Friday, February 6, 2015

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

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.

Fra Angelico, Annunciation
Italian, ca. 1426
Madrid, Museo Nacional 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.

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

Adam and Eve
Master of the Rouen Echevinage, Annunciation
French (Rouen), 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 129, fol. 21r

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.

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 the image at left, statues of Adam and Eve are positioned on the arch under which Mary and Gabriel are standing.  They are literally overseeing the scene.


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, Meermano Museum 
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.”

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

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.

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 Nacional del Prado
The predella of the Prado Annunciation (at top of page) presents scenes from the life of Mary.  From left to right:  the Betrothal of Mary and Joseph, the Visitation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

Master of Philippe of Guelders, Annunciation
from a Book of Hours
French (Paris), 1435-1515
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 117, fol. 28r
The scene of the Annunciation is surrounded by smaller images from the lives of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anne.

 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.

from a Book of Hours
French (Rouen), 1450-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3134, fol. 25r

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, Annunciation
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.  

© M. Duffy, 2015

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

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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