No one knows for sure who painted it. Historians cannot agree on when—or even in what generation. For all that, it stands on the very threshold of the Renaissance.
So in every sense does the Virgin Mary. She stands in the doorway to a church, facing the angel of the Annunciation and the outside world, but her eyes raised ever so slightly. The dark rectangle of the open door just manages to enclose her delicate features and the greater volume of her robe. The entry, with a Gothic arch above and decorative tiling beneath her feet, has ample room for her as well—along with a narrow bench built into it to her right, holding a vase of lilies. The step in front of her bears the inscription, in Latin, Queen of Heaven Rejoice. If the door shut, she would be fully outside, in a world of crumbling walls and natural growth, but the building is still hers in every way.
Who painted it? To ask is also to ask how the Renaissance in northern Europe came to be. It is to ask about the painting's Gothic underpinnings and the newly glowing realism of painting in oil. It is to ask how one can account for both the achievement and the awkwardness of the experience. It is to ask what details work and what they mean for the old enigma of the sacred and the human. It is to walk right into a kind of mystery story, about a pioneer of the Renaissance, his star pupil, and his elusive older brother.
Better start by putting some names on them. Only one thing is certain: the painting is from the circle of Jan van Eyck, who perfected its mix of delicacy and grandeur, natural and unnatural light, visible textures and hidden meanings. A myth even made him the inventor of oil painting, although the medium did not come about all at once, and anyway precedence would go to an older artist, Robert Campin, known also as the Master of Flémalle. van Eyck himself peeks out from a mirror in a portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride, which has served many as a model of how to interpret the artist's surfaces, gestures, and reflections. Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, kept him busy as official painter—although not one painting belongs definitely to Philip's patronage, including the one at hand.
This painting has a proper name, too—the Friedsam Annunciation, after Michael Friedsam, who succeeded B. Altman as president of the department store. The Friedsam Collection entered the Met in 1932, a year after his death. The Met has a nasty habit of reattributing things, especially when it comes to the Northern Renaissance, and declaring the case closed. Recently it took away from Campin another Annunciation, at the center of the Mérode Altarpiece in the Cloisters, with barely a word. That is a bit like taking the Declaration of Independence from Thomas Jefferson, and it would rewrite history. With the Friedsam Annunciation, though, the Met's doubts have plenty of company.
Few attribute it to Jan van Eyck, because so much about it is wrong. That lovely face lacks the penetrating individuality of van Eyck's figures. Mary's robe buries her form, as van Eyck never would. The darkness behind her leaves a clear distinction before foreground and background, with Mary neither in nor out, where van Eyck weaves every detail into a seamless and seemingly infinite world. And to create that world, he used a flawless single-point perspective that determined painting's future. This panel may or may not be cut down at top, but it still has a strange view from above, with lines leading both into the church and along its lintel into the garden—a corner-on point of view called two-point perspective.
When it comes to jumbles, one can always blame the workshop. And "school of van Eyck" happens to have had quite a pupil, most agree, in Petrus Christus. The Met already has at least two portraits by Petrus, a moving Lamentation over the dead Jesus, and a remarkable anticipation of Dutch genre painting with a saint as goldsmith, in the Lehman wing. Look hard enough, and one can find hints of his style here, too, like Mary's beady eyes. The angel's wings in a panel in Berlin have the same rainbow colors. Come to think of it, the background there has its own windows letting in the light, like the interior of the church.
The imperfections, though, may mean something else entirely—a style coming to be. The older perspective and the positioning neither in nor out had become retrograde by 1430, with the best example a Nativity from Campin, painted in 1420, and giving this to Petrus would assign it to around 1450, although the younger man may have finished a Saint Jerome in His Study as early as 1435. And, when it comes to van Eyck, older comes with a name as well. The Ghent Altarpiece, a huge project begun maybe as early as 1420, bears this inscription in Latin:
The painter Hubert van Eyck greater than whom none can be found began the work. Johannes, second in the art, completed it at the request of Jodocus Vyd in the year 1432 on the 16th of May.
Sure enough, among the twenty panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, Hubert usually gets credit for the ones with flatter figures and exaggerated perspective.
Erwin Panofsky, a titan among art historians, attributed the Friedsam Annunciation to Hubert, and textbooks generally complied. Only one small problem: nothing can be assigned to him with certainty, not even a hand in the Ghent Altarpiece. Not a single other painting comes with his signature or clear documentary evidence in his favor, and consensus has slowly fallen away. Some have even adopted a compromise, of Petrus after a lost original by Jan or Hubert—which means a copy of an unknown painting by a man who may never have existed, executed at least twenty years after it had gone out of fashion, by an artist with very much his own style. The Met votes smugly for Petrus, but the mystery will not go away.
Why worry, and why wade into the affair at all? Many would not—and not just people for whom a long-dead artist is only a name. Others, too, like to insist that art can only be experienced, not interpreted or understood. Painters often say so, especially painters who feel left out by conceptual art, by art put into practice by skilled manufacturers or unskilled studios, or by so many theories of modern and postmodern art. They, in turn, are leaving out a lot of art's discoveries and experience. They are also denying access to art of the past.
I have argued elsewhere for why criticism matters, why critics too often parrot the press release, why attribution matters, and why art takes words. Here I shall just insist on that access to the past. The whole idea of art as pure experience is an interpretation—and one that took shape within a very local context of Romanticism and, even more, its heirs in Modernism. It resonates with the act of painting as itself experience, as with Jackson Pollock and "action painting." It is also, conversely, a reaction against the difficulty of modern art, which is why one often hears it from the defiantly retro, who never quite bought in. It also does deny the unfamiliarity, difficulty, and rewards of centuries past.
One can always appreciate van Eyck's heirs for their translucent naturalism. They, however, were onto something else, that realm within and without the church. Most people know it, too, which is why most people hurry past those rooms at the Met, indifferent and intimidated. In asking who did what and why, one is piecing together past and present. One is recovering or recreating memories, giving each its living name. Besides, who can resist a good mystery story?
This one had best start in the middle, with Jan. If this church belongs to Mary, it is because doctrine identified her with the church, meaning the institution of Christianity—and if she can step beyond it, it is because late Gothic institutions are becoming part of a more human landscape, with a fully human history. The idea underlies his Madonna in a Church in Berlin, in which Mary stands inside, crowned and higher than the arches. It also connects to an Annunciation in the National Gallery in Washington. There Mary's head tilts toward the angel, in a direct line with the descending dove, framed neatly by the central of three windows that correspond to the Trinity. The floor tiles, in perfect perspective, illustrate stories from the Bible, and Mary's feet mark her place within their narrative.
In the Friedsam Annunciation, Mary is again the church, while almost crossing into the world. In stopping short, she is at the moment of the Annunciation, on the verge of the Bible's old order and the new, but also a greater Renaissance humanism and something else entirely. The light through church windows in the background parallels the dove's descent, much as sunlight brings a miracle to Saint Francis for Giovanni Bellini decades later in Venice. The lilies, as usual, stand for purity, but cracks are already showing in the proverbial closed garden of her virginity, its wall shot through with vegetation. Mary stands between one entry pillar in Romanesque style, for the old order, and a Gothic one, and in front of the church stoop lies a worn slab—an allusion, no doubt, to Saint Paul's reading in Acts of Psalm 118: "The stone which the builders rejected / Has become the chief corner stone."
If Jan invented the model, maybe one had better look to a follower, like Petrus Christus. Still, count me dubious, at least about this follower. Petrus simplifies things, to bring them fully into this world. He shifts an Annunciation into a domestic interior, just as his saintly goldsmith has a shop and customers. In his Lamentation, both the version in the Met and one in Berlin, the tight Renaissance circle or pyramid of figures has fallen apart, as if under the weight of the dead body and their emotions—but also to give each actor ample space and a role. He never goes retro, and even his angel's rainbow wings look pro forma to me after the Friedsam Annunciation.
Does that leave an earlier date and Hubert? Perhaps, but nothing about him comes easily. Panofsky points to another link to the past, an echo in the angel's pose of a still older Annunciation, by Melchior Broederlam in the 1390s—perhaps as little as a year before a sculpture competition, for the Baptistery doors in Florence, sparked the Italian Renaissance. Still, when it comes to Hubert, Panofsky had to admit right off he was entering a heated debate. So did Max J. Friedländer some fifty years before. Even the inscription on the Ghent Altarpiece, Friedländer noted, could be an act of "self-deception" or a "pious fraud."
The inscription seems genuine or, as Panofsky noted, at least has the same lettering style as marks elsewhere in the altarpiece. Signatures alone are not all that common, much less lengthy tributes to the artist, so maybe Hubert had died after taking on the job, and Jan felt compelled to make much of him—and never mind projecting Oedipal issues onto the brothers, as part of their approach to God the father and son. The painting style varies so greatly from panel to panel, from overlapping figures to the incisive donor portraits, that I have trouble anyway thinking of his making it all up as he went along. I want to say that his art simply left his brother behind, just as he soon moved from Lille to Bruges. Still, that does not make Hubert's presence any clearer.
One cannot look for similarities to Hubert's other known works, since they do not exist. All one can do is to look for similarities within Jan's known work, subtract those elements from Ghent, and see if the remainder looks anything like other works from their circle, which then might point to Hubert. Even early on, though, they had followers. The two panels of a Renaissance diptych at the Met have a plunging perspective, much like the central panels in Ghent—as in a fisheye lens, but with the landscape curving vertically rather than horizontally. The sweep takes in incredible detail and a sense of fun as well, as with broad wings sweeping up the damned at the Last Judgment. The crowded results, though, never quite rate Hubert and Jan.
As in a survey of Petrus, the Met has handed practically everything in sight to the younger artist. I think that does him a disservice. He paints shadows and clothing with the smooth exuberance of a house painter, almost to the point of Edouard Manet. And he hates disguised symbols, to the point that a saint in another panel carries her Gothic tower indoors, rather than leaving one to pick it out from the landscape. I think it does a disservice, too, to the Friedsam Annunciation, in all its particulars. One can no longer see it as on the threshold of the Renaissance—and one cannot ask what, for Mary or humanity, a threshold might mean.
Her raised hand, like her glance not quite meeting the angel's or the viewer's, is at once welcoming, accepting, warning, and shying away. Now, Mary often shrinks from the Annunciation, in fear or in humility—for Hans Memling around 1470, also in the Met, and for a Memling altarpiece with wings in the Morgan Library, with a coyness to the point of a domestic dispute with the angel. She never does elsewhere, though, for Jan or indeed for Petrus, and yet here she is shrinking as well from the fullness and sadness of the world. The slab before her is worn, but she has not stepped on it. The garden wall is crumbling, but she cannot see it or an almost earthly paradise beyond, at once more divine and more human. She also cannot turn back into the darkness.
I cannot say for sure who painted this, but its old-fashioned perspective captures precisely Mary's two-point choices, with the implication that she need not choose. So does the strange composition of walls within walls and gardens without gardens. Once one admits passage through one, anything can follow. Panofsky stresses the signs of "unregenerate nature," of "the blind forces of growth and decay" from which the new order promises salvation. One should remember, though, whose advent in this tale has broken through the walls—or who in the cosmos might share the painting's strange point of view from above. Hubert himself might not have broken through to the Renaissance, but someone's gaze, at once a god's and a very human viewer's, is looking both ways at growth and decay.
"The Friedsam Annunciation" is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I refer explicitly to Erwin Panofsky's 1953 Early Netherlandish Painting and to Max J. Friedläsnder's From van Eyck to Bruegel, first published in Germany in 1916 and revised in 1921, both books the capstones of long careers. Panofsky's "The Friedsam Annunciation and the Problem of the Ghent Altarpiece" appeared in Art Bulletin for December 1935, but doubts were widespread, from such commanding historians as Julius Held in 1955. Friedländer himself made the attribution to Petrus Christus, and he was not the first. The idea of a late work by Petrus based on a lost original dates to at least Wolfgang Schöne in 1937, in a paper I have not read.
The debate intensified in 1968, when Hans Kauffmann and John L. Ward argued that one should view the attribution to Petrus as not just a fallback after dismissal of Hubert van Eyck but essential, because some apparently archaic features actually do not often appear in earlier art. To me, that just says that the van Eyck brothers were ahead of their time. Maryan W. Ainsworth curated the Met's Petrus Christus retrospective, with its broad claims, including a denial that the young artist worked under van Eyck. Thanks to the Met's splendid Web site, one can now search its entire collection or browse room by room, and (to my chagrin, having worked the old-fashioned way) the page for "The Friedsam Annunciation" cites these sources and many others.
One could go on to tease out similar questions about a painting in The Frick Collection. Panofsky saw the hand of Petrus finishing the work of Jan van Eyck, but the Frick is cautious. The painting also includes Saint Barbara, the saint traditionally identified by a tower. (Legend has her imprisoned for three days in a tower, like Christ under earth.) And there the symbol floats outside the window, as if unable to become either disguised or obvious.