The question in class yesterday about the symbolism behind the candles in the Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece) sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole, and two journal articles linked below demonstrate how scholars attempt to uncover meaning in 15th century Netherlandish painting.
In “The Smoking Candle of the Mérode Altarpiece” (1987) by B. Underwood DuRette in the FSU graduate student journal Athanor, the author maintains that the central candle connects to the liturgical calendar, connecting to the rituals around the Feast of the Ascension.
Charles Ilsley Minott, on the other hand, maintained in his essay “The Theme of the Mérode Altarpiece” (1969, Art Bulletin) that the candle was in fact not all the way out but still containing a dim spark, alluding to the Incarnation. Minott also goes so far as to identify the figure in the far background of the left panel as the prophet Isaiah and to draw meaning out of a pebble on Joseph’s workbench.
Note that at each step of the way, the authors back up their claims with evidence. This evidence can come from historical documents, Biblical texts, other artworks, and more. They are never mere speculation or conjecture.