Focusing on 15th century Italian art, this is the third in our series devoted to the iconography of the Annunciation. Artists were strongly influenced by the great cultural changes taking place all over Italy, notably the revived interest in Antiquity and the development of Humanism, with man standing firmly at the centre of the created world.
The idea that man held a central position in the universe is at the heart of the Italian Renaissance. The rediscovered culture of Antiquity as well as the concepts of Law and Philosophy were a fundamental part of the development of what is known as Renaissance Humanism. In art for example, it was the law of perspective which allowed painters to achieve perfect equilibrium in pictorial composition (In 1435 Leon Battista Alberti codified the laws of central perspective in his treatise “Della Pittura”). And it was philosophy that gave artists confidence in their own intellectual capacities as a means of interpreting and portraying reality. Neo-platonic philosophy – a system of idealistic, spiritualistic philosophy which sought to combine Christian theology with Greek thought – was to have a major influence on Renaissance art.
Founder of the Academy in Florence, Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was a key figure in the spread of Neo-Platonist thought in Renaissance Italy. His interpretation of Neo-Platonism combined the Scholastic conception of God as being outside the finite Universe, with pantheistic theories which affirmed that God and the Universe were One. In the Universe, which is distinct from, but not separate from God, there is a constant flow of energy downwards from on high and upwards from below. Thus the earthly world, while being corrupted by matter and subject to infinite passions, can at the same time share in the life and beauty of God. Neo-Platonism tries to liberate the spirit enclosed in matter, in the conviction that there is a structural analogy between macrocosm and microcosm, with the same patterns reproduced in all levels of the cosmos.
The great German theologian, Nikolaus Krebs von Kues (1401-1464) also believed that the natural world was the reflection of God. All things are in God and God is in all things. But things are intrinsically “mute”, so the essence and the sense of things should be sought in God, and not in the things themselves. Thus while on the one hand Nikolaus von Keus emphasizes the importance of Nature and human desire to admire Her works, on the other he formulates his theory of “learnèd ignorance”: all human knowledge is accompanied by an awareness of our own ignorance, because human knowledge can never be definitive. The relationship between human intellect and Truth is similar to that between a polygon and a circle: even if the angles of a polygon are multiplied ad infinitum, they will never be equal to a circle.
The artist and the world
Under the influence of Neo-Platonist philosophy, the artist aspired to the “correction” or the “liberation” of the material world (one could also say the “unveiling” of its true essence), and sought to reproduce through painting that concept of beauty and heavenly love which is the reflection of Divine splendour. Love is also a fundamental element of Ficino’s philosophy and the subject of his treatise “De Amore”. It is Love which allows God to spread his truth throughout the world and which inspires all living creatures to unite with God: like a stream flowing both ways, from God to the world and from there back to God.
Humankind can experience two forms of love, of diverse value. The first is active, human love, which finds satisfaction within the visible, material world. The second is contemplative, divine love, which rises above the particular and the visible towards the intelligible and universal. The vital importance of the visible world is thus revealed, serving as it does as a sort of trampoline from which to ascend towards the source of all divinity. And the true nature of beauty, which is the beauty of the soul, finds its reflection in earthly beauties which are perceived through the finer senses (the mind, sight and hearing). This is the true manifestation of God, the living emanation of the “splendour of divine bounty”.
As a consequence, Italian painting came to represent an extremely harmonious conception of Nature, Man and God. Man – despite his finite status – was seen as the mediator between the world and God, as the union between two opposites: light and darkness, spirit and matter. Man had to shoulder a great responsibility: that of comprehending the beauty of the created world. Through this, he could liberate his soul, allowing it to return to its divine origins.
The setting of the Annunciation
In the 15th century, the setting of the Annunciation was characterized by the idealism typical of the Renaissance. Beauty, grace, proportion and harmony were all fundamental elements. The scene was nearly always pervaded by a sense of familiarity, reflected in the relationship between the two main figures of Mary and Gabriel. There was a clear rapprochement between the divine and the human: the divine messenger was portrayed as a perfectly human being and seen in domestic surroundings.
In contrast to representations of the Annunciation in earlier centuries, the protagonists took on psychological characteristics. Instead of concentrating exclusively on the symbolism of gestures and objects, 15th century artists also portrayed sentiments and emotions. In the Virgin Mary’s case, the accent was on her purity and humility. The Virgin was equal to the task of accepting the Divine project, despite her maidenly fears and the foreknowledge of her suffering as a mother. For this reason she was often portrayed with a timorous, even troubled, air.
The representation of emotions was also influenced by developments in religious perception. For Renaissance Christians, the Virgin was not simply the object of their adoration as the mother of God. In her role as mother of all the faithful, the Virgin also played the role of a go-between, who could intercede with her son Jesus on their behalf. The actual idea of interceding was linked to the emotions: through the sentiments of affection and compassion that Mary kindled in her Son, the believer could hope to find grace in the eyes of the Saviour.
The domesticity which characterized the scene of the Annunciation could be defined as a “stately domesticity”. The positions of the main figures drew their inspiration from classical postures and the virtuosity in the artists’ use of the perspective was often breathtaking.
The background of the paintings was no longer gilded, as it had been in Byzantine art or during Cimabue and Duccio’s epoch. At that time, the gilded background indicated the sacredness of the scene, and absolute, universal faith (gold is the symbol par excellence of God’s glory: in the gilded background, which is pure light, the absence of shadow alludes to the absence of time, and in turn, the absence of time alludes to eternity). In the 15th century, the scenes of the Annunciation are set in splendid palaces, with marble floors and columns, or in high-ceilinged rooms. In these “closed” spaces, however, there are always openings of some kind (a window, a door, an archway etc) which lead the observer’s eye towards the outside.
During the Renaissance too, the paintings of the Annunciation were laden with symbolism. The colours used in Mary’s and Gabriel’s clothing were symbolic, just as they had been in the past. For example azure blue was the symbol of spirituality, contemplation and closeness to God, while red symbolized charity, sacrifice and also alluded to Christ’s future Passion. The dazzling splendour of gold represented the power, transcendence and eternal glory of God.
Certain elements of the scene were also symbolic. The lectern and the book – used in the iconography of the Annunciation since the 11th century – were clear references to the prayer and meditation which had prepared Mary for the coming of God. The lily which, from the 14th century onwards, was held in Gabriel’s hand, represented beauty, purity and grace as well as being the symbol of the virginal motherhood of Mary. The pearl, which was sometimes depicted among the jewels adorning the Virgin, was the symbol of the incarnation and the birth of Christ, following the Biblical exegesis of the Fathers of the Church.
Finally, several spatial elements also had a symbolic function. For example, the recurrence of the number three in the architectural forms (three-mullioned and trilobate windows, three-arched porticoes etc) recalled the Holy Trinity. The beauty of Nature was an allusion to Paradise, which thanks to Mary, had been restored through the incarnation of Christ. The garden, with its fruit, its flowers and its fountains, was a symbol of Mary herself. This symbolism was mainly based on the interpretation of the Song of Solomon by the Fathers of the Church, who attributed various elements to the Virgin Mary, including the enclosed garden, the sealed fountain, the lily, the rose and the many-seeded pomegranate which alluded to Mary’s purity and many virtues.