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The Life of the Virgin Mary from the Annunciation to the Return from Egypt

( Originally Published 1895 )



THE ANNUNCIATION

Ital. L' Annunciazione. La B. Vergine Annunziata. Fr. L'Annonciation. La Salutation Angélique. Ger. Die Verkündigung. Der englische Gruss. (March 25.)

THE second part of the life of the Virgin Mary begins with the Annunciation and ends with the Crucifixion, comprising all those scriptural incidents which connect her history with that of her Divine Son.

But to the scenes narrated in the Gospels the painters did not confine themselves. Not only were the simple Scripture histories colored throughout by the predominant and enthusiastic veneration paid to the Virgin, — till the life of Christ was absolutely merged in that of his mother, and its various incidents became "the seven joys and the seven sorrows of Mary," — but we find the artistic representations of her life curiously embroidered and variegated by the introduction of traditional and apocryphal circumstances, in most cases sanctioned by the Church authorities of the time. However doubtful or repulsive some of these scenes and incidents, we cannot call them absolutely unmeaning or absurd ; on the contrary, what was supposed grew up very naturally, in the vivid and excited imaginations of the people, out of what was recorded; nor did they distinguish accurately between what they were allowed and what they were commanded to believe. Neither can it be denied that the traditional incidents — those at least which we find artistically treated — are often singularly beautiful, poetical, and instructive. In the hands of the great religious artists, who worked in their vocation with faith and simplicity, objects and scenes the most familiar and commonplace became sanctified and glorified by association with what we deem most holy and most venerable. In the hands of the later painters the result was just the reverse—what was most spiritual, most hallowed, most elevated, became secularized, materialized, and shockingly degraded.

No subject has been more profoundly felt and more beautifully handled by the old painters, nor more vilely mishandled by the moderns, than the ANNUNCIATION, of all the scenes in the life of Mary the most important and the most commonly met with. Considered merely as an artistic subject, it is surely eminently beautiful it places before us the two most graceful forms which the hand of man was ever called on to delineate ; — the winged spirit fresh from Paradise ; the woman not less pure, and even more highly blessed — the chosen vessel of redemption, and the personification of all female loveliness, all female excellence, all wisdom, and all purity.

We find the Annunciation, like many other scriptural incidents, treated in two ways—as a mystery and as an event. Taken in the former sense, it became the expressive symbol of a momentous article of faith, The Incarnation of the Deity. Taken in the later sense, it represented the announcement of salvation to mankind, through the direct interposition of miraculous power. In one sense or the other, it enters into every scheme of ecclesiastical decoration ; but chiefly it is set before us as a great and awful mystery, of which the two figures of Gabriel, the angel messenger, and Mary the " highly-favored," placed in relation to each other, became the universally accepted symbol, rather than the representation.



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