the two most exquisite ANNUNCIATIONS
So many Annunciation scenes were painted in the 15th century in Italy it might be difficult to single out any one as the most beautiful. But of all the Annunciations carried out by Italian Renaissance artists, two are conceived and produced in such a way that they could be chosen as the most exquisite renderings of that subject. This blog will be about the sculpted one, the next blog about the painted one.
ANDREA DELLA ROBBIA - Andrea della Robbia produces a blue and white and green-glazed terracotta bas-relief in a lunette shape for a chapel in the church of the Hospital of the Innocents, Santa Maria degli Innocenti. When the church is reorganized in the nineteenth century, the Della Robbia lunette is brought
into the courtyard of Brunelleschi's Hospital of the Innocents and placed within one of the lunette arches at the end of the covered walkway of the Cloister of the Boys. In the plan below, B is the Cloister of the Boys and L is the facade arcade visible in the exterior view. The lunette is placed in the lefthand corner of the darkened arcade of B, near the juncture with A. To see it, enter between the two D's and turn left.
The lunette is just visible in the view below in the far corner above a doorway in the Cloister of the Boys. The entrance doorway is in the middle.
Scholars disagree about the dating of this scene of the Annunciation, some placing it in the 1470's and indebted to Leonardo's Annunciation (previous blog), some arguing for a date of 1493 and a commission of Francesco del Pugliese. I tend to side with the earlier dating, in the 1470's, when Andrea della Robbia is starting out in the workshop of his uncle, Luca della Robbia.
WHAT qualities make this ANNUNCIATION EXQUISITE?
1)BALANCE of COMPOSITION
Angel Gabriel and the Virgin face each other as they kneel with their heads at the same height. They present a nearly symmetrical arrangement of two figures whose backs (in one case wings) curve in imitation of the curve of the lunette.
In the center sits an urn filled with lilies:
The symmetry is broken up by the arrival in DEUS EX-MACHINA of DEUS (God) (accompanied by angels) who puts his hands out to release the dove of the HOLY SPIRIT in flight towards Mary.
Even this group is balanced in a triangular arrangement with the lilies held by the Angel and the lectern supporting the Bible read by the Virgin.
Framing the whole are winged cherubs (appropriate for the setting) with sweet innocent faces.
2) GRACEFUL MOVEMENTS AND TOUCHES:
Andrea's handling of heads and hands give us a sense of gentle, courtly movement. The smooth skin on the faces of the angels and of Gabriel and Mary contribute to a feeling of calm. Gabriel's hands address the Virgin in restrained fashion, as do God's hands above.
The Virgin's hands respond with one hand on her book and one on her chest, placed as if accepting a dance. All the gestures are gracefully rendered to tell the story.
EVEN THE DOVE of the holy spirit flies gracefully in with a MINIATURE HALO that matches his size!
3) CLARITY OF DRAMA and COLOR
The story told follows the text in the BOOK OF LUKE:
The eyes of Gabriel and parted lips indicate that he is speaking to Mary:
GABRIEL: "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, blessed art thou among women."
Mary replies without speaking, in the REFLECTION STAGE OF THE ANNUNCIATION, with eyes cast downward and with hand on book. Her gestures mirror the text of her thinking:
MARY "cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be."
The white drapery of all the figures set against the blue of the sky emphasizes the main characters in the drama and makes their gestures clear. Andrea has tried to give some clouds to the sky behind to make this mystical event more naturalistic, and he adds green for the stems of the flowers for the same reason.
It is in the sweetness of the Angel's face and the sweetness of the Virgin's that Andrea conveys with exquisite artistry the magic of this moment.
How reassuringly harmonic these graceful, young figures must have seemed to the youths without parents in the Hospital of the Innocents! In Andrea's hands God's plan is a beautiful drama being played out. Anything is possible in a realm where God may fly in at any moment to touch your life.