The festival of the Annunciation is overshadowed by Lent and Easter. As tomorrow is Christmas Day, here is a look at some more unusual paintings of the annunciation to the Virgin Mary: one of the most popular themes in European art.
The great majority of paintings of the annunciation follow a standard formula, which becomes rather repetitive: the Archangel Gabriel is shown with an astonished young Mary, accompanied by symbols of her purity such as white lily flowers, and sometimes a white dove representing the Holy Spirit.
In the early Renaissance, before the stereotype could set in, there was greater innovation. For example, in about 1433-35 Jan van Eyck developed a monochrome grisaille into this brilliant trompe l’oeil, pretending to be a pair of sculpture figures in stone with wood frames.
Just over a century later, Beccafumi used the extreme contrast of chiaroscuro to heighten the effect of his painting, anticipating the vogue which was to come some fifty years later in the work of Caravaggio and his followers.
Jacopo Tintoretto turned quite social-realist in this painting from about 1582, with its unusually natural rendering of contemporary brickwork, a wicker chair, and a splendidly detailed carpenter’s yard at the left. This shows Christ’s origins as very real, tangible, and contemporary, a concept which didn’t reappear for over two centuries.
In 1614, El Greco used this unconventional composition, placing the figures in more expressive poses, with eloquent body language. The white dove is flying from a gaping light in the heavens, with a host of mothers and babies above. His brushwork is so painterly it too could be mistaken for a much later work.
Murillo’s more conventional approach from 1660-80 is notable for the introduction of everyday props, such as the basket of linen under the table at the lower left corner.
A surprising painter of such a traditional set-piece is the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He departs from convention throughout, using a title from the Vulgate text of Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1849–50). In accordance with his early Pre-Raphaelite style, it combines great naturalism in its figures with deeply traditional plate-like gilt halos, and extends the catalogue of symbols to include white robes for purity, red embroidery for Christ’s crucifixion, a blue curtain for heaven, and flames at the feet of Gabriel rather than angel’s wings.
Later in the nineteenth century, the American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner dropped almost every convention. The scene is, like Rossetti’s, set in the private space of Mary’s bedroom, the bedclothes rumpled untidily, and Mary in very casual night dress. There is no angel, as such, but a dazzling fire of the spirit, which makes a subtle crucifix with a shelf behind. This painting was accepted for the Salon of 1898, and became a popular reproduction in magazines.
In 1904, Vittorio Matteo Corcos completed this remarkable painting for the Convento di San Francesco in Fiesole, Italy. Mary has a very contemporary look as she stands in contemplation with her hands clasped together in prayer. Gabriel approaches from the distance, walking through the tunnel formed by trees.
From the dying embers of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, in the year in which the First World War started, John William Waterhouse painted this distinctive revision, in which Gabriel has become quite feminine in appearance.
My last and most radical version is Jacek Malczewski’s from 1923. Mary (right) is a modern young woman, whose thimble and scissors rest on a bare wooden table behind. Gabriel is in the midst of breaking the news to her, his hands held together as he speaks. The window and curtains make clear that this is twentieth century Poland, not the Holy Land two millenia ago.
Tomorrow, to mark Christmas Day, I will show paintings of contemporary celebrations by major artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.