For Christian believers this is the very instant of the Incarnation, when word is made flesh and Jesus is given earthly life and when God’s plan for salvation is set in motion. It is a moment of abiding mystery that
In fact, many who saw this painting would have witnessed the scene, as it was reenacted by choirboys in church each December. Van Eyck’s painting closely parallels a performance that was part of the Golden Mass. Such performances created a sense of “reality” in the same way that Van Eyck’s minute style did, to serve the needs of the devotio moderna. This widespread religious movement, which arose in the Low Countries at the end of the Middle Ages, promoted an empathetic piety that placed great value on a worshipper’s direct, personal identification with the lives and the joys and sufferings of holy figures.
For all its highly convincing evocation of the material world, however, virtually every element in Van Eyck’s painting carries complex levels of meaning. His elaborate symbolism, which would have been fully grasped only by a small, well-educated elite, centers on the implications of the Annunciation as the transition to the new era of Grace brought about by Christ’s human birth and sacrifice.
We do not know who commissioned this Annunciation or where it was originally installed. It must have been the left-hand section of a three-part altarpiece, whose other panels are now lost. Early accounts of the painting place it in Dijon, where Van Eyck served the dukes of Burgundy not only as a painter but also as a “varlet de chambre” (chamberlain) who undertook secret diplomatic mission for Philip the Good, including negotiations for his marriage.