David Amott and Dr. Martha Peacock, Art History
The Northern Renaissance artist who best understood iconography’s potential in painting was Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), whose Annunciation (1434) is a masterpiece of Netherlandish art and one of the most important paintings of the Northern Renaissance. Integrated into this work is symbolism that refers to the Trinity, the Old and New Testament, and events leading up to the birth of Christ. Outside of the painting’s major symbolic cycle, however, are a number of other details that add further meaning to the scene. Among these are the rainbow colored wings of the Archangel Gabriel embellished with peacock feathers. These details are significant in their context because they serve as references to the resurrection, the last judgment, and immortality. Therefore it is necessary to examine their possible meaning in the painting in order to completely understand the Annunciation and its iconographic program.
Unlike earlier annunciation scenes, Van Eyck’s Annunciation depicts the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel in a church setting–a setting that enables the use of complex Christian symbolism. The church’s architecture is divided into a Romanesque upper story and a Gothic lower story. The details found in the upper story highlight Old Testament references and prophecies regarding the life and callings of Christ. The church’s lower story alludes to the trinity, the transition between the Old and New Testaments, and Christ’s impending birth, among other things.
While the Annunciation’s detail and iconography make it a complex piece, Van Eyck anchors the viewer’s attention on Mary and Gabriel. Mary is clothed simply in contrast to the Archangel Gabriel’s rich ornamentation. The opulence of the Archangel’s robes harmonizes with his vivid rainbow-hued wings that, as mentioned, are further embellished with peacock feathers. Many annunciation paintings done after Van Eyck’s own Annunciation depict Gabriel’s wings with multi-colored peacock feathers. However, no Northern Renaissance Annunciations painted before Van Eyck’s work depict both these details together. In consequence, the overlapping of these two features in the Annunciation is unique enough to suggest that Van Eyck depicted them in this way for a reason – indicating that his rainbow and peacock wings were not just merely decorative or traditional, but carried symbolic significance.
Because religious thought dominated the Northern Renaissance, artists focused their work on religious scenes or persons, searching the Bible for symbolism that could enrich their art. Two scriptural passages that mention rainbows, Genesis 9:13 and John 4:3, are among the Biblical references that were frequently referenced in northern art of this time. The first scripture, Genesis 9:13, refers to the rainbow as a symbol of God’s covenant to never destroy the earth by flood. While manuscript illuminations constitute the majority of Northern Renaissance depictions of the deluge, northern artists such as Hans Baldung Grien and Peter Brughel also painted various scenes of this well-known biblical story.
John 4:3 which, as mentioned, is the second scripture to reference rainbows describes the seat from which Christ will judge men’s souls as a “rainbow throne.6” Many paintings of the Last Judgment, such as Petrus Christus’ Last Judgment Altarpiece, or Hans Memling’s Last Judgment, depict Christ enthroned on a rainbow. Even Van Eyck’s Christ Enthroned on the Ghent Altarpiece shows Christ on a cathedra with a rainbow shaped backrest.
As the rainbow was seen as a reference of God’s covenant to Noah as well as a symbol of the Last Judgment, Van Eyck surely realized how this symbolism tied in with his painting of the annunciation. Not only does the rainbow serve as another bridge between the Old and New Testament (as does the very annunciation), it also points to the two Biblical events that the earth was (or will be) cleansed, the wicked lost, and the righteous saved. Thus, these symbols also emphasize Christ’s role as the Savior who provides the grace that enables one to survive these judgments and cleansings. By placing this symbol on Gabriel’s wings, Van Eyck makes additional reference to the Gabriel’s roll as an intercessor for the world at the time of the deluge. Van Eyck also turns the archangel into a symbol of both the Alpha of the New Testament and Christ’s ministry (the announcer of his long prophesied birth), and a reference to the Omega of the New Testament and Christ’s earthly ministry as well (Christ’s role as judge at the last day).
It is interesting to note that the only angels Van Eyck painted with rainbow colored wings are those featured in paintings that make reference to, or depict the infant Christ. In these paintings, such as the Virgin and Christ with Chancellor Rolin (1436) or the Dresden Triptych (1437) the angel’s wings are painted in vivid rainbow coloring. In other Van Eyck paintings that feature angels but do not reference the infant Christ, such as St Francis receiving the Stigmata (1428), the angels’ wings remain multicolored but do not have the same rainbow-like coloring found in those paintings which depict Christ as a child. When considering this selective use of coloring together with Van Eyck’s heavy use of iconography, one can assume that Van Eyck used rainbow coloring to emphasize the Christ child’s future roles as redeemer and judge. In paintings such as St Francis Receiving the Stigmata, however, it is Christ’s passion that is highlighted and not his role as redeemer and judge. Therefore rainbows are not as relevant to the painting of St. Francis as they are in the adoration or annunciation scenes, and as a result, the angles in these paintings do not feature rainbow coloring on their wings.
As mentioned, Van Eyck also used peacock feathers in addition to rainbow coloring, serving to further enrich the Annunciation’s symbolic program. Due to their opulent plumage and noble associations, peacocks have represented the idea of immortality since pagan times. This mythological symbolism was later adopted into Catholic tradition and was discussed by authors such as St Augustine who treated the subject in his book City of God. Furthermore, medieval bestiaries added to the symbolic importance of peacocks by associating the “eyes” on peacocks’ tail feathers with immortality and the all-seeing eye of God his church. While rainbow colored wings are consistently used in Van Eyck’s annunciation and adoration scenes, peacock feathers are not. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that Van Eyck only used peacock feathers together with rainbow colored wings. This is significant because both these symbols refer to the idea of royalty, resurrection, renewal, and the last judgment. In the Annunciation, for example, the peacock coloring in Gabriel’s wings remind the viewer of the immortality offered to those who, after living righteous lives, will overcome the grave and be judged worthy by Christ (at the rainbow throne) to enter into heaven. In Van Eyck’s other paintings that feature rainbow coloring and peacock feathers, such as the Virgin and Christ With Chancellor Rolan, these overlapping symbols are used in much the same way. In the painting of Chancellor Rolan adoring the Virgin and Christ, both the peacocks in Mary’s garden and the cherub’s peacock wings refer to both Christ’s and Mary’s royalty as well as to Christ’s resurrection and victory over death.
Van Eyck’s understanding of iconography allowed him to harmonize the Archangel Gabriel’s wings into the Annunciation’s already complex symbolic program. This symbolism easily fits into the painting’s iconography because it continues the painting’s theme of connecting the Old Testament with the New Testament. Additionally, the wing’s symbolism takes the Annunciation’s symbolism a step further by referring to the major events at the end of Christ’s ministry – namely his resurrection and eventual return at the Last Judgment. By doing so, Van Eyck depicts in one painting the events foretelling the annunciation, the annunciation itself, and Christ’s future role as the redeemer and judge of the world.
- Hand, John Oliver, Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, Washington D.C: National Gallery of Art, 1994.
- Still, Gertrude Grace, A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art, New York: Macmillan and Company, 1975.
- Ward, John L., “Hidden Symbolism in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciations” The Art Bulletin no. 12, Oct 1990.