from the Merode Altarpiece, probably seen by Jan in
1427 or 1428,76 but also because the character and complexity of the symbolism tie it to Jan's works such as the
Washington Annunciationand the Rolin Madonna. There is far
less agreement on the role of Hubert in the altarpiece or
even on his existence.77 But despite the great ingenuity of
scholars who argue that the altarpiece was conceived from
the beginning in approximately its final form78 and despite
Lotte Brand Philip's recent attempt to reconstruct an
elaborate Gothic frame for it, the interior remains topheavy and disjointed in appearance, and the unusual composition of the exterior Annunciationseems to be dictated by
the arrangement of the interior.79 Moreover, the symbolic
unity of inside and outside is no indication that the altarpiece was designed all at once, because, like Michelangelo,
Jan was inspired by imposed conditions.80
I stated earlier that the theme of the Incarnation sparked
some of the most advanced paintings of this period. The
large altarpiece, on the other hand, was the format for some
of the most conservative paintings. The "Flkmalle" panels of
Campin and the Deposition and Beaune Altarpiece by Rogier
van der Weyden are severely limited in the space and the
specific nature of time they depict, so that their images are
seen as timeless icons. The pictures were not valued for the

spatial logic of the altarpiece (and, as a result, the experiences of weight

and space), to the extent that the lower central space is opened up and
pushed back at the same time that an enormous Gothic superstructure is
placed above it and the unity of time and space of the top and bottom
sections is insisted upon, to this extent the heaviness of the upper part of
the altarpiece is also increased. The present simple frame is net only in
keeping with Jan van Eyck's later frames and with the large, simple
figures in the painting, but it is also consistent with the frames of most
altarpieces of this area in the i5th and I6th centuries. Instructive is a
late I6th-century painting of the interior of St. Pieter at Louvain which
provides glimpses of eight large altarpieces in situ (G. von der Osten and
H. Vey, Painting and Sculpturein Germanyand the Netherlands:1500oo-i6oo,
Baltimore, 1969, fig. 300). Every one of the altarpieces has a simple
frame, but two have canopies placed above them such as the one seen
above the Ghent Altarpiece in the 19th-century painting by De Noter of
the Vijd Chapel (Philip, Van Eyck, figs. 48, 52). That such a canopy
once existed above the Ghent Altarpiece is quite possible, but that the
Van Eycks made allowance for it in designing their altarpiece is doubtful. I would think rather that it was probably made after the altarpiece
was in place, if in fact it existed.
Further evidence of Hubert's authorship of parts of the altarpiece is
found in the perspective of the floor tiles beneath the three central
figures above, which reflects the same disinclination to foreshorten
(although to a lesser degree) that is observable in the ThreeMaries at the
Tombin Rotterdam and is markedly different from the floor perspective
of the exterior Annunciation.
80 James S. Ackerman

(The Architectureof Michelangelo, London, 1961, 2 1)

points out that nearly all of Michelangelo's architectural commissions

included a restricting condition - "some predetermined and unchangeable factor in the design."


believability of their representations of historical or future

events, but for their physical presence as holy images.81 The
Ghent Altarpiece was Jan van Eyck's largest work, and he
recognized the opportunity it offered to create holy images
with great physical presence and immediacy. He also
recognized that to best exploit this effect he would have to
make his symbols extremely unobtrusive and keep the
viewer's eye near the picture plane. But the principal theme
of the exterior (the only place, except for the Adam and Eve
panels, where his brother had not essentially established
the format) was the Incarnation, which inspired painters of
this period, especially Jan himself, to the most innovative
marriages of complex religious symbolism with naturalistic
depiction of light, space, and details. To the extent that
Jan's true subject was the Incarnation (as it was in the
Washington Annunciation)and not merely the Annunciation
- that is, to the extent that his subject was the transmutation
of Christ, the Logos, the light of the World into flesh, and
the resultant change from the Old to the New Covenant,
and not merely the confrontation of the Virgin and the
angel (as it is, for instance, on the exterior ofJan's Dresden
Altarpiece) - to that extent it would seem an utterly impossible subject to represent on the exterior of a large altarpiece where monumental, iconic images were called for,
without some sacrifice either in the richness of the ideas
symbolized or in the presence and immediacy of the figures.
Yet Jan, with daring improvization, achieved a synthesis
that combines the qualities of tangible icons with the transfigured reality produced by his hidden symbolism.


Philip has suggested that the representation of the figures in church

altar retables as factually present in the sacred time-space of the church
was essential to the function of these paintings in the Eucharistic rite
(Van Eyck, 165ff). She has noted that the gold background of earlier
altarpieces had accomplished this, but that in the new work, which
depicts the figures in the deepened pictorial space and historical time of
the event, some other means had to be found to keep the figures in the
time-space of the church. She believes that Campin's spatial warping in
the Merode Altarpiece is an attempt to accomplish this goal, as is the
space of the exterior of the Ghent Altarpiece. Her analysis is imaginative
and, I think, basically sound. But it does not take into account Campin's
concern with surface for purely decorative reasons and for reasons of
narrative clarity (for some insight into this, see M. S. Frinta's occasionally
perceptive, but all-too-frequently irritating book, The Geniusof Robert
Campin,TheHague, 1966, in which Campin's works are analyzed almost
exclusively in terms of the painter's supposed formalist concerns, and
Panofsky's briefer, but characteristically brilliant analysis; 1953, I,
166-67). And it does not explain why an artist would depict the naturalistic environment of the MWrodeAltarpiece, where neither the angel nor
Virgin has a halo, and subsequently paint a Depositionwith a tooled-gold
ground, and a MadonnaandChild (Frankfurt) with a halo solid enough to
support several dozen jewels. Nor does it explain how Rogier could paint
the gold ground, narrow space, and metallic haloes of the Last Judgment
Altarpiece in Beaune some ten years after he created the believable
environment in his Annunciationin the Louvre. Surely it is not merely
coincidence that the most conservative paintings of these masters are also
their largest ones. Rather, I think they both realized that a large painting offered an opportunity to create figures with a kind of weight and
presence not possible in smaller works. And they felt that this required
their painted figures to confront the viewer head on in his own time and
space and at near his own size, with a minimum of background to distract from the immediacy of the experience.




The initial plan for the Annunciation(whether it was Jan's

or possibly Hubert's) was inspired by the Limbourg
Brothers' Annunciationfrom the Belles Heures of the Duke of
Berry (Fig. 14). The poses, the setting in a room that is
neither explicitly a church nor a home, the half-length
prophet and other figures overhead, the division of the
space by a column or frame, the filling by the figures of the
spaces so created, and the lily brought by the angel rather
than placed in a vase - all appear to be derived from this
illumination. Furthermore, X-ray photographs show that
the Annunciation originally was to have been set beneath a
series of arches resembling those of the altarpiece's bottom
story, but smaller and paired in the side panels. These
arches would also seem to derive from the framing arches of
the illumination scene, and they suggest that originally the
back wall of the picture was not opened with windows.82
From the beginning Van Eyck seems to have attempted to
give the figures of the Annunciationa sculptural appearance
that would harmonize visually with the figures below. Thus
he arranged their white robes in folds that emphasize mass,
not rhythm. The Virgin's head is frontal, though tilted, and
the unusually large white dove does not move toward her
but, possibly for the first time in a representation of the
event, appears suspended above the Virgin as if he were
carved.83 The resemblance of the Virgin's room to an actual
sculptural niche is reinforced by its illumination, which
appears as an extension of the actual light that falls on the
painting from the chapel window at the right,s4 a device
Jan underlined by painting the shadows cast into the Virgin's




and pl. LXII; Philip,

Van Eyck, figs. 122,


Elisabeth Dhanens sees the design of the arches as indicative of Hubert's

initial conception, in which the figures "are likely to have been shown as
though carved in relief, and in shallow niches" (Dhanens, 117). She is
preceded in this conclusion by Otto Pdicht ("Panofsky's 'Early Netherlandish Painting' - ii," in the BurlingtonMagazine, xcvIII, 1965, 272).
Yet framing arches are not always combined with niches. Numerous
examples exist in combination with naturalistic interiors (Panofsky,
1953, II, figs. 335, 354, and 212).


believers in the existence of

Jan's elusive brother must be sorely tempted to see the preliminary

drawing of the arches as evidence of Hubert's existence, I do not believe
that this view can be maintained in light of the evident borrowings from
the Belles Heures Annunciation.If the originally-planned arches, the
figures overhead, and the Annunciationfigures themselves are part of the
initial conception and clearly derive from the illumination, then it is
reasonable to suppose that the setting also derives from it, except for the
view through the windows and the niche, inspired by Robert Campin.
It is probable that the arches were eliminated because they constricted
even more the already small space available for the figures.
83 It is possible that the dove represents a change from the original
conception, since the tracery arches originally planned would have
forced it out in front of the picture plane. Jacqueline Folie, of the Institut
Royal du Patrimoine Artistique, kindly informs me that the X-ray and
infra-red photographs of the panel, which she examined with Ren6
Sneyers, do not indicate whether the tracery arches were drawn beneath
the dove and angel or planned concurrently with them.
84 Philip (Van Eyck, 15, n. 27) believes that the theory advanced by A. P.
de Schryver and R.-H. Marijnissen ("De oorspronkelijke plaats van het
Lam Gods-retabel," Les primitifsflamands, II, I, Antwerp, 1952) - that
the altarpiece was originally situated in a chapel in the crypt immediately below its present location - is untenable. In either case, the chapel
would be lighted from the right.







Ghent Altarpiece. Ghent, St. Bavo (copyright A. C. L.)

13 Jan van Eyck, Annunciation,

room by the frames of the panels.85 By appearing solid

and somewhat disengaged from action, both the Virgin and
Gabriel relate directly as physical presences to the viewer in
his own space and time. By echoing the colorlessness and
solidity of the sculptures below (Fig. 15), the figures visually
unify the exterior and enhance its contrast with the resplendent interior. In these elements, present in Jan's earliest
conception, the scene stands outside historical time and the
subject becomes the timeless image of a fundamental Church
In the scene as it was finally executed, however, its timeless aspect is shown interwoven with, yet distinct from, the
drama and temporal development of the historical event.
The long center panels, required by the design of the in-

terior, were apparently poorly suited to the subject of the

Annunciation. But Jan took advantage of necessity and
used the space to express, with almost subliminally subtle
effect, the active drama of the event that his sculptural forms
eschew. The very emptiness of these panels contrasts vividly
with the crowding of large figures in all of the other exterior
panels. The emptiness also increases the visual leap required to read the scene, and the greater movement of the
eye imparts a kind of dynamism to the event. Across the
void, moving in a straight line like the news bulletins that
used to move in lights across the old New York Times
Building, Gabriel speaks his golden words, "Ave gracia plena
diis tecv." He points to them, as in the Washington Annunciation, to indicate that they also symbolize the Logos, the

85 Philip believes that there were originally carved columns separating

the panels, similar to those dividing the panels of Pietro Lorenzetti's
Birth of the Virgin (Van Eyck, 27-28, n. 50). If such columns existed,
effect of the painthowever, they would have weakened the trompe-l'oeil
ing because of their actual bulk and the real shadows that they would
cast on the picture surface. Furthermore, the floor of the Annunciation
chamber, depicted from above although it is higher than the viewer's eye
level (and originally would have been situated even higher because of
the lost predella), an arrangement not especially troublesome at present,
would clash with carved columns, which would be seen from below. Nor
does the laboratory investigation of the (original) frame support
Philip's theory (see Coremans, 120-22). The greater projection of other
columns, buttresses, and towers in her reconstruction would have had
even more disconcerting effects, which may be roughly gauged by trying
to imagine the relief carvings in the reliquary altar reproduced in fig. 45
of her book replaced by painted scenes in keeping with the Ghent
Altarpiece exterior.
A key piece of evidence in Philip's argument for the presence of carved
columns throughout the supposed original framework is the presence of
paired column clusters in the wings of the Adorationof the Lamb in a
16th-century copy of the altarpiece, now in Antwerp (Philip, VanEyck,
figs, 32-34). She argues that both pairs are identically foreshortened to the
right, which "definitely excludes the possibility that they were copied
from columns painted by Van Eyck" and is evidence that they were

translated from sculptured columns on Jan's lost frame (pp. 21-22).

Since, however, they are nearly identical in form to the paired columns
in the central window of the Annunciation chamber of the exterior, the
fact that they are both foreshortened to the right seems better explained
by their having been copied from those columns, which are also foreshortened in this direction and at nearly the same angle, and on which
the rendering of light and shadow is also the same. The major change
made by the copyist is the addition of another column at the left of each
cluster. This too seems most easily explained as an inept effort to increase
the width of the column clusters while failing to find a way to modify the
capitals and bases to accommodate the extra shafts. (The painter seems
to have been unaware that the perspective construction of the capitals
and bases placed the original two columns of each group at right angles
to the picture plane, so that an added column on the left would necessitate a balancing column on the right. Had he studied actual carved
columns, this point could hardly have escaped him.)
But why then did the copyist decide to use columns to separate the
wing scenes if they did not appear in Jan's original frame? It is my guess
that he conceived of his job as that of reproducing a famous painting,
not recreating a functioning altarpiece. Since the work is painted on
canvas and the wings do not actually close (nor were the exterior scenes
copied), the copyist apparently believed that it would be simpler and
aesthetically more pleasing to connect the side scenes by painted columns
than by a constructed framework.







BellesHeuresofJean, Duc de
14 Limbourg Brothers,Annunciation,
Berry.New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters
Collection, Purchase, 1954
Word, which according to Church doctrine, transmitted
through the ear of the Virgin, joins with its human part to
become Jesus Christ.86 The Virgin's response, "Ecce
ancilla dfii," is written upside down, in Panofsky's words,
"so that God in his Heaven can read it.'"87 It is not God,
however, but the prophet Micah who leans out of his attic
86 Meiss, "Light," 176. It is true that Gabriel's words are literally only an

announcing of God's intentions rather than the transmission of the Holy

Spirit itself. But Jan, in unifying the movement of the words with the
progress of the exterior light, and representing the almost sexual interaction of the two participants' words, has expressively equated the angel's
message with the Logos. Schiller, I, fig. 85, reproduces a 12th-century
enamel that shows Gabriel transmitting the Spirit to the Virgin himself.
87 Panofsky, 1953, I, 138.
88 Quoted by Heckscher from a French 14th-century hymn (p. 57). As
noted in the discussion of the Washington Annunciation,Heckscher
argues that it is the Virgin's consent that is required for the conception
and cites various texts to support this view (Heckscher, 6o-6x and n. 36).
In Jan's paintings the words evoke the idea of the Logos,and the wedding
of heavenly and earthly words also express the coming together of Christ's
heavenly and earthly substances.
89 I am in essential agreement with Philip in her analysis of the symbolic
use of light in the altarpiece (Van Eyck,84-87), and her observation that
the divine light comes from the north (quite literally, because of the




space to read the words, which are also witnessed by the

Cumean Sibyl. Zachariah on the far left can only "see" the
event as it is foretold in Old Testament history and prophecy, and he points to it by pointing to his text. Likewise,
the Erythrean Sibyl looks up, as if she sees it in her mind's
eye. But Micah's book is closed, because he sees the actual
event and reads the "word sweet as nectar through which
the Virgin has conceived."88 Thus only the two figures
at the right are direct witnesses, and this has the effect
of creating a temporal progression from left to right.
Another function is also served by inverting the words: they
are read from right to left. Thus both phrases appear to
move out across the empty space toward each other, and
Van Eyck has arranged them so that they will not collide
but, after passing in the center, Gabriel's words above, the
Virgin's below, will arrive at their proper destination.
In the scene outside the window, light is used to parallel
the movement of Gabriel's words inside. This light comes
from the Virgin's right, as does the angel, and is in deliberate opposition to the light that enters the scene from the
front right of the picture, both in character and import.89
Whereas the frontal light freezes the scene and removes it
from time, the light beyond the window renders the
Annunciation dramatic and sequential. It makes its first
appearance outside the Gothic window near Gabriel, in the
early morning rays that catch the left side of a chimney and
the edge of a gabled roof (Fig. 16). No people are yet visible.
Through the center window we see the sunlight, now
higher in the sky, creating long shadows of houses and of the
citizens, who are now moving about the city (Fig. 17). One
small figure pauses to enjoy the sunlight that washes over
At the right the sunlight is seen falling full on the side and
roof of the only visible house (Fig. 18), and finally it enters
the interior through this window, passes through a glass
carafe of water, symbol of the miraculous nature of the
Incarnation, and comes to rest on the wall near the Virgin.
The Holy Spirit that enters the Virgin's womb is thus
presented in two different forms: as the Logos and as sunlight. The empty space that separates the angel and Virgin
enables the subdued drama of the exchanged words and the
exterior sunlight to be fully felt. The outside scene, with its
fifteenth-century Flemish houses and people, represents
both the historical Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem of
placement of the altarpiece on the east side of the chapel) is perceptive.
She properly recognizes that the opposition of the miraculous background light to the foreground illumination implies that the latter
represents the light of nature. But to support her argument that Van
Eyck's illusionistic joining of the foregound space to the actual space of
the chapel is an effort to include the figures within the space and light of
the Heavenly Jerusalem (signified by the space and light of the cathedral,
in the medieval view), she maintains that with respect to the Vijd
Chapel the foreground light is to be understood as sacred, not natural
(Philip, "Raum und Zeit in der Verktindigung des Genter Altares,"
xxIx, 1967, 88-89, and Van Eyck, 85, n. 174).
It will be argued in this paper that the effect of the Annunciation scene
is to convey to the viewer an experience of moving from the immediate,
physical world to both the historical event and to the transformed world
of the New Jerusalem by a kind of ecstatic transport akin to that
described in the famous words of Abbot Suger (E. Panofsky, ed., Abbot
Suger, on the AbbeyChurchof St.-Denis and Its Art Treasures,Princeton,
1946, 63,65). In this process, the light that strikes the picture from the
front affirms the connection of the figures with the physical world.





15 Ghent Altarpiece, exterior. Ghent, St. Bavo (copyright A. C. L.)





Christ's Second Coming. The rising sun especially recalls

Isaiah's words: "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the
glory of the Lord is risen upon thee" (Isaiah 6o:i). The
reference to the Second Coming is echoed by the words of
the prophets and sibyls above the Annunciation.90
Although Van Eyck creates the effect of a rising sun
moving across the sky, there are sufficient discrepancies in
the projection of his shadows to make it impossible to determine with precision whether the angle of the sun above the
earth is actually greater through each successive window
from left to right. The lack of figures visible through the
left window makes it seem early, but only rooftops and a
few windows are visible, so this is uncertain. The arrangement of the perspective, which converges on the right side of
the central window, permits the light, largely blocked at the
left, to be gradually revealed through the center window
until it finally blazes forth on the exposed wall of the house
at the right. The result is an exterior world that can be seen
as expressing the same moment of perpetual morning or
read as progressing in time from left to right. Van Eyck
represents both the dynamic character of the rising of the
glory of the Lord (Isaiah 60o:I-2) and the eternal nature of
his illumination (Isaiah 60o:I9-20), both the drama of the
Incarnation and the perpetual promise of redemption that
it brings.
The ambiguity of the exterior light is answered by an
ambiguity of the interior light. Except for the light that
enters the Gothic window behind the Virgin, all of the
room's light comes from the right. But whereas the real
light that illuminates the altarpiece is represented as the
cause of the shadows projected by the frame on the floor
and by Gabriel on the side wall, the upper edge of the frame
casts no shadow into the room, so that the back wall near the
angel's head is quite bright. Yet the light source that causes
the wing shadow is clearly high and would not illuminate
the top of the back wall. Van Eyck has modified the interior light, not only on the wall but on the figures, the
window frames, niches, and objects, so that it is not disturbingly inconsistent with either a shallow niche or a more
ample space and a historical time. This has been so subtly
accomplished that the viewer can make a smooth transition
from seeing a pair of sculptures to observing the historical
The space of the Annunciation scene is confined but Jan
van Eyck recognized and effectively utilized the possibilities
of the cramped quarters to establish an effective relation-

ship to the simulated sculptures below. As with the two

narrow center panels, however, the format imposed by the
shape of the interior severely restricted his options. With the
dimensions of the space restricted by the size of the interior
panels, the Virgin and the angel had to fill their respective
panels,91 because a smaller scale would have clashed with
that of the lower figures. To the extent that the figures are
conceived as sculptures in niches, their space is adequate.
But there is insufficient space to construct a room in which
the figures can stand up if the ceiling must be the same
height as the crossbar of the picture frame. To release the
figures from their confinement somewhat, Jan created an
ambiguous space, as he had created ambiguous lighting
and multiple kinds of time. On the one hand, the nichelike confinement of the space is affirmed by the wide-angle
tilt and obscured junctures of the floor and receding walls,
which increase the effect of flatness, and by the impression
that, with the exception of the small alcove containing the
Virgin's reading stand, all advancing planes of the room
end at the picture frame, an impression created by such
devices as the proximity of the angel's right wing and its
cast shadow with the edge of the picture,92 and the rendering of the shadows cast by the frame on the floor of the
room, which establishes the frame as the termination of
the space. On the other hand, to give his figures ampler
space in their guise as participants in a real, temporal event,
Van Eyck managed to push back the walls and raise the
ceiling somewhat. Even a cursory examination makes clear
that the angel's trailing drapery, a section of floor beneath
it, and the large ceiling beam above lie within the space
that the wall would occupy if its front edge touched the
frame.93 The wall must therefore meet the picture plane
somewhat to the left of the frame. Its position cannot be
determined with absolute precision, because Van Eyck's
space construction is empirical,94 but it can be estimated
with a high degree of accuracy (Fig. I9). If the corner line
behind Gabriel's wing is projected downward until it meets
the projected base line of the back wall, and if an orthogonal
running from the vanishing area through that point is
extended outward until it reaches the extension of the panel's
base line, we locate the approximate position of the wall
with respect to the floor. If we could assume that the floor
joined the frame, then the wall would be found to project
considerably beyond the left side of the frame. Further
projections could establish the approximate height of the
ceiling, which also would not meet the frame, but would be

90 See Dhanens, 52, for the sources of the inscriptions.

91 Of course, the niches above the Annunciationcould have been eliminated, but, in addition to removing one layer of meaning, that would
have created great problems in the long central panels.
92 It is especially the
convergence of the shadow and wing near the edge
of the picture that makes the wall seem to be immediately behind the
wing, which in turn seems to be nearly touching the frame.
93 In fact, if a wall were constructed on an
orthogonal that ran from the
lower corner of the panel to the vanishing point of the converging floor
lines, it would pass through the body of the angel.
94 Actually, because of the large amount of exposed floor, Van Eyck has
been careful to make the orthogonals of the whole floor converge within
a fairly small vanishing area near the center of the picture. Otherwise,

however, it is difficult to find three receding lines within the room that
converge in even approximately the same area. Philip's statement that
"in der Genter Verkiindigung haben wir bereits ein echtes, mathematisch
einheitliches perspectivisches Konstruktionssystem" ("Raum und Zeit,"
67) is thus quite incomprehensible. Although she goes on to explain that
the receding lines in the upper part of the Annunciationhave a different
vanishing point than those of the lower part and, in a footnote, admits
that the upper orthogonals actually only converge in a vanishing area
("Fluchtpunkt-Bezirk," p. ioo, n.5), not even this qualified description
matches the picture's space construction. Nevertheless, although Jan
van Eyck's pictorial space is empirical, not systematic, the relative precision with which the floor orthogonals converge makes possible a rather
accurate projection of the side wall and ceiling forward to the picture





x6 Detail of Fig. 13 (from Gabriel

panel) (copyright A. C. L.)


Detail of Fig. 13 (from left center panel) (copyright A. C. L.)

higher. But there are indications that the floor likewise does
not connect with the frame:95 the first row of floor tiles is
not complete, and the shadows cast by the frame, though
indistinct, appear to pass behind the horizontal members of
the frame before they connect with the vertical members
by which they are cast, as if the horizontal frame members
were raised slightly above floor level.96 If the floor is read
as being somewhat lower than the frame, this would extend
the projection of the orthogonals and enlarge the room even

more (although it would not alter the ratio of the height of

the figures to the height of the ceiling). Nevertheless,
although Jan's dual space system is a brilliant effort to
sustain the experience of several modes of interpenetrating
reality, which is characteristic of his work, the impression of
niche-like confinement of the quarters yields only slightly,
and grudgingly, to his ingenuity.
The Virgin's room contains intermingled Gothic and
Romanesque features, as do so many of Van Eyck's struc-

95 Too little notice is taken of attempts by photographers and printers

to doctor reproductions of art works and of the misleading nature of
the results. This procedure has produced a consistently misleading
impression of the exterior of the Ghent Altarpiece. An especially inept
example is the photograph in Baldass's book (pl. 85), in which, among
other things, the lines of the floor have been re-drawn in the outer
panels of the Annunciation.Less clumsy - but for that reason all the more
misleading - are the reproductions of the exterior found in Panofsky
(953, 11, fig. 274), Friedlander (x, pl. Ix), Philip (Van Eyck, pl. 2),
Dhanens (figs. 2, x6), and in the present article (Figs. 13, 15). All of these
photographs were printed from ACL neg. No. 130957, which was rephotographed from a montage in which separate prints of each panel
were mounted on photographs of the frames seen from their interiorside
(thus, for example, Adam's frame surrounds the niche, laver, and tower,
Eve's the center window). The most serious consequence of this tampering for a discussion of the space construction is that the panels are
cropped in the montage, and one and one-half rows of floor tiles are lost,
as well as the right edge of the Gabriel panel, as can be seen by comparison with Fig. 19.
96 This is especially apparent in the darker, more distinct shadow cast

towards the Virgin's gown.

Curiously, Philip seems not to have noticed that the space of the room
is larger than it seems and does not join the frame. She remarks that both
the Ghent Annunciationand the MWrodeAltarpiece "contain only as
much space as one can see" in contrast to the "remarkably advanced"
space ofJan's Dresden Altarpiece, where "the panel cuts the space of the
composition above and below in a manner which implies the forward
extension of the space toward the viewer" (Van Eyck, 128). Clearly the
latter kind of space is employed also in the Ghent Annunciation,
the former kind of space is suggested. But it is not even strictly true of the
MWrodeAltarpiece that it contains only as much space as one can see,
for whereas the floor is firmly joined to the front of the picture, both walls
disappear before they reach the picture plane and, consequently (despite
appearances), so does the ceiling (Philip, Van Eyck, pl. 82). It is possible
that Jan van Eyck may be indebted to Campin for his ambiguous space
conception, since the space constructions in the MWrodeand Ghent
works resemble one another in some respects. But in Jan's picture the
ambiguities have been coordinated so that two discrete space systems
appear to coexist without conflict and support the progression from niche
sculptures to living figures in a larger room.




18 Detail ofFig. 13 (from Virgin's panel) (copyright A. C. L.)




tures, and here, as elsewhere, the combination is symbolic.

In one sense the mixture suggests the New Jerusalem of
of Revelation 21, and "the ultimate absorption of the whole
present and the whole past in the fulfillment of the Last
Days," as Panofsky remarks.97 But in another sense the
various parts of the architecture function in contrast with
one another and in coordination with the temporal development of the drama. Three pairs of Romanesque
columns form the centerposts of three arched windows.
Since the only pair that is clearly visible is viewed almost
head on (Fig. 17), it initially appears as a single column,
and its unitary aspect in the Romanesque context suggests
the God of the Old Testament, much as the window in the
shape of three circles within a larger circle in the adjacent
Gothic niche suggests the Triune God whose persons are
revealed in the New Testament. Closer examination, however, discloses a pair of columns placed at right angles to
the wall. Paired columns on a church in the Friedsam
Annunciation were interpreted by Panofsky as the two
columns, Jachin and Boaz, made for the porch of Solomon's
temple.98 The monkey under them represented to Panofsky
the undesirable qualities that brought about man's fall.
I would suggest that it also represents man's inability to
achieve salvation sub lege, an idea even more clearly seen in
the two columns flanking Petrus Christus's Nativity in
Washington, where figures are crushed beneath their
weight.99 A pair of columns, usually separated, occurs in
other paintings by Petrus Christus and Jan van Eyck in
which the connection with man's sin and his condemnation
under the Law are equally clear.100 The unique form of the
capitals and bases of the paired columns in the Ghent
Annunciation affirms a similar relationship with Solomon's
temple. Van Eyck has designed the columns so that the
transition from the shafts to the bases and cushion capitals is
bridged by skirts of long, overlapping, petal-like forms. The
arrangement recalls the form of the two columns in Solomon's temple, Jachin and Boaz, described in I Kings 7:19,
"And the chapiters [capitella] that were upon the top of the
pillars were of lily work [opere lilii] in the porch ..." Van
Eyck, with characteristic genius, invented his own "lily
work" to verify the connection of the columns with Solomon's
temple, and hence with Mosaic Law, and simultaneously to
present the symbol of Christ lying dormant within the
temple's decoration, which establishes the continuity between the Old and New Covenants affirmed by Jesus in
Matthew 5: 17. And the moment of fulfillment is at hand,
for, as the angel speaks the holy words, the lily stalk that he
holds cuts across the "lily work" of the Romanesque
columns behind him and the real flowers seem to burst
joyously forth, fulfilling the prophecy of the stone lily work,

97 1953, I, 139.
98 Ibid., '33. Panofsky gives the painting to Hubert van Eyck; I have

published it as by Petrus Christus (J. L. Ward, "A New Look at the

Annunciation,"Art Bulletin, L, 1968, 184-87). In any case, it
directly influences or derives fromJan van Eyck's work.
99 Panofsky, 1953, 11, fig. 402.
100 Rabbits are squashed beneath the black pair of columns in Jan's

RolinMadonna(visible in the frontispiece to Baldass). For a discussion of

the symbolism,

sec my letter to the editor, Art Journal, xxvIII,

1969, 288.

An example by Petrus Christus is reproduced in Friedlainder,1,83.







xg Gabriel panel from Fig. 13 with perspective projection (copyright A. C. L.)

while the word "gracia," representing the new era of

grace, is written so that the tail of the "g" curls against one
of the stone lily petals (Fig. 2o). In a scene in which the
principal characters hover in a state between stone and
flesh, this juxtaposition is the perfect touch, the spark that
brings the scene to life.101
Not only does the middle Romanesque window seem to
refer to Jehovah, and to the temple of Solomon, but its
overall configuration resembles the form of the Mosaic
tablets. Thus the image of the Old Testament Law literally

provides a window through which to view the coming of

Christ. But the vision is of a future event as seen by the
Old Testament prophets, for the light that rises at the left
does not fall in this window, which is illuminated from the
opposite direction.
The blackness of the column shafts is suggestive not only
of the expensive materials of Solomon's temple,102 but
contrasts with the light of the rising sun. Black is the color
of the Synagogue; it symbolizes the blindness of the Jews,
the incipient sorrow of the Synagogue, and the sinfulness of


chap. xii), seems to be in the distance and enormous, although it is in

fact very close and of moderate height. It seems almost to have grown
because of contact with the prophetic branch of lilies and may symbolize
the Tree of Life. Another tree that apparently springs from Gabriel's lily
is seen in Botticelli's Uffizi Annunciation(Hartt, fig. 357) and surely
derives from Lippi's painting. The tree is even more likely to be the Tree
of Life, because of its association with the River of Water of Life as
described in Revelation 22:1-2. In Botticelli's picture there is a further
symbolic connection of foreground and background in the association of
Gabriel with a mountaintop castle and the Virgin with a walled city and
of their nearly-joined hands with the bridge that joins the two sides of the
river. In all of this, there is a remarkable resemblance to Van Eyck's
Rolin Madonna- a resemblance that I do not think coincidental.
102The biblical account specifies that the columns were brass (I Kings
his method of hidden symbolism,
7:15-i6). But Van Eyck, in keeping with
has translated them into the materials of medieval architecture.

A comparable symbolic connection of the lilies held by Gabriel with

a background form is seen in a painting that indicates an awareness of
the Ghent Altarpiece, Filippo Lippi's S. Lorenzo Annunciation
of ca. 1440.
(F. Hartt, Historyof Italian RenaissanceArt, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and
New York, 1969, colorplate 19. Note the same kind of non-specific
setting with a view into the background, the two smaller rooms at either
side, and the painted framing arches such as were planned for the Ghent
scene and actually employed in the lower niches;
Altarpiece Annunciation
their supporting piers also cast shadows into the picture as if lighted from
the exterior; note too the same expressive arrival of the divine light to
illuminate the right side of the scene, including the room behind the
Virgin, the symbolic carafe, and an implication that the background
symbolizes the Heavenly Jerusalem - achieved by the use of the same
glowing orange color in the background church and the middle angel's
radiant wings.) In Lippi's painting a tree grows immediately behind the
lilies which, because of Lippi's spatial ambiguity (for a discussion of this
see J. White, The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, London, 1957,



2o Detail of Fig. 13 (from Gabriel panel) (copyright A. C. L.)

man, condemned under the Law.103 The equation of the

dark columns with the absence of light is made more explicit in the side panels, where they merge with the shadows
of the adjoining chambers. One pair is obscured by the
white-robed angel; the other dissolves into darkness, as if in
response to the light that enters the room and falls on the
side wall. The image is clarified in hymns, cited by Laurine
Bongiorno in a discussion of Synagogue symbolism: "Let
the Synagogue in her dark hues depart" and "The Synagogue is banished enveloped in deepest black."104
The Gothic niche that appears in the other of the two
narrow panels between the Virgin and Gabriel forms an
explicit contrast with the image of the Old Testament next
to it. It takes the form of a church or shrine and is thus an
image of the Virgin herself.105 Within appears a small
window composed of three circles within a larger circle, an
emblem of the Triune God of the New Covenant.106 The
God of light opposes the darkness of the Synagogue.

103 See Bongiorno, 14, for an extensive discussion and bibliography.

104 Ibid.

See note 7.

106 See Panofsky, 1953, 1, 132 and 411, n. 1322; Tolnay, "Flemish
Paintings," 176, and 200, n. 18. Panofsky observes that the Virgin was

designated the "temple and sanctuary of the Trinity."

107 1953, I, I43108 Van Eyck, 89.
Minott, 271, gives the same interpretation to these
articles in the MWrodeAltarpiece and compares the towel with a deacon's
stole and with the towel worn by Christ when washing the disciples' feet.
109 VanEyck,91-92, fig. 97.
110Reproduced in Friedlander, ii, pl. Ioo.
111See Minott, 27I. There is an interesting resemblance between the
towels of the MWrodeand Ghent Altarpieces and the linen sheet in which
Christ is laid in Campin's Entombment
(Panofsky, 1953, I, figs. I96, 197).
In the latter work, only the front of the tomb is clearly visible, so that




The laver, basin, and towel, seen by Panofsky as an

"indoor substitute" for the "Well of Living Waters," a
symbol of the Virgin's purity, 107are re-interpreted, correctly
I think, by Lotte Brand Philip as an image of Christ's
sacrifice, which would wash his church clean of sin.108 She
also notes that the laver resembles the kind used by a
priest to wash his hands before and after mass.109 This connection is substantiated by the appearance of a laver, basin,
and towel in the painting of the Mass of Pope Gregoryfrom the
circle of Robert Campin.110 Since both this and Van Eyck's
painting derive from Campin's imagery, the identity of
meaning is clear. And since the Mass of Pope Gregory
establishes the connection between the purification and
Christ's sacrifice, that meaning is also substantiated. Additionally, these articles refer to Christ's washing of the
disciples' feet and to the sacrament of Baptism.111
In the context of the baptismal theme, the dove takes on
added significance. Its fixed position above the Virgin's
head, unlike the descending dove in all previous Annunciations, exactly corresponds to the position of the dove above
the lamb in the interior scene and recalls the words of St.
John the Baptist, recorded by St. John the Evangelist,
"He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto
me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and
remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the
Holy Ghost" (John 1:33). The dove thus remains above the
Virgin to indicate the presence of Christ within and the
baptizing of the Church with the Holy Ghost. The settling
of the Spirit on the Church and the purifying laver are prefigured respectively by the settling of the cloud and fire on
Moses' tabernacle and by the establishment of a laver near
the tabernacle to wash with (Exodus 40:30-38). The image
of the Virgin as a house for Christ and the connection with
Solomon's temple is supported by the text of the Virgin's
open book, which, according to Dhanens, refers to the
words of Solomon, "That I should build him an house"
(ii Chronicles 2:6).112
The sculptural dove above the Virgin is thus an intentional preparation for the incandescent dove of the interior,
which hovers not only over the Lamb but also over the
fountain, which, with its octagonal form, clearly suggests a

Christ is presented as if on an altar, and the idea of the Transubstantiation in the Mass seems to be suggested. The connection between the
Baptism and the Mass is made in Pietro Lorenzetti's Birth of the Virgin
(Philip, VanEyck, fig. 121 ), in which the washing of the Virgin is shown
in the center panel, and at the right women bring in a pitcher of wine
and a basket of bread covered with a towel resembling the one in the
Ghent Altarpiece. The idea represented there, I believe, is that the
Virgin, the symbol of the Church, through Baptism is being made clean
in preparation for the coming of Christ, the Bread, an idea discussed by
Philip in reference to the Ghent Annunciation(Van Eyck, 93 and n. 191).
For an extensive discussion of a painting by Giotto combining the bread
and the bath, see Don Denny, "Some Symbols in the Arena Chapel
Frescoes," Art Bulletin, Lv, 1973, 205-07. For the history of the interpretation of the washing of the feet as the Baptism of the Apostles and as
the purification before partaking of the Eucharist, see E. H. Kantorowicz,
"The Baptism of the Apostles," DumbartonOaksPapers,Ix-x, Cambridge,
Mass., 1956, 205-51.
112 Dhanens,






baptismal font.113 This pairing depicts the doctrinal equation described by St. Leo the Great, "And for every man
coming to rebirth, the water of baptism is an image of the
virginal womb whereby the same Holy Spirit who also
impregnated the Virgin impregnates the font."114
John the Baptist's words cited above concerning the
descending Spirit restate the second part of Isaiah's
prophecy (Isaiah 11:1-3) and thus recall the idea of the
rod and flower from Jesse's tree. That image is clearly
referred to in the lily stalk that the angel carries, with its
seven lilies representing the seven spirits in the prophecy.115
The Tree ofJesse and the Virgin Mary were associated by
the Church writers with Aaron's flowering rod,116 and this
reference is suggested by the substitution of the lily stalk for
the staff or scepter that Gabriel usually holds. The flowering rod represented a sign of God's choice of Aaron as his
priest - an idea supported by the liturgical vestments worn
by Gabriel - just as the lily is a sign of his choice of the
Virgin to be Christ's mother. The stalk of lilies also recalls
the miracle of Joseph's flowering rod through which God
selected him to be the Virgin's bridegroom. That event
parallels the Marriage of the Virgin to God in the person of
his surrogate, Gabriel,117 and her marriage to Christ,
which Philip sees as one of the central themes of the altarpiece.118
The theme of Christ's Second Coming, visualized in the
sunrise outside, is also referred to in the Virgin's white
clothes, the bridal gown of the Lamb's Bride (Revelation
19:7-8), and in the four objects put away in the niche
(Fig. 21). The candlestick is empty and unused because
"there shall be no night there; and they shall need no
candle ... for the Lord God giveth them light" (Revelation
22:5). The tankard is put away because Christ "will give
unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life
freely" (Revelation 21:6). The object that I take to be a

2 x Detail of Fig.

13 (from Virgin's panel)

(copyright A. C. L.)

113For a discussion of the number eight as a symbol of Baptism, see P. A.

Underwood, "The Fountain of Life in Manuscripts of the Gospels,"
DumbartonOaksPapers,v, 1950, 81-89. That the rays that descend from
the dove of the interior scene are baptizing rays is indicated by the fact
that there are eight major rays, which radiate toward each of the various
groups of the central panel: the Confessors, Prophets, Patriarchs,
Apostles, Martyrs, Virgins, and the two rows of angels that flank the
altar. (Meiss ["Light," 178] counted only seven rays, partly because
before the cleaning of the altarpiece the ray descending on the Virgins
was largely obscured and partly, perhaps, because he was expectingonly
seven rays in connection with the Holy Spirit.) The original frame of
the central scene originally had on it the eight Beatitudes, each of which
corresponded to a group of worshippers, but according to Philip's reconstruction the groups in the wings would have been included and the
angels excluded from these blessings ( Van Eyck, 105-06).

'1' PL, LIV, 2o6A, quoted by Tanner (p. 18, n. 46). A similar formulation is given by Rupert of D)eutz (quoted by Underwood, 75) whom
Dhanens believes to be the source of much of the imagery of the altarpiece (Dhanens, 88-ioo). The conspicuously bare, immaculately clean
eet of the apostles refer to Christ's washing of their feet before the Last
Supper and are understood as having been cleansed in preparation for
the partaking of the Eucharist, an idea recognized by Joos van Ghent
when he borrowed the motif in his Communion
of theApostles(Friedlinder,
III, pl. o0 ).

The significance of the three closed lilies is not clear to me, but the
lily stalk that appears on the interior of the altarpiece also has seven
lilies, of which three are closed. They may possibly signify the Trinity.
Since it is probable that the Ghent Altarpiece was completed before the
Washington Annunciationwas painted (see note 74), it may be that Jan
had not yet conceived the idea of letting the opened lilies signify the
descent of the septiform Spirit. In the Washington painting, however,
the descent of the Spirit responds to the growth of the lilies upward. In
the Ghent Altarpiece the dove is stationary above the Virgin and
separated from the lilies, which are brought by Gabriel. The different
context, then, may be the reason for the different numbers of opened and
unopened lilies.
116For the connection of the Tree ofJesse, see Schiller, I, 26, and fig. 22;
for the comparison with the Virgin, see St. Peter Damien, PL, CXLIV,



S. Bruno d'Asti, PL, CLXV, 884; Lutz and Perdrizet, i, io, and ii,

of theNativityof Christ,Uppsala, 1924,

fig. 16; H. Cornell, The Iconography
chap. iii.

117The Old Testament clearly suggests that God's messengers were

regarded as manifestations of him (Genesis 16:7-13; 18:1-33; Exodus
3:2-6; Judges 13:I-22).
(PL, XLII, 857-59).

St. Augustine

takes up this point in De trinitate

Van Eyck, 78-97. Carla Gottlieb also argues that the marriage of
Christ to the Virgin is one of the central concepts represented in this
scene (Gottlieb, 75-97).







stoppered flask of balm for soothing wounds119 is not

needed because "God shall wipe away all tears from their
eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor
crying, neither shall there be any pain" (Revelation 21:4).
And the books are put away because the prophecies have
been fulfilled and the Word can be seen face to face.
The rooms that appear behind Gabriel and the Virgin
have been interpreted by Philip as the prothesis and diaconicon, two ecclesiastical annex rooms flanking the apse in
Early Christian architecture.120 Carla Gottlieb has accepted this view but draws a distinction between the function
of the rooms: the prothesis contained the Eucharist and,
later, tombs; the diaconicon was used to store the Scriptures,
liturgical vessels, vestments, and offerings.121 She interprets
the room at the left as emblematic of Christ's crib and tomb
and the room at the right as the bridal chamber of the
Incarnation.122 The latter meaning is apparent whether or
not the ecclesiastical significance of the rooms is accepted.
Less self-evident is the interpretation of the left room as a
tomb; however, this association is supported by the images
of resurrection that surround it: the blooming lilies (they
appear as a heavenly flower on the interior of the altarpiece),
the light that dawns outside the window, and possibly the
angel, who suggests the angel that appeared on Christ's
One of the most subtly concealed but symbolically suggestive images in the painting is contained within the
Virgin's response. This is the pair of "l's" in the word
"ancilla," which catch the viewer's eye by being almost
twice the size of the "1" in the word "plena," spoken by
Gabriel. These golden letters echo the form of the two
yellow patches of sunlight beside the Virgin. This light was
discussed above as a symbol of Christ; Philip suggests that
its double form symbolizes Christ's double nature, God and
man.123 "Ancilla" designates the Virgin herself ("Behold the
handmaid of the Lord"), so that the symbolic image of
Christ is represented within the body of the Virgin, just as
the light on the wall is contained within a room that
represents the Virgin's body124 as well as her bridal chamber.125 The pair of "l's" may signify the Lux Mundi or the
Logos, the Word within a word. In the discussion of the
Washington Annunciation I pointed out that the medieval
Church writers believed that the Virgin's consent was re-

quired for the conception to occur. William S. Heckscher, in

his extensive study of this question, shows further that it was
thought that the conception took place at precisely the
moment when the Virgin pronounced her words, and that
"it is humility rather than virginity (and other virtues)
which singles out Mary to be impregnated by the holy
Spirit."126 It is especially fitting, then, that Jan employs the
very word by which the Virgin signifies her humble assent
as an image of the conception, witnessed by Micah in the
attic above.
I pointed out earlier that the pair of black columns beneath the Virgin's words signify the Old Testament Law,
under which man was condemned in his sin, which is replaced here by the era of grace. The two columns seem to
disappear against the darkness of the chamber walls and are
supplanted by the two golden "l's," symbolic columns signifying that Christ has accepted the cumulative burden of
man's sin, which he will pay for by his death.127
Taken by itself, then, the Annunciation scene is so arranged that it describes the present, past and future, and
combines the considerable physical presence of the figures
and space with the hidden meanings that saturate and
transfigure everything. In the context of the whole altarpiece, the Annunciationforms not only the symbolic, but also
the expressive link between the physical and spiritual
Van Eyck's donors, shown below, begin their meditation
by addressing the stone figures of St. John the Baptist,
prophet of the First Coming, and St. John the Evangelist,
prophet of the Second Coming (Fig. 15). But Jodocus Vijd's
eyes are unfocused, and the scene above, which depicts both
events, appears to be a vision in his mind's eye of the two
prophecies. The Annunciation at first seems sculptural and
fixed, but begins to change its character as the viewer
becomes aware of its ambiguities of space, light, and time,
and of its all-pervasive symbolism. One's transition from
meditation on material forms to experience of a celestial
vision is completed when the altarpiece is opened to reveal
the New Heaven and the New Earth depicted in their
brilliant colors. This transformation reverses the process of
the Incarnation, so the movement between substance and
spirit flows in both directions.128
Although they were painted within a few years of one

119I have not been able to find an example of a flask that closely resembles this object, but there is a general resemblance to some representations of Mary Magdalen's ointment jar (Davies, pl. 77) and to some of
the gifts of the Magi (Friedlander, v, pl. 2). It is perhaps significant that
the gift of myrrh, an aromatic gum resin, was associated with Christ's
But the presence of the
death and with Christ as doctor (Schiller, I,
the words "Oleum effusum
oil vase may have been based primarily on lo6).
nomen tuum" (Song of Solomon 1:2 [3]), which Philippe de BonneEsp6rance associates with the healing oil of Christ's mercy (PL, ccIII,

prophecy: "Ex te egredietur qui sit dominator in Israel" ("Out of thee

shall he come forth that is to be the ruler in Israel"), especially since
Van Eyck has placed the word egredieturimmediately above the word
ancilla (see Fig. I5).
126The quotation is from p. 61, n. 36. See also pp. 55, 58, and 6o-61.
127This concept is very close to the arrangement of the Rolin Madonna,
where the Infant Christ's blessing gesture cuts across one of a pair of
black columns, thereby, through grace, relieving man from judgment
under the Law, signified by the columns that crush diminutive rabbits
beneath them (Baldass, frontispiece, also see note II7).
128To be sure, the New Heaven and New Earth revealed within the
altarpiece cannot be called ethereal; they have almost as much substance
as Campin would have given them. But a comparison with Adam and
Eve, with their stronger illumination and plasticity, and shown di sottoin
su, affirms that this is a more transcendent world and, in a Platonic sense,
one of greater reality where, as St. Paul said, we no longer see through a
glass, darkly (or by hidden symbols), but face to face.

120 Philip,

121 Gottlieb,

Van Eyck, 92-93.


Ibid., 83-85;


123 Van
Eyck, 87 and n. I78.
Gottlieb, 96; Philip, VanEyck,86-87.
125Even the fact that the "l's" are not visually contained within the
word but extend out of it seems significant in the light of Micah's





another and are invested with much the same significance,

the AnnunciationsofJan van Eyck in Washington and Ghent
differ radically in appearance and effect. In the Washington
panel Jan compressed more symbolism than ever appeared
in his work before or after; in the Ghent painting he employed ambiguities of space, light, and time to transport the
viewer from the physically immediate to the spiritually
transcendent.129 Each work represents a pursuit to the
limit of an alternative means of linking substance and
significance; each in its own way stands unrivaled.

Selected Bibliography
Baldass, L., Jan vanEyck,London, 1952.
Bongiorno, L. M., "The Theme of the Old and the New Law in the
Arena Chapel," TheArtBulletin,L, 1968, I 1-20.
Coremans, P., L'agneau mystiqueau laboratoire(Lesprimitifsflamands,
III, 2), Antwerp, 1953.
Davies, M., Rogiervan derWeyden,London, 1972.
Dhanens, E., VanEyck: The GhentAltarpiece(Art in Context),New
York, 1973Friedlander, M. J., Early Netherlandish Painting, 14 vols. to be

University of Florida

(trans. and new ed. of Die altniederldndisheMalerie,

I924-37), Leyden and Brussels, I967ff.

Gottlieb, C., " 'En ipse stat post parietem nostrum': The Symbolism of the Ghent 'Annunciation,"' Brussels.MusdesRoyauxdes
Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bulletin, xix, I97o, 75-100oo.

Heckscher, W. S., "The Annunciation of the MWrodeAltarpiece;

An Iconographic


Miscellanea Jozef Duverger, Ghent,


Lutz, J., and P. Perdrizet, Speculumhumanaesalvationis, Mulhouse,


in One..., London,
Mayer, J. ManyCommentaries
Meiss, M., "Light as Form and Symbol in Some FifteenthCentury Paintings," The Art Bulletin, xxvii, i945, 175-81.
Migne, J. P., ed., Patrologiae cursus completus. Series Latina, 221

vols., Paris, 1844-1864.

Minott, C. I., "The Theme of the MWrode Altarpiece,"
Bulletin, LI, 1969, 267-71.

The Art

Panofsky, E., Early Netherlandish

Painting, Its Originsand Character,
2 vols., Cambridge, Mass., 1953
Philip, L. B., The GhentAltarpieceand the Art of Jan van Eyck,
Princeton, 1971.
Schiller, G., Ikonographie
Kunst,5 vols. to be published,
Giintersloh, 1966ff.

129 In comparison with the equally brilliant Washington Annunciation,

the Ghent Altarpiece is designed to be more directly perceived and felt,

even by viewers who fail to notice the symbolism. Although much of the
symbolism of the Washington painting has passed unnoticed for centuries
without preventing great enjoyment of it, and although, as this paper has
tried to show, there is an astonishing marriage of symbolic meaning and
expressive form in that picture as well, it should be equally clear that in
it Jan permitted himself to indulge in an intricate complexity of concealed and interwoven meanings perhaps comparable only to that in
Finnegan'sWake.And this panel seems to have been merely one wing of a
triptych! One staggers at the thought of sustaining this degree of complexity through two more panels. In view of the conceptual difference
between the paintings (partly the result of Hubert's original plan), I
believe that the Ghent Altarpiece was consciously conceived so that it
would be impressive to all the different people who would visit the Vijd
Chapel. On the other hand, the Washington Annunciation,even in a
period that abounded in symbolism, is so complex that much of its
meaning could never have been apparent to any except very highly
educated men. This fact leads me to wonder whether the painting might
not have been done for Philip the Good of Burgundy, Jan's patron from
1425 until his death. Remarkably, although there is ample evidence of
Philip's high regard for Jan's artistry (Panofsky, 1953, 1, 179), not a
single existing work by Jan is known to have been done for him. It has
recently been plausibly argued, however, that Van Eyck's St. Jeromein
His Study, a symbolic portrait of Cardinal Albergati, may have been a
gift from the Duke to the Cardinal at the Treaty of Arras in 1435 in
gratitude for his part in bringing about this conclusion to the Hundred
Years' War (E. C. Hall, "Cardinal Albergati, St. Jerome and the
Detroit Van Eyck," Art Quarter', xxxI.

1Q68, 2-34;

E. C. Hall, "More

about the Detroit Van Eyck: The Astrolabe, the Congress of Arras and
Cardinal Albergati," Art Quarterly,xxxiv, 1971, 18o-2o0). (A more
plausible date than 1435 for the St. Jerome, however, is 1432. This
accords better with the style and space construction and with the date
the Cardinal visited Bruges [December i43i]. Since Albergati was
already then arranging for the peace settlement, there is no reason why
the Duke could not have had Jan do the painting at that time in anticipation of the event. The date that Hall reads on the astrolabe could have
been painted in when the date of the treaty signing was set.) Panofsky
has also shown that another symbolic portrait, the "Timotheos," is
probably a likeness of Guillaume Dufay, court musician to Philip
(Panofsky, I953, I, 196-97). The extremely inventive iconography of
both works is evidence of the Duke's appreciation of the most subtly concealed meanings inJan's work. What better recipient, then, for this, Jan's
most symbolically intricate painting, than Philip? The fact that the
panel was supposed to have been in Dijon until the I9th century supports
the idea that it was painted for Philip, as Friedlander noted (Friedlander,


The extremely intricate and erudite symbolism in Jan's paintings that

has been studied here raises a final question: to what extent was he
responsible for it ? It seems very likely that he needed, and had available
religious scholars to consult. But as has been shown, Van Eyck's symbolism is so inextricably wed to the form of his paintings that it is unthinkable that in the works studied here he could have followed an
iconographic plan preconceived by an advisor or patron. Moreover, there
is a repetition and development of the same or related images and symbols throughout Jan's work that indicates that he was to a great extent
responsible for their selection and arrangement.