Sunday, December 14, 2014

Missing the Magnificat Point

In the gospel reading for Advent 4B, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she has found favor with God. Mary's response to this visit is the song known as the Magnificat (because in Latin the first word of the song is "magnificat"). Mary sings about the world turned upside down by the Messiah: the proud are put down, the humble are exalted, the hungry are filled, the rich are sent away empty. The world is changed. But it may be that Italian artists of the proto-Renaissance and early Renaissance didn't quite get the point of the Messiah.

When you see paintings of the annunciation at its simplest, you'll see Mary and Gabriel. In all of the images below, Gabriel is on the left with Mary on the right. The earliest of these five is the altarpiece by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (1333). Martini is a prominent figure of the Siena school. Notice that Mary shrinks back slightly from Gabriel who kneels before her. Between the two figures are two pieces of vegetation. A vase of lilies, symbol of Mary's purity, sits on the floor. Gabriel holds an olive branch in his hand. The olive symbolizes peace, with which Gabriel greets Mary.
Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi. Annunciation with Two Saints, 1333. Originally for chapel of Sant'Ansano, Cathedral, Siena. Now in Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Roughly a hundred years later, Bicci de Lorenzo (born and died in Florence) paints a similar arrangement. Gabriel stands this time, but there is no vase of lilies. Instead he holds a stem of lilies in his hand.
Bicci di Lorenzo. The Annunciation. 1433. For altarpiece of Madonna and Child with Saints for Compagni Chapel, Santa Trinita, Florence. Private collection. 

A little more than ten years after Bicci, Giovanni di Paolo (working primarily in Siena) keeps the same composition. Between the figures, a vase of lilies. In Gabriel's hand, olive branch.
Giovanni di Paolo. Annunciation. 1445. Pinacoteca, Vatican, Room II, Inv. 40131.

Five years or so after that, Filippo Lippi paints the Annunciation. Between the figures, a vase of lilies. In Gabriel's hand, a stem of lilies. Can you guess Lippi's hometown?
Filippo Lippi. The Annunciation. 1450-1453. National Gallery, London.

Fast forward another two decades or so to Francesco di Giorgio who paints the annunciation. Same compositional arrangement - Mary at right, Gabriel at left. In Gabriel's hand? Olive. Look under the photo to see where this Annunciation lives. 
Francesco di Giorgio Martini. The Annunciation. 1470-1472. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena. 
For museum:
Are you getting a sense that something is going on here? Something is. The lily is a civic emblem of the (then) city-state of Florence. Florentine artists were no doubt pleased to have their emblem in the hand of God's messenger come to earth to announce the salvation of humanity. The artists of rival city-state Siena were less than pleased - were in fact determined not to have the emblem of their enemy in the hand of God's messenger. Hence, the olive branch in Sienese Annunciations. It's more than a little ironic - celebrating the coming of the Messiah who will turn the world upside down, but being certain that God has nothing to do with people who aren't "us."

Who are these women? And what do they have to do with the Magnificat? Click on  the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page and see who they are. 

For thoughts on the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 3B (2 Samuel 7) click here.

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