26 March 2012

Poems for Lent (31): ‘Annunciation,’ by John Donne

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery, London

Patrick Comerford

John Donne (1572-1631).

Yesterday [25 March 2012] would normally have been the Feast of the Annunciation in the Church Calendar. But, because this was a Sunday in Lent, the festival has been carried over to today.

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the 12 Great Feasts of the Church. As the action initiating Christ’s Incarnation, this day is so important in Eastern theology that the only time the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated on Good Friday, or “Great and Holy Friday”, is if it falls on 25 March.

But we often miss out on the significance of this day for a number of reasons:

● It always falls in Lent.
● There is a cultural antipathy within most parts of the Church of Ireland (though not throughout the Anglican Communion) to marking calendar dates associated with the Virgin Mary.
● many of us find it difficult to take on board the plaster statue image of Mary, in demure robes of white and blue, which run contrary to the strong Mary celebrated at Evensong in the canticle Magnificat, the strong Mary who stands by the Cross when most of the disciples have run away, the strong Mary of the Pieta.

We are all used to these images of Mary that lack challenge and message, images that have been inherited through Mediaeval and Renaissance art. But one of the most challenging presentations in art of the Annunciation is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), now in the Tate Gallery in London.

The poet, painter, and designer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelites, the group of Victorian artists who wanted to emulate the richness and purity of the mediaeval period. The son of an exiled Italian patriot and scholar, he was a brother of the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1893), author of one of the greatest Christmas carols, In the bleak mid-winter.

This painting is one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and when it was first exhibited in 1850 it shocked and stirred controversy.

In this painting, Rossetti offers a radical reinterpretation of the Annunciation, rejecting the traditional representation of the Virgin Mary passively receiving the news. Instead, he seeks to give the picture a supernatural realism.

While the angel is announcing to the Virgin Mary that she is to give birth to the Christ Child, she appears to be recoiling, as if disturbed from sleep.

Although Rossetti relies on earlier traditions for many of the symbols he uses in this scene, his use of these symbols, his depiction of space, and most significantly his portrayal of the two figures represent significant departures from earlier tradition.

This painting is unusual in that the artist shows Mary in a state of fear – see how she cowers against the wall and casts her eyes down. This is a far cry from many depictions of the Annunciation where Mary is shown in a state of humble acceptance.

White is the dominant colour in the painting, relieved only by small areas of blue, red and yellow. This emphasises the quality of the Virgin Mary’s purity, and is reinforced by the lily embroidery – the same one the Virgin Mary is shown making in Rossetti’s painting of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, also on display in the Tate.

Early great paintings of this scene usually depict lilies, the symbol of the Mary’s purity, in a vase nearby the scene as the angel addresses the Virgin. Although Rossetti also uses lilies, he integrates them into both the action and the environment of the scene.

Notice how Gabriel holds out a stem with lilies, offering them to Mary and seemingly presenting her with an embodiment of the chastity and purity she is fated to continue throughout her life. An embroidery hangs at the end of the bed, which Mary is also working on in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. This plays a contextual role – this is a young girl’s bedroom, so we might expect to find her needlework in this space – as well as perhaps representing her active choice to live purely since she has chosen to embroider a lily.

Mary is not dressed in her traditional blue; instead she wears a simple white dress. Yet, Rossetti does not ignore the importance of blue as the colour associated with the Virgin Mary and heaven: he places a blue screen directly behind her, and looking through the window, the sky is a similar shade of blue, alluding to heaven.

Most Annunciation scenes have candles that have just blown at the entrance of the Holy Spirit. Instead, Rossetti paints a wall sconce with a hint of a flame – a different presentation of a usual symbol. He includes a dove, embodying the Holy Spirit, although in this case he has not drastically transformed a traditional symbol.

Rossetti’s imagined space shows great innovation. Compared to the traditional interiors, rich with elaborate floor tiles, stained glass, wooden furniture, rugs, pillows, and similar details, the Virgin’s bedroom in Rossetti’s painting is shockingly simple. White stone tiles cover the floor; the walls have white paint; the window has no panes; and the only object in the room that I have not mentioned already is a simple, low wooden bed with a white mat and pillow.

In traditional paintings, the room draws the viewer in and the eye is allowed to move through the scene to the back wall of the bedroom. But Rossetti places Mary in a room that is almost claustrophobically small. The use of perspective is unconvincing: Mary’s bed appears about to slide out of the painting and the floor on the left of the painting blends into the wall, furthering the effect of a steep plane.

For the view out the window at the back, Rossetti might have given the scene depth by allowing us to see a scene in the distance. Instead, he shows only blue sky and part of a tree.

Look too at the angel. Rather than a winged, long-haired boyish angel, Rossetti paints an androgynous Gabriel, without wings, his face only visible in highly shadowed profile, with the hints of yellow flames around his feet.

Mary sits on her bed and slouches against the wall. She is markedly adolescent with her beautiful young features, unbrushed straight hair, childishly skinny body, and the hesitance, fear and melancholy with which she responds to the Angel Gabriel’s news. Wisps of her messy, auburn hair spread around her neck, silhouetted against her white dress, reminiscent of a bloodshot eye or perhaps intentionally of Christ’s crown of thorns.

Rossetti has no use for the stiff, exaggerated poses of primitive Virgins. He seems most concerned with the sincere response of a young girl who has been given a burden that is both wonderful and laden with responsibility. And in this task, Rossetti thoroughly succeeds.

Mary is keenly aware of her position, and it is this self-awareness and terror that endows the painting with its power. This painting inspires the viewer to religious contemplation and prayer. But it also speaks strongly to universal issues of growth, responsibility and youthful vulnerability.

The traditional Troparion or Hymn of the Day for this day in Orthodox Church includes these words:

Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
“Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!”

The Annunciation ... a fresco in a Greek Orthodox church in Hersonnisos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Traditional icons of “The Annunciation of the Theotokos” draw on the Biblical account, but are embellished or enriched by the Protoevangelion of James, an apocryphal text that was the source of imagery for Mary for both the East and the West into the Middle Ages, although it is largely unknown in the West today.

This text, written ca 150 CE, was one of the early arguments for the perpetual virginity of Mary. It draws on sources in both Matthew and Luke, but expands on them considerably, adding several other stories that became part of later pious, popular literature.

In the story, Mary leaves the Temple in Jerusalem at the age of 12, after an angel instructs the High Priest to gather together the widowers of Judea, and Joseph is “chosen by lot to take the virgin of the Lord into [his] care and protection.” Joseph initially objects, however: “I already have sons and I’m an old man.” But he is persuaded that it is his duty to take her.

After she moves into his home, the council of priests decides a new veil must be made for the Temple by “the uncontaminated virgins from the tribe [i.e., house] of David.” The high priest Samuel instructs the chosen maidens to “cast lots” to decide who should spin which threads for the veil, and in particular who is to spin “the true purple.” The purple and the scarlet skeins fell by lot to Mary. She takes her threads home and is spinning them when she is visited by the Angel Gabriel.

In the Protoevangelion of James, there is first a “pre-annunciation” scene, when Mary goes to the well to fetch water and hears a voice saying: “Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.” Mary looks around, but does not see anyone. Frightened, she goes back inside and “taking up the purple, she sat down in her house and began to spin.”

The angel then appears visually to her, telling her initially not to be afraid: “You have found favour in the sight of the Lord of all.”

The annunciation story then continues along the same narrative outline found in Matthew and Luke until the author returns to the story of Mary’s role in weaving the Temple veil: “And she finished the purple and the scarlet and took them up to the high priest.” Accepting the work from her, he congratulates her saying: “God has extolled your name.” He then prophesies that she will be remembered “by all the generations of earth.”

In the Eastern Church, the principle features of the Annunciation icon include the Virgin with a skein of red or purple wool in her hand; the Angel Gabriel, with his left hand holding a staff, symbolising his role as messenger; and a circle of light (usually a half-circle) at the top of the icon with rays of light streaming down onto Mary.

The Angel Gabriel’s right hand is extended in the traditional Greek iconographic blessing, forming the Greek letters for the name of Jesus Christ. Sometimes the light conceals or reveals the figure of a dove. The equilibrium of these three figures forms a triangle. with the Virgin as its apogee and the angel and dove as opposite points that converge on her.

A Trinitarian theme is reinforced by three rays of light proceeding from the dove or from the half-circle.

This Annunciation scene appears on the “royal doors” of the iconostasis of almost every Orthodox church.

Mary is pictured either standing or sitting, with purple or red skeins falling from her fingers. The threads Mary is holding reveal that she wove the Temple veil that later was rent from top to bottom when Christ died on the cross. Her acceptance of God’s will in this and in all things is represented by her upraised and open hand, or in some cases, by placing her hand upon her heart.

Saint Andrew of Crete, in his Great Canon, sang to her: “As from purple silk, O undefiled Virgin, the spiritual robe of Emmanuel, His flesh, was woven in thy womb. Therefore, we honour thee as Theotokos in very truth.” Using the same imagery, Saint John of Damascus explains that, having entered the world by means of the Virgin, the King of glory “is clothed with the purple of his flesh.”

Archbishop Rowan Williams, in his book Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, gives a reflection on this apocryphal story that is rich in meaning. Mary, who spins the “sanctuary veil … the sign of the unbridgeable gulf between sinful humanity and the holy God,” is also preparing herself to become the sanctuary. “From the sanctuary of heaven, from the terrifying emptiness between the cherubim on the ark, God enters another sanctuary, the holy place of a human body.”

Instead of attempting to say anything profound about this great Mystery, the Conception of Our Lord, I have selected as my Poem for Lent this morning the second of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” – ‘Annunciation.’

Donne’s ‘La Corona’ sonnets are inspired by liturgical prayer and praise rather than private meditation or the tradition of mental prayer. They echo the language of the collects and office hymns that expound the catholic doctrines of the Christian faith, recalling the events marking these doctrines are derived, but not attempting to picture them in detail. Instead of the scene of the maiden alone in her room at Nazareth, there is a theological paradox: “Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother.”

Annunciation, by John Donne

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

Collect of the Day:

Pour your grace into our hearts, Lord,
that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God Most High,
whose handmaid bore the Word made flesh:
We thank you that in this sacrament of our redemption
you visit us with your Holy Spirit
and overshadow us by your power.
May we like Mary be joyful in our obedience,
and so bring forth the fruits of holiness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God, mighty God,
you are the creator of the world.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.

Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary,
you are the Prince of Peace.
Christ have mercy.
Christ have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
by your power the Word was made flesh
and came to dwell among us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Unto us a child is born, unto us is given:
and his name is called the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 7)


You chose the Blessed Virgin Mary
to be the mother of your Son
and so exalted humble and meek;
your angel hailed her as most highly favoured,
and with all generations we call her blessed.


Christ the Son of God, born of Mary,
fill you with his grace
to trust his promises and obey his will:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.,br />

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