Memling modeled this Annunciation on the left wing of Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Columba Altarpiece (now in Munich), but his innovative rendition portrays the Virgin swooning and supported by two angels, rather than kneeling. Like other fifteenth-century Flemish painters working in the wake of Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling cloaked religious imagery in the pictorial language of everyday life, paying close attention to naturalistic detail. This Annunciation takes place in a comfortably appointed bedchamber, though many of the domestic furnishings have symbolic connotations. The carafe of water, through which light passes uncorrupted, and the vase of lilies are symbols of the Virgin's purity, while the empty candleholder signifies her imminent role as bearer of Christ, light of the world. Gabriel's priestly garb alludes to the ritual of the Mass and, therefore, the incarnation of Christ. A soft glowing light falls on the Virgin and suffuses the room, elevating the scene from the realm of the ordinary and signaling the sacred nature of the drama.
In this highly inventive composition, Hans Memling has cleverly combined several important moments in the Annunciation narrative into a single image. Wearing a cope of red velvet heavily embroidered with gold thread, Gabriel enters the Virgin’s narrow bedchamber through the door on the far left, honoring Mary as he begins to kneel before her. Movement is implied by his flowing curls as well as his trailing robes, the backs of which are cut off by the picture's edge as though to emphasize his arrival. The Virgin, in a subsequent moment from the narrative, is shown reacting to the archangel’s entrance by rising from her prie-dieu. She is wearing a dark blue mantle over a white dress with gemstones and pearls adorning its edges, and is accompanied by two angels in robes resembling shot fabric. According to convention, what follows is the dialogue between Gabriel and the Virgin, which begins with the angelic salutation: “Ave Maria, Gratia Plena” (Luke 1 : 28). Their conversation is indicated by the archangel’s raised hand, a well-known gesture denoting speech, which can also be found in Annunciation scenes by Memling’s predecessors Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck (respectively, the left wing of the Columba Altarpiece in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich and a painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington). While these artists explicitly referenced this narrative by painting the words of the angelic salutation onto the painted surface, Memling omits this device in order to focus on the visual drama. Mary’s contemplation is indicated by her swoon and her raised right hand, a gesture of reflection or humility. With her pious and humble expression, she points with her left hand to the open prayer book and the vase containing a lily and an iris. Contemporary viewers familiar with these visual cues would have recognized that all these different moments led up to the most important event of the Annunciation: the miraculous Incarnation. The spiritual act of conception is manifested by the Dove of the Holy Spirit, whose rays disseminate over the head of the Virgin, filling her with divine light while simultaneously functioning as a halo. The conception is emphasized by the angel holding Mary’s robes, whose gaze is directed at her protruding belly, while the angel supporting Mary invites the beholder to engage in this miraculous moment by making direct eye contact. In a composition of narrative complexity, Memling incorporates this rich iconographic program to emphasize the mystery of the Incarnation and the sorrows of the Virgin.
Iconography and imagery
As has been noted in the literature, Memling seems to have borrowed freely from the designs of Rogier van der Weyden, in whose Brussels workshop he probably worked as a journeyman before moving to Bruges in 1465. The interior setting and the arrangements of the furniture were inspired by two of Rogier’s compositions, the Annunciation on the left wing of the Columba Altarpiece and the Annunciation in the Louvre, Paris. As in Rogier’s paintings and other Netherlandish Annunciation scenes, Memling incorporates a number of references to the Virgin’s purity in his composition. Beside the prie-dieu stands an earthenware vase with the lily of Mary’s virginity and the iris of her sorrows. The thalamus virginis, or bedroom of the Virgin, evokes the sacred act of conception and the divine wedding that is to take place between the Virgin, mother and bride, and Christ, bridegroom and son (Blum 1992; De Vos 1994). A prominent visual device is the red fabric curtain sack at the left corner of the bed, which punctuates the space between the two protagonists and has been interpreted as a symbol of the Incarnation due to its womb-shaped form (Koslow 1986; Blum 1992). The locked cupboard to the left of the bed, and the water vessel on top, both refer to the Virgin's purity (Blum 1992; Wolff 1998; Lane 2009). The unlit rope taper and the empty candleholder also represent the Virgin, who will bear the Divine Light (Blum 1992; De Vos 1994). While swooning, Mary points to the open book on her prie-dieu, of which only the incipit D is legible. Suggestions made by De Vos (1994), who thought that this might stand for the famous prophecy by Isaiah (7 : 14), and Sprinson de Jesus (1998), who proposed that it probably refers to “Dominus tecum …”, the second line from the Ave Maria prayer, don’t seem plausible. The Latin version of Isaiah’s prophecy doesn’t start with a D (“Propter hoc dabit Dominus …”) and it seems strange that an incipit would indicate the second line of an important prayer. It is therefore more likely that the D refers to the beginning of the text of the Hours of the Virgin: “Domine labia mea aperies” (O Lord, open my lips). The Hours of the Virgin (also known as the Little Office of the Virgin), was the most essential text of any Book of Hours, and the opening D would invariably be enlarged, decorated and written in a different color. In books of hours, this passage was often accompanied by an illumination of the Annunciation (for an earlier example from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, see folio 30r of the Belles Heures of Jean de France, 54.1).
While all of these domestic accoutrements contain a rich layer of Marian symbolism, in depicting the Virgin swooning rather than in a more conventional kneeling pose (for example, in another Annunciation scene by Memling in the Metropolitan Museum, 17.190.17), the artist creates an highly innovative image unprecedented both in its composition and its multi-layered symbolism.
A closer look at the figures and their poses reveals Memling’s deeper and more complex layers of meaning which can only be fully understood within the context of fifteenth century Marian devotion. Its growing popularity coincided with the rise of the devotio moderna, or modern devotion, a popular religious reform established in the fourteenth century as a lay movement that focused on the humanity of Christ. Practitioners were encouraged to imitate His life and suffering on Earth through intense meditations in which they emphasized and identified with His experiences. In doing so, followers of the modern devotion sought to ensure their Redemption during the Last Judgment. The Virgin came to hold an increasingly prominent place in this movement, and became a standalone subject of veneration due to her role as intercessor (Oakes, 2008). Being human, yet chosen by God to carry His Son while remaining a Virgin, she stood between believer and deity, and it was therefore seen as efficacious to emphasize her life and sorrows. Images from her life greatly enhanced these intense and personal meditations and it is of no surprise that scenes of the Annunciation and Crucifixion were especially popular, as it was in these moments that Mary’s joys and sorrows could be most emphatically embodied: the Annunciation, as the miracle of the Incarnation takes place and the Word was made flesh (John 1:14); and the Crucifixion, as Mary, in showing her compassion (compassio) at the foot of the Cross, became a co-sufferer and therefore a co-redemptrix in His Passion (see Hamburgh and Neff 1998). Looking at Memling's Annunciation with Angels with this in mind, it becomes clear that he not only depicted the immediate moments of the Annunciation, but he also ingeniously incorporated references to later events in the earthly and heavenly life of the Virgin. Mary’s swoon is a prefiguration of her pose on Calvary and would have reminded contemporary viewers of her suffering at the foot of the Cross. As Lane (2009) has noted, it is surely not coincidental that Mary’s swooning pose, with the positioning of her arms and bent legs, is an almost exact copy of the grieving Virgin in Memling’s earlier Triptych of Jan Crabbe (of which the central panel is in Museo Civico, Vicenza, inv. A.297). The supporting angel perhaps recalls the figure of John the Evangelist, who supported the grieving Virgin on Calvary. This prefiguration of the Virgin’s sorrows at the coming Passion of Christ is further emphasized by the cut iris prominently placed in the vase before the prie-dieu. Also known as ‘sword-lily’, the iris was seen as a symbol of Simeon’s prophecy in which he tells Mary that “… and thy own soul a sword shall pierce …” (Luke 2 : 35), the placement of Mary’s right hand on her breast might also allude to this (Wolff 1998; Lane 2009). As Neff has pointed out, Mary’s swoon relates to her labor at Christ’s sacrifice and illustrates the moment that she becomes the mother of mankind in salvation by metaphorically giving birth to the Church. In the moment of Incarnation, Mary is aware of the faith of her Son, her pose referring to her sorrows at the foot of the Cross, her eyes cast down in a meditative reflection of Christ’s suffering, setting a devotional example for the contemporary beholder.
Gabriel’s priestly dress (a motif that quite often appears in early Netherlandish Annunciation scenes) alludes to the sacred moment of transubstantiation, when the Holy Ghost mystically transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist. As Blum (1992) has pointed out, the Virgin is presented to the viewer by the vested angels in a manner reminiscent of a Eucharistic offering; the impregnated Virgin can be seen metaphorically as a monstrance containing a Host, overshadowed by the Dove of the Holy Ghost that would also descend over the altar during transubstantiation (De Vos 1994). The symbols on the orphrey panels decorating Gabriel’s robe further emphasize the connection between the Incarnation and the transubstantiation: the wheels and cherubim symbolize Ezekiel’s vision of the Lord’s glory (Ezekiel 10)(Wolff 1998) and the eagles refer to the aforementioned text in John (1:14) (Sprinson de Jesus 1998).
Just like Mary’s swooning pose, her two angelic attendants are highly unconventional within the iconographic tradition of Netherlandish Annunciation scenes. Although it is not uncommon that additional angels were depicted in representations of the Annunciation (especially in German painting and French manuscript illumination of the fifteenth century), they are usually found accompanying Gabriel or holding a cloth of honor; their deployment here seems to be unprecedented. In a comprehensive study, Blum (1992) demonstrated that, besides presenting Mary as the Eucharistic offering, the inclusion of the two smaller angels must be seen a reference to the Virgin’s queenly state and her role as the Bride of Christ. The first is indicated by the left-hand angel lifting the Virgin’s robes, a motif that often appears in contemporary images both of her Marriage and her Coronation. In relation to the Virgin’s role as the Bride of Christ, Blum (1992) compared the inclusion of the two attendants with the depiction of angelic pages who attend the bride in Netherlandish wedding representations (see also Wolff 1998) and added that the Virgin’s pose seems to answer the call of the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs (2:10). Wolff (1998) further suggested that, as in the sacrament of marriage a couple was united by the action of exchanging words of consent, it was the Virgin’s consent to Gabriel’s message (Luke 1:38) that made her the Bride of God.
Attribution, date and function
Since Gustav Waagen first discussed Memling’s Annunciation with Angels in 1847, the painting has been widely considered as one of the artist's finest and most original works, due to its innovative composition and narrative complexity. The attribution to Memling has been generally accepted, only Weale (1901 and 1903) denied the master’s authorship, stating that the invention of the two angels supporting the Virgin could not be attributed to Memling, whom he deemed to be an imitative painter; his opinion was repeated only by Voll (1906 and 1909) and Huisman (1910). There has been more discussion, however, about the picture’s date. Waagen (1847) mentioned that during the painting’s restoration, when in the possession of Prince Anton Radziwill (d. 1833), the original gray-painted frame (which allegedly bore an inscription) was replaced, and a section of it incorporated into a new gilded frame. This date is given by Waagen, and most early scholars, as 1482. However, when Sulpiz Boisserée (1808-54; 1978-95) saw the painting in Berlin in 1832, he recorded it as 1480, and De Vos (1994) proposed a date of 1489, suggesting that the original fragment must have been misread and stating that stylistically, the painting is close to Memling’s late work. More recently, Wolff (1998) has reiterated Waagen’s reading. Although we cannot be certain, there is no stylistic reason to doubt this time frame and a date range within the early 1480s seems most plausible.
The lack of important material evidence, resulting from the painting’s transferral onto canvas and the replacement of its frame, problematizes our understanding of its original function and context. Its format does not seem consistent with panels forming the central sections of larger polyptychs and it is possible that it formed a left-hand wing of an altarpiece. However, the arrangement of the figures and the perspective of the space raise questions that are not fully answered by such a reconstruction. Moreover, Memling is not known to have dated the wings of altarpieces, so if we are to believe Waagen’s account, then this would form a highly unusual break with what we know of artistic convention during the fifteenth century and, more importantly, Memling’s own practice of inscribing and decorating the frames of his works. It is interesting to consider the painting in light of the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin, which was granted by Pope Sixtus IV in 1482, the date which Waagen claims to have read on its original frame. Certainly, the painting’s iconographic program was very carefully considered, with what appears to have been a remarkably strong theological grounding.
[Charlotte Wytema 2016]
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Prince Michael Radziwill (d. 1831); his son, Prince Anton Radziwill (d. 1833), Berlin, by 1832; his son, Prince Wilhelm Radziwill (d. 1870), Berlin; by descent to Prince George Radziwill, Berlin (d. 1904); his widow, Marie Branicka, Princess Radziwill, Berlin, until 1920; acquired by Philip Lehman from Marie Branicka Radziwill through Duveen Brothers in October 1920