Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Joyful Mysteries – The Annunciation, Part VI: The Annunciation Witnessed

Fra Angelico, Annunciation
Italian, 1440-1442
Florence, Convent of San Marco, Cell #3
Here the visionary is a Dominican saint, probably St. Dominic

What is probably the smallest and oddest group of artistic renderings of the Annunciation are those that include the presence of onlookers or witnesses.  These onlookers fall into two categories:  the visionary and the spy. 

The most straightforward, as well as the most common, category is the visionary witness or witnesses.  

Rogier van der Weyden, Annunciation
Flemish, ca. 1440
Center panel - Paris, Musee du Louvre
Side panels - Turin, Galleria Sabauda

In these pictures an obviously pious person or persons, usually shown in a posture of prayer, whether kneeling or standing, and sometimes accompanied or presented by a saint, looks on at the scene of Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary. 

Robert Campin and/or Workshop, Annunciation (known as the Merode Altarpiece)
Flemish, ca. 1427-1432
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection
Here the witnesses in the left wing are the donors of the painting.
Jean Bellegambe, Annunciation
French, 1516-1517
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum
Somewhat unusual in this picture is the fact that the donor is brought into the Annunciation scene, being presented to the
Virgin Mary by Gabriel himself.

Sometimes the witness is a saint or an Old Testament prophet who predicted the event beforehand.  
Simone Martini, Annunciation With Two Saints
Italian, 1333
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Master Francois and Collaborators, Annunciation
From Speculum historiale of Vincentius Bellovacensis
French (Paris), 1463
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 50, fol. 197
Here the Old Testament figures surround the throne of
God the Father, holding scrolls with their prophesies
about the birth of the Messiah as they watch the
unfolding scene of the Annunciation.

Quite often there is a difference of scale between the two groups, with the figures of Mary and Gabriel being depicted as larger than those of the visionaries or in a raised position within the picture.   
Master of the Mazarine Hours and Collaborators, Pilgrims at Nazareth
from Book of Marvels of Marco Polo
French (Paris), ca. 1411-1412
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 2810, fol. 270

Filippo Lippi, Annunciation
Italian, ca. 1440
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica

The tone is uniformly one of great reverence.   These images appear to be visual renderings of the kind of pious meditation technique that asks one to imagine oneself at the scene of an important Biblical event.1
Antoniazzo Romano, Annunciation
Italian, ca. 1485
Rome, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Chapel of the Confraternity of the Annunciation
In this charming scene the recently deceased Dominican Cardinal Juan de Torquemada
appears to interrupt the Annunciation scene as he presents three poor young women,
wards of the Roman Confraternity of the Annunciation, to the Virgin Mary, who
responds by gently bestowing dowries which would enable the girls to marry or to
enter a religious order.  

The tone is different for the small group of pictures that appear to represent the onlooker as a spy or, more probably, an overly curious or nosy person.  

Annunciation, Embroidery with silk, cotton and metallic threads
Italian, ca. 1330-1340
New York, Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters Collection
This panel is one of twelve illustrating the life of Christ that were once part of an
altar frontal (antependium).  Eight of the twelve are currently in the collection
of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.2

Here the onlooker peers around a column or presses an ear to the wall, often with a furtive facial expression.

Lippo Memmi, Annunciation
Italian, ca. 1340
San Gemignano, Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta

In spite of diligent attempts on my part to locate a source for the inclusion of such a figure I have not been able to come up with any information.  I suspect that it may owe its appearance to some kind of medieval dramatic performance, such as a mystery play, but I cannot be sure about this.  

Two of the examples I have found come from mid-fourteenth-century Italy, while the third comes from late fifteenth-century France.  Indeed I am somewhat uncertain about which category this last image belongs to.

This is a double page image of the Annunciation which once formed part of a Book of Hours that was owned by Charles of France, who was the youngest son of King Charles VII of France and Duke of Berry and Normandy, and was illuminated by a painter known as the Master of Charles of France.

Master of Charles of France. Annunciation
Two leaves from the Hours of Charles of France
French (Bourges), 1465
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection
Accession Number 58.71a, b
The scene of the Annunciation takes place in the portico of an elaborate building.  Through the arch behind the Virgin one can see a priest and acolyte going about the celebration of a service.  This helps to identify the setting as the Temple, where Mary was thought to have spent her teenage years in service of God.  In the colonnade that is located to the right of the figure of Mary there are some small figures looking on.  Ones first idea is that these are curious onlookers, but on second glance this may not be the case, for in the left panel we can also identify some onlookers who are, evidently, angelic companions to Gabriel.  Some of these figures are shown outside the wall of the garden compound (the Hortus conclusus?); while others follow Gabriel, playing musical instruments, while still others peer in through the garden gate just to the right of the figure of Gabriel.4  So, it could be that, for this image at least, the small figures in the right panel are also angelic witnesses and not merely curious mortals. 

© M. Duffy, 2015
1.  Geiger, Gail L.  "Filippino Lippi's Carafa "Annunciation": Theology, Artistic Conventions, and Patronage", The Art Bulletin, Vol. 63, No. 1 (March 1981), pp. 62-75.     
2.  Mayer Thurman, Christa C.  European Textiles in the Robert Lehman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, pp. 37-43.
3.  For more information on this double page and the book from which it came, see:  Schindler, Robert.  “The Cloisters Annunciation by the Master of Charles of France” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 47, 2012, pages 85-100.
4.  For a discussion of the Annunciation in relation to the garden see my earlier essay "The Annunciation, Part III – In the Garden" at http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-joyful-mysteries-annunciation-part_14.html

Sunday, February 22, 2015

New Martyrs

Tony Rezk, 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya
American, 2015
Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California 
and Hawaii
As the world is now aware, twenty-one men from Egypt were beheaded by ISIS in Libya last week simply for being  Coptic Christians. Many of them are reported to have died confessing their faith verbally.

Their deaths certainly meet the classic definition of martyrdom for the faith.  And, the Coptic church has announced that they will henceforth be commemorated as martyrs, with a feast day on February 15th each year.  A new icon has been drawn by the artist Tony Rezk for the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii.  The icon shows them lined up, kneeling on a beach, with the ocean behind them.  The setting , and the orange shaded robes they wear, reflect the actual scene of their deaths -- kneeling, with their backs to the Mediterranean and wearing orange overalls.  The red sashes crossed over their torsos reflect their blood, shed for Christ, while the halos reflect their new status and angels prepare to shower them with the crown of martyrdom.

With their deaths and with the recent Vatican decision to recognize Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador as a martyr we can see that martyrdom is not something from the past.  It can occur at any time and in any place today.  May the Martyrs of Libya pray for us and for their suffering brothers and sisters.

© M. Duffy, 2015

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Joyful Mysteries – The Annunciation, Part V: Telling The Whole Story

Fra Angelico, Annunciation
Italian, ca. 1426
Madrid, Museo del Prado
This great painting by Fra Angelico surrounds the
Annunciation with two parts of the "whole" story.
Adam and Eve are excluded from Paradise at the left
while, in the pradella at the bottom, are scenes from Mary's life.
Some images of the Annunciation try to place the event in the context of other events which are related to it.  They can be thought of as didactic images, telling us something that will add to our understanding of the miraculous event that is the primary focus of the work of art.

Among the possibilities for storytelling in this way are images that include:

Adam and Eve
As previously noted in other articles (notably here), by the mid-second century (ca. 150 AD) St. Paul’s idea of equating Christ with Adam as a new creation, who through His obedient acceptance of the human condition and human death cancelled the sin of Adam, the first human (1 Corinthians 15:21-22), had taken root and been expanded to identify Mary as the new Eve.  By her obedient acceptance of and acquiescence to God’s word Mary had cancelled out the sin of Eve, the first woman and the first to cooperate with evil. 
Master of the Rouen Echevinage, Annunciation
French (Rouen), 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M129, fol. 21r
Thus, it is not surprising to find the image of Adam and Eve as a secondary focus in scenes of the Annunciation.  We find it in the background or in the decoration of the space in which the Annunciation scene is set.   As we have seen, even the setting of the Annunciation in a garden has this resonance.  But some images make the connection very definite. 


In addition to pictures that include the one scene of temptation and fall is a category that includes other prototypes.  This tradition appears as early as the 12th century in the famous Klosterneuburg altarpiece by the Mosan metalworker, Nicholas of Verdun and was made especially popular in the later Middle Ages through the medium of the Speculum humanae salvationis or the Biblia pauperum which were books directed particularly toward the laity.  The typical form was to combine a scene from the life of Christ (Time Under Grace) with two Old Testament scenes, the first from the books that dealt with the history of the world up to the giving of the Ten Commandments (Time Before the Law), the second from the subsequent history of Israel (Time Under the Law).    In this scheme, the scene of the Annunciation (from Under Grace) appears sandwiched between the Temptation of Eve or the Fall of Man (Before the Law) and another scene, frequently that of Gideon and the Fleece (Under the Law). 
Rambures Master, Annuciation with Prototypes (Temptation of Eve and Gideon and the Fleece)
from Biblia pauperum
Northern France (Hesdin of Amiens), ca, 1470
The Hague, Museum Moormano-Westentrianum
MS MMW 10A 16, fol. 21r

I have described the image of the Temptation and/or Fall (from Genesis) several times (notably here).  The image of Gideon and the Fleece is less well known.  It is taken from the Book of Judges (Judges 6:36-40).  This tells the story of how, Gideon, needing reassurance that God is actually asking him to undertake the defense of Israel, challenges God to give him a sign. 
 “Gideon said to God, “If indeed you are going to save Israel through me, as you have said,
I am putting this woolen fleece on the threshing floor, and if dew is on the fleece alone, while all the ground is dry, I shall know that you will save Israel through me, as you have said.”
That is what happened. Early the next morning when he wrung out the fleece, he squeezed enough dew from it to fill a bowl.
Gideon then said to God, “Do not be angry with me if I speak once more. Let me make just one more test with the fleece. Let the fleece alone be dry, but let there be dew on all the ground.”
That is what God did that night: the fleece alone was dry, but there was dew on all the ground.”

Jan Joest of Kalkar, Annunciation
Dutch, 1508
Kalkar Kleve, Church of St. Nicholas
In the background of the Annunciation
we see Gideon with the fleece on the left
and the Meeting at the Golden Gate
between Mary's parents at the right.
The medieval imagination saw this event (what we might call a double-blind challenge to God) both as a prototype for the miraculous impregnation of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit (the fleece impregnated with dew) and as a reference to her perpetual virginity (the fleece kept dry).  It is also in keeping with other images, drawn from the Old Testament, that the liturgy of the Church uses when referring to the Incarnation, such as the well-known verse from Isaiah, known as the Rorate Caeli from its Latin words, that is used frequently during Advent, the liturgical period of four weeks of preparation for Christmas (“Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down.  Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let righteousness spring up with them! Isaiah 45:8) 1

Mary’s Background History
A third way in which artists expanded the Annunciation iconography with other references is by including scenes from the apocryphal texts that gave details of the lives of her parents, Joachim and Anne, and of the story of her own conception.  In some pictures, the Annunciation is surrounded with the scenes of her family story from the rejection of Joachim’s sacrifice because he is childless, to the separate annunciations of Mary’s birth to her parents, their meeting at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, Mary’s birth, her presentation by her parents for service in the Temple, the choice of Joseph as her future husband and her betrothal to him.

Fra Angelico, Predella of Prado Annunciation
Italian, ca. 1426
Madrid, Museo del Prado
The predella of the Prado Annunciation presents scenes from the life of Mary.  From left to right:  Betrothal of Mary
and Joseph, Visitation, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Assumption of the Virgin Mary
 All these images have a didactic purpose.  They are trying to offer the viewer a more complete sense of the importance of the central image and its place in the continuing history of Israel.  

Master of Philippe of Guelders, Annunciation
from Book of Hours
French (Paris), 1435-1515
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M117, fol. 28r
The scene of the Annunciation is surrounded by
smaller images from the lives of Mary's parents,
Joachim and Anne
It should be remembered as well, that many of the pictures that we see today as independent panels or canvases may have originally come from situations that are similar to those I have discussed.  But, whereas the images I am showing here included these ancillary scenes within the one piece, it was far more common to include an Annunciation in a location where it was but one of a series of paintings telling the more complete story, for the event of the Annunciation is both an end and a beginning.  
Petrus Christus, Annunciation
Flemish, 1452
Bruges, Groeninge Museum
This image combines the Annunciation with
the past and the future.  Images of the prophets and from the
history of Joachim and Anne are the sculptures
that surround the doorway and the Coronation of Mary
as Queen of Heaven is the image in the roundel at the top
of the stained glass window.

It is the end of the story of God’s dealings with humanity from Creation on that can be grouped under the medieval categories of Before the Law and Under the Law.  

Chief Associate of Maitre Francois
from The Phoenix Hours
French, 1475-1499
New York, Columbia University Library
Rare Books and Manuscripts Division
MS BP 96, fol. 33

At the same time, it is the first event in the recreation of the world in a renewed time, which can be designated as the time Under Grace.   Through her assent to the angel’s message, the Divine Word enters the world and remakes it through His life, death and resurrection.  Time is renewed and sanctified and humanity is given the means of salvation.  

    1.Raw, Barbara C., “As Dew in Aprille”, The Modern Language Review, Vol . 55, No. 3, 1960, p[p. 411-414.

© M. Duffy, 2015

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mary's Birthday

Virgin of Notre Dame de Paris
French, 14th Century
Paris, Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris
With floral decorations in honor of
her birthday, taken by me September 8, 2006
The host site for this blog collects lots of statistics, for example, how many visitors for each day, week, month; where in the world they are coming from; what sites are referring them to this blog; what search engines they are using; what operating systems their computers have and, among some other things, what questions they are inputting to the search engines they are using.

In recent weeks I have noted that one question keeps recurring.  It is "Mary's birthday is ..... March?"  Well, the question is a good one, but the presumption on which it is based is a bit of a problem because Mary's birthday is not in March at all.

There is probably a conflation going on here in the mind or minds of the questioners.  The two things being conflated are both events in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and both are feasts of the Church.  One is in March, but the other one is in September.
Philippe de Champaigne, Annunciation
French, ca. 1645
London, Wallace Collection

The Annunciation, about which I have recently been blogging quite a lot (with a few more to go) is celebrated on March 25th.  No brain surgery needed to see why that date was selected to celebrate the important event, the Incarnation of the Lord through the assent of Mary to the message of the Angel Gabriel.  It was placed on March 25th because it had been decided to celebrate the Birth of the Lord (the Nativity) on December 25th.  By counting back nine months from the birthdate, we arrive at March 25th.  

Boccacio Boccaccino, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1514-1515
Cremona, Cathedral
The other date is the birthday of the Virgin Mary.  This was set on September 8th, with the date of her conception set nine months earlier, on December 8th.  This is known as the Immaculate Conception, not because there was no sex involved in it but because, to prepare her spiritually for her future role as the Mother of Jesus (Mother of God), she was granted the grace to be formed without any participation in the root sin of humanity, Original Sin.

So, let's get this straight. Mary's birthday is NOT in March.  It is in September.  But both days (in March and in September) celebrate the same event in different ways, which is the Incarnation of the Divine Word as a human being through a remarkable  young woman who was specially prepared by God for her important role in it.  

© M. Duffy, 2015