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The Annunciation

The Annunciation

Rogier Van Der Weyden (ca. 1399-1464). Musée du Louvre- Paris. Around 1435.

The Annunciation

Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). Alte Pinakothek – Munich. Around 1450.

The Annunciation

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence. Around 1489.

The Annunciation

Arthur Hughes (1832-1915). Birmingham City Museum and Art Collections – Birmingham. 1858.

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth, to a Virgin called Mary who was betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph. The angel said: ‘Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour'. The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, you have won God’s favour. You are to conceive and bear a son that you must name Jesus. He will be great and he will be called Son of the Most High. God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will rule over the House of Jacob and his reign will have no end.’ Mary asked to the angel how this could come about, since she had no knowledge of man. But the angel answered: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you in his shadow. And so the child will be holy and he will be called the Son of God. Then Mary said, ‘You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said’. And the angel left her. G38 .

The ‘Golden Legend’ states that the devil tempted the first woman to lead her to doubt, through doubt to consent and through consent to sinning. So the angel brought the message to the Virgin to prompt her into believing, through believing to consent and through consent to the conceiving of the Son of God G49 .

Van Der Weyden

The Annunciation of the conception of the Virgin was one of the most popular themes in medieval times and that tradition was continued in the Renaissance. Rogier Van Der Weyden was a painter born in the Walloon town of Tournai around 1400, but he worked mostly in Brussels and died there in 1464. He painted in the heydays of the Flemish Primitives. Van Der Weyden or de la Pasture as he was known in his native French language, was one of the most important artists among the Flemish Primitives, the name given to painters working in Flanders in the fifteenth century. He took his art however far above the static imagery of gothic, into the expression of deep emotions, even though he remained well in the restrained and realistic tradition of northern painting. The Pietà is the picture in which he evolved the art of painting into a more emotional form. Van Der Weyden did this while keeping faithful to the spirit of his period and of his land.

One has to imagine the urban landscapes in which worked Van Der Weyden. Flanders and the north of France was the region where the Gothic cathedrals and the communal bell-towers - in which the charters of the towns were guarded - dominated the skylines. The delicate, complex patterns of the huge, sculptured windows of the cathedrals were combined with the austere straight lines of the little houses of the medieval towns of Bruges and Tournai. Here too, the spirit was clean and dedicated to trade and industry, as in Florence. But the joy of the new wealth was expressed in religious themes still more than it was even in Italy. While art and philosophers in Florence were discovering man’s inquisitive mind in a new consciousness, in which Platonic concepts added to religion. Bruges and Tournai were fully dedicated to the pious glorification of God.

Rogier Van Der Weyden’s Annunciation was made still fully in this earlier tradition of the Gothic representation. An angel brings the message to Mary that she is to conceive. The angel is dressed in magnificent clothes, as princes of the church wear when in full ornate during the liturgy of Catholic High Mass. The Virgin is knelt, reading a book. This reminds of the coming New Testament. But this particular item is also the continuation of a long tradition. Saint Anne, Mary’s mother, was often painted while teaching Mary to read. In scenes without Anne, Mary continued to be represented reading or next to a bookstand. The book is the symbol of wisdom. Universities, such as the University of Louvain in Belgium, have taken the Virgin as a patron saint since the Middle Ages. Their emblem was an image of the seated Virgin with the child Jesus on her lap, which also existed in wooden sculptures. These were called the ‘Sedes Sapientiae’ or seats of wisdom.

Remarkable in this painting is the interior of a Flemish room, the bedroom of the Virgin, in which many details of everyday life are depicted. Windows are open on both sides of the room, which gives an airy touch of open space to the picture. But there are no shadows and only very few elements are in darker tones: the same light that comes from all directions lights the whole room. This effect was quite classic for Flemish Primitives. The effect underscores the transcendence of the lives of the Holy Figures: the painters by these means wanted to emphasise that these were no scenes of our world, but images of imagination and of intense devotion. The faces and bodies of angel and Mary are somewhat elongated, anyway slender and even resemble each other.

The white lilies in the lower left corner are symbols of Mary’s virginity. The Annunciation took place in springtime according to the ‘Golden Legend’, hence the motif of a flower in a vase G41 . Spring is the season of revitalised nature, as the Annunciation would revitalise religion. The ‘Golden Legend’ reminds that Mary lived in Nazareth and that Nazareth meant ‘flower’; hence Saint Bernard said that the Flower willed to be born of a flower and in ‘Flower’, in the season of flowers.

The red four-poster bed standing in the background may be an allusion to the bed of fragrant herbs mentioned in the Song of Songs (‘our bed is the greensward’) – in other paintings the bed is indeed painted in green - and of course it is a symbol too of fertility. But the green colour in Late Medieval times was reserved for the bedroom of Queens G81 and Mary was the Queen of the Heavens. The overall scene is static, but grace has been added by the slight movement of the bodies of the Virgin and of the angel, and also in the movements of their hands.

Filippo Lippi

Filippo Lippi was an early Renaissance painter. He lived in Florence from 1406 to 1469. Lippi’s ‘Annunciation’ is a painting in very delicate tones, as this painter usually applied. These tones amplify the feelings of purity, dignity, respect and devotion of the painter. Mary stands to the left, very slender and tall. She is dressed entirely in the blue maphorion cloak, but the blue is in a soft almost translucent tone that matches the whiter background. She holds her head inclined. Her right hand touches her hearth. Mary is standing in a small study. She was just reading a book, the book of wisdom, but has stood up at the sight of the angel. The traditional image of the reading Virgin has thus been preserved in this picture also. Mary looks at the angel who is knelt before her. The angel could be a young boy as well as a young girl. He has a red robe over a long white shirt, both painted in delicate hues. The angel wears wings in colours like a peacock, not the white feather wings we could be used to. These are all the colours of the rainbow, colours that were directly associated with the sky and the heavens

The background of Lippi’s painting is a Renaissance elaborate architecture with columns and arches leading the view into a patio where there is a fountain and drinking tub over which hover white doves. This is also an allegory of the purity of Mary. The doves represent the Holy Spirit descending towards the Virgin. The garden and the doves are a reference to the ‘Song of Songs’ of the Bible, the verses of which respond to Lippi’s grace:

“How beautiful you are, my beloved, how beautiful you are!
Your eyes are doves, behind your veil;
Your hair is like a flock of goats surging down Mount Gilead.’

The garden and fountain also are an image of the ‘Song of Songs’:

‘She is a garden enclosed, my sister, my promised bride;
a garden enclosed, a sealed fountain.
Your shoots form an orchard of pomegranate trees, bearing most exquisite fruit:
Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
With all the incense-bearing trees;
Myrrh and aloes, with the subtlest odours.
Fountain of the garden, well of living water,
Streams flowing down from Lebanon!” G38

The stately picture of Filippo Lippi illustrates majestically these wonderful stances.

Lippi could only imagine Mary as a young lady, a princess of Italy, and treat the subject with such obvious respect. There is a notable difference between Van Der Weyden’s painting and Lippi’s. We feel more subtleties of mind, more sweetness of thoughts, more love probably, in Lippi’s picture. The Renaissance introduced a new style of thinking and of living, with more sense of beauty and of the lovely things in life. According to Platonic concepts of philosophy humans carried a divine spark and the Renaissance artists expressed this idea in their paintings whereas the northern artists showed more the human nature of the divine figures. This difference can subtly be felt in the two pictures.

The Annunciation is one of the greatest theological mysteries of Christianity. The mystery is the incarnation of God in the Virgin. The other great mystery is the Resurrection. The Resurrection is easy to depict: Jesus rises from among the dead, from his tomb, to the heavens. The depiction of the Incarnation however, in the Annunciation, was one of the most difficult challenges ever presented to a painter. How to show the invisible? The French historian Daniel Arasse has written marvellous analyses of how Gothic and Renaissance painters used style elements of the art of painting to show what cannot be shown G132 . Painters used for instance incoherence in perspective to make the viewer suspect that something out of the natural order was happening in the scene. Or they used the symbol of the ‘columni Christi’, the column that is Christ, to indicate the presence of God and of Jesus. They placed features in the painting that look natural enough, but that are at second analysis fully out of place. They separate space in two scenes, the scene of the virgin and the scene of the angel, and both environments do not really flow readily one into the other. Quite frequently colonnades are drawn in pictures of the Annunciation and sometimes by looking at the tile patterns on the floor one remarks that a column stands between the Angel Gabriel and Mary. Angels can look through columns of course, but the mystery of the incarnation is then in that column. God is present not just in the angel but also in that column, in Jesus already. Daniel Arasse also pointed out that perspective is only a style element, and nothing more, no absolute framework in which any scene should be placed and be determined by. Hence, painters can use perspective as any other element of style, subjugate it to their theme instead of being subjugated by it. In Annunciations, perspective is often used to bring attention – at least for the viewers that are sensible and captured and admirative of such details – to the mystic element in the scene. The intelligence of the best painters was at work and the more subtle the allusion, the more the artist had reflected on the mystery. Daniel Arasse thus admired the intelligence of Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Francesca del Cossa, Domenico Veneziano and of course of the most mysterious and deep-thinking of all painters, Piero della Francesca. A painting of the Annunciation thus generally seems nice and straightforward. The finest pictures of this scene however have a meaning more profound than of most other scenes of the life of Jesus and Mary. The fact that paintings could contain mystic allusions, from the Lorenzetti brothers to Vermeer, was for Daniel Arasse a great Catholic tradition.

In Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation a lectern with a book separates the angel from Mary. It is quite natural that Mary was reading, since her mother Anne taught her the knowledge of the world. But the knowledge of the world separates angel and Mary in this picture, alluding to the fact that Mary already knows that she is pregnant, even from before the moment the angle brings her the message of God. The knowledge of the world also is God. And of course: remark the column with the white dove in the background, yet painted between the angel and Mary.

Sandro Botticelli

How different is the picture of Sandro Botticelli! Botticelli was also a Florentine, but he belonged to the full splendid, mature but still pure and true Renaissance. Botticelli was born in Florence too and lived and worked there from 1445 to 1510. He was a pupil in the workshop of Filippo Lippi and both painters were close. This Annunciation is one of Botticelli’s later works, made for a chapel of the Annunciation of the church Santa Maria Maddena del Pazzi of Florence. Benedetto Guardi commissioned the painting to Botticelli around 1489. No other painter better epitomises the Florentine Renaissance. Botticelli is the zenith of sophistication in the intelligence and grace of the Renaissance.

Botticelli’s Annunciation has been the example of numerous subsequent pictures. The painter has turned the Annunciation into a very dynamic and sweetly emotional scene, very much contrasting with the previous gothic, static styles. Seeing the picture of Van Der Weyden next to Botticelli’s proves this conclusively. Mary entirely bows to the message brought by the angel, almost in a too exaggerated sensitivity. The angel’s body also is bent in a movement towards the Virgin. When in Van Der Weyden’s picture the Virgin is knelt and the angel standing, Botticelli reverses these poses. Thus, Mary is standing and the angel respectfully kneels, even almost slides over the tiles. Botticelli twice at least breaks with tradition and gives a very personal view. Yet, although he builds a very lyrical scene, he respects a rigorous structure. The traditional pyramidal form can be seen in the converging lines of the Virgin and of the angel. Remark also that shadow has entered the representation: the shadow of the angel is thrown over the floor, although still inconspicuously. The lilies are still present, but are held by the angel who brings it as a sign of honour. The white lilies represent the purity of the Virgin. Mary was still just reading, but the book is on a high pedestal and is disappearing from out of the frame to the right. The image of Mary had evolved to prominence, so that even the angels now were considered somewhat lower in status than the Virgin was. How could it be otherwise in devote Florence, where the main cathedral was called ‘Saint Mary of the Flowers’ or ‘Santa Maria dei Fiore’.

The picture of Botticelli is a reverence to grace. The poses of Mary and the angel are the ultimate image of graceful movements, still caught in a static image. Botticelli combined the dynamism of the poses with the static open space of the empty room and the long vertical lines of the open door leading to the landscape. This is all very stylised, as is the long vertical trunk of the tree in the landscape. The lines of the floor tiles also emphasise the coldness of the straight lines; effects all used to form the background and contrast of the flowing gestures of the Virgin and of the angel Gabriel. Like Rogier Van Der Weyden, Botticelli was searching for a new way of expression and he went quite further than Van Der Weyden did, at least in the comparison between the two pictures of our examples.

When one compares the complete oeuvre of Van Der Weyden with that of Botticelli, one finds in Botticelli an openness of mind to various non-religious themes and a suave grace that is lacking in Rogier’s pictures. Van Der Weyden painted still more in the International Gothic tradition that was so strong in Flanders in the fifteenth century. Gothic had touched Italy with less fervour and not in the same way as in Flanders. Van Der Weyden stayed in the delicate conventions he had learnt from his master, Robert Campin of Tournai. But he had as strong a personality as Botticelli. Especially in his Pietà representations, he showed a combination of the intricate eye for detail of the Flemish Primitives and his own very visible expression of emotions to a level that Botticelli did not reach. But whereas Van Der Weyden’s emotions were probably stronger, Botticelli’s were more elegant. Botticelli was freed from traditions. He tried to invent a new way of representing feelings. In doing this he set an example that was followed for centuries.

Arthur Hughes

Another very different picture is the Annunciation of Arthur Hughes, an English painter who worked in the style of the Pre-Raphaelitic Brotherhood of the middle of the nineteenth century. Hughes was born and worked in London. The Annunciation and the life of the Virgin had remained a popular scene and a scene that painters still sought eagerly to compare their skills with. More than three hundred years separate Hughes’ Annunciation from the ones made by van Der Weyden and Botticelli, and we are in England instead of on the continent with this picture. But one feels the same very respectful devotion.

Prominence is given in this picture to the angel, whose wings cover the figure in a cloak of eerie bright light. The moment shown is exactly when Mary is astonished and seems to ask: how can this be brought about? Mary is the humble servant in this painting. Hughes made an exquisite picture with wonderful pure colours. The long purple robe of Mary reminds of other works of Hughes, such as his most famous ‘April Love’. The mood is sad, tender, and very romantic. The scene is set in a garden. White lilies and purple irises were always connected with the Virgin; these flowers surround the figures completely. A vine rank grows around a wooden stile, representing the symbol of Jesus’s passion. But we find here also symbols of the Garden of Eden and the serpent that wound itself around the tree. The Annunciation and the serpent scene are indeed locked. Because God let the Virgin defeat the dragon and God placed woman between the serpent and humankind. Mary has been weaving, but she has used a very red thread, the red thread of the sufferings of Jesus, the thread that was broken by his death.

The four paintings we presented here introduced the notion of symbols. The ‘Annunciations’ are a kind of pictures in which the most symbols were combined, especially in the fifteenth century, to communicate concepts to the viewers. Symbols were representations of concepts. A painting could contain more concepts condensed as they were in symbols than could be shown in any dynamic composition that would have explicitly depicted the scenes represented by the symbols. Symbols thus were a shorthand way of communication. But symbols often not just represented something; they were that something itself. Modern man has forgotten these symbols and does not feel the old power of symbols anymore. In our daily urge to explain our messages clearly, rapidly and unequivocally, we do not use many symbols anymore. Medieval man and Renaissance man knew and still felt these symbols thoroughly however and applied many. These symbols were mind-images that also very much continued a tradition founded in the Bible itself. Jesus spoke in parables and aphorisms, literary images of concepts. Since the Gospels had amply used this way of representing concepts, the visual symbols were completely in line with the style of Jesus’s message. Symbols were particularly and much used during the Late Middle Ages. In paintings we find them more in northern religious art than in the art of the Italian Renaissance.

In later paragraphs we will explain more of the old symbols.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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