Annunciation Diptych, Jan Van Eyck, 1433,-35


The tiny masterpiece which most caught my eye at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza was this beautiful, small (only 39x24cm) painting by Jan van Eyck.

The picture portrays the Annunciation; the moment at which the Archangel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that she is to give birth to the son of God. It is painted in a style referred to as grisaille, a form of monochrome painting frequently used, as in this case, to represent sculpture. Van Eyck’s success in using this technique to create the sense of a three-dimensional image with the figures extending out from the frame by which they are surrounded is extraordinary. It demonstrates a total mastery of technique. Critics believe that it represents for Van Eyck a ‘touchstone of painting’ through which he was able to demonstrate the superiority of painting over sculpture. Look, he is saying, with paint I can do achieve everything you could achieve with sculpture, and more beside.

Jan Van Eyck (c.1390-1441) was a Flemish painter and one of the most significant Northern Renaissance artists of the 15th century. Little is known of his early life. In 1425 he was employed as court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in Lille, where he remained until 1429 after which he moved to Bruges, working for Philip until his death there in 1441.

Van Eyck painted both secular and religious subject matter, including commissioned portraits such as the Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery, London. Van Eyck emphasised the naturalism of his portrayals and developed a new level of virtuosity, mainly through the use of oil as a medium; the fact that oil dries so slowly allowed him more time and more scope for blending and mixing layers of different pigments.