May is the month of Mary. The world has emerged from winter’s gloom, and the joy of Christ’s resurrection mingles with the fragrance of flowers drifting through the air. It is a month that brings visitors to Washington, D.C., many of whom will wander from the maelstrom of the National Mall into the quiet of the National Gallery of Art. There, in the nondescript corner of one of the rooms, hangs Jan van Eyck’s “Annunciation.” Completed around 1436, this tiny panel presumably formed part of a larger tryptic, the rest of which has been lost to the public eye.
Like the visitor entering into the National Gallery, the viewer is invited to gaze into the hinge moment of salvation — the annunciation to Mary and her unqualified fiat. This moment stands at the border between the Old and New Covenants typified by the images found on the floor. Like exquisite little woodcut engravings, each tile depicts a scene from the Old Testament, with David and Goliath and the death of Samson prominent in the foreground. Mary stands upon the foundation of the Old Covenant as the Holy Spirit — in the form of a dove — descends upon her and brings about the beginnings of the New. The dove passes through the window, like light passing through a pane of glass, echoing the awareness that grace passes more easily into a soul not marred by sin. Mary inspires us to recover and retain our baptismal innocence, called to mind at Easter.
The archangel Gabriel addresses her: “Hail full of grace” — that is, behold the one in whom grace has been completed. Her response: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord” — words inverted because God, who stands above her, is the donee. Mary speaks to God, through his angel, pledging her entire being to his purposes. Truly she is the one in whom grace is completed. Because of her free and total “yes,” Jesus enters the world through her.
On the ground, in between the scenes from the Old Testament, we find the signs of the zodiac, which evoke humanity’s search for meaning in the stars and in the cosmos. However, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out Jan. 6, 2011, the language of creation points instead toward the true star, which is the Word of God, Jesus Christ. The Carthusian motto always has highlighted this fact: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis (“The cross is steady while the world is turning”). Mary points the way forward: By our total self-gift to God, Jesus becomes the axis around which our life turns — a stable point in an ever-changing world.
FATHER JUSTIN HUBER, who has studied a number of historical artistic techniques, was ordained in 2010 and serves as a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Washington.