The sensibilities of painters and sculptors have investigated the Annunciation along with Mary’s psychological response, the alluring constitution of the angel, the will of God, the setting, the symbolic potential and the scene’s effect on other characters.
Annunciation scenes, like Joos van Cleve’s, were conceived by men to be viewed by both men and women and it reminds us all of the one-dimensional male perspective of the heritage and art; a perspective established early on by ecclesiastical and commercial powers that defines the relationship of the sexes into divisions of gender, power and role. Though Mary is never presented as seductive, her image is altered by admirers into an entity of erotic appeal because of the gaze of the viewer.
The young Mary that Cleve portrays is clearly a humble, submissive and fertile woman. She is the handmaid of the Lord. Cleve followed traditional images of Mary and the views of ideal motherhood in his depiction. He does not provide any new insight into the role of Mary and the mother and bride of Christ. Cleve reiterates unattainable female and reinforces the incongruities of ideal women that are prevalent art, gospel and life. The virgin birth reveals numerous incongruities with Mary being the ideal women. Mary’s move from the virgin birth to untainted virginity and from her move from a religious symbol to her influence as moral dogma transformed the ideal motherhood images, into an effectual device of female subjection. What Mary thought, felt and how she might have responded to this divine charge will continue to be mystery. Mary’s voice is mediated by Luke’s recollections and the vast imaginations of countless artists. ( Jessica Perry )
Iconology is the interpretation through literary, religious and philosophic texts of the image for evidence of the cultural attitudes that produced the content of the art work. At the end of the fifteenth century there were two major trends in European art; they were a tendency towards significant simplicity in form and increasing iconographic complexity. Thanks to the latter, we have a wealth of symbolism that can be analyzed in Joos van Cleve’s Annunciation. This painting demands symbolic interpretation. Although it can be enjoyed apart from knowing all of the symbolic content, knowing the emblematic repertory can help the viewer explore features of the visible world along with their spiritual significance.
When you first look at this painting it can be easily identified as an Annunciation scene, an episode from the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s gospel describes the Annunciation story in which Gabriel appears to Mary in a town called Nazareth. This town signifies flower and in Hebrew it means twig which is frequently used to represent Christ. This is the story of the Incarnation of God as man and the opening episode of the story of Salvation. The Annunciation is one of the subjects that best lends itself to an amply detailed realistic setting.
This painting caters to suit the Flemish predilection for intimate domestic scenes, in which it was conventional for painters to portray religious themes in familiar bourgeois interiors. In Cleve’s painting we can easily identify this setting as a bedroom with a large red curtain draped bed, a plump pillow, a window, chandelier and a vase of flowers. There is a house altar draped in a white cloth and what appears to be a woodcut of Moses tacked to the far wall. A chair sits against the wall beneath the Moses woodcut. The room has many details that seem to belong in this style bedroom.
Cleve’s Annunciation even reproduces certain details familiar to us from the Arnolfini Marriage by Jan Van Eyck , including the red of the bed canopy and the carved copper chandelier. Instead of the famous convex mirror, there is a house alter diptych. The setting also is similar to the Annunciation scenes by Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden and Dieric Bouts, the Elder. All of these paintings have the red canopy bed located on the right side of the picture plane with the woman; Bouts’ has the bed or possibly a bench located in the rear of the room. They have detailed geometric tile floor with shades of ochre and blue. The windows have open shutters and show that this scene takes place during the daytime. With the exception of Memling, all of the paintings contain a chandelier in the center of the room and several objects that appear to be traditional décor for the time period. The similarities of these paintings are what lend to their symbolic attributes, based on the icons and understandings of their times.
The bed carries significant visual and symbolic weight in Cleve’s painting. The canopy or baldaquin had appeared in Early Medieval depictions of religious figures along with the illuminations of the Boucicaut Master. This type of bed is called canopied or hung and they were for display as well as for sleeping. The size of the draped canopy was an indicator of status; a full-sized one that stretched from one end to th
her was the mark of high status. Half-canopies were of lesser status. The bed also serves a marriage symbol.This particular bed is shown with an overstuffed mattress, a plump pillow and heavily ornamented trim. Knowing that a bed is symbolic of marriage it is easy to assume the plumpness of the bed and the richness of the fabrics would relate to fertility.
Next to the bed is the woodcut of Moses. With basic religious knowledge we can draw parallels between the life of Christ and the life of Moses as it is depicted in the Old Testament. Similar to Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, Cleve portrays Moses with the common mistranslation of having horns rather than a heavenly glow. In addition, the dove separates Mary from Moses and this represents the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The house altar is situated on the same wall as the Moses woodcut. The house altar has maybe a reference to the monochromatic Annunciation by Hugo van der Goes. Beneath the paintings of the altar is an inscription of “Abraham” and “Melchizedek” which is a reference to the Old Testament contribution of bread and Christ’s sacrifice. [1
Potentially everything in Joos van Cleve’s painting is has symbolic significance and necessitate thorough scrutiny. The disguised symbolism is grafted into his realistic style and embedded into his creative process. This type of symbolism enhances the original intentions of Cleve and can help viewers understand more about the Annunciation and the world of Joos van Cleve. Its very clever to denote this "rupture" with the Old Testament, yet the patriarchal and reactionary vibe that Christianity set out to rectify, has simply been neatly re-packaged and branded with institutional authority, but under the wrapper, the same negatives prevail "under new management".
Feminist interpretations of Annunciation art can rely heavily on the disguised symbolism. The symbols used to represent Mary can assist in the discovery Joos van Cleve’s intent. However, it would be best to look at what the Annunciation is and who Mary is first to help understand this theme more clearly. The Annunciation story is a biblical scene that presents the myth of the ideal woman. It is the is the story of the conception of Jesus but it also contains the archetype of womanhood, chastity, and submissiveness, revealed in Mary’s virginity and humble compliance to the divine charge. Mary is presented as a heavenly woman embracing her perpetual virginity, in legend, theology, and art. Mary’s divine flawlessness is defined by her chastity. Some people consider Mary to be the ultimate heroine and symbol of inaccessible female perfection. Others feel that do not believe Mary is a heroine because her image, although potent, is not universal. They believe she is a personification of the Catholic Church’s archaic views toward women. In any event, its a no-win situation, in which a woman is forced to navigate an ambiguous ground between celestial virgin and whore which is destined to be non-acceptable.
There are two traditional images of Mary that can be discerned from Cleve’s painting and most Annunciation scenes. The first image is that of womanhood, the immaculate female exalted in the Virgin Birth. The second is the captivating beauty, descendant of Eve. In Western iconography Mary is represented as the “new Eve” and is able to withstand the inducements that Eve succumbed to in the Garden of Eden. Mary is God’s selection as the medium for the birth of Christ so that humankind may be saved in reversal of the human Fall. The importance of Mary’s role can be discerned from the following statement: “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, do by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” – Romans 5:19.
Mary and Eve become opposites. Eve in Latin is Eva, which spelled backwards becomes Ave which is the angels greeting of Mary and is also proclaimed in the song Ave Maria. However, the psychological contrasts of Eve and Mary as opposites are more profound than a play on words. Eve has a negative reading of being vulnerable, unreasonable, emotional, and living life through her senses rather than thought. Eve is considered the first femme fatale. Mary is well-regarded for her role as second Eve, selected to overturn the damage done by the original mother. To bear this charge Mary becomes the reversal of Eve, the mother uncontaminated by sexuality. Cleve’s Mary does not possess any of Eve’s qualities. Nor odes she have any unfettered eroticism which is associated with Mary Magdalene who is often considered the Virgin Mary’s alter ego. As stated earlier, the view from the window shows a garden that may be suggestive of the Garden of Eden. This may also reinforce the notion that Mary is the new Eve.
Cleve’s figures are set in an architectural setting but they are not divided by a barrier wall. They are frozen in their space and this is emphasized by Gabriel’s cloak caught flowing in mid-air. Cleve managed to capture a very specific moment as he freezes time and makes this moment appear motionless. This buttresses the concept that the Virgin and Gabriel are separated. The figures are separated to help maintain the purity of the Virgin Mary. Although she does not appear to be as stiff as Gabriel and the dove, Mary is trapped in her space. She is seated while Gabriel enters from the left. Gabriel is not looking directly at Mary. His eyes look past her as if she was not in the room. Their lack of interaction furthers their spatial divide. Also, the weight of Mary’s cloak helps anchor her to the ground and lectern in front traps her. Many Annunciation scenes show Gabriel mirroring Mary’s gestures however; Cleve deviated from tradition by not illustrating them in reciprocal poses. ( Jessica Perry )
Cleve illustrates this Annunciation in a bedroom. As described earlier, this is not an uncommon setting for paintings of this scene from the Northern Renaissance and Cleve has created many paintings that emphasized domesticity. Cleve’s positioning of Mary seated near the fully draped and plump bed is a suggestive backdrop for her impregnation. However, this setting is in line with Luke’s indication that Gabriel enters Mary’s house but Luke did not indicate such an intimate locale as a bedroom. The red, plump bed, billowing fabric and overstuffed pillow that Cleve rendered are all suggestive imagery of Mary’s fertility. The canopy bed is an encapsulated, womblike space. This imagery reinforces our perceptions that Mary is a vessel for God’s use.
The Trinity’s third person is often depicted as a bird. The gender of the bird is unclear however, it’s role in the Annunciation allowed it to appear more virile. In fact, some interpretations say that the penetration of Mary’s private space by the dove or by a beam of light representing the Holy Ghost is deliberately phallic. One of Fra Angelico’s Annunciations depicts this type of penetration very well. The invasion of space by Gabriel and the dove in Cleve’s painting is less suggestive of a personal infringement of Mary’s space.