I associate many cities with paintings that live in them. Long before I moved here in 2006, mention of Washington, D.C. often brought to mind Jan van Eyck’s “Annunciation.” This 3-foot-tall panel was made in the 1430s, centuries before anyone had ever imagined this city. The painting was here when the National Gallery of Art opened in 1941 as part of Andrew Mellon’s founding gift of 152 works — the seeds from which the rest of the collection would grow. Mellon had bought the van Eyck, along with 20 other major old-master paintings, in 1930 from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Although he was secretary of the treasury and managing the early devastation of the Great Depression, Mellon was captivated by a unique opportunity to acquire a cache of masterpieces being sold by a cash-strapped Soviet government.

Probably made as the left wing of a triptych for an altar, the panel (later transferred to canvas) had come to Russia in 1850 for the collection of Czar Nicholas I after the death of its previous owner, William II, king of the Netherlands. An earlier inventory mentions an “Annunciation” in Dijon that may well have been the one today in Washington, which suggests the patronage of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. This would make it the sole surviving work that Jan van Eyck made for the duke, who was one of the most powerful princes and patrons in all of Europe.

Far more interesting than its grand pedigree, however, is the painting itself.

The Annunciation — the angel Gabriel’s visit to inform the Virgin Mary that she would bear Jesus (Luke 1:26-38) — had long been a standard fixture in European art. But artists recognized endless possibilities of staging and meaning in this deeply familiar encounter. One crucial decision was the setting, which is not specified in the Bible. Where should it happen? Some chose a garden, some a porch, some an urban space, some a room in a house. Van Eyck chose the interior of a church. A few other painters had done so, but never in such richly realized and symbolically charged terms.

Mary’s anachronistic occupation of this late-medieval structure embodies a longstanding parallel made between her and Ecclesia, the personification of the Church. But van Eyck’s painting develops these related ideas much further and in innately visual terms. The wall and windows of the upper story belong to an older, Romanesque style, while those below conform to the newer Gothic — modern architecture in van Eyck’s day. High on the wall behind Mary, a single stained-glass window depicting God is flanked by painted scenes from the life of Moses, who is understood as an Old Testament type, or precursor, of Christ. As the dove of the Holy Spirit glides on golden rays from the high windows of the left wall, its descent traces the shift from Old to New Testament. The antiquity of the higher realm is gently punctuated by van Eyck’s creation of a ceiling in need of repair. Broken boards open black shadows that allow the lights below to shine more brightly.

Such shaping of meaning requires calculated relationships. Rather than center Mary in the painting, van Eyck centers her before the back wall on the right side of the image. This aligns her precisely with the image of God above and the three windows behind her — the second of which frames earthly light into a halo. In this position, the windows also embody the Holy Trinity. Its stable radiance anchors what is happening, with the Father glowing above, the Spirit beaming from left and the Son entering the world.

The conversation is made as visible as the place, with airborne words gleaming between the figures. Mary’s response is written upside down. This is usually explained as being addressed to the Lord above. But would this artist have thought God needed help to read or hear what Mary had to say? It is more likely that van Eyck, who experimented often with the depiction of language, flipped Mary’s words so that they, like Gabriel’s, could emerge in order. Ave (Hail) and ecce (Behold) are nearest their mouths.

There is much more happening here, including an extraordinary program of Old Testament and zodiacal imagery on the inlaid floor of the church that further illuminates the main event. But it would be a mistake to regard the painting only as an ingenious elaboration of theology. Its unprecedented realism, which still manages to astonish in our own age of infinite images, carried other kinds of value.

One of them was Jan van Eyck’s implicit claim to be a creator of much more than paintings. He knew his contemporaries would marvel not only at the optical truth of the scene but also at the sheer variety of crafted things that fill it. While Gabriel’s material splendor — including rainbow wings and jeweled vestments for the celebration of Mass — reveals a painter thoroughly conversant with the prized arts of fine weaving and goldsmith work, the rest of the image suggests comparable mastery of sculpture, stained-glass, architecture and more. Even the world beyond the church is almost magically wrought.

Notice, for example, the illegible green shapes refracted through the convex glass in the windows behind Mary. The trees in that invisible landscape are not really painted, but are planted perfectly well in our minds. In the Washington “Annunciation,” as in much of his other work, it is as if van Eyck aspired to a comprehensive, almost imperial control of art itself. This would have appealed to the duke of Burgundy, whose own ambitions were famously adorned and fortified by the profound investment of his court in arts of many kinds.

This painting is available in zoomable detail at the National Gallery of Art’s website.

Alfred Acres is an Art & Art History professor.

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