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Legends of the Madonna - The Annunciation as a Mystery

( Originally Published 1895 )



Considering the importance given to the Annunciation in its mystical sense, it is strange that we do not find it among the very ancient symbolical subjects adopted in the first ages of Christian Art. It does not appear on the sarcophagi, nor in the early Greek carvings and diptychs, nor in the early mosaics — except once, and then as a part of the history of Christ, not as a symbol ; nor can we trace the mystical treatment of this subject higher than. the eleventh century, when it first appears in the Gothic sculpture and stained glass. In the thirteenth, and thenceforward, the Annunciation appears before us as the expression in form of a theological dogma, everywhere conspicuous. It became a primal element in every combination of sacred representations — the corner-stone, as it were, of every architectural system of religious decoration. It formed a part of every altar-piece, either in sculpture or painting. Sometimes the Virgin stands on one side of the altar, the angel on the other, carved in marble or alabaster, or of wood richly painted and gilt ; or even, as I have seen in some instances, of solid silver. Not seldom we find the two figures placed in niches against the pillars, or on pedestals at the en-trance of the choir. It was not necessary, when thus symbolically treated, to place the two figures in proximity to signify their relation to each other ; they are often divided by the whole breadth of the chancel.

Whatever the subject of the altar-piece, — whether the Nativity, or the enthroned Madonna, or the Coronation, or the Crucifixion, or the Last Supper, — the Annunciation almost invariably formed part of the decoration, inserted either into the spandrils of the arches above, or in the predella below ; or, which is very common, painted or carved on the doors of a tabernacle or triptychon.

If the figures are full length, a certain symmetry being required, they are either both standing or both kneeling ; it is only in later times that the Virgin sits and the angel kneels. When disposed in circles or semicircles, they are often merely busts, or half-length figures, separated perhaps by a framework of tracery, or set on each side of the principal subject, what-ever that may be. Hence it is that we so often find, in galleries and collections, pictures of the Annunciation in two separate parts, the angel in one frame, the Virgin in another; and perhaps the two pictures, thus disunited, may have found their way into different countries and different collections — the Virgin being in Italy, and the angel in England.

Sometimes the Annunciation — still as a mystical subject — forms an altar-piece of itself. In many Roman Catholic churches there is a chapel or an altar dedicated expressly to the mystery of the Annunciation, the subject forming of course the principal decoration. At Florence there is a church — one of the most splendid and interesting of its many beautiful edifices — dedicated to the Annunciation, or rather to the Virgin in her especial character and dignity as the Instrument of the Incarnation, and thence styled the Church della Santissima Nunziata. The fine mosaic of the Annunciation by [David] Ghirlandajo is placed over the principal entrance. Of this church, and of the order of the Servi, to whom it belongs, I have already spoken at length [in the Legends of the Monastic Orders]. Here, in the first chapel on the left, as we enter, is to be found the miraculous picture of the Annunciation, formerly held in such veneration, not merely by all Florence, but all Christendom, — found, but not seen, for it is still concealed from profane eyes, and exhibited to the devout only on great occasions. The name of the painter is disputed ; but according to tradition it is the work of a certain Bartolommeo ; who while he sat meditating on the various excellences and perfections of our Lady, and most especially on her divine beauty, and thinking, with humility, how inadequate were his own powers to represent her worthily, fell asleep ; and on awaking found the head of the Virgin had been wondrously completed, either by the hand of an angel, or by that of St. Luke, who had descended from heaven on purpose. Though this curious relic has been frequently restored, rio one has presumed to touch the features of the Virgin, which are, I am told — for I have never been blessed with a sight of the original picture -- marvellously sweet and beautiful. It is concealed by a veil, on which is painted a fine head of the Redeemer by Andrea del Sarto ; and forty-two lamps of silver burn continually round it.

It is evident that the Annunciation, as a mystery, admits of a style of treatment which would not be allowable in the representation of an event. In the former case, the artist is emancipated from all considerations of locality or circumstance. Whether the background be of gold, or of blue, or star-bespangled sky — a mere curtain, or a temple of gorgeous architecture ; whether the accessories be the most simple or the most elaborate, the most real or the most ideal ; all this is of little moment, and might be left to the imagination of the artist, or might be modified according to the conditions imposed by the purpose of the representation and the material employed, so long as the chief object is fulfilled—the significant expression of an abstract dogma, appealing to the faith, not to the senses or the understanding, of the observer.

To this class, then, belong all those church images and pictures of the Annunciation, either confined to the two person-ages, with just sufficient of attitude and expression to place them in relation to each other, or with such accompaniments as served to carry out the mystical idea, still keeping it as far as possible removed from the region of earthly possibilities.

In the fifteenth century — that age of mysticism — we find the Annunciation not merely treated as an abstract religious emblem, but as a sort of divine allegory or poem, which in old French and Flemish Art is clothed in the quaintest, the most curious forms. I recollect going into a church at Breslau and finding over one of the altars a most elaborate carving in wood of the Annunciation. Mary is seated within a Gothic porch of open tracery work ; a unicorn takes refuge in her bosom ; outside, a kneeling angel winds a hunting -horn ; three or four dogs are crouching near him. I looked and wondered. At first I could make nothing of this singular allegory ; but afterwards found the explanation in a learned French work on the " Stalles d'Amiens." I give the original passage, for it will assist the reader to the comprehension of many curious works of Art ; but I do not venture to translate it.

" On sait qu'au xvi siècle, le mystère de l'Incarnation étoit souvent représenté par une allégorie ainsi conçue : Une licorne se réfugiant au sein d'une vierge pure, quatre lévriers la pressant d'une course rapide, un veneur ailé sonnant de la trompette. La science de la zoologie mystique du temps aide it en trouver l'explication ; le fabuleux animal dont l'unique corne ne blessait que pour purger de tout venin l'endroit du corps qu'elle avoit touché, figuroit Jésus-Christ, médecin et sauveur des âmes ; on donnait aux lévriers agiles les noms de Misericordia, Veritas, Justitia, Pax, les quatre raisons qui ont pressé le Verbe éternel de sortir de son repos; mais comme c'étoit par la Vierge Marie qu'il avoit voulu descendre parmi les hommes et se mettre en leur puissance, on croyoit ne pouvoir mieux faire que de choisir dans la fable le fait d'une pucelle pouvant seule servir de piége h la licorne, en l'attirant par le charme et le parfum de son sein virginal qu'elle lui présentoit ; enfin l'ange Gabriel concourant au mystère étoit bien reconnoissabie sous les traits du veneur ailé lançant les lévriers et embouchant la . trompette." [It is well known that in the sixteenth century the mystery of the Incarnation was often represented by an allegory conceived in this wise : A unicorn fleeing to the bosom of a pure virgin, four hounds pursuing it in rapid chase, a winged huntsman sounding the trumpet. The mystical zoological science of the time helps us to the explanation : the fabulous animal whose single horn wounded only to cleanse from all poison the part of the body which it had touched, symbolized Jesus Christ, Physician and Saviour of souls ; to the fleet hounds were given the naines of Misericordia, eritas, Justitia, Pax, the four reasons which aroused the Eternal Word from his rest; but as it was by the Virgin Mary that he had chosen to descend among men and put himself in their power, it was thought best to choose in the fable a maiden, who could alone snare the unicorn, drawing - it by the charm and perfume of her Virgin breast which she presented to it.

The angel Gabriel connected with the mystery was easily recognizable in the guise of the winged huntsman urging the hounds and winding the trumpet.]

It appears that this was an accepted religious allegory, as familiar in the sixteenth century as those of Spenser's Faerie Queene or the Pilgrim's Progress are to us. I have since found it frequently reproduced in the old French and German prints : there is a specimen in the British Museum ; and there is a picture similarly treated in the Musée at Amiens. I have never seen it in an Italian picture or print ; unless a print after Guido, wherein a beautiful maiden is seated under a tree, and a unicorn has sought refuge in her lap, be intended to convey the same far-fetched allegory.

Very common, however, in Italian Art is a less fantastic but still wholly poetical version of the Annunciation, representing, in fact, not the Annunciation, but the Incarnation. Thus in a picture, in the Brera, Milan, by Giovanni Sanzio (the father of Raphael), Mary stands under a splendid portico; she appears as if just risen from her seat ; her hands are meekly folded over her bosom; her head declined. The angel kneels outside the portico, holding forth his lily ; while above, in the heavens, the Padre Eterno sends forth the Redeemer, who, in the form of the infant Christ bearing his cross, floats downwards towards the earth, preceded by the mystic Dove. This manner of representing the Incarnation is strongly disapproved of by the Abbé Méry, as not only an error, but a heresy ; yet it was frequently repeated in the sixteenth century.

The Annunciation is also a mystery when certain emblems are introduced conveying a certain signification ; as when Mary is seated on a throne, wearing a radiant crown of mingled gems and flowers, and receives the message of the angel with all the majesty that could be expressed by the painter; or is seated in a garden inclosed by a hedge of roses (the Hortus clausus or conclusus of the Canticles) : or where the angel holds in his hands the sealed book, as in the famous altar-piece at Cologne.

In a picture by Simone Memmi (Uffizi, Florence), the Virgin seated on a Gothic throne receives, as the higher and superior being, yet with a shrinking timidity, the salutation of the angel, who comes as the messenger of peace, olive-crowned, and bearing a branch of olive in his hand. This poetical version is very characteristic of the early Siena school, in which we often find a certain fanciful and original way of treating well-known subjects. Taddeo Bartolo, another Sienese, and Martin Schoen, the most poetical of the early Germans, also adopted the olive symbol ; and we find it also in the tabernacle of King Rend, already described.

The treatment is clearly devotional and ideal where attendant saints and votaries stand or kneel around, contemplating with devout gratitude or ecstatic wonder the divine mystery. Thus, in a remarkable and most beautiful picture by Fra Bartolommeo [Louvre], the Virgin is seated on her throne ; the angel descends from on high bearing his lily ; around the throne attend St. John the Baptist and St. Francis, St. Jerome, St. Paul, and St. Margaret. Again, in a very beautiful picture by Francia [in the Bologna Gallery], Mary stands in the midst of an open landscape ; her hands, folded over each other, press to her bosom a book closed and clasped : St. Jerome stands on the right, John the Baptist on the left ; both look up with a devout expression to the angel descending from above. In both these examples Mary is very nobly and expressively represented as the chosen and predestined vehicle of human redemption. It is not here the Annunciation, but the " Sacratissima Annunziata," we see before us. In a curious picture by Francesco da Cotignola,l Mary stands on a sculptured pedestal, in the midst of an architectural decoration of many-colored marbles, most elaborately painted ; through an opening is seen a distant landscape, and the blue sky ; on her right stands St. John the Baptist, pointing upwards ; on her left, St. Francis, adoring ; the votary kneels in front. (Berlin Gallery.) Votive pictures of the Annunciation were frequently expressive offerings from those who desired, or those who had received, the blessing of an heir ; and this I take to be an instance.

In the following example the picture is votive in another sense, and altogether poetical. The Virgin Mary receives the message of the angel, as usual ; but before her, at a little distance, kneels the Cardinal Torrecremata, who presents three young girls, also kneeling, to one of whom the Virgin gives a purse of money. This curious and beautiful picture becomes intelligible when we find that it was painted for a charitable community, instituted by Torrecremata, for educating and endowing poor orphan girls, and styled the "Confraternità dell' Annunziata." (Benozzo Gozzoli, in S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.)

In this charming Annunciation by Angelico [San Marco, Florence], the scene is in the cloister of his own convent of St. Mark. A Dominican (St. Peter Martyr) stands in the background with hands folded in prayer. I might add many beautiful examples from Fra Bartolommeo, and in sculpture from Benedetto Maiano, Luca della Robbia, and others, but have said enough to enable the observer to judge of the intention of the artist. The Annunciation by Sansovino, among the bas-reliefs which cover the chapel at Loretto, is of great elegance.

I must, however, notice one more picture. Of six Annunciations painted by Rubens, five represent the event; the sixth is one of his magnificent and most palpable allegories, all glowing with life and reality. Here Mary kneels on the summit of a flight of steps; a dove, encompassed by cherubim, hovers over her head. Before her kneels the celestial messenger; behind him Moses and Aaron, with David and other patriarchal ancestors of Christ. In the clouds above is seen the heavenly Father ; on his right are two female figures, Peace and Reconciliation ; on his left, angels bear the ark of the covenant. In the lower part of the picture stand Isaiah and Jeremiah, with four sibyls, thus connecting the prophecies of the Old Testament, and the promises made to the Gentile nations through the sibyls, with the fulfilment of both in the message from on high.



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