Monday, December 16, 2013



Originally intended as one of the altarpieces for Siena Cathedral's major chapels, Simone Martini's
glorious painting of the Annunciation of 1333 (now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence), is one of
the first altarpieces to show a narrative rather than an iconic figure in the center panel.
While the side panels have standing Sienese saints Ansanus and Iulitta, perhaps by Lippo Memmi,
the central scene by Simone Martini is the story of the ANNUNCIATION, the announcement to the Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel that she will be impregnated by God and bear Christ, his son. In Martini's hands the story is an intimate courtly exchange between angel and saint. The entire back wall is gold leaf and Mary sits in a throne inlaid with floral decorations. She leans up against beautiful gold brocade cloth and wears lapis lazuli robe with red underlining, royal garments. Her halo looks more like a crown than a halo with its embossed gold leaf stamps.

Gabriel is also dressed in the best Scottish plaid cloak that flies out behind him to imply that he has newly arrived from far away as he kneels in front of her. His wings are still up, another suggestion that the story is at the beginning.
           The Annunciation is told in Luke 1: 28-38 but our scene is only 28-29:
"And the angel came in unto her and said, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women./ And when she saw him she was troubled at his saying..."
           The angel flies in from the left and we read the visual description as we might a text, from left to right. He holds in his hand an olive branch as if to appease her fear before she feels it.

Between Gabriel and Mary on the swirling marble floor sits a vase with lilies, flowers sacred to Mary and signs of purity and fecundity at the same time, appropriate for a story about the beginning of a pregnancy.  Several of the lilies are still in bud to present the initial stages of life.

Mary herself is in the fear stage of the text. She looks cross, tucks her cloak around her with her right hand, and closes the book she was reading with her left, all enclosures to protect her from the
angel's entrance. The outline of her blue robe is drawn as a diagonal away from the angel so that we sense her great retreat from the moment.
Gabriel points above their heads to a dove of the holy spirit encircled with red seraphim and directed at Mary by the hands of God at the very top.
The main stage event is the tension between Gabriel and the Virgin. But the main protagonist is the line of words from the play.
           Between them and physically raised in gesso and gold leaf from the mouth of Gabriel to the Virgin's ear are the actual words that he says to her, "Ave, Grazia plena, Dominus tecum",
"Hail, (Lady) full of grace, the Lord is with thee."
It was said in later commentaries on the Life of the Virgin that the Virgin became pregnant when the words reached her ear, and Martini has made sure the viewer sees the ascent of the words across the altarpiece to her right ear.  The story is about the Incarnation, the word of God being made flesh, and here the words themselves have a flesh, a physical presence, as they rise above the flat gold leaf of the background and rise up from left to right towards her right ear. They are painted in the center of the central panel and are the narrative and the illustration at the same time. A more realistic depiction of the Incarnation would be hard to imagine. Angel Gabriel's mouth is open and Martini shows us his teeth!
He points upward because he is just the messenger, but his breath is the breath of God in Latin, the language of the Church.
        Mary's reception could not be cooler; her eyes slant downwards and her mouth is closed. Martini's Virgin reflects the fear that all women have, and especially 14th-century women, about dying in childbirth, but perhaps he understands her reluctance to take on the pain of living to see her son die on the Cross.
Her regal bearing is elegant but her face is that of an ice queen. The altarpiece was placed in the chapel dedicated to the Incarnation. She has a role to play, but her sense of impending doom is displayed twice in her fingers. Her right fingers grip the robe to keep her body from being penetrated with goodly intent. Her left hand hastily closes the book as if she could keep the narrative from proceeding. The painting is about the beginning of Christ's life, but everything about it speaks about the end.

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