For a biography of Joos van Cleve, see the Catalogue Entry for The Holy Family
).The Subject of the Painting:
In a well-appointed domestic interior, the angel Gabriel suddenly appears, interrupting the Virgin in the midst of her daily devotions. As described in the Gospel of Saint Luke (1:26–38), Gabriel has come at God’s behest to announce to Mary that she will conceive and give birth to a son, who will be called Jesus. The dove, or Holy Spirit, descends upon the Virgin at the same moment that Gabriel raises his right hand in blessing. The use of actual gold in the painting is limited to the rays of the dove and the flame of the candle at the upper left. As the room is flooded with natural light from the open window, the purpose of the lit candle is not to provide illumination, but instead to signal the presence of God at the Incarnation.
Although the Virgin’s bedchamber is replete with objects of symbolic significance, just as in Joos’s Holy Family
), these are displayed unobtrusively, as if naturally part of a sixteenth-century household setting in Antwerp. Such a robust presentation has a precedent in fifteenth-century painting, namely in the Annunciation
of the Merode Altarpiece
), but it never became commonplace. The multiple references of everyday material goods to biblical narratives and doctrines of faith are intended to guide the viewer through his or her devotional meditations. The Virgin kneels at her prie-dieu, reading from a lavishly illustrated Book of Hours (see fig. 3 above). Although difficult to discern, the partially-visible illuminated page therein appears to show a thin tree trunk encircled by a snake next to a naked figure. If so, this could be a reference to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their sinful acts that would be redeemed by Christ’s Incarnation and sacrifice on the cross at the Crucifixion.
The Virgin’s private worship, likewise, could take place at the house altar behind her. The exterior wings represent Old Testament prophets, while the interior shows the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, an Old Testament prefiguration of the Last Supper. This house altar is displayed on a wooden cabinet, decorated at the center front with a figure of Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. A further juxtaposition of Old and New Testament references is in the hand-colored woodcut, tacked to the wall, of another image of Moses holding the Ten Commandments beside the chandelier, a symbol of the Virgin (Panofsky 1935, p. 453 n. 32). The depiction of Moses with horns derives from the description of his head as “cornuta” (“horned”) in the Latin Vulgate translation of Exodus 34:29–30, 35, when he returned from receiving the Ten Commandments from God.
The placement of the dove between the Moses print and the Virgin suggests a transition from the era under law, indicated by the Ten Commandments held by Moses, to the era under grace, initiated by the Incarnation (Hand 2004, p. 198).
Allusions to Mary’s chastity and purity are further signaled by the lilies in the vase, and the basin and ewer with the white folded towel. The Virgin’s nuptial bed (called the thalamus virginis
), with its fancy tasseled canopy, gold-framed mirror, and casually placed pillow refer as much to a contemporary well-to-do Antwerp residence as they do to the familiar setting for the Annunciation.
An interesting question is the extent to which such a detailed depiction documents actual domestic interiors in Antwerp, or aims mainly to promote Catholic devotional practice at a time when Protestant Reformers were questioning the validity of imagery for religious worship. From documentary evidence, it seems that both may have been intended. Inventories of household goods mention small triptychs that were displayed on top of wooden cabinets or kept within them until they were brought out for use (Jacobs 2012, p. 17). Single-leaf woodcuts, elaborately illuminated prayer books, and paintings were all readily available and staples of the Antwerp art market. The possession and use of such devotional aids, however, must be seen against the growing religious turbulence of the times. As Annette LeZotte has pointed out (LeZotte 2008, p. 120), the threat to Catholic doctrine in Antwerp was dealt with firmly by the prohibition by Emperor Charles V in 1521 of the writings of Martin Luther, the establishment of the Commission of the Inquisition in The Netherlands by Pope Adrian VI in 1522, and, in the same year, the expulsion of the Antwerp Augustinian Order for being sympathetic to Luther’s teachings. In 1525, around the date when The Met’s Annunciation
was painted, the first execution for heresy was carried out in Antwerp, and the initial incidents of iconoclasm occurred there.The Commission or Patron:
Although the Annunciation is a popular theme in early Netherlandish painting, The Met’s panel is the only known example in Joos van Cleve’s oeuvre. This fact, as well as the relatively large size, high quality, and considerable care taken with every aspect of its production, suggest that it was a commissioned work (Leeflang 2015, p. 134). The frustrating absence of any visible clues in the painting confound confirmation of this hypothesis. However, one intriguing but currently unverifiable piece of evidence may imply that the Annunciation
once had wings that depicted the donors of a triptych comprising this panel. An 1869 catalogue of the collection of Colonel Meyrick of Goodrich Court, Heresfordshire (a previous owner of the Annunciation
; see Provenance), exhibited at the South Kensington Museum, London, notes that “shutters…representing a Flemish nobleman, his wife and child, with various saints” were displayed in the same case with the Annunciation
. The lack of further details, such as dimensions of the panels, and the disappearance of the “shutters” thereafter in any mention of the Annunciation
, leave this matter open to question. Given the iconography of this painting at a time of growing Protestant Reformist views, the patrons were most likely Catholics.The Attribution and Date:
Despite an early attribution to Ludwig Schongauer in an 1896 auction catalogue (see Refs.), Georges Hulin de Loo (1902), followed by W. H. James Weale (1902), set the record straight in their catalogues for the famous Bruges 1902 exhibition—Exposition des primitifs flamands et d'art ancien
—in which this painting appeared. Here the Annunciation
was assigned to the Master of the Death of the Virgin, who subsequently became universally known as Joos van der Beke alias van Cleve.
For the composition of the Annunciation
, Joos must have recalled the panel with this subject in the Altarpiece of the Life of Christ
for the Stadtpfarrkirche Sankt Nicolai in Kalkar on which he assisted Jan Joest, his mentor. However, the fully volumetric figures of Gabriel and the Virgin, which comfortably inhabit a well-designed and convincing space, indicate Joos van Cleve’s mature period, about 1525. The Virgin reminds us of the beautifully rendered physiognomy and tender expression of the Virgin in the Virgin and Child
, also of about 1525 and in The Met's collection (1982.60.47
). In considering not just the sense of movement conveyed by Gabriel, but also the elegance of the figure’s pose, Joos looked again to the examples of Gerard David in Bruges (see discussion for Joos van Cleve, 32.100.57
). In particular, he was influenced by the Gabriel in David’s Annunciation
of 1506 (50.145.9ab
), produced as part of the Cervara Altarpiece, an Italian commission of Vincenzo Sauli. In so doing, he assimilated the Italianate canon of beauty of David’s Gabriel, as well as a notable grace of movement expressed by the figure’s pose and by the elegantly swirling draperies. Even Gabriel’s brocade cope with its decorative jeweled edges and the bluish tone of his alb were inspired by David’s Gabriel.
As noted above, the careful planning that went into the production of this painting from its inception suggests a commissioned work. As is typical of Joos’s mature paintings, the underdrawing was carried out in a spontaneous, sketchy, and very direct manner in a dry material, perhaps black chalk (Ainsworth 1982; Leeflang 2015, p. 40; see fig. 1 and Technical Notes). A color indication on Gabriel’s right sleeve—"wp" for wit paars
—indicates pre-planning for the paint stage. Although the figures received the fullest attention at the preliminary underdrawing stage, Joos also carefully planned the placement of all of the objects in the room. It thus remains one of the most important painted examples of what a domestic interior in early-sixteenth-century Antwerp must have looked like, as well as a statement of Catholic doctrine on the eve of the Reformation.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2018
 David M. Robb, “The Iconography of the Annunciation in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries,” Art Bulletin
18 (1936), pp. 452–53 n. 32.
 The one here of Moses is thought to have been produced by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (see Hyatt Mayor 1971).
 My thanks to John Hand for alerting me to this exhibition catalogue (Curatorial Files, correspondence of January 30, 2001).
 For a discussion of Joos van Cleve’s use of color notations in his paintings, see Leeflang 2015, pp. 55–58.