Within a single generation early in the fifteenth-century, three Flemish artists gave final, consummate expression to the Gothic spirit…
Perspective, as a systematic distortion paralleling the action of the eye- which is all perspective is, mechanically- becomes a form of expression in its identity with coherent , continuous space.
To emphasize this point, the rather choppy space of the Master of Flemalle’s “Annunciation” can be used for contrast, although we are putting that admirable painting at an unfair disadvantage. This choppiness has a great deal to do with the picture”s basic character as a somewhat bookish catalogue of symbols. We are looking down into the room, for the most part. We look down at the table-top and down at the floor from an eye level that would have to be several feet from the ceiling. Yet we also look up at the ceiling. We look head-on at the back wall and head-on at the faces of the angel and the Virgin; if these were in the same perspective as the table, we would see much of the tops of the heads.
We look straight-on at the end of the bench at the right, yet we also look down onto its seat and sideways at its length. Without regard for true perspective the various elements of the composition have their separate and insistent outlines. The picture thus becomes an enumeration of objects that, bound together spatially, might fuse ideologically. As it is, their combination seems arbitrary, although one by one they are directed toward the same explanatory end.
The “Annunciation” must be absorbed detail by detail before we comprehend its total message. The Arnolfini picture, on the contrary, absorbs us so immediately, and so completely into its warm, grave and quiet world that the examination of its details is only an accessory pleasure- if so great a pleasure can be described as accessory to anything.
The textures of metal, glass and wood, of velvet and linen, of the fur of the little dog, all accepting the light to reveal their own natures ; the consistency of this light’s flow from its sources; the continuity of the space as we look into the picture, and the unquestionable truth with which each object assumes its distance from the eye and its proper relationship to the other objects in the painted room- all this description of light, space, and solid volumes unifies the picture in ways that are explicable technically, even if they are all but superhuman in technical execution. This level of craftsmanship becomes genius, but the picture is also held together by the unanalyzable factor of the artist,s sensitivity to psychological unity.