This rare early German panel is masterfully painted with a miniaturist’s execution and an appealing palette that favors warm rose and purplish tones; the liberal gold embellishments of the garments and accouterments enhance its precious quality. The framing of the scene with columns at each side, surmounted by decoratively carved corbels, may be borrowed from contemporary engravings, especially those by Master E.S., a South German artist. The idiosyncratic style and rather quirky charm of the painting derive from the topsy-turvy perspective of the room, which is filled with an abundance of furniture and objects from everyday life. The underdrawing of the painting indicates that many details were changed from the preparatory drawing to the final painted version: the divisions of the coffered ceiling were adjusted when painted, while horizontal divisions in its rear section were not painted at all; an arched lead-glass window in the upper left wall was drawn but not painted; the Virgin’s dress was drawn with a wider spread as it spills out from the bench and lectern; and Gabriel’s wings were drawn lower and farther forward. Most important, Mary’s eyes were repositioned to gaze in Gabriel’s direction instead of at the viewer.
The panel exemplifies the influence of early Netherlandish painting of the first half of the fifteenth century. In particular, it recalls works attributed to the Master of Flémalle, such as the Virgin and Child in an Interior (before 1432; National Gallery, London). The Museum’s painting mimics, in its own naïve way, numerous details of that panel, including the general relationship of the figures to their space, the wood-planked ceiling supported by corbels with similarly undulating carved profiles, the tipped-up perspective of the floor tiles, a background window with shutters identically opened onto a landscape view, and the red brocade bench with rumpled red pillow.
What distinguishes this representation from Netherlandish examples is that Gabriel’s annunciation is delivered in a written document with three red wax seals dangling from it. Such images appeared in art from the mid-fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth century and were particularly common in Central Europe. The appearance of a document in the Annunciation links the event to Kanzleiwesen (chancery affairs) and frames it in terms of a legal transaction. Thus, the document, certified by seals symbolizing the Holy Trinity, substantiates the truth of Gabriel’s message and is proof of the new covenant between God and humanity. As portrayed in the Gospel of Luke (1:29–38), Mary’s initial fear and confusion—even disbelief—at Gabriel’s news eventually turns to acceptance.
Of further interest, as Waterman has pointed out (in departmental archives), is the relationship of the language of German legal documents to the word "annunciation." The standard German formula for the beginning of an official text involved the expression kund tun, to make known or announce. The word kund is the stem for verkünden, the German for "to announce," and a variation of that, of course, is Verkündigung, or "annunciation." Therefore, in late medieval Germany, there was even a linguistic connection between legal documents and the Annunciation.
When this painting first appeared at auction in 2004, it was attributed erroneously to Adriaen Isenbrandt. Subsequently, it became connected with German art of the Upper Rhine, and it was presented thus by Borchert (2010). In terms of its tipped-up perspective view in a narrow tunnel space, abundance of genre detail, and doll-like figures, it is stylistically quite close to the panels in Liège, Modena, and Venice that comprise part of the so-called German-Netherlandish Altarpiece, attributed to a South German, possibly Bavarian, painter by Borchert and to the Covarrubias Master by Brinkmann. The Metropolitan’s painting is not by the same master, who favors ruddier flesh tones and different facial types, more elaborate drapery folds, and a palette of primary hues of red and blue rather than the pink, mauve, and blue-greens seen here. However, both painters have connections with manuscript illumination—the MMA panel’s artist with the scale of miniature painting and its minutely executed brushwork, and the "Bavarian Master" with the illustration of the Turin-Milan Hours in the post-Van Eyck workshop in Bruges. The painter of the Museum’s work is perhaps an itinerant artist who assimilated traits of the Netherlandish paintings he encountered, blending them with his own Upper Rhenish style.
[2014; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]