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North and South

The Annunciation (1455) by Rogier van der Weyden, located in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

Annunciation (predella panel from The Coronation of the Virgin, 1503) by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio), located in the Pinoteca, Vatican Museums, Vatican City. (At

The trouble with religious art is that the same subjects and themes, the same forms and compositions, appear again and again, which quickly can become monotonous. In a museum, this makes it easy to walk by a piece once we have discovered “what it’s about” from a glance at the piece itself and then at its name tag. (If it is a famous artist, a second glance might be warranted.) “Museum fatigue” is a real phenomenon, but it is no wonder that many contemporary artists feel justified in frustrating the casual inspection of their own work by titling them “Untitled.”

Catholic viewers, encountering these two versions of the Annunciation—one, by Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden, dating from 1455 (page 38); the other, by Raphael, from 1503 (facing page)—may well be tempted to tune them out as standard representatives of a thoroughly well-known, if beloved, theme, recounted in Luke’s Gospel. But we shouldn’t allow familiarity with the subject to desensitize us to the manner of its expression in particular works of art. We can be fairly certain that more is going on in the actual images than is contained in our summary of their meaning. The artistic tradition adds dimensions and resonances to the theological tradition, so there will be formal elements and symbols to be observed, similarities and differences to be described. In fact, when a subject is as familiar as this one, comparisons between different representations become especially instructive: Though separated by only about 50 years in time, these two paintings are from completely dissimilar aesthetic worlds.

Attention to Artistic Conventions

Both, of course, share the features essential to the subject. Both show the major players, the archangel Gabriel and Mary, and both show the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove gliding towards her. In Raphael’s version, God the Father also hovers above the scene, apparently in the sky at some distance, although the spatial relationship is ambiguous: In terms of scale, he appears to be about as far away as the adjacent archway. In van der Weyden’s, it is the dove that appears out of scale, more like a miniature origami figure than a full-sized bird.

Each work also complies with the most common pictorial conventions for depicting the Annunciation. The action is set in an interior space, where Mary sits or kneels, reading from her prayer-book. Her posture is passive, not active. She inclines her head humbly and submissively, not even making eye contact with Gabriel, who is the active, dynamic figure, befitting his role as the messenger of God. He typically enters the room from the left (since we read from left to right, this positioning reinforces the narrative flow and the impetus of his motion); he runs in, alights, or stands, robes and wings aflutter, all energy and purpose. (Occasionally one encounters the inverse of these conventions—outdoor setting, Mary to the left, or standing with Gabriel kneeling in honor before her—but examples are uncommon enough as to make them literally unconventional.)

Color symbolism is important in both paintings. Mary is dressed in blue and red robes, or in blue with a red backdrop—colors which symbolize her purity, royalty, love, passion, and suffering. Blue is also the color of heaven or divinity, red the color of earth or flesh, so we may say that the blue mantle of divine grace surrounds Mary’s body, or overlies the “earthiness” of the bed, preserving its integrity. (In Germanic countries, red bed-clothes were also said to ward off miscarriage.) A red robe over a blue robe (seen in some portrayals of Mary) symbolizes the Incarnation: Mary’s body surrounded the body of her divine Son, just as Jesus’ body “covered” his godhead.

Visually, the contrast between the two primary colors, red and blue, serves to draw our attention to the Mother of God. Gabriel’s dark wings in the Raphael provide a similar, though less vibrant, accent against his red robe (here symbolic of his ardent zeal), and add visual weight to balance his form against Mary. Imagine how the harmony of the composition would be altered if the wings were a lighter color, or removed altogether; Raphael was a master of such compositional refinements. In the van der Weyden, Gabriel wears the traditional white robes of light and purity.

Also emblematic of Mary’s purity, virginity, and role as Theotokos, the God-bearer, are such symbols as the white lily, sometimes called the Annunciation lily, which may either be offered to her by Gabriel, or be found already deposited in an unbroken vessel of some kind; clear glass windows, which permit the light of the Holy Spirit to pass unimpeded; or conversely, a walled, enclosed garden with an unopened gate. Artists drew their inspiration for many of these symbols from the Song of Solomon.

But the differences between these two works are what provide insight into each artist’s particular aesthetic and intentions.

Look Back with Longing

Raphael’s work, actually one of three small paintings installed in the predella or base of a much larger work, the Oddi Altarpiece, is a product of the Italian Renaissance. Aesthetically, it is Classical to its roots: The figures are serene and dignified, the setting pristine, idealized, and completely artificial. The architecture is elegantly Greco-Roman, complete with Corinthian capitals on the columns and Roman arches; the room perfectly symmetrical; the whole portrayed in exquisitely precise one-point linear perspective.

This is hardly a contemporary Italian setting, still less one that Mary would have recognized in Nazareth. Raphael regards the Annunciation as a timeless and universal event, and so he takes it out of the present and ordinary world. That he and the other leaders of the Italian Renaissance looked back to the Classical world is symptomatic of a nostalgic longing for a bygone and presumably better age, one that they sought to revive.

Likewise, the spatial clarity and integrity of the composition is indicative of their newly scientific view of reality. It is not surprising that linear or mathematical perspective should have been invented just when people were looking for order and measure in the world, for clear explanations and rational truths. Raphael therefore strips away every unnecessary element from the scene, reducing it to its intellectual essence. There is nothing casual or spontaneous, no distracting scrap of litter on the floor, no crack, stain, or imperfection of any kind to be seen. This is a world that has been perfected by reason. The overall effect, however—typical of Classically idealized art—is a little cold, a little distanced.

Celebrate the Here and Now

Van der Weyden’s piece, on the other hand, is manifestly, almost cheerfully, disheveled, cluttered, and asymmetrical. (This last feature is explained in part by its being the left wing of a triptych; although it can stand alone, when seen together with the central panel and the right wing, the whole appears balanced). The setting is not a nostalgic reconstruction of the past, but a room in a contemporary Netherlandish house, filled with realistic and closely observed details. Note the random positions of the shutters, the strings holding up the canopy, the pillow on the chair, the green rug Mary kneels on. None of this is “necessary” to the story. It is van der Weyden’s way of showing us that the supernatural can be experienced in the here and now.

This cozy, down-to-earth realism, with its preference for the particular above the universal, intuition above theory, is a hallmark of the Northern European imagination, arising long before the Renaissance, and extending into the Baroque era (and evolving, regrettably, into unabashed secularism). Thus, we don’t get Classical clarity or simplicity from van der Weyden. Things are piled on top of each other to such an extent that there is no empty space, no breathing room between forms. In the Raphael, it is as if Gabriel’s visit has been anticipated, and Mary has had time to clean up and make everything perfect for her honored guest; in the van der Weyden, we witness the confusion and awkwardness provoked by a stranger who has decided to drop by unannounced, while yesterday’s dishes are still in the sink.

Moreover, compared to Raphael’s masterful handling of space, the room here appears compressed, and the accuracy or consistency of the perspective is suspect. In fact, none of the diagonal lines in the piece, which represent lines moving away from the viewer in space, meet at a single vanishing point as they do in the Italian work. It’s as if the technical innovations of the Renaissance hadn’t quite reached the Netherlands, or hadn’t received the same enthusiastic welcome they had enjoyed in Italy. Van der Weyden and his contemporaries are content with empirical, not theoretical, accuracy.

Indeed, Northern Europeans never shared the Italians’ fascination with Classical rationalism or Greco-Roman culture in general, no doubt because these defiant “barbarians” had never been fully Romanized. They had no organic connection to the Classical world, and every reason to hang on to their Celtic and Anglo-Saxon aesthetic. In consequence, the Northern “Renaissance” is not the rebirth of an antique culture, but the culmination, or full-flowering, of the indigenous Medieval Gothic world.

We can almost always deepen our appreciation of particular works of art by making comparisons like this, no matter how familiar we might be with the works themselves. Something similar is true for our appreciation of our own religion. Certainly apologists or converts must make comparisons all the time, but all Catholics can benefit from comparing the familiar truths and doctrines they know with how they are expressed in art.

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