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Blessed news in a bedchamber

05 April 2013

Pamela Tudor-Craig on a betrothal and two annunciations


Mary's "whole being listens": The Virgin Annunciate, attributed to the Master of the Prado Adora­tion of the Magi

Mary's "whole being listens": The Virgin Annunciate, attributed to the Master of the Prado Adora­tion of the Magi

MANY of our favourite images of the annunciation were painted in the Italian Quattrocento, and set in quiet courtyards or shady cloisters. Looking at them is like entering San Marco's in Florence from the busy square outside. Fra Angelico's fresco at the head of the stairs ushers in the sequence. Ah! we think: round arches carried by circular columns: the beginning of the classical revival. Haven't we just passed the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, where these cool arcades dance the length of the square? Indeed; but Brunelleschi found his prototypes among 12th-century cloisters, not classical ones.

If 15th-century Italian Virgins sought the shade of the cloister on bright March days, their sisters in our more northerly climes were not so confident of mild weather. The Virgins of Ghent and Bruges in the early 15th century were less likely to be surprised out of doors. The Master of Flemalle painted his voluminous Virgin crouching by the fireplace downstairs. More frequently, the momentous event takes place in her bedchamber.

The provision of such a dignified and quietly splendid apartment in the houses of the prosperous merchant classes was a milestone in the economic history of the Low Countries (and of London, for that matter). It was recorded for all time in Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriageof 1434 (National Gallery). Superficially, this is a thoroughly secular painting. Every joint and fret of the furniture is so carefully described that replicas can be made up after careful analysis. 

The window is shuttered below and glazed above, so that even in cold weather some light can penetrate. The shutters are open; so the day is fairly clement. Something of the same arrangement can be experienced today in the eastern arm of the cloisters at Westminster Abbey, though there the shutters are missing.

The levée, for which the scene is the master bedroom, we imagine in terms of Louis XIV or William of Orange. The wonderful survival of the complete parure for getting up and spending the morning very publicly about it, at Ham House, led on to the first scene of Hogarth's Rake's Progress. It was a far more ancient custom than these examples suggest. The main piece of furniture in Henry III's Painted Chamber of the 13th century was his great bed, guarded by painted soldiers of Solomon and flanked by the full-size painting of the coronation of his sainted predecessor, Edward the Confessor. We may well muse, as we gaze at the ceiling paintings above the royal beds at Hampton Court, that the bed was invested with only just less dignity than the throne.

As illuminated miniatures describe them, from c.1400 great ladies of European courts entertained their entourages in chambers where the focus, and virtually the only comfortable seat, was the four-poster bed. Down the social ladder, the four-poster, with its curtains firmly closed, afforded the only certain privacy in the house. Here it stands, with one corner curtain looped up, behind Jan Arnolfini's demure bride, Giovanna Cenami. Both partners hailed from merchant families in Lucca, the city pre-eminent in the previous century for the most glorious brocades. A generation later, Giovanni Arnolfini spent most of his time in Bruges, centre of the thriving wool trade.

Both partners are warmly clad in fur-lined woollen materials, needed in the colder climate that gripped northern Europe from the 15th till the 17th century. Her swaying pose and the sheer bulk of her green robe do not suggest, as we might think, that Giovanna is already pregnant. The European 15th century particularly admired the tender and vulnerable appearance of six months into pregnancy: look again at the five virginal ladies in Botticelli's Primavera.

The gestures of this serious couple show them to be in the act of plighting their troth. His right hand is raised towards her in a gesture of blessing. Her right hand is laid, palm open, in his left. He is not returning her loving gaze. (I doubt whether this desiccated gentleman was much given to loving gazes.) He looks straight at the witness to this solemn moment. If we approach too near, we get in the way, and, in theory, come before that witness; for, in the convex mirror that hangs behind them, painted in microscopic detail, is the essential recorder of this transaction, the artist himself in distorted reflection. The legal mode in which he has written his signature - Johannes de Eyck fuit hic: 1434 - above the mirror declares the formal intention.

In the smaller roundels around that mirror are scenes from the life of Christ. Her rosary hangs beside it, and only one candle is lit in the magnificent chandelier. For all its domestic detail, this is a sacred picture. The groom has taken off his clogs to respect holy ground, and her shaggy little dog is first cousin to those who lie at the feet of Giovanna's contemporaries beside their knightly husbands on our alabaster tombs. The 15th century took troth-plighting as seriously as the ceremony of matrimony.

Van Eyck's wholly convincing setting of this domestic interior was absorbed into the vocabulary of Flemish painting as the appropriate context for the scene of the annunciation. Two examples of variations on this arrangement have come to rest in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

To take the "standard" one first: it is attributed to the Master of the Brunswick Diptych, working at the end of the 15th century in Haarlem. The great bed has been shifted round, and the picture is wider than in the Van Eyck model, allowing for the suggestion that the bed is now in an alcove, and the foreground, treated with a grander marbled floor, opens up on to a further space. There is another window, where again the lower part has open shutters. Beyond that again there is the hint of a loggia, and from that a view of open fields. 

The furniture is otherwise confined to a three-legged stool, with a cushion, the usual vase (Italian?) of lilies, and a long prie-dieu. This affords purchase for a partly open scroll, perhaps of names to pray for, and a book of prayers, open perhaps (going by the short entries on the page) at the Calendar of Feasts for the month. At this prie-dieu kneels the Virgin, her eyes downcast, her hand raised in a greeting not unlike Arnolfini's blessing. Her very grand brocade garment, which is much too large for her slender form, brings a touch of luxury to a simple room. Gabriel approaches her from behind with upraised hand, while the Dove swoops in through the open window along a ray of light from God the Father. He is enthroned on a cloud over a bay in the open sea.

The setting would have been familiar to all ladies of means in the late-medieval Netherlands. The inventory of Margaret of Austria describes two prie-dieux in her chamber, each with its own altarpiece. Our panel comes from an altarpiece of several scenes, of which two more survive.

Our second panel is one third narrower, and has been cut down. Companion scenes of full width showing the nativity (Manchester Art Gallery), the flight into Egypt, (also in the Burrell Collection), the adoration of the Magi (Prado Madrid), and the presentation in the Temple (Washington National Gallery) survive. Five scenes in all suggest that the scattered panels made up a complete set of the joyful mysteries of the rosary. The assembly probably adorned an altar dedicated to the Virgin in a parish church.

The panels are attributed to the Master of one of them, the Prado Adoration, working in the third quarter of the 15th century. In other words, we don't know who he was, but, whatever his name, he worked in the penumbra of a greater artist. Sir William Burrell bought his pair as by that greater exponent, Hans Memling (c.1430-94), who worked largely in Bruges and counted, like Hugo van der Goes, the prosperous Florentine family, the Portinari, among his patrons.

To Memling our painter owes the contained serenity, the poised exactitude, of his art. The whole is choreographed like a sequence of ballet steps. Note how the Virgin's robe is spread out to cover precisely the square rug on which she kneels, just one crisp little fold venturing on to the marble floor. Her bedside cupboard is square; her cushion is square; her open shutter is marked out by its rows of round-headed studs into two larger, and six smaller squares; the folds of the hanging behind her bed are creased in squares; the marble floor is designed in squares and octagons; and the corner of her bedcover contrives to conform. The upper panel of her prie-dieu is a square punched through by a circle filled by three swirling mouchettes that echo the gesture with which she cradles her book.

The book this time is thick, with well-filled pages. It looks too bulky to be a Book of Hours, not quite large enough to be a Bible, or she might be reading the Isaiah promises, or the Song of Hannah. The single stem of her lily springs from a copper pot beside her. Unlike the full-blown lily of our other version, hers has a slender stem.

Mary is clad in simple dark blue, her right hand raised in the now familiar gesture - but what does it convey here? Her eyes are downcast, shielded, but not closed. We know what she is hearing, the phrase most often repeated down the Catholic centuries: the refrain of the Angelus. Her whole being listens. The Creation holds its breath, waiting upon her response.

In its abbreviated state, there is no deliberately supernatural element in this picture; no God the Father on a cloud, no white dove flying in through the window on a ray of light. The Virgin has no halo. Above all, there is no Angel Gabriel, although, in a raking light, his upright hand and part of his staff can be seen through overpaint near the lopped edge of the panel.

Both our Annunciations came from a sequence of private collections, and both were originally parts of composite altarpieces of Marian subjects showing the birth and infancy of Christ. None of the other panels appears to have been cut down, and the reason for the mutilation of this one is a mystery. Could it have belonged at one time to an owner who savoured its vivid evocation of a 15th-century interior, but was averse to any hint of the sacred? If so, his attempt to secularise the subject has not entirely succeeded. Maybe the Gabriel was a wonderful figure, but what remains lacks, to my eye, nothing of the quiet splendour and mystery of the occasion. She listens, and this poor fragment of a painted panel is worth listening to.

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