Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Symbolism in the Annunciation by Joos van Cleve

Joos van Cleve, Annunciation, c. 1525. 34 x 31 1/2 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Detail of Annunciation by Joos van Cleve
Although the art of the last one hundred twenty years is what I most enjoy focusing on,  when I really want to get completely absorbed in a painting nothing wins out over Renaissance images of the Madonna, especially Annunciation scenes.  The symbolism, detail and the softness are comforting.  The smaller paintings were made to be private devotional paintings to meditated upon in prayer.  I highly recommend going to the Met on a weekday morning and taking a stroll through the Northern Renaissance galleries as a way to de-stress.  I could ponder for hours over the symbology in the religious paintings there.
            The Annunciation by Joos van Cleve c. 1525 is a perfect example of the use of Marion symbolism in Renaissance art.  It is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I never miss the opportunity to stand in front of it and drink it in.  The Virgin is the second most portrayed religious figure in Renaissance art with only Christ surpassing her.  She is the only major female figure in Christianity; an intercessor between humans and God.  She was less intimidating to pray to than God but with a higher status than the saints. 
            There is so much to be learned from the symbolism in Joos van Cleve’s Annunciation.  Symbolism was important at the time for several reasons but was especially important because of the fact that most people were illiterate yet familiar with the religious symbology of the church.  A painting could tell stories from the bible with no words. 
            The story of the Annunciation is told in Luke 1:26-38.  It is when the angel Gabriel is sent down from heaven to inform Mary that she is to conceive the Son of God through the Holy Spirit.  The painting depicts the moment of high drama with the Holy Spirit, represented as the dove, descends upon Mary.  Mary wears a blue cloak, as she almost always does in art, to identify her.  Blue is also associated with truth and heavenly love.  She wears white underneath to indicate her purity.  There is a 15th century theological code for the meaning of colors written by Saint Antoninus that van Cleve would very likely have been aware of.  The lilies in the vase on the floor next to her represent her purity and they are present in all Annunciation scenes.
            Gabriel, the archangel that delivers messages from God, is coming in from the left and also wears blue.  His cloak is green and red – green is the color of Spring and the triumph of life over death.  Red, in this case, stands for martyrdom and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  He holds his hand up in benediction, a blessing done over the Eucharist during Mass and a reference to God becoming flesh and blood through Mary.
            Every part of this painting tells a story.  A book could be filled to explain the meaning of every object in the image from the mirror over the bed to the lit candle and even to the visible clouds outside of the open window.  It is a piece that is not only priceless due to the skill of the artist but to the knowledge it has offered up to the viewer for the last five hundred years.  As well as the knowledge and beauty it will continue to offer for generations to come.

1 comment:

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