Oil on wood
Framed: 75.2 x 69 x 8.5 cm (29 5/8 x 27 3/16 x 3 3/8 in.); Unframed: 50.2 x 41.5 cm (19 3/4 x 16 5/16 in.)
Bequest of John L. Severance 1942.635
Netherlandish artists are known for their attention to lifelike detail: notice the sliver of landscape through the window at the left of this composition.
Bouts was the son of the painter Dieric, from a family of painters in Leuven. He specialized in small devotional paintings for a ready market in Antwerp and other Flemish cities. This painting depicts an important event in the life of Mary—the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a son. The Incarnation of Christ is believed to have taken place at precisely this moment. The prevalence of this scene in medieval Christian art reflects its doctrinal importance and its role as a meditative event. The Virgin is represented here in a luxurious private chapel. The vase with lilies on the floor symbolizes her purity. The orange on the window sill is a symbol of chastity and generosity, and the closed book suggests the Old Testament prophecies have now been fulfilled. Mary is praying from her book of hours, much like an affluent merchant’s wife in medieval Bruges or Antwerp. Books of hours, private devotional books for lay people, were at their peak of popularity, especially among women. Startled by the angel, she seems to turn slightly to greet him. Both the angel and Mary are wrapped in sumptuous draperies, perhaps a reflection of the importance of the Flemish cloth industry. Surprised by the angel Gabriel's sudden appearance and his message that she will bear the son of God, the Mary rises from prayer. The artist sets the scene in a room with decor and furnishings familiar to viewers of his time. Though religious, paintings like this offer a glimpse of life among the urban elite. The small size of the panel suggests that it was used for private devotions (much like the altarpiece behind the Virgin), and also prized as a highly finished collector's item.
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