In exceptionally fine condition, this tender representation of the Annunciation is a rare, early painting by the South Netherlandish master, Jan Provost. Considered by Max J. Friedländer one of the most important exponents of the Renaissance as it was interpreted in the Low Countries, Provost was an extraordinarily inventive artist, never repeating his compositions and often striving for the esoteric and enigmatic in his paintings (M.J. Friedländer, op. cit.). His miniaturist training in France is evident here in the courtly, idealized figures, modeled with extraordinary delicacy, and in the lavish attention given to minute details, such as the feathers of Gabriel's multicolored wings and the exquisitely rendered plants and flowers.
Among the most popular themes of Renaissance painting, this Annunciation is set within a contemporary domestic interior. An elegant Virgin Mary, whose porcelain-like face, high forehead and elongated body reflect the ideal of feminine beauty then prevailing in the southern Netherlands, is seated before a simple wooden prayer bench. She has been interrupted while reciting her devotions by a magnificent Gabriel, gliding effortlessly into the room attired in a sumptuous gold-embroidered bishop's cope. His face framed with tussled locks, the Archangel gazes upward toward a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, which descends from the heavens upon three divine rays alluding to the Trinity. Due to the presence of the bed, the contemporary viewer would have associated this space with a marriage chamber--the thalamus virginis--in which the Virgin Mary unites with Christ, her son and symbolic bridegroom as described in the Song of Solomon.
Delightful details abound, such as the metallic clasp of Mary's book, which hangs over the edge of her prayer bench, or the mille fleurs tapestry in the lower foreground and matching tasseled cushions at the far end of the room. The highly unusual placement of such a costly hanging on the floor beneath the Virgin emphasizes her exalted status and also reveals Provost's original approach to his subject matter--it is an astounding invention that apparently has no precedent. At the same time, the rich foliage decorating these textiles echoes the flowering plants visible beyond the portico on the left. In this way, man's artistic endeavors to honor God are contrasted with the beauty of the natural world--God's own art. The wall that rises behind Gabriel's resplendent wings signals that the house is set within an enclosed garden, the sacred precinct dedicated to the Virgin known as the hortus conclusis and symbolic of her chastity. At the far end of the room stands a blue and white maiolica pitcher, a luxurious item from Italy of a type the artist would have encountered at this time in Bruges, one of Europe's most important international trade centers. It contains a single stem of lilies with two white flowers and irises, symbols of the Virgin's purity and her suffering through the sacrifice of Christ, respectively.
Born in Mons, Jan Provost most likely received his initial training from his father, Jan Provost the Elder, and likely continued his training in the workshop of Simon Marmion in Valenciennes. Celebrated as the "prince of illumination" by his contemporaries, Marmion was one of the most important manuscript illuminators of his day. Upon Marmion's death, Provost married his widow, Johanna de Quarube. In 1493, Provost joined the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp and in the following year became a citizen of Bruges. He served as president of the Bruges painters' guild in 1519 and 1525, and worked on several important projects for the city throughout his career. Most notably, Provost had the honor of directing Bruges' decorative program for the Triumphal Entry of Charles V in 1520.
Like his contemporary Gerard David, Provost may have operated workshops in both Bruges and Antwerp, and it was in this latter city that he may have first met Albrecht Dürer. In September of 1520, the German artist recorded in his diary that while dining in the house of his friend, the Portuguese Factor, "I took the portrait of Master Jan Prost [Provost] of Bruges, and he gave me 1 fl.-it was done in charcoal." In the early 20th century, Martin Conway convincingly argued that a charcoal drawing on paper in the British Museum (fig. 1) should be identified as this very portrait on the basis of the sitter's similarity to the pointing figure in the background of Provost's Death and the Miser (Groeninge Museum, Bruges), which is almost certainly a self-portrait of the artist (M. Conway, 'Dürer Portraits, Notes', The Burlington Magazine, XXX, no. 187, October 1918, pp. 142-143, 146-147). The following April, Dürer traveled with Provost from Antwerp to Bruges. The German artist writes: "When I reached Bruges Jan Prost took me in to lodge in his house, and prepared the same night a costly meal and bade much company to meet me. So early on Tuesday we went away, but before that I drew with the metal-point the portrait of Jan Prost, and gave his wife 10 st. at parting" (ibid.). As Dürer's remarks reveal, Provost was truly at the center of the artistic community in Renaissance Bruges, and it is intriguing to consider the impact that Dürer and Provost had on one another through this friendship.
At the turn of the century, Provost likely travelled to Jerusalem, possibly via Italy. The present painting's porphyry column, with its boldly-carved composite capital, may correspond to similar architectural elements the artist would have observed on the peninsula during this trip. Provost later served as governor of the Fraternity of Jerusalem Pilgrims, and documentary evidence suggests that he may have been a Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
An outstanding example of Jan Provost's early devotional paintings, this The Annunciation had by the 20th century entered the distinguished collection of B.S. Barlow, who owned several great early Netherlandish pictures.
(fig. 1) Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of a man, The British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum Art Resource, NY.