The Virgin Annunciate in Italian art of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The story of the ANNUNCIATION Annunciation
dove and lily
pictured with Virgin and Gabriel. [Christian Iconography: Brewer Dictionary, 645]
Mary’s old cousin; bears John the Baptist. [N.T. in the Gospel of Luke has been portrayed richly and variously in the visual arts from the earliest centuries of Christianity. Told from the perspective of the VIRGIN Mary Luke's brief tale lays the foundation for the wealth of doctrine, liturgy, and Catholic lore that have surrounded the mother of Jesus to the present day. With the rise of the cult of the Virgin during the Middle Ages in Roman Catholicism, depictions of the scene became especially prominent in Italy, and the Annunciation continued to occupy a principal position in church art through the RENAISSANCE. The Annunciation held two meanings for the faithful. As the story of the conception of Jesus, it represents a central tenet of Christianity, the Incarnation of Christ. Yet it also contains the ideal of womanhood, chastity, and submissiveness, revealed in Mary's virginity and humble acquiescence to the divine commandment. With the new humanist style of art introduced in the early Renaissance, however, Gabriel's approach to Mary takes on a new, more earthly dimension, displaying the drama of a human encounter. While Mary continues to play the sacred role of Virgin Mother decreed for her in Scripture, we may also witness in Gabriel and Mary the suitor proposing to his beautiful and alluring lady in an attitude of courtship. Certain Annunciation pictures, as I will show, tell a second secular story that runs counter to received Mariological doctrine. Mary Annunciate an·nun·ci·ate
tr.v. an·nun·ci·at·ed, an·nun·ci·at·ing, an·nun·ci·ates
To announce; proclaim: "They do not so properly affirm, as annunciate it" Charles Lamb. hovers during the Italian Renaissance between two traditional images of womanhood, the spotless female elevated in the Virgin Birth and the enchanting beauty, descendant of Eve.
Mary's virtue is vouchsafed in the gospel by her virginity, and through all the phases of her encounter with the Angel Gabriel she projects her innocence (Luke 1:26-38). When he addresses her, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you," she draws back, for "she was greatly troubled at the saying" and wondered "what sort of a greeting this might be." Mary is startled, humble, and humanly concerned about what might be expected of her. When Gabriel reassures her with the words, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God," she protests, "How can this be, since I have no husband?" This query, disclosing her virginity, has been taken in Catholic tradition as Mary's vow to remain chaste (New Catholic Encyclopedia The New Catholic Encyclopedia is a multivolume reference work on Roman Catholic history and belief edited by the faculty of The Catholic University of America and originally published by McGraw-Hill in 1967 with supplements issued in 1974, 1979, 1989, and 1996. 1967, 1.565). Furthermore, Gabriel's next announcement, that she will bear God's son, has sometimes been interpreted as the moment of conception (Interpreter's Bible 1952, 9.39). We need not embrace these doctrines, however, to agree that Mary is depicted as the obedient celibate mother. "T he Holy Spirit will come upon you," the angel tells her, "and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." To this and the astounding news of her impending motherhood, Mary submits readily: "Behold I am the handmaid hand·maid also hand·maid·en
1. A woman attendant or servant.
2. often handmaiden Something that accompanies or is attendant on another: of the Lord; let it be according to your word." Mary is sexually uninitiated; ready, according to some, to renounce sex forever; and, though taken aback at first by the angel's approach, acquiescent ac·qui·es·cent
Disposed or willing to acquiesce.
acqui·es to God's invasion of her body and appropriation of her maternity. As the bride of God, Mary is preserved in an asexual asexual /asex·u·al/ (a-sek´shoo-al) having no sex; not sexual; not pertaining to sex.
1. Having no evident sex or sex organs; sexless.
2. state, and her saintliness is predicated upon her modesty and continence continence /con·ti·nence/ (kon´tin-ens) the ability to control natural impulses.con´tinent
1. Self-restraint; moderation.
In accord with the miracle that it represents the Annunciation is thus removed from the taint of earthly sexuality, and in works of art depicting the scene Gabriel and Mary act out their parts as divine messenger and gracious recipient of God's Word. From the earliest representations in the fourth century Mary is pictured in a devout pose, sitting or sometimes standing to receive Gabriel's pronouncement and welcoming the angel in astonishment or with an assenting gesture. When the fact of fertilization is rendered visually beginning in the Middle Ages, the Holy Ghost is shown approaching Mary's body in the euphemistic form of the symbolical dove. Mary is portrayed reading a book, understood to be a prayer book or the Bible, conjecturally con·jec·tur·al
1. Based on or involving conjecture. See Synonyms at supposed.
2. Tending to conjecture.
con·jec the prophetic Book of Isaiah Noun 1. Book of Isaiah - an Old Testament book consisting of Isaiah's prophecies
Old Testament - the collection of books comprising the sacred scripture of the Hebrews and recording their history as the chosen people; the first half of the Christian . The angel interrupts and startles her in this righteous activity, often kneels before her, and may present her with a lily, the symbol of her purity, or with an olive branch as a gesture of peace and reconciliation. Alternatively, a vase of lilies is set between Gabriel and Mary to draw attention to her virtue. In these and other variations within the visual tradition, the theme of the event is the transmission of God's Word. (1) The figure of the Virgin may be represented as beautiful, but her attractiveness as a woman is never the intended message. Instead, her beatific be·a·tif·ic
Showing or producing exalted joy or blessedness: a beatific smile.
[Latin be posture and manner convey the religious meaning of the episode, God's choice of her as the medium for the birth of Christ so that humankind may be saved in reversal of the human Fall.
Nevertheless, the angel is proclaiming a conception, and this fact does make its way symbolically into Annunciation iconography. It is not unusual for Mary to be found sitting near her bed, a suggestive locale for her impregnation impregnation /im·preg·na·tion/ (im?preg-na´shun)
2. saturation (1).
1. the act of fertilizing or rendering pregnant.
2. saturation. . This intimate setting is in keeping with Luke's suggestion that Gabriel enters Mary's house (Luke 1:28). The gospel does not mandate that the scene take place in the sleeping quarter. (2) In Italian paintings, however, Mary is often shown sitting in the Thalamus thalamus (thăl`əməs), mass of nerve cells centrally located in the brain just below the cerebrum and resembling a large egg in size and shape. Virginis, her bedroom. Moreover, especially in the fourteenth century the scene, whether or not it occurs in the vicinity of a bed, is typically rendered in a closed, womblike space. Also common in the 1300s is for the event to be portrayed in proximity to an enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus, symbol of the womb and of virginity, and to be shown within view of a distant interior window, the fenestrum crystallinam, medieval symbol of Mary's intact hymen. (3) The penetration of Mary's private space by the dove or by a bea m of light representing the Holy Ghost is evidently phallic phallic /phal·lic/ (-ik) pertaining to or resembling a phallus.
1. Of, relating to, or resembling a phallus.
2. . The anonymous fresco in Santa Maria Novella novella: see novel.
Story with a compact and pointed plot, often realistic and satiric in tone. Originating in Italy during the Middle Ages, it was often based on local events; individual tales often were gathered into collections. in Florence, for example, accentuates the entrance of the inseminating seed into the virginal chamber by depicting the dove as a missive from God the Father, who sends it on its way from on high with a pointing finger (Figure 1). Fra Angelico's Annunciation in the upper corridor of the Convent of San Marco, in variation, does not represent the Holy Ghost graphically, but shows the angel entering Mary's abode through a fenced garden, bearing the Word that will transform her woman's body and life. (4)
In keeping with the doctrinal import of the subject, nonetheless, the Annunciation was not traditionally portrayed in such a way as to exploit the sexual implications of Mary's encounter. On the contrary, in the spirit of Luke's story conventions were developed that maintained the sexual neutrality of both actors. Gabriel, an androgynous an·drog·y·nous
1. Biology Having both female and male characteristics; hermaphroditic.
2. Being neither distinguishably masculine nor feminine, as in dress, appearance, or behavior. angel, typically appears in a womanly wom·an·ly
adj. wom·an·li·er, wom·an·li·est
1. Having qualities generally attributed to a woman.
2. Belonging to or representative of a woman; feminine: womanly attire. guise, sometimes mirroring the facial features and posture of the Virgin, for example, in the Angelico Annunciation mentioned above. Mary herself, particularly during the fourteenth century, is commonly shown with her head bowed and eyes lowered. Also characteristic of the fourteenth century is to find the Virgin drawing back as though startled and, possibly, initially frightened by the angelic apparition. In Simone Martini's Annunciation, Mary turns slightly and pulls her cloak protectively around her as she looks apprehensively, mouth down turned, toward the angel, who rushes in, his cloak blowing in the wind, and delivers his message w ith forceful intent. (5) Martini emphasizes Mary's apprehensiveness by having her shrink back as Gabriel leans forward, almost as though the angel's motion and voice are pushing her away. The timorousness tim·or·ous
Full of apprehensiveness; timid.
[Middle English, from Old French timoureus, from Medieval Latin tim of this shy Madonna bespeaks her delicacy and modesty. Here we have the paramount image of a pious young female, meek and impressionable, overwhelmed by the sacred power that confronts her with its male authority from above.
Along with the decorous dec·o·rous
Characterized by or exhibiting decorum; proper: decorous behavior.
[From Latin dec posture and disposition of the figures, the spatial conception and structural arrangement of Annunciation art functioned to keep Mary and Gabriel apart. The earliest depictions extending through several centuries showed both figures motionless against a shallow "spaceless space·less
Having no limits or boundaries. " background. The result was a timeless locale beyond human dealing that presented a sacred moment of truth. The flat gilded field of Byzantine art, for example, served as a backdrop for several centuries of religious icons, a technique that we find employed as late as 1333 in Martini's Gothic styled Annunciation. (6) By the fourteenth century, however, it became customary to place Virgin and angel within an architectural framework that contained, but significantly also divided them. The barrier might be a wall, as in the Santa Maria Novella fresco (Figure 1), or a pillar, or a vast space on the floor. Sometimes the figures were divided in the church by being placed in different locations within the chancel chancel, primarily that part of the church close to the altar and used by the officiating clergy. In the early churches it was separated from the nave by a low parapet or open railing (cancellus), its name being thus derived. . In his lat e medieval fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel, Giotto painted Mary and Gabriel in individual frames high on the wall on either side of the altar so that they can be seen as a pair only from the rear of the nave. (7) The curtained interior within each frame sets the scene in a concrete location, yet Giotto's Madonna and angel operate in their solemnity SOLEMNITY. The formality established by law to render a contract, agreement, or other act valid.
2. A marriage, for example, would not be valid if made in jest, and without solemnity. Vide Marriage, and Dig. 4, 1, 7; Id. 45, 1, 30. and physical distance from each other not as actors on a stage, but as grave icons. Mirroring each other's statuesque stat·u·esque
Suggestive of a statue, as in proportion, grace, or dignity; stately.
statu·esque pose, they stand as eternal reminders of the Word being made flesh.
Despite some clinging to tradition that makes for a zigzagging chronology, the restrictive spatial layouts conventional in the fourteenth century began generally to break down toward the end of the century. The shift contributed to the new orientation of Annunciation art to recognizably human gestures and responses, for once Mary and Gabriel were brought together, it became possible to portray them in closer contact and more personal interaction. Some pictures show the two together in her room, which the angel now freely enters. In contrast to the walled-off angel in the Santa Maria Novella fresco, God's messenger greets the Virgin from within her chamber in Agnolo Gaddi's Prato Annunciation, as she receives the dove with her hand placed intimately on her already protruding abdomen. (8) Also common is for Gabriel and Mary to meet in an exterior architectural setting. (9) The Angelico mentioned above shows the pair on Mary's portico, connected behind the pillar between them by the continuous arch of their bodi es as they lean forward and look into each other's eyes. In a second Annunciation in San Marco, Era Angelico brings Virgin and angel into even closer proximity. (10) In this graceful portrait the curve of their profiles is drawn tight by the concentric arches of the receding ceiling while they contemplate God's miracle together, their mutual revelation shared by Saint Peter looking on.
As the figures of the Annunciation are drawn together through the fifteenth century a new way of reading them as human drama is opened up, dynamically illustrated in the Annunciation of Leonardo da Vinci Leonardo da Vinci (də vĭn`chē, Ital. lāōnär`dō dä vēn`chē), 1452–1519, Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, engineer, and scientist, b. near Vinci, a hill village in Tuscany. . (11) Set innovatively in the vast out-of-doors, this canvas puts before us an emotionally charged meeting between a forthright youth and a surprised but poised young woman on her porch. Leonardo's painting is remarkable, first of all, for its concentration on their involvement. Unaccompanied by extra characters--God, a dove, other angels, onlookers--Gabriel and Mary have only just set eyes on each other in this scene. Caught off guard by the angel's apparition, Mary raises one hand in greeting, or resistance, or perhaps even acceptance--she does not yet know which--while holding the place in her book with the other. Yet she is fully equal to the unexpected turn of events that enters her life in the person of this urgent lad. Gabriel, for his part, leans forward with arm raised and wings still flapping to del iver his news. This heightened moment is enhanced by Leonardo's meticulous attention to physiology, executed to produce two flesh-and-blood beings that feature Mary's firmly planted legs and Gabriel's physical wings, an outgrowth of his torso. The garden, in turn, is represented in lush naturalistic detail. (12) With its strong personalities and realistic setting Leonardo's painting captures a moment from Luke's story but it does so by dramatizing a humanly credible encounter in an identifiable, inhabited world.
In a significant group of lifelike Annunciations the welcoming pose and gentle demeanor of the Madonna draw attention to her as a beautiful woman. Though she is never presented as seductive, Mary may be rendered with a graceful turn of her slender female figure, and she is often pictured in a half accepting, half resisting pose that makes her appear attractive and ambiguously receptive to Gabriel, who may be seen as her suitor. The angel may approach the Virgin closely, and when he does, his kneeling posture lends him the air of a lover. Donatello's Santa Croce Annunciation in carved and gilded stone is an example. (13) On his knees Gabriel inclines his head toward Mary in a gracious bow. His gesture, finger raised to indicate his message, is milder than that of more assertive angels like Leonardo's, and his eyes are lowered as though Mary is so beautiful that he does not quite dare to look at her. Gabriel has moved fairly close to this lady, possibly wishing to approach her more intimately but too shy to do so, affected perhaps by the appearance of her foot, which peeks out from under her flowing robes. She faces but also turns modestly from him hand on a probably beating heart. Like Martini's seated Annunciate, she shifts away while still holding her book with one lowered hand, but unlike Martini's discomfited Virgin, this standing Mary gives Gabriel an appreciative downward look. In this delicate scene Donatello has given us the honored Madonna of church teaching, but also a charming woman entreated and touched by her youthful admirer.
The Annunciation scene in Luke's gospel may be divided into phases, ranging from the angel's greeting, to Mary's apprehension or resistance or doubt, to her glad acceptance of God's commandment or meek compliance to it, depending on how we take her agreement. In the artist's imagination there might be a point, in addition, when Mary hesitates and Gabriel beseeches her. Donatello presents Gabriel poised between two such moments, the angel's greeting and his motion to urge Mary. When Gabriel is shown attempting to persuade the young woman, his gesture lends itself particularly well to his double appearance as God's messenger and a gallant suit-or. The episode is captured in this auspicious moment by Lorenzo Di Credi Lorenzo di Credi (lōrĕn`tsō dē krĕ`dē), 1459–1537, Florentine painter. He spent his early years in the workshop of Verrocchio, whom he assisted in the painting of an altarpiece at the Cathedral of Pistoia. (Figure 2). Credi's stage is set in a rich Renaissance chamber, and if we were not expecting an Annunciation, we would see in this painting the approach of a courtier to his mistress. From this vantage Gabriel's demeanor is of one making a plea on his own behalf. Stepping into a kneeling position, he folds his arms across his chest, tilts his head, and implores his lady with an adoring look. Mary is a gentlewoman GENTLEWOMAN. This word is unknown to the law in the United States, and is but little used. In England. it was, formerly, a good addition of the state or degree of a woman. 2 Inst. 667. , sure of herself and her position, gazing self-confidently above and beyond Gabriel, but also turning slightly with hand raised in acknowledgment of his regard. Clearly, the view into Mary's garden along with the lectern and book just before her bed make this a conventional Annunciation. Credi, however, like Leonardo and also Donateilo, has omitted certain symbols, in this case, the lilies and dove. Within this private hall and by drawing a compelling pair of personalities, Credi offers us the opportunity to experience, in addition to a biblical scene, the courtship of two noble personages. (14)
When the tilt of her body is exaggerated, Mary may appear to be taking a graceful step, and in Botticelli's Uffizi Annunciation her action might be likened to a dance step (Figure 3). Donateilo's earlier Virgin also takes a turn and step, but Botticelli provides a more extreme example of the twist of Mary's torso that has developed over many years from Martini's recoiling motion into a feminine turn full of charm. When compared with Ghirlandaio's Virgin Mary, composed around the same time as Botticelli's late in the fifteenth century, Botticelli's version carries this development even further. Ghirlandaio casts the Madonna in a gracious turning pose as she looks down toward the admiring angel with one hand raised to receive the divine proposition. (15) But Botticelli extends what has become a typical twisting movement of the Virgin Annunciate, represented in slightly different ways by Donatello and Ghirlandaio. Both Ghirlandaio and Botticelli capture the moment of the angel's salutation; however, Botticelli f ancies a Madonna who almost seems to welcome the interruption to her reading. With an easy moment of her elongated body she reaches out as though to touch Gabriel's raised palm with her own in a mirroring gesture that suggests accord. And yet, Mary could also be graciously gesturing the angel away. Motioning and resisting Gabriel with bent knee and extended arm, Botticelli's Mary draws attention to her own lovely figure and visage, full of the attractiveness that a woman would hold for a man.
Very different, but equally noteworthy in the way that it brings together Madonna and petitioning angel is Fra Filippo Lippi's mid-fifteenth century San Lorenzo Annunciation (Figure 4). Painting in the innovative period of the mid-century, Lippi envisioned this striking Annunciation as a street scene. Much of the iconography is traditional: the angel presents a lily to the Virgin, who has been reading at a lectern within view of a central alley that leads back to her garden. The conventional pillar dividing the picture into halves sets off two angels on the left, following the practice of including angelic witnesses. But Lippi has rearranged the space so as to set both angel and Virgin in the right half of the picture. To stress their closeness, he has enclosed them inside an oval that extends from the angel's knees around Mary's tilted body and head and back around Gabriel's head and shoulders. Lippi has left so little space between the two that from his knees the youthful Gabriel could reach out and touch M ary's hand if he chose. Particularly notable is Lippi's lively city scene, so typical of Italian outdoor life. Gabriel is a bashful bash·ful
1. Shy, self-conscious, and awkward in the presence of others. See Synonyms at shy1.
2. Characterized by, showing, or resulting from shyness, self-consciousness, or awkwardness. youth in the company of other boys who have come with him to a perhaps familiar doorstep where he approaches a beautiful lady, whom he clearly admires and in this moment literally looks up to. As he presents his bouquet, she glances somewhat distantly but courteously down past him while his companions guard the encounter, one looking impishly imp·ish
Of or befitting an imp; mischievous.
imp over his shoulder to catch the viewer's eye. Here we have the image of a shy young man presenting himself to an idolized beauty beyond his adolescent ken, Lippi's lifelike vision of the Annunciation's (16)
Through all of these variations enough pictures celebrate Mary's earthly beauty and nobility to suggest a double patterning of the Annunciation in the fifteenth century; and on first consideration the trend might appear to be boldly iconoclastic i·con·o·clast
1. One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions.
2. One who destroys sacred religious images. . It would go against Catholic dogma for an artist to suggest a mutual attraction between Gabriel and Mary. In the words of one commentator on Annunciation art, "It is logically inappropriate for Mary to respond more fully to Gabriel when it is an invisible third party to which she is responsive." The presence of the angel "only facilitates sensuous credibility of what is mystical" and a matter of faith (Carman 1976, 215). This etiquette of sexual neutrality is inviolable. Nor is breach of this artists' code what I find in art of the fifteenth century. As exquisite as she may be, Mary preserves an appropriate reserve with God's messenger in all of these art works. Only in Angelico's delicate and spiritual San Marco Annunciations could Mary be said to look into Gabriel' s eyes. In the others she looks modestly toward, but not at him. Even in the case of Botticelli's agile Madonna her downcast down·cast
1. Directed downward: a downcast glance.
2. Low in spirits; depressed. See Synonyms at depressed.
1. eyes could be read not just as fetching grace, but as proper avoidance of the inter-ceding angel. A much more suggestive painting by Santi di Tito Santi di Tito (1536 - 1602 or 1603) was an Italian painter of Late-Mannerist or proto-Baroque style, what is sometimes referred to as Contra-Maniera. Biography
Born in Borgo San Sepolcro, in Tuscany. from the late sixteenth century illustrates how far an artist might carry the potential for eroticism in the Annunciation. In this provocative post-Renaissance viewing we witness angel and Madonna all in motion, limbs exposed and bodies twisting, loose robes slipping toward the floor. (17) But we find no such violation of decorum in the Renaissance depictions that I have described. While the stiffly isolated figures of the original Annunciation pictures are loosened and freed to interact in the fifteenth century, the mutual responsiveness of angel and Madonna never violates decorum.
Neither could it be said that the artists discussed show signs of breaking away from their faith. All devote themselves to religious topics in their other works, and those who produce other Annunciations may do so in a more conservative manner than in the ones I have selected. Botticelli, for example, just a few years before his Uffizi Annunciation, painted another more traditional version. Divided into distinct halves, this painting features a powerful airborne angel hovering in Mary's vestibule vestibule /ves·ti·bule/ (ves´ti-bul) a space or cavity at the entrance to a canal.vestib´ular
vestibule of aorta a small space at root of the aorta. , while at a considerable distance the Virgin kneels before the lectern in her bedchamber, tilting her head in a serene bow with eyes closed and hand on her heart. (18) Fra Filippo Lippi produced a number of Annunciations, some of which offer themselves for the line of interpretation that I have developed, while others do not. His repertoire includes, for example, another mid-century Annunciation, executed this time with formal elegance and refinement. A youthful and very pretty angel Gabriel kneels before a tall, sle nder Madonna, who stands so still behind her shallow lectern that she could be a porcelain statue at an altar or shrine. (19) From these examples and many others including several by the devout Fra Angelico, no argument could be made that a subculture of impiety im·pi·e·ty
n. pl. im·pi·e·ties
1. The quality or state of being impious.
2. An impious act.
3. Undutifulness. is breaking through in the pictures that I have shown. Along with the worldly narrative that is subtly developed in some of them, the religious significance and meaning of the Annunciation is retained.
How does it happen, then, that Mary is so ambivalently portrayed? For she is characterized as a woman chosen from among us on earth, but also in her matchless beauty of body and soul as the heavenly model for women's aspiration. The answer has to do with the cult of adoration that developed around the Madonna in the Middle Ages. By the time of Botticelli in the Renaissance, Mary had become "the highest of all God's creatures, queen over the angels themselves, even in her earthly life," as Geoffrey Ashe, scholar of the Virgin Mary, points out in a caption to Botticelli's Uffizi Annunciation (1988, 122). Ashe explains Mary's heavenly and earthly glory through her roots in the fertility deities of the ancient Middle East. According to him these female deities captured the awe and mystery surrounding procreation PROCREATION. The generation of children; it is an act authorized by the law of nature: one of the principal ends of marriage is the procreation of children. Inst. tit. 2, in pr. that was worshiped in the virgin birth. When the goddess was dislodged by the masculine god and culture in Hebrew and early Christian times, a need was felt to recover the human contact offered by a sympa thetic thet·ic also thet·i·cal
1. Beginning with, constituting, or relating to the thesis in prosody.
2. Presented dogmatically; arbitrarily prescribed. female deity, and this lack was eventually supplied by the Virgin Mary. Ashe goes so far as to contend that during the medieval period Mary became, in conflict with Christian doctrine, a veritable goddess of popular worship (1988, 10-20, 145-6, 216-25, and passim PASSIM - A simulation language based on Pascal.
["PASSIM: A Discrete-Event Simulation Package for Pascal", D.H Uyeno et al, Simulation 35(6):183-190 (Dec 1980)]. ). Following from this view, the contradictory elements in her image were inherited from the pre-Christian worship of the virgin mother and adapted through the ages. Mary is assumed into heaven by virtue of her miraculous birth of Christ, yet her intercession on behalf of common people, in company with her representation of a mother's love and pain, ties her to life on earth. In both aspects she is extolled.
The tension between the earthly and the heavenly in Annunciation art is only partially explained by the Virgin's origin in ancient religions, however, for the opposition in her character derives its immediacy from the contradiction between her physical allure and enforced celibacy. The religious significance of the event, as well as the identity of Mary as the ideal woman, lies not in the celebration of her magical fertility as such, but in the exaltation of her sexual purity. Mary is revered for her role as second Eve, chosen to undo the damage done by the original mother, To fulfill this function she becomes, in reversal of Eve, the mother uncorrupted by sexuality. In her study of the myth of the Virgin, Marina Warner makes this point about Mary's virtue: Christianity differed from ancient mythologies in its identification of virgin birth with perpetual virginity and, further, in its equation of Mary's abstinence with her moral goodness (1976, 48-9). Elevated above other women by her transcendence of the fl esh, Mary became the model of restraint and submissiveness, the "female paragon and the ideal of the feminine personified" (xxiv).The theological significance of the Virgin Birth was its proof of God's intervention in history to redeem humanity This article of faith is celebrated in Annunciation art, but it is Mary's embodiment of womanly virtue defined in sexual terms that stands behind the depiction of her self-possession and reserve. We are presented with the supreme woman in the Annunciation pictures, and Mary's heavenly perfection is defined by her chastity.
Nevertheless, Mary is a woman, regarded and treated as such in legend, theology, and art, and her womanliness wom·an·ly
adj. wom·an·li·er, wom·an·li·est
1. Having qualities generally attributed to a woman.
2. Belonging to or representative of a woman; feminine: womanly attire. is completed by her human sexuality. In this regard she has been transformed by admirers into an object of erotic desire. The incongruity is not so extraordinary if we note, along with Warner, the tendency to conflate con·flate
tr.v. con·flat·ed, con·flat·ing, con·flates
1. To bring together; meld or fuse: "The problems [with the biopic] include . . the physical and spiritual expressions of love. Once the love of God is made visual and concrete in the figure of a woman, the adulation of her may easily turn sensual. In Warner's words, "one expression of love--carnal desire--disfigures the pristine soul, but another expression of love--the leap of the soul toward God--restores the primal resemblance. Both loves are expressed in the same language" (1976, 129). The irony in Roman Catholic teaching is the way that the call for austerity is combined with permission to imagine spiritual fulfillment through physical embrace. Warner explains how this paradox is elaborated by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and how his lavish erotic imagery drawn fr om the Song of Songs helped spread the cult of the Virgin in the twelfth century (128-31). The tradition that calls Mary the bride of Christ The Bride of Christ is a metaphor for the Church, Ecclesia. The image originates from the Old Testament prophets, who described Israel as God's bride, for example in Isaiah 54:5. is longstanding and has its roots in the teachings of the New Testament, yet as the virginal bride Mary may be envisioned so vividly that the representations of her become licentious li·cen·tious
1. Lacking moral discipline or ignoring legal restraint, especially in sexual conduct.
2. Having no regard for accepted rules or standards. . At times the Church has curtailed this risky tendency to make her into a bodily Eve, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a new cult of Marian humility was crowding out the ardor ar·dor
1. Fiery intensity of feeling. See Synonyms at passion.
2. Strong enthusiasm or devotion; zeal: "The dazzling conquest of Mexico gave a new impulse to the ardor of discovery" for Mary as a voluptuous woman (132, 182-85). (20) The suppressed responsiveness of the Virgin in Annunciation pictures from the Renaissance in Italy may be explained by an erotic vitality that is held in check, but that also shines inexpressibly in·ex·press·i·ble
Impossible to express: inexpressible grief. See Synonyms at unspeakable.
in through in Mary's tantalizing tan·ta·lize
tr.v. tan·ta·lized, tan·ta·liz·ing, tan·ta·liz·es
To excite (another) by exposing something desirable while keeping it out of reach. form.
Reading these Annunciation pictures by elucidating the uneasy balance between the Virgin's requisite purity and a competing tendency toward the erotic presses the boundaries of traditional interpretations centered on church dogma. Officially, Mary transmits God's Word, the Logos that has been there from the beginning and is "made flesh" so that it may dwell among us, as we learn in the Gospel of John For other uses, see Gospel of John (disambiguation).
The Gospel of John (literally, According to John; Greek, Κατά Ιωαννην, Kata Iōannēn (John 1:1.14). Just as officially, the Annunciation, like other sacred events from the Bible, should offer a single meaning consonant with the ultimate truth of the story in Scripture. Annunciation pictures from the Italian Renaissance invite interpretations that assume the primacy of the Logos by virtue of their subject matter and, in addition, their prominent phallic symbolism, which reminds us visually and constantly of God's supremacy. From the tall spiked trees in Leonardo's Annunciation to the typically erect lilies presented by Gabriel and the long straight alleys leading back to Mary's enclosed garden, these pictures signal the presence of the Father's Word ready to be enunciated by the knowing critic. To suggest the fragility of Mary's purity by claiming an intimated story of her courtship by Gabriel is to open the pictures up to a flexible "feminist" mode of interpretation that recognizes a range of possible meanings, not necessarily congruent. (21) On this model of reading, these Annunciations, in accord with the humanist spirit of the Renaissance, become more accessible, recognizably ordinary, and polyvalent polyvalent /poly·va·lent/ (-va´lent) multivalent.
1. Acting against or interacting with more than one kind of antigen, antibody, toxin, or microorganism.
2. as well as sacred and extraordinary in their meaning for us.
It is well to remember, finally, that these Annunciation scenes, like the multiple images of the Virgin Mary in religious art and lore, were conceived by men. The fact is important for both women and men viewing the pictures because it reminds us all of the one-dimensional male perspective of the heritage and art. Mary's life, the life of a real woman who gave birth to Jesus, was appropriated early by the patriarchal mind, imagining in her everything that a man might hope for in a woman--virtue and beauty, submissiveness to authority, and readiness to absorb every circumstance and feeling that might be imputed to her from modesty and reluctance to receptiveness and sexuality ripe for the taking. The Annunciation story is the biblical scene of origin for this myth of the perfect woman. Despite all of the theological maneuvering that avows Mary's free assent to God's news, the event remains one of His commandment and her obligation. Mary herself, what she thought and how she might have responded as a woman to s uch a grand request, must remain a mystery, for her voice is forever mediated by the recollections of Luke and the imaginings of artists. With this in mind, we can enjoy the splendor of the paintings while at the same time taking instruction on the male fashioning of a woman's life that takes place before our eyes in representations of the Annunciation.
(1.) A detailed summary of the variations in the representations of the Annunciation through history; including differentiations in the iconography of the east and west, appears in Schiller (1971, 1.33-52). See also, Robb (1936, 480-85).
(2.) The bedroom is not the setting, for example, of the Merode Annunciation by the Master of Flemalle, an example from the northern Renaissance that shows Mary and Gabriel in a domestic interior with no view of a bed.
(3.) Spike elaborates these symbols with reference to Fra Angelico's upper-corridor Annunciation in San Marco (1996, 136).
(4.) Fra Angelico, Annunciation, c. 1449; north wall of the upper corridor facing the staircase in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy.
(5.) Simone Martini, Annunciation, 1333; Sienese; Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
(6.) For a discussion of the Martini Annunciation as a transition piece between timeless icon and "choreographed" drama, see Gilbert (1980, 131).
(7.) Giotto, Annunciation, 1305; Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.
(8.) Agnolo Gaddi, Annunciation, late fourteenth century; Cathedral in Prato, Italy.
(9.) Spencer analyzes the shift in the spatial iconography of the Annunciation in the fifteenth century in terms of painters' new rationalized approach to perspective (1955, passim).
(10.) Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1455; inner wall of cell # 3 in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy.
(11.) Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation, c. 1471; Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
(12.) For discussion of Leonardo's scientific style in this early painting, including his sometimes imaginative use of botany, see Brown 1998, 84-90).
(13.) Donatello, Annunciation, c. 1430; Cathedral of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy.
(14.) Though space does not permit analysis of further Annunciations in this courtship mode, I will mention two others. A marble altarpiece altarpiece
Painting, relief, sculpture, screen, or decorated wall standing on or behind an altar in a Christian church. The images depict holy personages, saints, and biblical subjects. by Benedetto da Maiano Benedetto da Maiano
(born 1442, Majano, Republic of Venice—died May 24, 1497, Florence) Italian sculptor active in Florence. He was influenced by Bernardo Rossellino; his marble tomb designs are variants on Rossellino's patterns. features a somewhat diminutive angel in a pose similar to Credi's, beseeching a stately but kindly Madonna (before 1489; Santa Anna dei Lombardi in Naples, Italy). In the left panel of a miniature wood triptych Fra Bartolomo's Annunciation shows, along with the traditional pillar and inner window, an earnest Gabriel making his suit on his knees, while a ladylike la·dy·like
1. Characteristic of a lady; well-bred.
2. Appropriate for or becoming to a lady. See Synonyms at female.
3. Unduly sensitive to matters of propriety or decorum.
4. Mary receives him with a gracious turn and nod (c. 1500; Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy).
(15.) Domenico Ghirlandaio, Annunciation, late fifteenth century; Cathedral of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy.
(16.) For a different reading of Fra Filippo Lippi's San Lorenzo Annunciation that finds in Mary's gesture the "rejection and reluctance" inherited from the fourteenth century, see Spencer (1955, 278).
(17.) Santi di Tito, Annunciation, 1580; Walters Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland.
(18.) Sandro Botticelli, Annunciation, 1481; church of the Hospital of San Martino della Scala in Rome, Italy.
(19.) Fra Filippo Lippi, Annunciation, c. 1450; Monastero delle Muarte in Florence, Italy; now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany.
(20.) For an explanation of the new emphasis on Mary's role as intercessor for human grace in the fifteenth century, integrated by Filippino Lippi into his Carafa Annunciation, see Geiger (1981, 64, 66).
(21.) In her chapter on the Merode Annunciation, Michael Ann Holly, following Mieke Bal, links the multiplicty meanings in feminist readings to the image of the intact hymen, the screen on which these meanings circulate (1996, 167).
Ashe, Geoffrey. 1988. The Virgin: Mary's Cult and the Re-emergence of the Goddess. New York: Arcana ar·ca·na
A plural of arcanum. .
Brown, David Alan. 1998. Leonardo da Vinci: Origins of Genius. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Carman, Charles H. 1976. "Cigoli's Annunciation at Montughi: A New Iconography." Art Bulletin 58: 215-24.
Geiger, Gail L. 1981. "Filippino Lippi's Carafa 'Annunciation': Theology, Artistic Conventions, and Patronage." Art Bulletin 63: 62-75.
Gilbert, Creighton E. 1980. "Simone Martini's Annunciation." Art News 79.5: 130-31.
Holly, Michael Ann. 1996. Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Interpreter's Bible. 1952. New York: Cokesbury Press.
New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1967. San Francisco: Catholic University of America Catholic University of America, at Washington, D.C.; the national university of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States; coeducational; founded 1887 and opened 1889. .
Robb, David M. 1936. "The Iconography of the Annunciation in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries." Art Bulletin 18: 480-526.
Schiller, Gertrud. 1971. Iconography of Christian Art Trans. Janet Seligman. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic The New York Graphic (also called the New York Evening Graphic, and is not to be confused with The Daily Graphic) was a tabloid published from 1924 to 1932 by physical culture promoter and publishing mogul Bernarr Macfadden. Society (Originally published in German, 1966).
Spencer, John R. 1955. "Spatial Imagery of the Annunciation in Fifteenth Century Florence." Art Bulletin 37: 273-80.
Spike, John T. 1996. Fra Angelico. New York: Abbeville Press.
Warner, Marina. 1976. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Vintage.
Scaff is Assistant Professor of Humanities at San Jose State University, and Author of History Myth. and Music: Thomas Mann's Timely Fiction.