In Sainte-Madeleine Church, Place des Prêcheurs, Aix-en-Provence you will find a magnificent piece of art, albeit only the central panel of the Annunciation triptych remains in place, with the left panel (in two parts) and the right panel having been removed to Brussels, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. This work, the subject of numerous controversial interpretations, is attributed to Barthélemy d’Eyck, a relative of the much more famous Van Eyck, was commissioned in the will of Pierre Corpici, a draper in Aix, on 9 December 1442.
In the Guide de la Province mystérieuse (Êditions Tchou), there is an analysis of the painting highlighting its ‘wicked’ aspects, contrary to religious teachings. For example, the wings of the angel Gabriel are not at all “angelic”, but composed of the feathers of an owl,a supposedly evil bird. There are other strange features: on top of the lectern in front of Mary there is a monkey who seems to be intercepting the breath of God; the columns rising above the archangel support two curious prophets, while the arch below is decorated with the figures of a devil and a bat.
Êmile Henroit, in his book, Diable à l’hôtel [Devil in the Hotel] also notes that the gesture of the Lord bestowing his blessing upon Mary, “with the thumb folded over the index and middle fingers, has something obscene about it”. And he adds, “…the flowers gathered in a vase next to Mary were regarded as evil in the Middle Ages: they are foxglove, belladonna and basil”.
One has to wonder what was the driving motivation behind this fascinating and quite disturbingly beautiful piece of art. The sumptuousness of the garments is in such contrast to the setting, so rich in colour and so detailed. Look too at Mary’s fingers – they are so long and the index finger of her right appears to be pointing at something – but what? Is there some message here too about the perception of who the angel Gabriel really represents?? There are just my thoughts and you can form your own.
What is clear is that there is so much to contemplate about this image and I never tire of looking at it. Do pay a visit and see it – you too will be captivated by it long after you leave.
(Adapted in part from Secret Provence by Jean-Pierre Cassely)