Friday, December 12, 2014

The First Joyful Mystery – The Annunciation, Part I, Simplicity

from Psalter of Ham of Fecamp
French, ca. 1180
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 13, fol. 14v
“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” And the angel said to her in reply, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her."
Luke 1:26-38

The Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary by the angel, Gabriel, is the subject of the first decade of the Joyful Mysteries and of the entire Rosary.  It is also in an even more fundamental way the start of the Rosary itself for it contains within the dialogue between Gabriel and Mary the beginning of the most frequently recited prayer in the Rosary, the Hail Mary or Ave Maria.  The words,  “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” are taken straight from Gabriel’s mouth to the opening lines of the prayer. 
Capital from the Abbey of St. Ruph in Avignon
French, 1140-1145
Avignon, Musée du Petit Palais

The Annunciation is the foundation of much more than just the Rosary, it is the beginning of the Incarnation of Christ, the re-foundation of the world, the undoing of the sins of Adam and Eve by the new Adam, who is Christ, and the new Eve, who is the sinless Mary.    And, for all these reasons, it is one of the most frequently depicted scenes in all of Western art history. 

Annunciation from a Crozier (Bishop's Staff)
French, First Half of the 13th Century
Paris, Musée national du Moyen Age
Thermes de Cluny

So frequently is it depicted that a search on the phrase “Annunciation iconography” yielded results in the thousands.  On Google Scholar the number of results was 8,910, while on JSTOR it was a whopping 29,000!  Nearly all the results were for studies of a single item of the many thousands of images of the subject that have been executed between the early years of Christianity and today.  Obviously, a study of all these would take years to survey, so I will endeavor to give you an overview of the iconography of the Annunciation as it appears to me from the images I have seen and studied myself, reinforced by selected reference to some of the vast literature on the subject. 

In my description of the iconography of the Annunciation I will make some distinctions based on very simple criteria.  Among them are:  the number of participants, the simplicity or complexity of the presentation, any references to God the Father, to the Holy Spirit and/or to Jesus himself, the presence of witnesses, the location of the event, etc.  Some of the elements are confined to only one category, some of them operate across multiple categories.  I will do the best I can to separate out some of the main themes that run through the depiction of the Annunciation event through the history of art from the middle ages to the Baroque period and beyond, if possible. 

Because there are so many ways in which artists have imagined the scene, even this overview will need to be broken into several essays.  Here is the first.

The Simplest Form

The simplest form of the depiction of the Annunciation involves only the two main characters, Mary and Gabriel, in the simplest of settings, usually in no specific setting at all.  These images tend to be the earliest ones as well.  
from Orations of Gregory Nazianzus
Byzantine, 879-882
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 510, fol. 3

Among the earliest images I could find were some from Greek manuscripts.  This isn’t surprising, since Greek artists were among the earliest to produce works illustrating the Biblical texts.  

 from a Bible
North French, 11th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 592, fol. 18v

from Sacramentary of St. Gereon of Cologne
German (Cologne), 10th - 11th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 817, fol. 12

In addition, these earliest images tend to come from manuscript painting.  Again this is not surprising, since an illustrated book, usually a Bible or service book, existing as it does in the usually protected environment of a monastery or cathedral library, has a better chance of survival than does a wall painting (fresco or mural) which is exposed to the elements to some degree and subject to destruction by war, earthquake or simply changing tastes in style, which resulted as frequently in its destruction as did the other two destructive forces. In addition, manuscripts often traveled, being given as gifts or in exchanges between monasteries or rulers. They were, therefore, an excellent vehicle for the dissemination of images and artistic styles.

The simplest image shows Mary standing confronted by the angel.  Sometimes there is some kind of place filler, such as a stylized plant or other object, between them.  There is minimal or no indication of location.  In a sense, the image is as symbolic as a hieroglyph.  It is meant to remind us of the event and nothing more. 

from a Gospel Book
German (Echternach), 1050-1075
London, British Library
MS Harley 2821, fol. 22

from a Sacramentary
Belgian (Liege), ca.1075
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 819, fol. 78v

This kind of image is found throughout the middle ages, in East and West. It appears in both painting and sculpture and mosaic. And it shows very little development from relatively early times through to the Baroque period. 

French, c.1115-30
Moissac, Church of St. Pierre

Panel from Pulpit in S. Piero Scheraggio in Florence
Italian, ca.1180-1200
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters

Enamel Mors (clasp) from a Cope (vestment)
French (Limoges), 13th Century
Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts

from Prüm Gospel Book
German (Prüm), First third 13th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 17324, fol. 7v

Annunciation Group
French, c. 1211
Reims, Cathedral, West Facade, Central Porch

from a Psalter
German (Franconia), 13th Century
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 73, fol. 7
One charming detail of this picture is the not very successful
effort made by the artist to show some perspective in painting 
Gabriel's inside wing.  What was not a problem before now seems
to be causing some unease to the painter.

from les Vies des Saints by Jeanne de Montbaston
French (Paris), 1325-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 185, fol. 3
That inside wing seems to have become a problem here too!

from a Breviary
Italian (Umbria), 14th Century
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 75, fol. 291
This is about the most minimal image of the scene that is possible, with only the hand of the angel visible.

Andrea Orcagna, Annunciation
Marble Tabernacle
Italian, 1359
Florence, Orsanmichele

Donatello, Annunciation
Italian, 1435
Florence, Santa Croce
With the understanding of perspective that was developed during the 15th century the inside wing ceased to be a problem for artists.

There are, of course, variations in how the figures are displayed; whether they both stand, whether they face each other directly, whether Gabriel bows, what gesture each makes, what, if anything each carries, etc.  But because of the simplicity of the image there is no room for much storytelling or for many details of location or suggestions of another dimension to the action.  There are stylistic differences, of course, but overall the image remains a simple, almost a schematic one. 
Hans Memling, Annunciation
Outer wings of a triptych
Flemish, 1467-1470
Bruges, Groeninge Museum

With a few exceptions this simple form went out of frequent use with the dawning of the Renaissance.  Images became more detailed, more circumstantial and more complex.
Annunciation (Platter)
Italian (Umbria), 17th Century
Saint Omer, Musée de l'hotel Sandelin

Alessandro Allori, Annunciation
Italian, 1603
Florence, Galleria dell'Accademia

Adriaen van de Velde, Annunciation
Dutch, 1667
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

But it can still appear, as in the recent work of Susanna Harris Hughes below.  

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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