Locating the Annunciation in a private chamber, this small panel is strongly influenced by early Netherlandish painting. However, it shows the biblical event as a legal transaction: instead of addressing the Virgin, the Archangel delivers his message in a document with three wax seals, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. The document substantiates the truth of Gabriel’s Annunciation and is proof of the new covenant between God and humanity. Mary crosses her hands over her heart in acquiescence.
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]
The linden wood support, which has a vertically oriented grain, has been thinned to .95 centimeter and cradled. The panel displays a mild washboard effect in areas corresponding to the vertical cradle members. A split to the left of center extends the full height of the panel, while a shorter split to the right of center extends from the bottom edge. Tiny chip losses along the perimeter indicate that the panel was trimmed; a remnant of a scored line is found along the bottom edge. A plain-weave fabric is adhered to the face of the panel beneath the white ground and the thin white priming layer. The gilding on Gabriel’s staff, crown, and stole, on Mary’s halo, and on the hems of the garments is adhered with a pale yellow mordant. Underdrawing with a liquid black medium can be seen with the naked eye in areas of loss and through thinly painted passages. Infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 1) revealed a fully realized composition with several minor differences from the painted state. The rear section of the double-arched window behind Gabriel initially opened onto greenery but was covered by the artist with mauve paint. Overall, the paint layers are in good condition, although there is some abrasion in the Virgin’s face. The color of Gabriel’s alb was originally a deeper pink but has altered owing to fading of a red-lake pigment. [2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
?Milly Dominic, Perugia; sale, Finarte Semenzato, Abbazia San Gregorio, Venice, November 20, 2004, no. 37, as Attributed to Adriaen Isenbrandt, to Salander; Julie and Lawrence Salander, New York (2004–5)
Bruges. Groeningemuseum. "Van Eyck to Dürer," October 29, 2010–January 30, 2011, no. 123.
Maryan Ainsworth in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2004–2005." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 63 (Fall 2005), p. 15, ill. (color), attributes it to a German painter of the Upper Rhine and dates it about 1440; states that it "exemplifies the influence of Netherlandish art on fifteenth-century German painting"; suggests that the inscription over the windows and door at left is the Hebrew word "b'terem," referring to God incarnate in Mary's womb; notes that the document held by Gabriel with three red seals symbolizing the Trinity is seen often in South German representations of the Annunciation and serves to depict God's new covenant with mankind as a legal transaction.
Till-Holger Borchert inVan Eyck to Dürer: Early Netherlandish Painting & Central Europe, 1430–1530. Exh. cat., Groeningemuseum, Bruges. Tielt, Belgium, 2010, pp. 27, 287, 526, no. 123, ill. (color).
Maryan W. Ainsworth inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 264–66, 323, no. 61, ill. (color) and fig. 211 (infrared reflectogram).