Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Joyful Mysteries – The Annunciation, Part VIII, In the Bedroom

Joos van Cleve, Annunciation
Flemish, c. 1525
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Note:  This essay should be read in conjunction with the one that precedes it.

Another location chosen for some of the most well-known images set in the domestic interior are those which show the scene taking place in Mary’s bedroom.

This setting warrants special attention.  The bedroom is a distinctive space in any home.  It is the withdrawal room, the inner chamber, the privy chamber, the secret space where only the occupant and his/her immediate family and friends and closest servants are allowed.  It can be a place of solitude, if desired.  And it has intimate ties with a human person’s experience of sleep, as well as with birth, death, love, and thought.  But, with a few notable exceptions, it is not a very frequent setting for important pictures.

Chief among these exceptions are the so-called Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck and the series of Annunciation scenes we will be looking at.

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait
Flemish, 1434
London, National Gallery
The Arnolfini Portrait shows a man and a woman, their hands joined together, standing next to a large and sumptuous bed.  The meaning of the rather solemn scene is still somewhat mysterious.  It may represent a sort of pictorial “marriage certificate”, a record of the couple’s marriage contract, made before the two witnesses whose “painted reflections” we can see in the painted mirror on the painted wall.  Or perhaps it is to be read as a record of a marriage which was already over when the picture was painted, with the picture serving as a memorial to the deceased first wife of the male sitter.  Or it may mean something else entirely.  Currently, no one really knows for sure. 1

In discussions of the Arnolfini Portrait I have often seen statements to the effect that the room is not so much a bedroom as a reception room.  Reception rooms of this period, we are told, often contained a large and ornate bed, which might or might not be in actual use, but functioned primarily as a status symbol.  So far, I have seen no evidence cited for the source of this kind of statement, and it may be true.

However, I suspect that the picture is actually set in a that specialized room we call the bedroom.

Bedrooms have been in existence for thousands of years.  In the world of ancient Rome, for instance, the cubiculum was a smallish room set aside as a sleeping chamber.  

Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor
Roman (Late Republic), c. 50-40 BC
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

And, even though in the early middle ages, most of the members of a household bedded down in the main hall, there was usually some separate room for the lord of the manor and his family.  As time and wealth returned to Roman levels, individual houses went from being one room hovels to having specialized rooms for different functions and the bedroom as we know it was reborn.

The well-to-do merchants and members of the nobility who commissioned works such as the Arnolfini Portrait and the majority of images of the Annunciation were affluent enough to have dwellings that probably included at least one, if not several bedrooms (as for example in a dollhouse made toward the end of the period which saw the greatest number of Annunciation images set in the bedroom of Mary). 

German (Nuremburg), 1639
Nuremburg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum

Depictions of the Bedroom -- 14th through 17th Centuries 

While thinking about this issue I decided to review what kinds of pictures were actually set in the bedroom during this same period.  I surveyed multiple museum and library websites to gather a good sample.

What I found was not surprising.  Images that were clearly set in separate sleeping chambers, or bedrooms, illustrated the following topics:



Attributed to Master of the Royal Alexander, The Author Reading
from Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre
French (Paris), c. 1420
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Royal 2 B XX, fol. 1

Raphael Sadeler after Maarten de Vos, Oratio (Prayer)
Dutch. 1589
London, British Museum


Giotto, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni Chapel (Arena Chapel)


Evrard d'Espinques, A Doctor Examining Urine
from De Proprietatibus rerum by Barthelemy l'Anglais
Franch (Ahun), 1480
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9140, fol. 120v

Sex (both marital and extra-marital)

Master of the Pesaro Crucifix, St. Cecilia and Her Husband, Valerian, Being Crowned by an Angel
Italian, c. 1375-1380
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Brangain Sleeping with King Mark in Place of Isolde
from Tristan de Leonois
French (Central), c. 1470
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 112 (1), fol. 244v

Masters of the Dark Eyes, David and Bathsheba in Their Bedroom
from a Book of Hours
Dutch, c. 1490
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 G 9, fol. 150r

Jupiter and Danäe
from Histoire des Troyes by Raoul Lefevre
Flemish, 1495
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 22552, fol. 49v

Jean de Brosse and Louise de Laval in Prayer in their Bedroom
from Histoire de Jean III de Brosse et de sa femme Louise de Laval
French, c. 1500
Chantilly, Musée Condé  
MS 388, fol. 14r


Isolde Lamenting
from Tristan de Leonois
French (Paris), 1400-1425
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 100, fol. 172v

Historical, biblical or mythical subjects appropriately set in bedrooms

Alexander the Great Dictating His Will
from Histoire d'Alexndre by Jan Wauquelin
Flemish (Bruges), 1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9342, fol. 210v

Guglielmo Giraldi, Dido Carried Fainting to Her Bed
from The Aeneiad by Virgil
Italian (Ferrara), 1458
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 7939 A, fol. 102

Pieter Lastman, Wedding Night of Tobias and Sarah
Dutch, 1611
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Eustache Le Sueur, Rape of Tamar
French, c. 1640
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

and occasionally, just Thinking.

Perrin Remiet, Machaut in his room
from Jugement du Roi de Navarre by Guillaume de Machaut
French (Paris), End of the 14th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 22545

Only a small handful of these images set the bed in anything that might be considered to be a reception room, so I am more doubtful about that assertion than I was before I began the survey.

The Annunciation in the Bedroom


These comments on the depiction of the uses of the bedroom as a setting help us to sense the thought underlying these popular paintings of the Annunciation taking place in the bedroom or close enough to the bedroom to offer a glimpse of the bed.

from Legenda aurea
France (Paris), Beginning of the 15th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 242, fol. 1

Pere Serra, Annunciation
Spanish, 1400-1405
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Gentile da Fabriano, Annunciation
Italian, c. 1425
Vatican, Pinacoteca

Roger van der Weyden, Annunciation
Flemish, c.1440
Paris, Musée du Louvre

What they tell us is that, at the moment Gabriel appeared, Mary was situated in a private space where she was engaged in an activity, which may have been reading, or working on some needlework, or most frequently, praying.  The room may be well-furnished or extremely simple, but it contains a bed, frequently with hangings, or such a bed can be clearly glimpsed in an adjoining space.

Master of the Flemish Boethius, Annunciation
from Vita Jesu Christi
Belgian (Ghent), 1480
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francaise 181, fol. 15

from a Book of Hours
Naples, 1483
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 1052, fol. 13r

Sandro Botticelli, Annunciation
Italian, c.1485
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Annunciation
Italian, 1486-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

Hans Memling, Annunciation
German, 1489
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean Hey, Master of Moulins, Annunciation
French, c. 1490-1495
Chicago, Art Institute

In all but the most recent (19th- and 20th century paintings) the bed is shown as made up, not in disarray, frequently covered with a bedspread.  Occasionally, Mary is shown as seated on the bed.  But, mostly, she is seated elsewhere or is kneeling at a prayer stand.

Filippino Lippi, Annunciation
Italian, Mid 1490s
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, Annunciation
Italian, 1495
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Master of Unicorn Hunt, Annunciation
from a Book of Hours
French (Paris), 1495-1499
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 1110, fol. 37r

Fra Bartolomeo, Annunciation
Italian, 1497
Volterra, Cathedral

Leaf from a Book of Hours
Flemish (Ghent-Bruges), c.1500-1525
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

What are we to make of this?  There is the contrast between the ordinary, domestic, calm and the sudden arrival of this messenger from outside of time and space.  In some pictures, the artist included some indication of the action of the Holy Spirit, by including a dove or even a tiny Christ Child traveling on a sunbeam.  God the Father may be seen hovering in space, eager to hear her reply.  Among the northern artists there may be the inclusion of hidden symbolism related to the Incarnation, which is the event that takes place as soon as Mary says  “May it be done to me” (Luke 1:38).  Such symbols might include:  a glass window or a glass vase through which light passes, a lighted candle and, of course, lilies, symbolic of Mary’s purity. 2

Bernardo Zenale, Annunciation
Italian, 1510-1512
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Dutch, c. 1520
 Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Annunciation
Right wing of a triptych
Flemish, 1530-1540
Madrid, Museo del Prado

from Hours of Antoine le Bon
French (Lorraine), 1533
Paris, Bibliotheque natinale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 302, fol. 14v
This somewhat startling image tells you everything you need to know about what is happening in the scene.  Right in the center of the image a Crucifix grows out of a lily plant.  This drives home the meaning of the event, Mary is being asked to give flesh to the Second Person of the Trinity in order for him to live as a human and to die on the cross as a human, while still also being God, in an unimaginable act of divine love for humankind.  From her "yes" comes the Cross and the salvation of the fallen world.

Lorenzo Lotto, Annunciation
Italian, 1534-1535
Recanati, Pinacoteca Civica

Marcellus Coffermans, Annunciation
Dutch, c. 1549-1578
Glasgow, The Burrell Collection

Francesco Salviati, Annunciation
Italian, c. 1550
Rome, Church of San Marcello al Corso

Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, Annunciatin
Italian, c. 1550
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

(These two paintings, by Salviati and Bedoli, clearly demonstrate the way in which Mannerist painters departed from straightforward story telling by employing odd, spiraling poses that often obscured the narrative of their images.)

Marten de Vos, Annunciatin
Flemish, 1569
Celle, Schlosskapelle

Annunciation Woodcut
From Luther Betbuchlinof
German, 1573
New York, New York Public Library, Spencer Collection
MS NYPL Spencer 108
Early Protestant books retained the Catholic imagery.

However, I think that it is the bed itself, with its intimate connotations, that is the biggest symbol.  For here is a moment of conception that is not taking place in the normal manner.  Mary is alert, alone and actively engaged on her own, in her own space.  Her conscious and conscientious replies to the angel’s astonishing greeting and announcement, including her skeptical question ““How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34), suggest that she is fully aware of what has been said and, reasonably, astonished at its implications.  But her final, calm acceptance is mirrored in the undisturbed neatness of the bed and its coverings.  This was no carnal, earthly act of conception, but a holy one. 
Paolo Veronese, Annunciation
Italian, c. 1580
Washington, National Gallery of Art

And  yet, there is a certain sense in which this is, in a mystical sense, a marriage, not between a man and a woman, but between God and humanity.  And, in that sense, the bed is indeed a kind of marriage bed.

Federico Barocci, Annunciation
Italian, 1582-1584
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana

Tintoretto, Annunciation
Italian, 1583-1587
Venice, Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Peter Candid, Annunciation
Flemish, c. 1585
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Domenico Passignano, Annunciation
Italian, 1590-1591
Rome, Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella

Francesco Vanni, Annunciation
Italian, 1592
Torrita di Siena, Church of Saints Flora and Lucilla

Agostino Carracci, Annunciation
Italian, c.1600
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Anonymous, Annunciation
Possibly Flemish, c. 1600
London, Guildhall Art Gallery
This is the sole example I found of a bed placed in what is obviously a reception room and not a proper bedroom.

Setting the scene of the Annunciation in Mary’s bedroom was, without doubt, the frequent choice of artists and their patrons from the about the middle of the fifteenth to the middle of the seventeenth centuries, to be revived somewhat in the late nineteenth century.

Peter Paul Rubens, Annunciation
Flemish, c. 1609
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Giovanni Lanfranco
Italian, 1610-1630
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Pieter Lastman, Annunciation
Dutch, 1618
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Frans Francken II, Annuncition
Flemish, c. 1620
Chicago, Art Institute

Charles Poerson, Annunciation
French, 1623-1653
Paris, Musée Carnevalet

Orazio Gentileschi, Annunciation
Italian, c.1623
Turin, Galleria Sabauda

Guido Reni, Annunciatin
Italian, c. 1629
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Sassoferrato, Annuncation
Italian, c. 1630
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Philippe de Champaigne, Annunciation
French, c.1645
London, Wallace Collection

Luca Giordano, Annunciation
Italian, 1672
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean Jouvenet, Annunciation
French, 1685
Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Eugene Delacroix, Annunciation
French, 1841
Paris, Musée du Louvre, Musée National Eugene-Delacroix

Some of the nineteenth century pictures, however, depart from the earlier pictures by showing Mary most frequently seated on the bed or that attempt an ‘archaeological’ reconstruction of what her bedroom may actually have looked like.  These images are different in tone from the earlier depictions, reflecting the difference wrought by the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the cultural upheavals of the French Revolution and its associated turmoil.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini
English, 1850
London, Tate

James Tissot, The Annunciation
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annunciation
American, 1898
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Maurice Denis, Annunciation
French, 1913
Tourcoing, Musee des Beaux-Arts
In both this picture and the one shown in the preceding essay, Maurice Denis seems to have recaptured some of the atmosphere of the earlier paintings, with his solemnly posed figures in serene surroundings.  

So, as we have seen, artists have been inspired to depict the Annunciation in many different ways, from the simplest forms and compositions to the most complex.  All, however, reflect on the astonishing moment in which Mary’s "yes" to God’s surprising request initiated the Incarnation, in which “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) and the world began anew.

© M. Duffy, 2017

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
  1. For information on the Arnolfini Portrait see : as well as and for some recent non-specialist comments.  
  • And see:  Panofsky, Erwin. “Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 64, no. 372, 1934, pp. 117–127 for the initial suggestion about the meaning of the portrait by Erwin Panofsky, as well as:
  • Carrier, David. “Naturalism and Allegory in Flemish Painting.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 45, no. 3, 1987, pp. 237–249,  
  • Baldwin, Robert. “Marriage as a Sacramental Reflection of the Passion: The Mirror in Jan Van Eyck's ‘Amolfini Wedding.’” Oud Holland, vol. 98, no. 2, 1984, pp. 57–75, 
  • Bedaux, Jan Baptist. “The Reality of Symbols: The Question of Disguised Symbolism in Jan Van Eyck's ‘Arnolfini Portrait.’” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, vol. 16, no. 1, 1986, pp. 5–2, 
  • Also see: Harbison, Craig. “Iconography and Iconology.” Early Netherlandish Paintings: Rediscovery, Reception and Research, edited by Bernhard Ridderbos et al., Amsterdam University Press, 2005, pp. 378–406 for a contemporary review of the whole issue of symbolic meanings in the art of the fifteenth century in northern Europe
2.  Although it deals with a different work of art, see Freeman, Margaret B. “The Iconography of the Merode Altarpiece.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 16, no. 4, 1957, pp. 130–139 for information on some of the possible symbolism associated with paintings of the Annunciation.  See also:  Carrier, David. op. cit. and Harbison, Craig. op. cit.