MASTER of Flémalle
(b. ca. 1375, Valenciennes, d. 1444, Tournai)
Tempera on oak, 61 x 63,7 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Based on its style the Annunciation is attributed to the Master of Flémalle and dated between c. 1415 and 1425. The painter's provisional name refers to the "Abbey of Flémalle" where certain of his works are assumed to have been painted. However, in this village near Liège there was never any abbey. Today the master is commonly identified with the Tournai artist Robert Campin.
The scene takes place inside a bourgeois dwelling, a novelty in the painting of the time, as until then the scene had always been depicted in or in front of a church. In line with tradition, Gabriel enters the room from the left. The Virgin is seated in front of a low bench on the tiled floor, a sign of her humility. The edge of her mantle is decorated with an inscription, another innovation of the Master of Flémalle. Its text appears to be inspired by the popular medieval Marian hymn Salve Regina. The Virgin's gestures illustrate her acceptance. Her right hand rests on her breast, her eyes modestly cast downwards. On Mary's lap is an open book, a second one lies on the table. This motif is possibly taken from devotional tracts of around 1400, which state that the Virgin was meditating on the Holy Scriptures when Gabriel entered. The books also indicate her as the possessor of divine wisdom. In this connection, the bench is decorated with little lions, as was once the throne of Solomon, the Old Testament king who used to be seen as the epitome of wisdom. The stained glass figures possibly represent prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah.
Other apparently everyday objects also have an additional, deeper significance. The hand broom next to the chimney symbolises the purification from the stain of sin, and the white lilies in the maiolica vase Mary's virginity. The open window probably alludes to her honorary title as 'fenestra coeli', the window of heaven. The candles and their holders refer to Christ and the Virgin. The fact that the candles are snuffed out indicates that conception has already taken place. One intriguing detail is the woodcut above the chimney, depicting St Christopher carrying the Child across the river. This motif is a good illustration of the chronological jumps frequently found in the paintings of Flemish Primitives, as according to the main scene, depicting the Annunciation, the Saviour has not even been born!