Hello readers! Merry Christmas! In the coming days before Christmas, we’re going to examine the Christmas story, starting with the Annunciation. This is an important event in Christianity and one of the most popular iconographies in Marian art. Before we start looking at the rest of the Christmas story as portrayed in art history, we should understand this profound event.
The Annunciation is the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and told her that she was going to have a son who would be the world’s Savior. The full story can be found in Luke 1.
Mary was in her home, going about her daily tasks, when she was suddenly greeted by an angel! This is rather startling and bound to provoke fear and awe: after all, it’s first century Palestine and Mary is alone in her home with a celestial, male, angelic being with what I guess is a booming voice. The Pre-Raphaelite artist Rossetti captured the sense of anxiety and awkwardness surrounding this scene. (Read more about the anxiety of the story and Rossetti’s painting at Smarthistory.) Most artists, however, especially in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, treated the Annunciation as a holy event that evoked wonder. Gabriel tells Mary that God is with her and she is to have a son. Mary is engaged to Joseph and a virgin and so she questions what Gabriel means. Surely she and Joseph weren’t going to conceive a child before marriage. No, says Gabriel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy-the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) This is a profound and marvelous statement – Mary’s divinely born son would not just be any ordinary baby, but the Son of God. Mary understood and accepted what Gabriel relayed to her instantly, telling the angel to “let it be to [her] according to [Gabriel’s] word.” (Luke 1:38)
This event is the start of Mary’s blessedness in Catholic belief. For it is here that Mary believed the angel Gabriel. The Tridentine Catechism parallels Mary’s obedience with Eve’s disobedience and relates Mary’s importance in the faith:
“By believing the serpent, Eve entailed malediction and death on mankind; and Mary, by believing the Angel, became the instrument of the divine goodness in bringing life and benediction to the human race. From Eve we are born children of wrath; from Mary we have received Jesus Christ, and through him are regenerated children of grace.”
The Church also recognized that this divine Annunciation could be hard for parishioners to accept or understand – and precisely, they write, because this is a divine event.
“… Mary, whom we truly proclaim and venerate as Mother of God, because she brought forth him who is, at once, God and man, was descended from King David. But as the conception itself transcends the order of nature, so also, the birth of the man-God presents to our contemplation nothing but what is divine.”
The Annunciation warrants pages of exposition in the Tridentine Catechism. And it should, for it marks the beginning and foundation for the reverence due to Mary. To (ironically?) quote Martin Luther, Mary is:
“[She is the] highest woman and the noblest gem in Christianity after Christ … She is nobility, wisdom, and holiness personified. We can never honor her enough. Still honor and praise must be given to her in such a way as to injure neither Christ nor the Scriptures.” – Martin Luther (Sermon, Christmas, 1531)
You can see, to vastly understate, that Mary is a woman to be feared and respected – because of her initial choice of obedience and faith in God in the face of what could be a dangerous situation for a young, engaged, virgin woman. And she is immortalized in art history in a plethora of ways.
In most Renaissance Annunciations, Mary is shown in the most expensive or fashionable contemporary dress, often with a book, which is a sign of intelligence and propriety. She, innocently reading, is interrupted by an angel. Baroque depictions are unapologetically more theatrical and leave no part of the celestial experience of the event out. Baroque works evoke wonder, movement, curiosity, and awe. Renaissance Annunciations are often more subdued – but what they lack in stylistic drama they make up for in expensive production materials that physically allude to the Annunciation’s specialness.
Simone Martini was an early Italian Renaissance artist painting at a time when perspective was just beginning to be understood and really experimented with. This is one of my favorite Annunciation scenes because of the sheer awkwardness of it. The Annunciation is a large scale altarpiece, one of the first of its kind that emphasizes a particular scene rather than the traditional Madonna & Child. Martini is caught between the stylized icon style of the Byzantine world which had been so popular for sacred art and between moving toward a new type of softer, more realistic representation. Hence, Mary’s awkward pose and all of the figures’ exaggerated but strangely rounded faces. Art historian Ann Van Dijk explains the importance of this altarpiece as a devotional tool:
“By the time Simone Martini painted this altarpiece … the words of Gabriel’s salutation were associated in the minds of viewers not only with the biblical events surrounding the birth of Christ but also with the prayer that had adopted them as its opening phrase, the Ave Maria. … [In the fourteenth century, the Prayer’s recitation] formed part of the daily devotions of the religious and laity alike. … Thus, for viewers of Simone Martini’s Annunciation, … the inscription read as a familiar prayer to the Virgin. This fact is crucial to understanding the image’s devotional character, for when taken into account, the angel’s kneeling posture and the words emanating from his mouth become a model of devotional practice for viewers to emulate.”
Not all Annunciations were so obviously meant to be devotional pieces that the viewer was to emulate. Caravaggio’s 1608 Annunciation promotes introspection into the life of the Virgin and her character in the face of such a weighty charge. Gabriel floats above Mary, who is bowed down in humbleness, as she listens to and accepts Gabriel’s words. Lilies just barely illuminated in the background symbolize Mary’s purity. Caravaggio brings the sacred into the secular world by using models straight off the street and by stripping away any excess or gaudy signs of holiness. As Michael Kimmelman of the NY Times wrote, Caravaggio’s canvasses are
“[c]oarse not godly, locked into dark, ambiguous spaces by a strict geometry then picked out of deep shadow by an oracular light, his models come straight off the street.”
The genius of this canvas, and indeed Caravaggio’s entire oeuvre, is that he makes the divine accessible. Mary is, in a way, just like us – or just like we ought to be. Humble, realistic, trusting.
Peter Paul Rubens’ 1610 and 1628 Annunciations are more dramatic. The golden heavenly light that is present in both works, shines down on Mary and suggests the presence of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation. It also serves to remind the viewer of the divine and holy nature of this event. In both paintings, Mary is young and beautiful, dressed in the fine clothes of a Flemish noblewoman, and like a proper lady, she had been reading. In the 1628 painting, laundry sits in the corner near the table where Mary was reading her book. The paintings portray Gabriel and the relationship between him and Mary differently. In the 1610 piece, Gabriel is kneeling before Mary – perhaps a visual expression of her rank in Heaven. His gaze and posture, with his hand clasped onto Mary’s, lead the viewer to her. She holds her hand up to him, calm but surprised at his presence. In the 1628 work, Gabriel and the putti alike cast their gaze on Mary and Gabriel floats celestially above Mary as he announces the joyous news to Mary. Gabriel is in robes, and apart from his wings, these serve to separate him from the earthly realm. His body is strong and he appears confident, but he is not threatening; rather, the openness of his body toward Mary is meant to welcome. For Rubens, Mary is again meant to be a model to high society, pious Flemish women. She is the epitome of the pure, faithful, perfect woman. These paintings are meant to inspire viewers, especially, I think, female viewers, to lead holy lives and to remember the Virgin Mary and continue to honor her.
Now that we’ve looked at the Annunciation, the next couple posts will discuss the other key events of the Christmas story and how they are portrayed and understood in art history.
In the meantime, check out this (rather small) gallery of various Annunciations, or head over to the Google Art Project to see Simone Martini’s Annunciation and Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation close up!