This picture of the Annunciation is from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck. The first time I saw this amazing masterpiece was on a card that my friend Paul sent me. We had it hanging on the corkboard in our dining room for years. You can see images of the entire altarpiece here. When I had to write a term paper for an art class, I chose this work for my subject. The painting is filled with a myriad of symbols. The longer you look; the more you see. This is a section of that paper in honor of the Feast of the Annunciation.
The archangel Gabriel appears in the first panel of the middle register of the closed masterpiece, holding a lily, a symbol of purity and pointing heavenward, his words, in gold, proceed from his mouth across this and the next panel towards Mary, “Ave gratia plena Dominus tecum.” “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” The scene continues through the next two panels to Mary in the fourth. Her reply to Gabriel, “Ecce ancilla Domini,” in English, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” is written upside down, perhaps because it is addressed to heaven. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove is hovering over, or overshadowing her, emanating three rays of light, symbolic of the Trinity and crowned with a halo.
On the windowsill behind Mary, there is a bulbous vase, like a pregnant womb with a tight neck. In Divine Domesticity: Augustine of Thagaste to Teresa of Avila, Marjorie O’Roarke Boyle says that in the Middle Ages this was a symbol of Mary’s perpetual virginity. She says that in this painting van Eyck, “. . . uses natural light striking the Virgin from the right, symbolizing through its penetration of the window (and also the vase) her incorruptible virginity.”
Behind her left shoulder, there are shelves holding items that speak of the time before her Fiat. There are two vessels, both solid and closed, but with the same bulbous shape, waiting to be filled. An empty candlestick awaits the “light of the world.” There are two closed books, perhaps the law and the prophets. Alva William Steffler in Symbols of the Christian Faith says that, “When Mary is depicted holding a book, as she is in Flemish altarpieces, it is usually closed. Tradition has linked this closed book to the reference in Psalm 139:16: ‘In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.’” (Now, though, she kneels before an open book on which can be read the words, “So that I can build for him a house.” These words can apply both to the donors of the altarpiece who are building a house for the Lord and to Mary who is making within herself a place for Jesus.
In the third panel, between Gabriel and Mary, there are additional emblems of purity: a small tri-partite window, again symbolizing the Trinity, from which hangs a brass ewer with a wash basin below. Hanging next to these is a white towel. These might also recall the washing of the priest’s hands before the Consecration during the Mass when he uses similar items.
When these four panels are taken as a whole, they are somewhat disorienting because the middle two panels seem not to belong between the outer two. Indeed, they appear to split the outer scene in half and the middle window is much larger than the others. When the middle panels are removed and the images of Gabriel and Mary are fitted together, we see three arches, symbolizing the Trinity with the middle arch framing a window with two parts, signifying the dual nature of the second Person of the Trinity.