The Beauty of the Annunication


We are reproducing a fine article that appeared in Zenith. The article does not need an introduction.

Five Joyous Pieces

Contemplating and Enjoying the Annunciation Through Artistic Genius

ROME, MARCH 29, 2012 (Zenit.org).- A few weeks ago, the ever-alert editors at ZENIT sent me an interesting idea for a column. A writer for the Catholic Herald UK had selected his favorite images of Mary to present to his readers. Taking a leaf from his blog, I thought I might propose a list of my five favorite images of the Annunciation in honor of the feast day this week.

It is impossible to choose a single favorite, therefore the list doesn’t go in any particular order, but simply presents five ways that artistic geniuses inRomehave offered this great mystery for our contemplation and enjoyment.

Sta Maria Maggiore, Triumphal Arch, Mosaic, c. 450

 1. The triumphal arch in the basilica of St. Mary Major contains one of the most unusual images of the Annunciation as Mary sits in a throne surrounded by attendant angels. No simple girl in a plain woven dress, this Mary wears regal robes and sits with the dignity of an empress. This mosaic, crafted in 450 for the first Western church dedicated to Mary, was made for an audience ofRome’s senatorial elite. Fashioned only a few years after the Council of Ephesus, where the Nestorian heresy had been defeated and Mary proclaimed Mother of God, this elegant work, made for the local aristocrats, intentionally conferred a royal aspect on Mary to evoke due homage from the Romans. A particularly interesting touch is that the Annunciation to Mary is paired with the angel speaking to Joseph — this is the first image of Joseph in the history of art.

Annunciation, Pietro Cavallini, Mosaic , 1290

2.  We cross the Tiberto Trastevere for the next image of the Annunciation, this time by Pietro Cavallini. This mosaic was crafted in 1290, almost a thousand years after that of St. Mary Major. The mosaic art was dying out, soon to be replaced by the medium of fresco, which was more versatile for narratives. Cavallini gave the art of mosaic its swan song in this series of small panels, very much an homage to the works in St. Mary Major. The gold ground of this Annunciation is dazzling and as light shimmers around the two figures it evokes the mystery and majesty of the event. But this mosaic is not all transcendence; Mary sits on a monumental throne, much like the triumphal arches of antiquity, still visible in the Forum. With Mary’s fiat to God, so begins the era of victory over sin and death. The Blessed Virgin is not bedecked in jewels nor swathed in folds of drapery as often portrayed in Byzantine art; her tunic falls around her revealing the human being underneath. In this work we also see God the Father in the upper left sending the Holy Spirit to Mary. As in all early representations of the First Person, He appears with the visage of Christ, the visible Person of the Trinity. Cavallini not only teaches but also delights. A bowl of figs sits by Mary’s one side while a vase of lilies stands by the other. It appears that Medieval artists rediscovered the still life a century before the Flemings and half a millennium before the Impressionists. Another innovation of Cavallini’s age was the rendering of perspective space. Over the head of the Virgin, the artists re-creates a coffered vault depicting a three dimensional space. In this ancient story, told in an archaic medium, Cavallini invents fresh new flourishes.

Annunciation, Filippo Lippi (student of Botticelli), 1492

3. The 13th century church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva forged a special bond with the Annunciation. Here, Cardinal Juan de Torquemada founded the Confraternity of the Annunciation in the 15th century. Together with other wealthy prelates, he started an endowment to provide poor girls with dowries. Every March 25, the Pope would preside over Mass in this space and then distribute the dowries to the future brides. It is therefore unsurprising that two ofRome’s best Annunciation paintings are in the same church. The first is in the right transept chapel, built by Cardinal Oliviero Caraffa in 1488. To decorate his chapel, Cardinal Caraffa consulted Lorenzo de Medici who suggested Filippino Lippi, the painter with finest pedigree in Renaissance art. As the son of Filippo Lippi, student of Botticelli and heir to Masaccio, there was nothing that could daunt this young painter. His Annunciation from 1492, turns traditional imagery around in a surprising new way. Mary receives the angel Gabriel not in a garden or bedroom, but in a study, much like a monastic cell. The wooden walls are constraining and her shelves are lined with books. Here, Mary embodies the motto of the Dominicans, who were and are the custodians of this church: Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere – “to contemplate and to share with others the fruits of the contemplation.” In this dark enclosed space, Lippi painted Gabriel as an iridescent figure framed by an arch, who seems to gaze in awe at Mary. The Virgin, poised on a chair, is the pinnacle of the composition. To our surprise, she does an extraordinary thing; turning her back on the angel, she directs her attention to two onlookers, St. Thomas Aquinas who is presenting a kneeling Cardinal Caraffa. Could it be that the Virgin was distracted during the Annunciation? Of course not. The luminous hues of the angel also envelope her cloak while the matte red of her dress matches the robes of the Cardinal. Her hand is raised in blessing toward her devotees and thus we see Mary in this work as a conduit of grace. Having received the grace of the Lord, she already turns to pass it on to others.

Annunciation, Antoniazzo Romano, 1500

4.  A few steps down the same aisle will bring the pilgrim to the second image of the Annunciation, in the chapel of the homonymous Confraternity where they met and prayed together. This altarpiece is by Antoniazzo Romano, a painter born just a few steps away from the Pantheon. Despite being painted in 1500, the zenith of the High Renaissance, Antoniazzo’s work looks a little old-fashioned. The figures of the angel and Mary are larger compared to the others in the panel and the background is a wall of gold leaf. Antoniazzo was not ignorant of Renaissance innovations, however, he chose to use them sparingly so as to not distract from the central significance of the story. Mary and Gabriel are indeed the protagonists of this event, and the smaller cardinal with the young maidens are in fact of minor importance. Despite the elegant lines of the figures and his good drawing skills, with Antoniazzo the hierarchy of heaven takes precedence. Similarly, Antoniazzo has learned the new art of perspective as is visible in the floor tiles, but chooses to leave the gold ground like the many mosaicked apses ofRome. Antoniazzo sparingly adds details from the empirical world, but the true wonder of the Annunciation is in its mystery of incarnation, and Antoniazzo’s artistic decisions underscore this.

Annunciation, Marcello Venusti, 1500

5. The last is a little-known work by Marcello Venusti, a follower of Michelangelo. This Annunciation, dated around 1550, is kept in the Corsini Gallery in Trastevere. Venusti was part of Michelangelo’s closest circle and was commissioned to make a copy of the master’s Last Judgment for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. Michelangelo often prepared designs for Venusti’s works and it is likely that the Florentine genius was responsible for the composition of this work. Unlike the other versions of the Annunciation, this was not meant for public display, but private devotion. In this panel, the Virgin does not kneel in submission, but looks startled, taken by surprise by the angel in her room. The sharp turn of her body and the raised hand indicate an immediate reaction to the unexpected. This type of image was well suited to private devotion as it captured the way that God often surprises us when He calls. A statue of Moses with the Old Law sits on her table. The prophet appears to be smashing his tablets. The Old Covenant with God will be now superseded by Mary, theArkof the New Covenant. This little panel must have provided much fruit for meditation for its former owner.

These five joyful pieces have allowed generations of Romans to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation through different perspectives, styles and techniques in a case where all roads lead to God.

 * * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at DuquesneUniversity’s Italian campus and Universityof St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this fall.  She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

Read or download the full article on Sacred Art And Its Most Intimate Essence.

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