Monday, December 8, 2014

Pondering the Angelus

Today's Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception invites us to contemplate the Angelus in the great arc of salvation history. The Archangel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth to announce that God was about to fulfill the promise he had made in the Garden of Eden: "I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, between your offspring and hers..." Gabriel's words reveal that Mary is the new Eve; Paul will call her son the "second Adam," the first member of a renewed humanity.

This remarkable depiction of the Annunciation reminds us of the whole sad story of Adam and Eve; we see the Angel pushing them, naked, out of the garden, a garden that becomes a time machine, since Mary's open house is set right amidst the grass and flowers and scampering rabbits, a reminder that Mary, conceived without sin and clothed in grace, is the new Garden of Paradise. In the upper left corner, God the Father, surrounded by glory, seems to be both repeating his promise for our first parents to hear while at the same time sending the Holy Spirit upon Mary. (Rare is the Renaissance Annunciation that does not feature God the Father in some way, keeping a strong Trinitarian faith before our eyes.)

Praying in the spirit of today's feast of the sinless Virgin, we can consider Mary's response to the Angelic message not only an immediate reply to the mission held out to her, but her response to God the Father for having readied her from the first instant of her life for this mission. "Be it done to me!"

Giovanni di Paolo, The Annunciation and the Expulsion from Paradise
Samuel H Kress Collection,  National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art website includes this commentary:
Giovanni di Paolo's Annunciation is believed to be one of five predella panels that belonged to the lower portion of a large, as yet unidentified, Sienese altarpiece. The central area of the panel shows the most important part of the painted narrative -- the Archangel Gabriel announcing the impending birth of the Christ Child to the Virgin Mary. Outside her elegant Italian Gothic house, a lush garden reflects the spring season of the Annunciation. The fertile landscape also provides an appropriate setting for the secondary representation at the left -- Adam and Eve's dramatic expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Giovanni used the figure of God the Father, who occupies the celestial realm in the upper left corner, to link the Expulsion to the Annunciation. God both points out the exiled couple's disgrace and looks ahead toward the Annunciation in anticipation of divine redemption. Finally, at the right, Joseph warms his hands at a fireplace, symbolic of Jesus' future birth in the winter.

Disregarding naturalistic detail in favor of flat, decorative pattern, Giovanni was nevertheless aware of current Renaissance experiments in linear perspective, as exemplified by the receding floor tiles in both the central loggia and Joseph's cubicle. The artist's decision, however, not to follow realistic spatial and scale relationships completely, and his use of willowy, elegantly dressed figures, place him firmly within the medieval pictorial tradition, now reappearing as the International Style.
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