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Legends of the Madonna - The Annunciation as an Event

( Originally Published 1895 )



Had the Annunciation to Mary been merely mentioned as an awful and incomprehensible vision, it would have been better to have adhered to the mystical style of treatment, or left it alone altogether ; but the Scripture history, by giving the whole narration as a simple fact, a real event, left it free for representation as such ; and, as such, the fancy of the artist was to be controlled and limited only by the words of Scripture, as commonly understood and interpreted, and by those proprieties of time, place, and circumstance which would be required in the representation of any other historical incident or action.

When all the accompaniments show that nothing more was in the mind of the artist than the aim to exhibit an incident in the life of the Virgin, or an introduction to that of our Lord, the representation is no longer mystical and devotional, but historical. The story was to be told with all the fidelity, or at least all the likelihood, that was possible ; and it is clear that, in this case, the subject admitted, and even required, a more dramatic treatment, with such accessories and accompaniments as might bring the scene within the sphere of the actual.

In this sense it is not to be mistaken. Although the action is of itself so very simple, and the actors confined to two persons, it is astonishing to note the infinite variations of which this favorite theme has been found susceptible. Whether all these be equally appropriate and laudable is quite another question ; and in how far the painters have truly interpreted the Scriptural narration is now to be considered.

And first with regard to the time, which is not especially mentioned. It was presumed by the Fathers and early commentators on Scripture, that the Annunciation must have taken place in early springtime, at eventide, soon after sunset, the hour since consecrated as the " Ave Maria," as the bell which announces it is called the " Angelus ; " but other authorities say that it was rather at midnight, because the nativity of our Lord took place at the corresponding hour in the following December. This we find exactly attended to by many of the old painters, and indicated either by the moon and stars in the sky, or by a taper or a lamp burning near.

With regard to the locality, we are told by St. Luke that the angel Gabriel was sent from God, and that " he came in to Mary " (Luke i. 28), which seems to express that she was within her house.

In describing the actual scene of the interview between the angel and Mary, the legendary story of the Virgin adheres very closely to the scriptural text. But it also relates, that Mary went forth at evening to draw water from the fountain ; that she heard a voice which said, " Hail, thou that art full of grace !" and thereupon, being troubled, she looked to the right and to the left, and, seeing no one, returned to her house, and sat down to her work. (Protevangelion, ix. 7.) Had any exact attention been paid to oriental customs, Mary might have been working or reading or meditating on the roof of her house ; but this has not suggested itself in any instance that I can remember. We have, as the scene of the interview, an interior which is sometimes like an oratory, sometimes a portico with open arcades ; but more generally a bedroom. The poverty of Joseph and Mary, and their humble condition in life, are sometimes attended to, but not always ; for, according to one tradition, the house at Nazareth was that which Mary had inherited from her parents, Joachim and Anna, who were people of substance. Hence, the painters had an excuse for making the chamber richly furnished, the portico sustained by marble pillars, or decorated with sculpture. In the German and Flemish pictures, the artist, true to the national characteristic of naïve and literal illustration, gives us a German or a Gothic chamber, with a lattice window of small panes of glass, and a couch with pillows, or a comfortable four-post bedstead furnished with draperies, thus imparting to the whole scene an air of the most vivid homely reality.

As for the accessories, the most usual, almost indispensable, is the pot of lilies, the symbolical Fleur de Marie, which I have already explained at length. There is also a basket containing needlework and implements of female industry, as scissors, etc., not merely to express Mary's habitual industry, but because it is related that when she returned to her house "she took the purple linen, and sat down to work it." The workbasket is therefore seldom omitted. Sometimes a distaff lies at her feet, as in Raphael's Annunciation. In old German pictures we have often a spinning -wheel. To these emblems of industry is often added a basket, or a dish, containing fruit ; and near it a pitcher of water, to express the temperance of the blessed Virgin.

There is grace and meaning in the introduction of birds, always emblems of the spiritual. Titian places a tame partridge at the feet of Mary, which expresses her tenderness ; but the introduction of a cat, as in Baroccio's picture, is insufferable.

The Archangel Gabriel, "one of those who stand continually in the presence of God," having received his mission, descends to earth. In the very earliest representation of the Annunciation as an event, in a mosaic at S. Maria Maggiore, Rome, we have this descent of the winged spirit from on high ; and I have seen other instances. There is a small and beautiful sketch by Garofalo (Alton Towers), in which, from amidst a flood of light and a choir of celestial spirits, such as Milton describes as adoring the a a divine sacrifice" proclaimed for sinful man (Paradise Lost, book iii.), the archangel spreads his lucid wings, and seems just about to take his flight to Nazareth. He was accompanied, says the Italian legend, by a train of lower angels, anxious to behold and reverence their Queen ; these remained, however, at the door, or "before the gate," while Gabriel entered.

The old German masters are fond of representing him as entering by a door in the background ; while the serene Virgin, seated in front, seems aware of his presence without seeing him.

In some of the old pictures he comes in flying from above, or he is upborne by an effulgent cloud, and surrounded by a glory which lights the whole picture — a really celestial messenger, as in a fresco by Spinello Aretino. In others, he comes gliding in, " smooth sliding without step ; " sometimes he enters like a heavenly ambassador, and little angels hold up his train. In a picture by Tintoretto he comes rushing in as upon a whirlwind, followed by a legion of lesser angels ; while on the outside of the building Joseph the carpenter is seen quietly at his work. (Venice, school of S. Rocco.)

But, whether walking or flying, Gabriel bears, of course, the conventional angelic form, that of the human creature, winged, beautiful, and radiant with eternal youth, yet with a grave and serious mien. In the later pictures the drapery given to the angel 'is offensively scanty ; his sandals, and bare arms, and fluttering robe too much â l'antique ; he comes in the attitude of a flying Mercury, or a dancer in a ballet. But in the early Italian pictures his dress is arranged with a kind of solemn propriety : it is that of an acolyte, white and full, and falling in large folds over his arms, and in general concealing his feet. In the German pictures, he often wears the priestly robe, richly embroidered, and clasped in front by a jewel. His ambrosial curls fall over this cope in " hyacinthine flow." The wings are essential, and never omitted. They are white or many-colored, eyed like the peacock's train, or bedropped with gold. He usually bears the lily in his hand, but not always. Sometimes it is the sceptre, the ancient attribute of a herald ; and this has a scroll around it with the words, " Ave Maria, gratia plena ! " The sceptre or wand is occasionally sur-mounted by a cross [as in Durer's picture in the series, " Life of the Virgin"].

In general, the palm is given to the angel who announces the death of Mary. In one or two instances only I have seen the palm given to the angel Gabriel, as in a predella by Angelico ; for which, however, the painter had the authority of Dante, or Dante some authority earlier still. He says of Gabriel, —

That he bore the palm Down unto Mary when the Son of God Vouchsafed to clothe him in terrestial weeds.

The olive-bough has a mystical sense wherever adopted ; it is the symbol of peace on earth. Often the angel bears neither lily, nor sceptre, nor palm, nor olive. His hands are folded on his bosom ; or, with one hand stretched forth, and the other pointing upwards, he declares his mission from on high.

In the old Greek pictures, and in the most ancient Italian examples, the angel stands, as in [a composition] after Cima-bue, wherein the Greek model is very exactly followed. According to the Roman Catholic belief, Mary is queen of heaven and of angels — the superior being ; consequently there is propriety in making the angel deliver his message kneeling : but even according to the Protestant belief the attitude would not be unbecoming, for the angel, having uttered his salutation, might well prostrate himself as witness of the transcending miracle, and beneath the overshadowing presence of the Holy Spirit.

Now, as to the attitude and occupation of Mary at the moment the angel entered, authorities are not agreed. It is usual to exhibit her as kneeling in prayer, or reading with a large book open on a desk before her. St. Bernard says that she was studying the book of the prophet Isaiah, and as she recited the verse, " Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son," she thought within her heart, in her great humility, "How blessed the woman of whom these words are written ! Would I might be but her handmaid to serve her, and allowed to kiss her feet ! " — when, in the same instant, the wondrous vision burst upon her, and the holy prophecy was realized in herself.

I think it is a manifest fault to disturb the sublime tenor of the scene by representing Mary as starting up in alarm ; for, in the first place, she was accustomed, as we have seen, to the perpetual ministry of angels, who daily and hourly attended on her. It is, indeed, said that Mary was troubled ; but it was not the presence, but the " saying," of the angel which troubled her: it was the question "how this should be ? " (Luke i. 29.) The attitude, therefore, which some painters have given to her, as if she had started from her seat, not only in terror, but in indignation, is altogether misplaced. A signal instance is the statue of the Virgin by Mocchi in the choir of the cathedral at Orvieto, so grand in itself, and yet so offensive as a devotional figure. Misplaced is also, I think, the sort of timid shrinking surprise which is the expression in some pictures. The moment is much too awful, the expectance much too sublime, for any such human girlish emotions. If the painter intend to express the moment in which the angel appears and utters the salutation " Hail ! " then Mary may be standing, and her looks directed towards him, as in a fine majestic Annunciation of Andrea del Sarto [in the Pitti, Florence]. Standing was the antique attitude of prayer; so that if we suppose her to have been interrupted in her devotions, the attitude is still appropriate. But if that moment be chosen in which she expressed her submission to the divine will, " Behold the handmaid of the Lord ; let it be unto me according to thy word !" then she might surely kneel with bowed head, and folded hands, and " downcast eyes beneath th' almighty Dove." No attitude could be too humble to express that response ; and Dante has given us, as the most perfect illustration of the virtue of humility, the sentiment and attitude of Mary when submitting herself to the divine will. (Purg. x., Cary's trans.)

The angel (who came down to earth With tidings of the peace so many years Wept for in vain, that op'd the heavenly gates From their long interdict) before us seem'd In a sweet act, so sculptur'd to the life, He look'd no silent image. One had sworn He had said "Hail!" for SHE was imag'd there, By whom the key did open to God's love; And in her act as sensibly imprest That word. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord," As figure sealed on wax.

And very beautifully has Flaxman transferred the sculpture " divinely wrought upon the rock of marble white " to earthly form.

The presence of the Holy Spirit in the historical Annunciations is to accounted for by the words of St. Luke, and the visible form of the Dove is conventional and authorized. In many pictures the celestial Dove enters by the open casement. Sometimes it seems to brood immediately over the head of the Virgin ; sometimes it hovers towards her bosom. As for the perpetual introduction of the emblem of the Padre Eterno, seen above the sky, under the usual half-figure of a kingly ancient man, surrounded by a glory of cherubim, and sending forth upon a beam of light the immaculate Dove, there is nothing to be said but the usual excuse for the mediæval artists, that certainly there was no conscious irreverence. The old painters, great as they were in Art, lived in ignorant but zealous times — in times when faith was so fixed, so much a part of the life and soul, that it was not easily shocked or shaken ; as it was not founded in knowledge or reason, so nothing that startled the reason could impair it. Religion, which now speaks to us through words, then spoke to the people through visible forms universally accepted ; and, in the Fine Arts, we accept such forms according to the feeling which then existed in men's minds, and which, in its sincerity, demands our respect, though now we might not, could not, tolerate the repetition. We must also remember that it was not in the ages of ignorance and faith that we find the grossest materialism in Art. It was in the learned half-pagan sixteenth and the polished seventeenth century that this materialized theology became most offensive. Of all the artists who have sinned in the Annunciation, — and they are many, — Niccolô Poussin is perhaps the worst. Yet he was a good, a pious man, as well as a learned and accomplished painter. All through the history of the art, the French show themselves as the most signal violators of good taste, and what they have invented a word for — bien-séance. They are worse than the old Germans; worse than the modern Spaniards — and that is saying much.

In Raphael's Annunciation, Mary is seated in a reclining attitude, leaning against the side of her couch, and holding a book. The angel, whose attitude expresses a graceful empressement, kneels at some distance, holding the lily.

Michael Angelo gives us a most majestic Virgin standing on the steps of a priedieu, and turning with hands upraised to-wards the angel, who appears to have entered by the open door ; his figure is most clumsy and material, and his attitude unmeaning and ungraceful. It is, I think, the only instance in which Michael Angelo has given wings to an angelic being ; for here they could not be dispensed with.

In a beautiful Annunciation by Johan van Eyck (Munich Gallery), the Virgin kneels at a desk with a book before her. She has long fair hair, and a noble intellectual brow. Gabriel, holding his sceptre, stands in the doorway. The Dove enters by the lattice. A bed is in the background, and in front a pot of lilies. In another Annunciation by Van Eyck, painted on the Ghent altar-piece, we have the mystic, not the historical representation, and a very beautiful effect is produced by clothing both the angel and Mary in robes of pure white. (Berlin Gallery.)

In an engraving after Rembrandt, the Virgin kneels by a fountain, and the angel kneels on the opposite side. This seems to express the legendary scene.

[A valuable contribution to art representations of the Annunciation is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's remarkable painting, "Ecce Ancilla Domini," in the National Gallery, London. The artist's conception of the event is entirely unlike that of any of the old masters. The Virgin has awakened at dawn, and half rising from her couch gazes dreamily into space, her head drooping slightly with a pensive air, as if absorbed in the visions of her own mind. The angel is represented without wings and is clothed in a long straight tunic. He stands at the foot of the couch bearing a lily in one hand and raising the other in blessing. The picture is described and engraved in Van Dyke's " Christ-Child in Art," and in Farrar's " Life of Christ in Art."

The Annunciation by Sir E. Burne-Jones is conceived more according to the spirit of the old masters. The Virgin is standing under an arched portico with a thoughtful wondering expression. The angel appears amid the foliage of a tree at the side, gazing down upon lier. His elaborate drapery hangs in heavy folds ; his long wings droop beside him ; he is indeed rather a vision than an actual visitant, for there is no appearance of motion in his attitude.]

These few observations on the general arrangement of the theme, whether mystical or historical, will, I hope, assist the observer in discriminating for himself. I must not venture further, for we have a wide range of subjects before us.



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