The Annunciation in Art, by Mary F. Nixon-Roulet

There are few incidents in the life of the Blessed Virgin which more plainly show her fitness for the role assigned to her by Almighty God than the Annunciation, and no incident is more appealing to the artistic sense and to religious sentiment. She was alone, the Blessed Maiden of Israel, some say at prayer, some that she was reading the Scriptures, others that she was engaged in the humble, useful task of mending the household linen. Whatever her occupation, her mind was attuned to the sweet will of God, for when His messenger revealed that will her acquiescence was immediate, her submission complete.

What a perfect picture of the scene is presented by the word-painting of the Gospel story! Its simplicity of language is the only fitting garb for the thoughts of so great a mystery, and those painters have best expressed the true feeling of the incident who have dealt simply with it. Many have painted it, breathing into it their own conception of its true inwardness. To some its grandeur appeals, to some its sadness, but while many seem to lose the religious significance in the artistic possibilities, others permit the religious depth to overshadow the art, and some combine both religion and art, but these are few.

A favorite subject with the Italian painters of the devotional school, nearly every great Italian of the Middle Ages has left us at least one painting of the Annunciation. From Fra Angelico’s brush, dipped in gold, we have three, all similar, all different, all interesting. The one now in the National Gallery, London, is one of his most beautiful works. Our Lady has been reading the Scriptures and pauses, the sacred volume in her hands, to listen to the words of her angel visitor, who is painted with all the angel painter’s skill. The Blessed Virgin is sweet, sad, innocent, quiet; the angel is eager, poising for swift flight; the one is the quintessence of action in doing the will of God, the other of acquiescent hearing of that will. The light and shade is wonderful and the color finer – though the religious sentiment is less marked – than in another picture on the same theme, now in Saint Marks, Venice. It is oval-arched, a fresco worn by time, defaced by wind and weather yet still beautiful. The angel is tall and slender, his mantle draped in the stiff lines in which Fra Beato’s lines so often fell; his wings are golden, splendid; his halo wrought in such burnished rays as only Fra Angelico’s hand could paint; the face so calm as to be almost emotionless. Our Lady kneels, her psalter in one hand, the other folded over it – hands slender and shapely as are the angel’s, and with their pointed fingers peculiar to this painter’s style. She is a tiny little creature, so small as to seem almost a child, and her haloed head, crowned with closely-bound golden hair, shows delicate features, sweet but far from beautiful and somewhat expressionless. Meek and acquiescent she is, but not so thoughtful as Luca della Robbia’s “Angel of the Annunciation,” shown as a lunette in the Hospital of the Innocenti, in Florence.

Far removed from the bare simplicity of Fra Angelico’s canvas is the Della Robbia terra-cotta, done in that matchless coloring which only that great Florentine knew how to fashion in its fade less beauty. Around the lunette is a frieze of Della Robbia cherubs, arch, charming little creatures, their childish faces alight with joy. Other cherubs hover about the figure of God the Father, half obscured by clouds, as he sends forth the Dove of the Holy Spirit upon the chosen Virgin of the Temple.

Bearing a branch of Annunciation lilies in his hand, the angel has surprised Our Lady as she knelt in prayer in one of the courts of the Temple, where, under the cloudless sky of fadeless Judean blue

“The strange, white light that came at morning hour,
The music of the birds, the perfume from each flower,
The soft, gray haze on mountain top and hill,
Nature turned upward to learn the Master’s will;
All seemed to herald the dawn of some glad day,
As if fair angels from on high would pass along the way!
Then sweet bud and blossom bent each a lowly head,
Lo, voice of rarest music. ‘Hail!’ an angel said.”

Paul Veronese and Luca della Robbia had scarce a point in common save that both were artists, and their portrayals of the Annunciation have as few points of resemblance as the painters. Delia Robbia’s terra-cotta breathes a sweet breath of simplicity; sunshine and light pervade it, but with a softened glow. Veronese’s canvas blazes with riotous sunlight; it is elaborate, gorgeous of color. It is difficult to conceive the stately angel, Gabriel of the Annunciation, as the wildly-flying being pictured by Veronese, albeit the figure is finely •executed, virile and alive in every limb. Our Lady, too, is not the gentle maid of Fra Angelico or Delia Robbia. Garbed in richest robes, she is older, more matronly than one would ever dream the Virgin of the Temple to have been, and her face is handsome with the well-fed beauty of the Venetian “donna.” The back ground of the painting, superbly done, shows the magnificent columns and arches of the splendid temple, a marvel of perspective with its jasper, marble, and onyx pillars bathed in refulgent light. Fine as are the artistic values, there is little religious sentiment to the painting, and in this respect it resembles Fra Felippo Lippi’s “Annunciation,” now in the Gallery at Florence.

His Madonna is very unlike that of Veronese, being the simplest of gentle ladies, in her face all youthful innocence, dignity, and gravity. Upon her head is the quaint Florentine head-dress affected by most of the monk-painters’ female figures. The lines of the draperies in this painting are particularly effective in long, graceful curves.

More devotional, though less artistic, is Giovanni Santi’s “Annunciation,” a picture in which the chiaroscuro is markedly Umbrian. In the foreground of a fair Italian landscape, where a limpid stream shows between verdant banks upon which grows the stone pine, beneath a pillared portico stands the Blessed Virgin, in humble attitude, as of one startled to her feet before an unexpected vision. Her hands are meekly folded upon her breast, her head is bowed, her eyes down-drooped; her expression is one of meek acceptance of the revealed word which the angel brings. Unlike the stateliness of Fra Angelico’s standing angel or the impetuous flight of Veronese’s, the angel of Santi kneels before Our Lady, in one hand the stainless lily, symbol of her spotless purity, theother raised, one finger pointing heavenward. His hair is dark and cloudy and frames an earnest face full of thoughts of his high mission. Above in the clouds is God the Father, the world in His hand, and-strange conception, seen in no other painting of the Annunciation preserved from medieval times, and indeed in no modern one – the Infant Saviour appears on a cloud, flying toward His mother, bearing in His tiny arms the cross, the sad symbol of His death and man’s salvation. Small wonder is it then that this painting of the Annunciation should be sad, that Our Lady’s head should be bowed with woe, that her face should seem weighted down with the sorrow ful knowledge which makes her acquiescence but more beautiful!

There is a far different spirit shown in the “Annunciation” from Sassoferrato’s brush, which smiles down from the walls of the Louvre. Sassoferrato was one who loved strong contrasts. He dealt largely in deep, densely shadowed back grounds against which his chief figures seemed to stand out with an almost startling distinctness. His Annunciation is no exception to this rule of contrast. Against the velvety darkness of his background, Our Lady and the Angel Gabriel stand out in a rich vigor of color which makes them seem almost alive. They are wonderful figures! Her holy book in her hand, the Blessed Virgin has evidently been absorbed in her devotions when the angel enters with his wonderful revelation of the Divine Will. Her face shows a strange blending of expressions. It is almost Japanese in its type and marvelously beautiful. It is calm without being stolid, dignified without arrogance, sensitive but not emotional, sweet but not insipid, youthful but not childish; indeed, it is one of the most remarkable of all the Virgins of the Annunciation in that it seems to show Our Lady with more sweet cheerfulness of mien than is generally portrayed by the artists who have painted this scene in her life. The angel is a rare creation. What airy grace is his! What perfect beauty of face, pure as the lilies he carries and radiant with joy at the wonderful message he bears. Gabriel the Consoler, happy vocation is his!

Murillo’s angel is as unlike Sassoferrato’s as is that master’s Blessed Virgin. The Spanish artist, too, deals in heavy light and shade, yet he manages his chiaroscuro differently, using heavy tones at the sides to throw into relief the center of His picture, where all is light, air. breadth. Above, in the refulgent glow from the heavens, float cherubs, enchanting little creatures of light. Gabriel kneels before Our Lady, a fair, angelic figure, winged, beautiful, youthful. Such a tender little maiden is Our Lady, whom Murillo tenderly loved – and loved to paint as young and girlish. She has been reading the Scriptures; beside her the basket of rent linen awaiting repair, as if to show her ready to work as well as pray. With hands clasped upon her breast, she slightly inclines her head to listen, a sweet expression of submission on her gentle face, which is of a distinctly Spanish type, reminding one a little of Murillo’s “Virgin of the Napkin.” Painted in Murillo’s “calido,” or warm style, the picture glows with light, and is one of the most devotional of all his many representations of Our Lady. There is a quaint simplicity about this painting which reminds one of the scene described in the old legend:

“The Angel Gabriel from God
Was sent to Galilee,
Unto a maiden fair and free,
Whose name was called Mary,
And when the angel thither came
He fell on his knee,
And gazing up in the Virgin’s face,
He said, “All Hail, Mary!”

Modern painters have little used this subject, its mysticism appealing rather to those devout minds of days gone by, who feared not mysteries because they saw with eyes of truest faith. Some modern painters, however, have essayed to portray this mystery, most of them regarding it from the artistic rather than the religious point of view, and they have succeeded far better in picturing the angel than in giving us a convincing portrayal of the Blessed Virgin. Burne-Jones’ “Angel of the Annunciation” is a beautiful creature, graceful, winged, with earnest face somewhat tinged with sadness, as if feeling the pathos of the message he bore.

Bouguereau’s “Annunciation” is pretty, but French – modern French – with scant depth of feeling. Our Lady is graceful, standing clad in soft cling ing robes which drape her lithe figure, but her attitude is affected and her expression sweetly insipid. The angel stands upon a bank of cloud, erect, pointing heavenward with one hand to the Dove which is descending, the other holding an exquisite spray of Annunciation lilies. The figure is far more beautiful than that of the Blessed Virgin, and the face is strong, fine and earnest with purpose, as one of those

“Spirits bright about the throne of God.
Who but to do His sacred will do fly
To earthly climes.”

The most satisfactory of all modern “Annunciations” is that by Deger, a German painter of the Dusseldorf school. It is simple and dignified. Both the figure of Our Lady and the Angel Gabriel are graceful, both faces are expressive. There is a sensitiveness in handling the delicate theme and a delicacy of touch which makes the painting appeal to one’s senses, religious and artistic.

Saint Gabriel stands, or rather floats, upon the clouds, a winged figure of seraphic grace, one hand outstretched as if his message bore with it heavenly benisons. His face, framed in bright, sunny locks, is full of fair thoughts, and its strength is not marred by the sweetness of the lips which breathe the divine message.

Our Lady stands in the glow of light which streams in golden radiance from the Dove of the Spirit in the clouds above. Her attitude is simple and unaffected. Her hands are folded across her breast, her head slightly bowed in reverence; beside her are the Annunciation lilies, fair but not fairer than the lovely face above them, flower-like in its purity. It is the face of the chosen of God, the Virgin Mother, the Queen of Heaven, the glory of all motherhood to the world’s end, the pattern and example of all who will to do the will of God and keep themselves, in sweet obedience, “unspotted from the world.”

– text from the article “The Annunciation in Art”, by Mary F. Nixon-Roulet from the The Rosary Magazine, March 1905