Created by the Netherlandish painter for Nicholas Rolin, chancellor to the Dukes of Burgundy, in around 1435, this painting can be seen as a classic of iconography, the attempt to understand a painting’s meaning through interpretation of symbols depicted within it, as complicating rather than simplifying the meaning of a work. Van Eyck seems almost to be deliberately defying out attempts at a definitive interpretation of the painting. The painting teaches us an important lesson: the fact that we can’t make a definitive interpretation doesn’t simply mean we don’t know enough, it is highly likely that this complexity was intended, and would have been acknowledged by contemporary audiences as it has been by modern ones.
Rolin served under the Dukes of Burgundy, known throughout Europe for their lavish court, and ammassed a vast fortune, and we can see possible references to this throughout the painting. The vineyards visiblre in the background may be a reference to the fact that some of the finest wine in Burgundy was produced on land belonging to Rolin. We can also see a church, which may reference a number of different churches which Rolin patronised.
Symbols represting the Deadly Sins have been noted in the deocration of the room in which they sit, such as the gluttony of Noah, plac ed above Rolin’s head, which could be another link to his role in wine production. We also see Pride, in the form of the story of Adam and Eve, as well as Envy, represented by the story of Cain and Abel.
The rabbits tucked away, crushed, beneath the column behind Rolin may be a reference to the sin of luxuria, or rather the overcoming of such temptations – luxuria was associated with rabbits due to their reputation for fornication.
Interestingly, there was to have been a direct reference to Rolin’s earthly wealth, in the form of a large purse on his belt, but this was painted out of the final piece.
The scene takes place in a loggia or enclosed space, which itself is set within a walled garden. The Virgin is often depicted in such settings, particularly in Annunciation sccenes, so this could suggest that they are occupying a holy space. This type of setting has also been interpreted as a symbol of Mary’s virginity and purity. This was a period when the Immaculate Conception (the idea that St Anne’s conception of Mary was also of divine origin), and Mary’s continued virginity after the birth of Jesus was only recently becoming accepted, and thus it was topical to include symbolic reference to it.
An ostensibly obvious symbol is the placing of a crown on Mary’s head by an angel. This signifines her position as Queen of Heaven, again a relatively recent development. Marian devotion, and the Cult of Mary, had developed as an important part of popular piety from the thirteenth century onwards, with increasing emphasis being placed on Mary’s role as intercessor between people and God, in a similar but more powerful role to that taken by saints. Painted depictions of the Mary’s coronation as Queen of Heaven were also popular throughout the late-Medieval and Renaissance period. By depicting her in this position, van Eyck references this aspect pf popular devotion.
The setting is luxurious, with richly decorated capitals, fine floor tiles, and Venetian glass in the windows, and the figures clad in a variety of expensive materials. But the symbols we have seen, such as those representing sins (from which Avarice is notably and likely deliberately absent!) reveal the complex relationship between piety and religious beliefs, and the worldly deire to gain wealth, and to some extent to show it off (something that may have been influenced by Rolin’s having been born into a non-aristocratic, bourgeois family, but working in one of the most luxuious courts in Europe). We see in this painting the delicate working out of these ostensibly opposing desires, and the attempt to reconcile the opposing impressions of wealth and personal piety.
Thus we can see that, while symbols can be of great interest, it would be misguided (no pun intended, given my title!) to assume that they give us all the answers, or even that they make interpreting an art work’s meaning any simpler, in fact, the opposite is often the case. Most importantly, it is likely that the opposite was supposed to be the case.