BOTTICELLI's smallest ANNUNCIATION (in the LEHMANN COLLECTION)
This painting by Botticelli in the Lehmann Collection at the Met in New York is what I consider to be
the most exquisite painting of that subject from the Renaissance in Italy. A date in the 1490's would be appropriate for it since both figures are bending over, a characteristic found in figures that appear in late Botticelli paintings. (The museum dates it 1485.)
The painting is so small (7 1/2 X 12 3/8 inches) that it is hard to think it might have been part of a predella, or the base of an altarpiece where stories of the saints are usually told. (The photo shows it in a case surrounded by larger mid-size paintings.)
The museum guesses that it was a private devotional piece. Was it perhaps for the artist himself? And certainly its size lends to its being prized, as things painted in miniature tend to be. But the remarkable thing about this painting is that, even though everything in the scene is painted in tiny dimensions, the scene itself has a certain monumentality. How does the artist convey that?
SPACE in the TWO ROOMS and BEYOND - Botticelli marks out seven horizontals on the floor of the room in which the angel lands and five horizontal lines in the wooden ceiling of that same room.
The diminishing length of those horizontals along with the use of one-point perspective (where the diagonal lines lead to one point) gives the viewer the sense that the room is very deep and long.
LARGE-SCALE MOTIFS from ARCHITECTURAL ELEMENTS - The four grey pilasters, which also appear to diminish in size the further back we look, contribute to the enormity of the space and make us think we are in a palazzo in Florence with a room with a view.
VIEW OUT THE WINDOWS - The view in the windows of the mountains at a distance also makes us think of space that is enormous since the view seems infinite.
FURTHER SPACES IMPLIED TO RIGHT AND LEFT - On the right, the Virgin's bedroom is
indicated beyond the space she occupies and we see her red bed in that room with armoires behind it.
On the left of the angel, another room is implied by the light, both real and gold leaf, that floods into the entry hall where the angel is alighting. The angel appears to have flown in through a space between two of the pilasters on the left side. The figures do not overlap with parts of the frame, but we are still given the sensation that the world extends beyond the perimeters of the frame.
WHY IS IT EXQUISITE?
While the spaces containing the figures seem large and realistic and have such lovely light we want to inhabit them, the figures themselves have a beauty particular to Botticelli's vision of the world. The angel is a perfect creature, landing with grace on the pavement while holding out the lilies to the Virgin so that the blossoms themselves stand out in the air against the grey of the wall beyond and highlight the head and wings of the angel.
The fluttering drapery at the back of the angel's mantle and the finely wrought wings that look like delicate lace both add to the beauty of the moment. The angel's gestures, head down, knees bent, right hand holding up his white tunic slightly in order to appear more courtly are all designed to seduce both the Virgin and the viewer.
The Virgin's face is not the best Botticelli has produced, but her gesture, too, of REFLECTION, with one hand on her chest and one holding her mantle in imitation of the angel, is beautifully rendered so that we feel her submission even before she has given it.
She is enclosed by the grey walls of the room, but she is also enclosed by miles of white tulle and see-through voile used for the curtains, for the lectern cover, and hanging gracefully from the top of the high-bench behind her.
COLOR HARMONY: the greys and whites are balanced within the scene, and Botticelli utilizes a raspberry color to pick out the undergarments of the angel and the Madonna as well as the cushion on her bench.
story. The reds make a harmonic impression with the whites and greys, similar to the way reds function in Melozzo da Forli's frescoes or Piero della Francesca's.
LIGHT SOURCE - There is a unifying natural light source that falls from left to right on the pilasters and curtains, but there is a supernatural light source which emanates from the corridor behind the angel where the gold leaf lines of the holy spirit spread out.
CLARITY OF DRAMA - Two main rooms, two spaces, two figures - each figure is contained within its own space and we feel the air in both rooms. The angel alights in one moment and the Virgin replies with thinking in the other moment. Through these two tiny figures and their gestures, the artist conveys the whole drama and its import.
PERFECT MATH AND STILL LIFE - The way the artist has handled the diminution of the space speaks of an underlying mathematical perfection, as do the shapes of the vases and boxes set on the top of the bench of the Virgin.
MOVEMENT - But because of Botticelli's understanding of motion and how to convey it through paint, the figures seem alive and moving, not stiff and ill-conceived. They are invested with life by the painter so that they seem to breathe in the rooms they inhabit.
How close to an image of the holy SPIRIT is that air and breath? The mystery we witness as
viewers, in the hands of Botticelli, is given the extra dimension of GRACE IN MOTION, tangible and ephemeral in the same moment.
That the painter understood how to transform paint into grace is his own holy spirit.