The Van Eyck brothers and The Virgin Mother: a comparative discussion on the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) and its portrayal in Flemish Renaissance Marian artwork by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck.

Marriott, H. J. (2019) The Van Eyck brothers and The Virgin Mother: a comparative discussion on the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) and its portrayal in Flemish Renaissance Marian artwork by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck. Undergraduate theses, University of Chichester.

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The Lucian account of the life of Jesus is arguably alone ‘among the gospels’ in giving the reader a glance beneath ‘the veil that shrouds the thirty years of our Lord’s life between his Birth and his Baptism.’ The unique nature of this Gospel sets it apart and makes it a particularly important text to the 1.2 billion followers of Roman Catholicism, and Christianity more generally. The character of Mary appears within Luke’s Gospel narrative, particularly during the infancy narrative of Jesus. Mary has been, and continues to be, an important person of devotion within the Roman Catholic tradition. Mary is referred to as a ‘powerful protectress’ and her intercession is held in high regard though the prolific use of the Rosary within Catholic prayer and devotion. Due to Mary’s status it is important to study the Gospel narratives in which she is a protagonist, and the ways in which people of different periods have interpreted these texts. As a Catholic myself, I have been particularly intrigued by Mary’s prominent role in Catholic theology and teaching, but also outside the remits of the Church. The figure of Mary features frequently in art galleries across Europe and it is this area that I will investigate in this dissertation. The aim is to comparatively explore the Lucan account of Mary with particular artistic depictions of Mary from the Renaissance to draw out the significance and effect of translating text to image.
The period of the Renaissance holds particular importance when studying the medium of art alongside theology, and more particularly for the figure of Mary. The ‘escalation of private prayer and devotion in the fourteenth and fifteenth century is one of the major developments of the period.’ This movement sparked an interest in paintings allowing believers to ‘personalise their religious experience’ and ‘created a visual environment for personal prayer and meditation.’
‘Every renaissance comes to the world with a cry, the cry of the human spirit to be free.’
The phenomenon of the Renaissance derives from its title, it was a ‘rebirth of classical antiquity.’ This period of art, literature and culture is commonly split into three chapters: The Early Renaissance also known as the Quattrocento (1420-1500), High Renaissance (1490-1527) and the Late Renaissance also known as the Cinquecento (1520- 1600).
The Renaissance permeated the artistic sphere of all the European hubs of culture including Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. This period (particularly the High Renaissance) saw the heyday of many well-known artists whose works continue to dominate the world of fine art. Artists include, Titian (Venice), Michelangelo (Rome), Leonardo da Vinci (Rome), Raphael (Rome). For the purposes of this study I focus specifically on Flemish Renaissance artwork. This was a Renaissance subsidiary that covered what was known as the Low Countries, this encompassed the coastal Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta region in Western Europe. This renaissance took place alongside that of Italy, Germany and France. The large settlements of the north such as ‘Bruges, Ghent and then later Antwerp and Brussels, were rich industrial and banking centres during this period and this allowed a large merchant-class to flourish creating an ideal environment for artistic production.’
The Northern Renaissance was also unique for its artist’s revolutionary use of paints. Although oil painting had existed from the middle ages, Northern Renaissance artists ‘fully exploited this medium’s unique characteristics… [creating] a depth of color that was entirely new.’ The context of Northern Renaissance art pieces, as well as the spiritual foundations of the Renaissance’s religious art movement, emphasise the importance of these pieces to the contributions of religious thought and practice during this time. But I would also insist that these pieces have a greater role to play outside of their Renaissance context. As installations in galleries the works of the Van Eyck brothers are now taking on a new mode as religious art in a secular context, providing for a different experience of the work than previously intended. Moreover, alongside the importance of Mary in Roman Catholicism, the works of Hubert and Jan van Eyck provide a turning point in religious expression in terms of the relationship between art and religious devotion.
In order to analyse Flemish Renaissance artwork in relation to the Annunciation as described in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:26-38 NRSV), I have selected two paintings from this period and region: Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (c.1432) and Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation (c.1434-36). Both of these pieces have an artistic portrayal of the Annunciation narrative. The works of Hubert and Jan van Eyck are arguably timeless in their ability to evoke emotion and awe in the viewer. I will argue that these pieces have power as artistic objects. The fact that both of the pieces are under the care of the art conservationist of galleries and religious institutions respectively is testament to the prized nature of these paintings. Very different in composition, but typical of the Flemish Renaissance style and period, with Mary as the protagonist, these paintings provide for an intriguing analysis into the contribution that Northern Renaissance artwork has made to religious understandings of biblical texts such as the Annunciation.
In chapter one, The Annunciation: A Discussion of Virginity and the Character of Mary, I will begin with a brief discussion of Luke’s theology, particularly highlighting the prominence of Mary and how this fits into Luke’s interest in women as spiritually equal to men. I will then turn to the debates surrounding the cult of Mary as identifying her as Virgin, Mother and ‘New Eve’ as developed by the early church Fathers and contemporary scholars Marina Warner and Vincent Cronin. I will then follow in chapters two and three by conducting an analysis of Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (c.1432) and Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation (c.1434-36). I will draw out their similarities to, and differences from, Luke’s account. I will look specifically at the context of the piece, the use of Christian iconography, the Flemish Renaissance painting style and how these relate to the portrayal of Mary in Lucian story of the Annunciation. I will refer to Lucian theology and the biblical narrative of the Annunciation found in Luke in order conduct a comparative analysis. In the final chapter, chapter 3, The Motivation to Create: Theology and Art, I will explore the relationship between art and religious devotion and experience through the work of Graeme Howes. This chapter considers the dialogue between “readers” of religious artwork, particularly the work of the Van Eyck brothers, and those of biblical texts. I will conclude that the works of the Van Eyck brothers provide a powerful medium for religious understanding that transcends their historical context, while also being indebted to this context. Northern Renaissance artwork can thus perform an important theological function in promoting an understanding of biblical texts such as the Lucian Annunciation narrative and more specifically of the theological significance of Mary.

Publication Type: Theses (Undergraduate)
Additional Information: BA (Hons) Theology and Religious Studies
Uncontrolled Keywords: Portrayal, Mary, Adoration
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BL Religion
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BS The Bible
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BT Doctrinal Theology
N Fine Arts > ND Painting
N Fine Arts > NK Decorative arts. Applied arts. Decoration and ornament > NK1648 Religious art
Divisions: Academic Areas > Institute of Arts and Humanities > Theology, Philosophy and Religion
Student Research > Undergraduate
Depositing User: Janet Carter
Date Deposited: 30 Mar 2021 15:39
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2021 00:10

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