Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini!’ (1850), now in the Tate Gallery, London
Later this morning [25 March 2014], I am presiding at the Eucharist to celebrate The Annunciation of Our Lord. The readings are: Isaiah 7: 10-14; Psalm 40: 5-10; Hebrews 10: 4-10; and Luke 1: 26-38.
This is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church as the action initiating Christ’s Incarnation, but we often miss out on the significance of this day because it always falls in Lent; because of residual antipathy within most parts of the Church of Ireland to marking calendar dates associated with the Virgin Mary, and because theologically many of us find it difficult to take on board some of the traditional images of a demure Mary that run contrary to the strong Mary celebrated in the canticle Magnificat, the strong Mary at the foot of the Cross, the strong Mary of the Pieta.
One of the most challenging presentations in art of the Annunciation that I know is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting, ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini!’ (1850), now in the Tate Gallery in London. I have chosen this as my work of Art for Lent this morning.
The poet, painter, and designer Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the group 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 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 the Virgin 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 the Virgin 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 in the Tate.
Early great paintings of this scene usually depict lilies, the symbol of the Virgin 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 the Archangel 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 out as a result of 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 Mary’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 the Virgin Mary in a room that is almost claustrophobically small. The use of perspective is unconvincing: her 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 Virgin Marys. 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.
The Virgin 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!”
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. Amen.
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.
Tomorrow: ‘The Icon not made by Hands’ or ‘Image of Edessa’