Annunciation altarpiece

This traditional Renaissance rectangular pala altarpiece shows a classical Annunciation image with a predella below consisting of three small-scale narrative paintings depicting events from the life of Christ.

The Annunciation scene is set within a single rectangular space, a loggia or portico, dominated by a triple-arched screen that stretches across the middle ground. The three arches are supported on half Ionic columns, the middle arch flanked by two Corinthian pilasters while the sides of the outer arches are flanked by Corinthian half-pilasters. An entablature rests upon these arches, with a notched architrave; above it is a frieze of three recessed panels showing cherubs interspersed with round openings and a cornice with egg and dart mouldings. Behind the screen is a large arch with a roundel on either side depicting the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah whose prophesies are referenced elsewhere in the painting.

In the foreground and at the left and right extremities are two large stop fluted Composite columns with disconcerting structural prominence. They serve not only to frame the entire scene but also as a reference to the allusion of Mary as a column who can be trusted as the support of fallen humanity. A Byzantine Akathistos hymn dating from the 7th Century hails Mary as the “unshakeable column of the church”.

The loggia is open at the back to reveal a small hortus conclusus, or closed garden, with potted Italian Cypress trees, circled by a low wall decorated with grape vines, beyond which can be seen another much higher wall. The hortus conclusus is often used in Annunciation paintings as a metaphor for Mary which derives from the book of the Song of Songs, Chapter 4 verse 12: “She is a garden enclosed, my sister, the promised bride; a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain.”

Central to the garden is a well, based upon the well in the courtyard of the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, Italy. Women visit wells all over the biblical landscape. Betrothal at a well is a type-scene in the Hebrew Bible: Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel and Jacob, Zipporah and Moses. In the ‘Gospel of James’, (part of the New Testament apocrypha), the first words of Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation are heard as Mary collects water from a well. Other textual traditions corroborate the Annunciation taking place at a well. The ‘Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew’, which was also called ‘The Nativity of the Blessed Mary and the Infancy of the Saviour’, references Mary at “the fountain filling her pitcher”. The artistic traditions of the Annunciation that led from antiquity to the Renaissance cannot be perfectly charted, but many examples of the Annunciation taking place at well exist. An 8th Century example occurs on the carved ivory ‘Werden casket’ on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and a 12th Century example in the mosaic on the western vault of the northern transept of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

Panels on the low wall of the loggia show scenes from the creation of man, the Fall and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, frequent images in Annunciation paintings, referencing Mary as the New Eve. Beyond the pietra serena loggia and the hortus conclusus is a landscape view of an Italian hilltop town.

The loggia and the portico are structures that are both open and closed. Access is possible, as the openness of the space makes clear, yet at the same time they also spaces that are architecturally enclosed. They are mediating spaces between the outside and the inside, belonging fully to neither. Paintings often set the Annunciation scene in spaces that are themselves transitional. The Annunciation itself has a long association with architecture, thresholds and entrances. Theologians often figure Mary in architectural terms; she has been written of as a tabernacle, a temple or church, a throne, a thalamus, the porta clausa and the porta coeli. The Annunciation itself, meanwhile, was an episode predicated on the physical entrance of Gabriel and the miraculous entrance of the Holy Spirit and represented the moment of Christ’s arrival on earth.

Mary adopts a ‘conturbatio’ pose of disquiet or wonder, (taken from the account in Saint Luke’s gospel: “She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean.”), standing behind a reading desk. Mary is shown reading a book rather than working at a spindle which is usual in early Christian art, based upon the ‘Gospel of James’, (part of the New Testament apocrypha), where Mary is assigned the task of spinning purple thread to be woven into a new veil for the Temple. Saint Ambrose writing in the 4th Century described Mary as given to reading the Scriptures. The earliest explicit pictorial references to Mary reading at Gabriel’s arrival emerge from monastic contexts in the 10th and 11th Centuries and can be linked with new spiritual ideals defining successive waves of religious reforms and concurrent with a dramatic growth in the cult of the Virgin Mary. Here the book Mary reads is resting on a pale blue silk brocade cushion and shows the Hebrew Scriptures open at Jeremiah, Chapter 33 verse 15: “I will make a virtuous branch grow for David.”

The base of the reading desk or lectern is inscribed with a verse from the Prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”, (Chapter 9 verse 2.) Also present is a majolica jug or vase with white and pink roses. The pottery jug has double symbolic intent. Made of clay it figures Mary’s humility and in its ornamentation her beauty, but it also references Mary as the vessel of honour chosen by the Father to hold His incarnate Son. The book of the Song of Songs references the rose in Chapter 2 verse 2. The 3rd Century Saint Ambrose believed that there were roses in the Garden of Eden, initially without thorns, but which became thorny after the fall, and came to symbolize Original Sin itself. Thus Mary is often referred to as the ‘rose without thorns’, since she was immaculately conceived. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux compared her virginity to a white rose and her charity to a red rose writing: “Here is the Rose wherein the Word Divine was made incarnate”.

The Archangel Gabriel enters, as is traditional in depictions of the Annunciation, from the left. His entry can therefore be viewed as the visual preface for the episode, which if read like a book from left to right then culminates in Mary’s reaction. Gabriel is shown holding a lily, a symbol of purity, in his right hand, typical of such paintings originating from Florence where the lily has been the symbol of the city from the 11th Century. Gabriel’s left hand is extended toward Mary as he delivers the message and announces the blessing bestowed upon her by God. Arriving with Gabriel is a dove, which traditionally, (based on the account of Jesus’ baptism in Saint John’s Gospel), represents the Holy Spirit in Christian art.

The epiphanic nature of the Annunciation is emphasised by the presence of a curtain behind Mary, which is used not merely for decorative purposes as a cloth of honour and as a link with the red and purple veil of the Holy of Holies described in Exodus Chapter 26, but also for its symbolic reference to revelation, the moment when the curtains are pulled aside. In the ‘Gospel of Philip’, one of the Gnostic Gospels, a text of New Testament apocrypha, dated to around the 3rd Century is the text that the veil was torn to show that “the upper realm was opened for us in the lower realm, so that we might enter into the hidden realm of truth.”

The crack in the wall of the loggia implies the fragility of the painted illusion, to contrast it with the enduring faith of the recipient of the message of Gabriel. The prominent crack not only serves an illusory function but also a deeply symbolic one. Decaying architecture and sculpture, along with ruins of classical buildings, with their obvious connotations to antiquity, are themes often used in nativity scenes representing the downfall of the pagan world, superseded by the Christian one at the Incarnation. Here the wall, decorated with its all’antica frieze of the Creation, literally cracks under the weight of Christian truth, represented by the sacred figures.

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