November 9, 2012 by Gail Armstrong
Halloween has passed, and Christmas beckons – the trees were up in the stores November 1st, and toy departments are already being plundered. The Ninja Turtles Shellraiser armoured assault vehicle is already out of stock at Toys R Us, so that’s a sure sign the season is fully upon us.
Thus it is that my mind turns to images of, and related to, the birth of Christ. It’s too early for nativity scenes, and in truth a bit late for scenes of the annunciation – should have happened a number of months ago – but let’s not be sticklers. Annunciation it is.
For anyone for whom the concept is fuzzy, ‘annunciation’ just means announcement – in this case, the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Mary that she has been chosen to bear the son of God. It was clearly a favourite of illuminators, as there are many, many depictions of this scene. Many are quite “standard”, depicting the event prettily but conventionally, without any particular emotion or comment. Some on the other hand are exquisitely lovely and subtle, and some…well, you’ll see in my next post!
I want to start with one of my absolute favourites. I think this unequivocally qualifies as exquisitely lovely.
The image is found in a French Book of Hours dating from the 1st quarter of the 15th century.
What makes it so lovely? So many things…first and foremost, the faces of the angel and of Mary…hers so delicate, gentle and sweet, and his so full of love. Mary’s gesture in raising her hand to her breast perfectly captures her astonishment and humility (“Who, me? Really?”), while the posture of the kneeling Gabriel suggests that he fully honours her as deserving of her destiny. (Some images show him towering over her rather coldly, or just standing at an awkward distance, as if uncomfortable.) The lily, by convention, symbolizes the virgin’s purity and what I particularly like about this one is that it depicts a budding lily, rather than one in full-bloom — appropriate to represent a young virgin about to embark on the journey to motherhood.
Then there’s the beautiful use of colour – that watery blue (so French) juxtaposed with the spring-green grass and spangled with a multitude of dainty gold stars – magical! Meanwhile the figures of Mary and Gabriel are grisaille (i.e. monochrome, in shades of gray), which lends the image overall a simplicity and delicacy that enhances the quiet peace of the monumental moment being portrayed.
Finally, we have the Lord Almighty in the upper left-hand corner. I admit I’m often the first to find this kind of depiction slightly ridiculous – too often it looks like God has carelessly torn a hole in some lovely fabric to spy on earthly goings on, and the rays of holiness emanating from His face frequently look like some kind of shrapnel. Here, however, the artist has managed to utilize the device without it looking silly. God himself has a lovely, mild expression and the beams are faint enough not to look like sharp objects. Similarly the positioning of the dove here suggests a living, flying creature rather than an object being hurled at Mary’s head. Nicely done.
Here is an image that shares some of the qualities of the one above. It too, is pleasing, but to my mind doesn’t achieve the beauty and power of the other.
The main reason, I think, is that the faces and gestures aren’t as expressive. Mary looks gentle and pleasant, but there isn’t that hint of astonishment and humility. Meanwhile the angel looks a little more business-like – he’s kneeling but there’s nothing in his face to suggest he’s particularly moved either by what he’s announcing or by the virtue of the announcee.
As well, the blue sky is too unevenly blue and the field of stars rather meagre. Rather than spring-green grass suggesting renewal and birth, the ground here looks rather dry and parched. The lily’s in full bloom, so there as a matter of convention, but the artist hasn’t used it as subtly as the first artist did. (And here it just sits by her desk, whereas in the previous image the angel held it as if it were part of the message he was delivering.) Then there’s the Lord in the upper right-hand corner…the device doesn’t look out-and-out ridiculous here, but it’s just not as effective as in the first image. Frankly, God looks like he was shoved in as an after-thought – he’s a little crowded, a little small. You can’t discern any particular expression on His face, and I’m sorry, the dove looks like she’s trying to peck Mary on the nimbus (or halo). So nice try, pleasant enough image, but not in the same league as the one above.
This image, by the way, comes from Meditationes vitae Christi (Le Livre doré des meditations de la vie de nostre seigneur Jesu Christ), with authorship attributed to “Pseudo-Bonaventure” (a common attribution for medieval texts, said to have been authored by St. Bonaventure but really, by author(s) unknown), and translated by Jean Galopes dit le Galoys. It originated in France, c. 1420. Perhaps the artist of the later image drew on this for inspiration?
Here’s a quite different image that I also find very pleasing:
First of all, I love the hint of the border we see, but also the colours generally are exquisite. I like the sense we get that Mary has just been interrupted at her reading –there’s a liveliness to her response somehow that really gets that across. She has a sweetness about her face, with her downcast eyes and gentle smile. Meanwhile Gabriel looks pleased to be delivering his message (indicated by the banner – another conventional device). God in the upper corner is a little fuzzy (barely noticeable but perhaps because the manuscript is faded/damaged), and neither eye-beams nor dove resemble weapons of attack.
One thing to note is the setting: unlike the previous two images, set outdoors, Mary is here found in a rather sumptuously-furnished interior. This is not uncommon, and this is far from the most palatial setting she can find herself in. I like the richness here – contrasts with the simplicity of her hair and blue robe, just enough to suggest that here is a woman who, though mild-mannered and simple herself, is, in a sense, a “queen”.
This image comes from a Book of Hours made in the Netherlands in the 2nd quarter of the 15th century (“Use of Sarum”).
Here is Mary in an even richer setting, and in a more formal composition:
This is beautifully painted, rich in both colour and detail. The faces, however, are fairly ‘flat’ in affect – I sense no surprise or humility in Mary, no reverence in the angel. Both, in fact, look like nothing out of the ordinary’s going on…just another announcement to a virgin that she’s about to immaculately conceive the son of God. Another day, another annunciation… The image conveys majesty and beauty, but little of either the human or the divine drama at an emotional level and thus, though it is exquisite, I like it a little less than the first one above, and the one directly preceding this. Had that one extra element been present, I think this would have been a masterpiece.
It comes from a French Book of Hours dating between 1440 and 1450.
Here is an image that takes another step down the path of formality.
I find this one beautiful too. In this case, the formality of the image is such that I don’t feel the lack of emotion as a defect – this one is what it is, a stylized depiction beautifully rendered. I like the symmetry of the stance between Mary and the angel, the architectural frame and the symbolic lily and banner between them. The image conveys the event with no pretension to tapping into the emotional lives of the participants or conveying the emotional import of the event. The image is found in a French psalter dating from the 2nd half of the 14th century.
The final image for today is an interesting one. It is from a French Book of Hours c. 1500, and is dramatically different from the ones we’ve already examined.
The first thing that strikes me is that we are very “close up” to both Mary and Gabriel. Some of the normal conventions are not present – no lily, no Lord in the corner. Mary is taller than Gabriel and he looks to me more like a page addressing a queen than an angel delivering a message from the Lord to a mortal. There’s no reverence, as such – just a sense from his expression that he is slightly subservient. But most striking of all is what seems to me a sly look on the face of the virgin, as if her first thought is not, “Me? Really?”, but “Hmmmmm, this sounds promising…there could be a queenship of heaven in this for me if I play my cards right”. At the very least she looks rather cold – the words sweet, gentle, mild don’t come to my mind here at all.
Needless to say, this is not a favourite, but I do find it interesting. Looking at other images from the same Book of Hours (French, c. 1500), I don’t think the artist had any subversive agenda and deliberately portrayed the virgin as cold or sly – I think he just wasn’t adept at portraying emotion. See, for example, this image of the adoration of the magi:
I have to say, I’ve seen more motherliness, and more adoration, than are evident here. I rest my case.
More annunciations to come in the next post…