The Renaissance in Western Europe brought a “rebirth” to the arts. No longer was the church the only accredited patron for the arts. Instead, a wealthy middle class arose as patrons and were able to purchase artist’s works. Although many pieces still had religious themes, the styles, freedom of creativity, and less reserved pieces were created. The Renaissance was not only confined to Italy, although it is often mistaken as the birthplace of the movement. All over Western Europe artwork flourished. Artists from the north came to Italy to study the classical arts and the renowned Italian Renaissance artists.
Many of the same themes and subject matters were depicted throughout Western Europe. One such subject matter, the Annunciation, was portrayed by Jan van Eyck, a Flemish panel painter, as well as, Fra Angelico, an Italian fresco painter. In short, the Annunciation occurred when God sends the angel, Gabriel to deliver the message to Mary that she will give birth to his only son. Although both artists had the same understanding of the biblical account, their styles varied to agree with the concerns and interests of the people of the time as well as where they lived.
They were able to establish their individuality through their artwork, even with the same subject matter. The Annunciation by Jan van Eyck is a perfect reflection of Northern Renaissance panel painting while Annunciation by Fra Angelico is the essence of Italian Renaissance fresco painting. The compositions that each piece displays is different and prestige in its own right. Flemish panel painters were largely influential and created extraordinary developments in composition.
The artwork tends to be very detailed and filled with symbolic meanings from surrounding objects or even coloring. Jan van Eyck was especially credited for paying exceptional attention to detail that creates such a realistic form, the figures seem lifelike. Much of this realistic appearance is due to the medium that was widely used in the North. The use of oil paints and techniques, such as finer detail with smaller brush strokes and layering of oil paints to create a glaze, were used and developed giving the Northern art distinct characteristics and composition.
Italian painters created frescos by applying pigments to wet plaster. The result is a dull, flatter color and they were unable to achieve intricate detail. The composition of Fra Angelico’s work is simplistic with very little objects and lacking symbolism found in van Eyck’s work. The Italians may not have had detailed frescos and vivid colors; however they were the leaders in creating a harmonious scale between the landscape and the objects or figures that adorned it.
They developed a focused on perspective and made their art a science. They used mathematical measurements and thus the piece was given a great deal of depth and realism. The fresco appears to be an extended recessed space in the room. In Angelico’s piece, linear perspective is created by the placement and angles of the walls. The edge of the porch, the base of the first column and the lines of the bench establish a linear perspective. Italian painters also focused on the studying of classical art and architecture.
In Angelico’s piece, the arches supported by the stance of the ionic columns show the interest and study that the Italians adapted into their work. The Northern Renaissance painters eventually incorporated perspective in their work. Van Eyck used intuitive perspective, making objects appear smaller and closer together as they are placed further in the distance to create the feeling of depth in his piece. Iconography is more prevalent in the Northern Renaissance artwork compared to the Italian Renaissance artwork.
Upon first glance, there are two distinct and obvious similarities between the two works. The most noticeable is how Mary is wearing blue and is very similarly depicted. Just like white, the color blue is thought to be the symbol of purity and wrapping the Virgin Mary in a blue dress is presenting her as a pure figure. The angel, Gabriel, is the other figure that is represented in both pieces. Heaven is often associated with white light and bright colors. In van Eyck’s piece, the light cast in from the window and the gentle light on the face enlightens the figure.
In Angelico’s piece the scene is set out on a terrace and the light pours out over the figures. Gabriel is also enveloped in a heavenly light with special attention to the hands and face accentuating them with light. The wings adorning the angels backs are astonishingly multicolored hues and have an appeal to them that cause your eyes to focus on their beauty. This is especially eye-catching in Angelico’s work because the fresco uses very pale and flat coloring and with such a concentration and array of color on such a surface draws attention.
In van Eyck’s piece, the oil paints not only create a rich coloring but create a glazed, glossy effect that enriches the piece. Stokstad reminds the readers that “panel paintings provided a window onto a scene which fifteenth-century Flemish painters typically rendered with keen attention to individual featureswhether of people, human-made objects, or the natural worldin works laden with symbolic meaning”. Van Eyck is able to put a name to the Flemish painter’s stereotype and produce works that held deeper and more symbolic meanings that still are puzzling art historians today.
Some of the key symbols that Stokstad points out in the text is the dove, representing the Holy Spirit; the white lilies as a symbol of the Virgin Mary. She also points out, two rather unknown symbols to the sacrilegious, the date of the Annunciation in signs of the zodiac on the floor, as well as the lone stained glass window that is symbolizing God rising above the three windows that are placed in the background behind Mary. These three windows represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Both Jan van Eyck and Fra Angelico were revered artists for the advances in art that they created and displayed for the world to see. Their renditions of the Annunciation were both very different, however unique and perfect display of the typical styles used during the Renaissance. Jan van Eyck’s panel painting Annunciation held all the characteristics of the Northern Renaissance with its overwhelming symbolism and detail. Fra Angelico’s fresco Annunciation grasped the key elements used in the Italian Renaissance with usage of perspective as well as displaying the interest and knowledge of the classical arts.