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.  

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.

Rogier van der Weyden, Annunciation
Flemish, ca. 1440
Center panel - Paris, Musée du Louvre
Side panels - Turin, Galleria Sabauda
The witness in this case is the donor of the picture, kneeling in the left side panel.

Jean Bellegambe, Annunciation
French, 1516-1517
St. Petersburg, State 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 by 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

Jean Colombe, Annunciation
from Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolphe de Saxe
French (Bourges), 1475-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 177, fol. 12

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.

Master of the Ango Hours, Annunciation
from a Prayer Book
French (Rouen), 1515-1525
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 83, fol. 22
Here the witness is the woman who commissioned the prayer book.

However, the tone is quite 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 as well as Duke of Berry and Normandy. It 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

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