The art of revealed secrets. Annunciation in painting
Domenico Veneziano "The Annunciation"
The Annunciation in the liturgical calendar is celebrated on March 25 / April 7, exactly nine months before the birth of Christ. Historically, it arises as one of the very first holidays directly related to Easter. According to ancient ideas, the life of the righteous is a perfect circle, especially if the date of the beginning of life and death coincide. The Annunciation is a celebration of the beginning, in its content akin to Easter.
How to start a conversation about this holiday? The beginning of history should be sought in Genesis. “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Genesis 3:15). Thus, when the archangel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary, he, first of all, announces the onset of the fullness of times: the ancient prophecy about the mysterious descendant of Eve, who will defeat the treachery of the serpent, is fulfilled at the time of the announcement.
One of the oldest images we find in the catacombs of St. Marcellinus and Peter in Rome (III century). Madame sits on the throne, unlike the Roman matrons, her head is not covered. Loose hair indicates that we have an unmarried girl. The position of her body expresses the attention with which she listens to the messenger. In front of her is someone without wings. Since in those days the pagans portrayed their gods as winged (in particular, Mercury), at first the Christians did not portray the angels of God with wings, otherwise he could be mistaken for some kind of pagan deity. The messenger has brought the message and is awaiting an answer. He is full of dignity, his figure expresses the courteous reverence of his subject before his mistress. The first images, emphasizing the royal dignity of the Virgin Mary, are a New Testament reading of an ancient hymn: “the queen has become the right hand of you” (Ps. 44:10).
Along with the Book of Genesis, a prophecy should be read that is read on Christmas night: “The Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, the Virgin in the womb will receive and bear the Son, and they will call His name: Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). In the original text, the word "virgin" does not have the meaning that it received in later eras. This word could mean not only a virgin, but generally a young girl, unmarried and, therefore, free. More important is the image of her royal motherhood. The name of the baby means C-nami-God. And all this will be fulfilled in the person of Mary of Nazareth.
One of the oldest images of the Virgin and Child is located in the catacombs of St. Priscilla (II century). It depicts the prophet Isaiah, he points to Mary: it is in her that a great prophecy will be fulfilled. At the Mother of God in the arms of the Baby, facing the viewer, He is a bit like baroque portraits. His eyes are open, He is looking at us. He feels the warmth of the mother’s chest, like a psalmist in the presence of God (Ps 130). A star shines over Mary, on which 12 rays can be distinguished: her Son is the industry and the fullness of the 12 tribes of Israel. This ancient symbol, in particular, dates back to the image of the Mother of God "The Most Holy Star."
Traditionally, the meeting of the angel and Mary is depicted either at the well or in the house. The well is an exceptionally significant place, fateful meetings are made here, marriages, unions are concluded, it is a symbol of life and fertility. Apocryphal Gospels tell that Mary comes to draw water, she sees an angel, but does not hear his words. Then she returns to the house, here she sees and hears the angel. This place itself already in ancient times became a place of pilgrimage.
Annunciation. XIV century. Ohrid
On many icons Mary is in the house, an angel comes at a time when she spins a thread for the curtain of the temple. Apocryphal Gospels report that Mary was chosen among the other girls, she was entrusted to weave the temple curtain. This symbol expresses a simple reality: if a veil appears in a house, it means that it becomes someone’s home, now someone lives here. Working on the veil means preparing a womb that will receive Christ.
Annunciation. Mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore. 5th century
Sometimes Mary can see the red veil and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (this image is borrowed from an episode of the Baptism of the Lord), as in the XIV century icon from Ohrid. Here the angel is already depicted with wings. His body expresses excitement, he barely landed and as if he had not yet fully recovered his breath. Mary is seated on the royal throne, she is the Lady, Queen.
In some images, for example, in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, you can see Eve at the spinning of a thread. Thus, Mary appears as the New Eve, the promised Mother (Gen. 3), a co-worker of God. Sometimes you can see that the thread is stretched to her chest, to the place where the flesh of Christ is woven. In it, ancient promises are fulfilled and a new world is born.
Mosaic of Cavallini. Santa Maria Trastevere, 1291
Often in the hands of an angel holding a white lily, a symbol of the virginity of Mary, a symbol of immaculate love. Lily invariably returns to the image of the Beloved from the Song of Songs: "I am the lily of the valleys," "that the lily among thorns is my own among the girls." This is the flower that flourished on the rod of Aaron; in its form, it resembles a royal scepter. Three lily flowers remind us that Mary is the Virgin before Christmas, during and after Christmas.
On the mosaic of Cavallini in Santa Maria in Trastevere, the Virgin stands on a magnificent throne. Mary is the new Eve to complete the curtain of the temple. The image of a dove or a dove in the context of the holiday gives a new meaning to the words of the psalmist: “Our soul has got rid, like a bird, from a net of catchers: the net has been dissolved, and we have got rid” (Ps 123: 7). That is what found expression in the fine custom of this day to release the birds from the cages out of their cells.
The angel holds in his hands the rod of the royal messenger as a confirmation of his authority. The Great King awaits her reply.
In the Byzantine spirit, the royal dignity of Mary is often emphasized architecturally: her imperial throne with a red pillow resembles an architectural ensemble crowned with a canopy. This takes the viewer from a specific earthly reality to the divine-sacred world. The sacred nature of what is happening is emphasized by the use of a golden background: gold is the main symbol of divine glory, gold perfectly reflects light, the absence of shadows on it creates an image of eternity as a lack of time.
Mary is the chosen one of the Almighty; she receives the heavenly messenger without rising from the throne. Accepting the message, she becomes the queen and mother. On some images, the episode of the Annunciation is supplemented by the coronation of Mary. Angels lay a royal crown on her head.
Sometimes an angel comes not alone, but accompanied by brothers. So, in the picture of Filippo Lippi three angels are depicted. Three is a wonderful symbol. Three – the Trinity, three messengers come to Abraham to announce the birth of a son, three – the number of perfection. Only three angels are depicted here, but in reality the whole heavenly court, the whole heavenly army is eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of this mission. They are all eager to hear Mary say yes and this will be a new beginning.
Annunciation. Filippo Lippi. Church of San Lorenzo, Florence.
In some paintings, Mary is not depicted on the throne, not behind the yarn, but bowed in contemplative prayer. In her hands she holds an open book of Scriptures, sometimes she reads the Psalter, sometimes – of the prophets. The word becomes flesh, the prophecy becomes the reality of her life.
Hubert and Ian Van Eyck. Ghent Altar
This, in particular, depicts Mary on the outer wings of the famous Ghent Altar of Van Eyck. The altar was opened on Easter days, revealing the secrets of Heavenly Jerusalem, and when it was closed, the worshipers contemplated the Annunciation. Similarly, in the Orthodox tradition, the Annunciation is invariably portrayed on the royal gates as a sign that through Mary the gates of paradise and heavenly secrets have been opened to mankind. In Van Eyck’s masterpiece, the idea that divine house-building is impossible without the free participation of man is expressed in the image of naked Adam and Eve next to the dazzling magnificence of luxurious fabrics, precious stones, and the beauty of the landscape.
This is a renewal of the covenant, and a covenant can be made only with the free and equal participation of both parties.
In the van Eyck painting, we see on the heavenly throne the God of the King with the upcoming Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, surrounded by a host of angels. At the bottom of the altar is the worship of the Lamb of God, slain but alive. Against the backdrop of a host of angels and saints, Adam and Eve look so naked that the masters who wrote the copies tried to make their figures less vivid. The nakedness of the ancestors serves as a sign that the Son of God will clothe himself in mortal flesh, and in this an incomprehensible combination of heavenly and earthly, eternal and mortal will be realized.
If in ancient mosaics Mary majestically sits on the royal throne, then in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, she is more and more often portrayed as kneeling.
The angel also sometimes kneels, so the mystery of the Annunciation surpasses all human understanding. The impossible combination of heaven and earth, created and uncreated becomes possible, which invariably causes fear and awe.
With unrivaled power, this was expressed by Lorenzo Lotto. In one of his paintings, he, in particular, depicted a kitten who appeared at that moment next to Maria, who runs away in horror.
Lorenzo Lotto's The Annunciation, 1527-29
In many images, the meeting takes place in the courtyard or in the garden. A walled garden, Hortus Conclusus is a symbol of virginity and an image of paradise. It is closed to outsiders, access to it is open only to the king. The garden is covered with a beautiful carpet of fresh flowers, paradise fruits hang from the branches, goldfinches and peacocks, symbols of suffering and immortality live in it, you can also see swallows … The swallow itself does not make spring, but heralds its approach. Swallows indicate that a new spring is coming, new times, everything starts all over again. The Annunciation is a holy spring holiday.
The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century
On the “Annunciation” by Leonardo da Vinci, we see a lectern for books and the Book of the prophet Isaiah – as a sign of prayer and contemplation, through which the embodiment of the Word becomes possible. The sea shell is a symbol of hearing and secret life. The pearls adorning the Virgin Mary symbolizes the incarnation of Christ. In the depths of the landscape – cypress, a tree with deep roots, capable of producing life-giving moisture even in drought, it bends under the wind of time, but does not break. The appearance of the angel takes place in a magnificent Florentine palace, everything here is filled with harmony and glee from the fulfillment of promises.
One of the greatest masterpieces of painting is the Annunciation with the Unicorn or the Mystical Hunt by Martin Schongauer. The artist presented the scene of the Annunciation in an unusual way for us.
The Annunciation with the Unicorn by Martin Schongauer
First, a few words about the unicorn. Today this animal has gained immense popularity thanks to the animated series "My Little Pony", but for a long time it was known about it primarily thanks to the "Physiologist". This treatise was written in the II century by an unknown scholar who lived in Alexandria. It contains everything that was known to the ancient Greeks in the field of zoology, to this are added the representations of the ancient Egyptian priests, Jewish mystics, as well as the first Christian authors. In this bestiary, biblical stories alternate bizarrely with zoological commentaries and fables about animals.
So, the legend says that the unicorn is the most powerful and formidable animal; even an elephant is unarmed in front of its hard hoof and sharp horn. He is not afraid of hunters, but extremely careful. It can be caught only by applying a trick. The fact is that a unicorn with confidence can only come close to a young girl, he lies on her lap and falls asleep. Only at this moment can he become the prey of hunters.
The Virgin is an allegory of Mary, her womb is the image of the Church that nourishes the world. As the unicorn falls asleep and seems dead, this scene was often compared to the crucifixion of Christ. Indeed, the image of the unicorn that has fallen asleep on the girl’s lap resembles Michelangelo’s most beautiful sculpture Pieta. The evil hunters in this legend are the personification of the Jews who betrayed Christ to the judgment of Pilate.
“In the same way, our Lord Jesus Christ, the heavenly unicorn that used to be with the Father, was invisible to us, descended into the womb of the Virgin and put on our flesh, was captured by the Jews and brought to Pilate, Herod, and then crucified on the Holy Cross . This is why He himself says in the Psalms: “My horn will be lifted up like a horn of a unicorn” (Psalm 91:11). The only horn in the middle of the forehead is the symbol of the Savior's words: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
God is the head of Christ. The indomitability of the beast means that neither power, nor authority, nor hell can capture the power of God. The unicorn is small in stature. This should be understood in such a way that Jesus Christ humbled Himself for us, becoming a man of carnal, and said: “Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). ”
The unicorn in the imagination of artists is so connected with the image of Christ that on many miniatures in medieval bestiaries, even when the text does not talk about killing, but only about catching an animal, the hunter pierces the side of the animal with the spear point.
These legends combine the "male" theme of hunting, attack and sacrificial slaughter with the "female" theme of kindness, innocence, tenderness.
The predominance of pink, obtained by mixing red and white, symbolizes the combination of the Passion of Christ and the Purity of the Virgin.
A garden surrounded by a wall above which gates rise or the tower refers to the image of the Beloved from the Song of Songs: “My sister, my bride, you are a sealed garden, a source enclosed” (Song 4:12). The tower with three windows is the Tower of David, an ivory tower decorated with a thousand shields and strong armor (Cant 4: 4).
Traditionally, the garden space is divided into two parts: in one – the archangel in the image of a hunter, lover or king Solomon, and on the right side – the Virgin and Child in the image of a young girl and a unicorn. All items depicted here are symbols.
The angel appears in the image of a handsome young man, as in the traditional images of the Annunciation, while he is endowed with the features of a skilled hunter armed with a spear, he blows a hunting horn, holds four hounds of dogs ready, he runs in the footsteps of a unicorn, who was attracted by the virginity of Mary.
He embodies the easily recognizable features of the angel of the Annunciation. With reverence, sometimes kneeling, he proclaims the words of Scripture, which are inscribed on the phylacteries that are addressed to the Virgin, a beam shines over him, signifying the condescension of the Holy Spirit. The inscriptions on the phylacteries are also well known from the liturgical hymns of the Orthodox Church: “the door is shut” (Ezek 44: 1-2), “behold, the virgin will conceive” (Isa. 7:14), “the source is sealed” (Song 4:12), “ Rejoice, gracious! The Lord is with Thee ”(Luke 1:28).
The names of four virtues flutter from the mouth of the hounds of dogs: mercy, truth, truth, peace. “Grace and truth will meet, truth and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 84:11). The hunter depicted is in fact sent by God to earth to find the unicorn, the four virtues are the content of his message.
Piero della Francesca / 1458 – 1466 / murals of the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo
On the fresco of Pierre della Francesca in the church of St. Francis in Arezzo an angel comes with a gesture of blessing and with a palm branch in his hand. Palm is a messianic symbol. This mighty tree can bear fruit even in the desert. However, having brought fruit, the palm tree dies, therefore, it becomes a symbol of the cross torment and resurrection, as well as a symbol of the martyrs for Christ.
Mary is dressed in red clothes, a blue mantle is thrown over it – it combines the flesh of the earth and the radiance of heavenly azure. An angel will now address her with words of greeting. The gesture of the Father expresses readiness to fulfill the promise as soon as Mary receives the Holy Spirit …
Here, most of all, in the image of the Madonna, her inner strength and energy shock her, she is depicted as a genuine matron. Hearing that her elderly sister is expecting a baby and, of course, needs help, Mary stands in thought. Her face is full of determination, her gaze is fixed on the distance, as if mentally she is already next to Elizabeth. She is depicted free from the conventions of time, ready to immediately go on a long journey, without saying a word to anyone, she does not need satellites for protection. The case is not delayed, a cloak is already thrown over her shoulders, her hair is gathered and covered with a coverlet. The book is closed in the hand, it is all in motion, the time has come to act in the name of the one who “exalts the humble, the hungry, does the good” (Lk 1: 52-53).
In the frescoes of Piero della Francesca, of course, the images of the patriarchs, prophets, and great men of the Church shock with their grandeur. However, male images are perceived as some kind of universal.
The female image conveys the idea that salvation is embodied in everyday life, through the personal presence in the life of another person, through concrete cooperation with God in the transformation of life.
Video of the lecture “The Art of the Unveiled Mystery. The Annunciation in Religious Painting "see here
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