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The Hands of Mary: States of Mind in the Annunciate

The Hands of Mary: States of Mind in the Annunciate

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Published by Pino Blasone
In many paintings the hands of the Virgin - particularly of the so called "Virgin Annunciate" - are not a mere descriptive detail, but the rendering of a gesture language, referred to emotional moods or states of mind. Almost a mimic dance, whose sense transcends its meaning itself.
In many paintings the hands of the Virgin - particularly of the so called "Virgin Annunciate" - are not a mere descriptive detail, but the rendering of a gesture language, referred to emotional moods or states of mind. Almost a mimic dance, whose sense transcends its meaning itself.

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Published by: Pino Blasone on May 09, 2008
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09/04/2011

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Pino Blasone 
The Hands of MaryStates of Mind in the Virgin Annunciate
 Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Montesiepi:
 Annunciation
, sinopia 
 Humiliatio
 
 Aber wunderbar sind dir/ die Hände benedeit./ So reifen sie bei keiner Frau,/ so schimmernd aus dem Saum
: “And yet your hands most wonderfully/ reveal his benison./From woman’s sleeves none ever grew/ so ripe, so shimmeringly”; these are some wordsdirected to Mary by the archangel Gabriel, in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, issued in 1902and titled
Verkündigung: Die Worte des Engels
(“Annunciation: Words of the Angel”).[1]Of course, they are fruit of a literary imagination. There is no literal trace of them inthe Scripture, peculiarly in Luke’s Gospel where the Annunciation is narrated. Nevertheless,the German poet could well be impressed by so many paintings, where the hands of theVirgin are depicted. Such a representation is not only a descriptive detail. Not seldom, it isthe figurative rendering of a gesture language, referred to emotional moods or states of mind. Almost a mimic dance, whose sense transcends its explainable meaning itself.As to those states of mind, they were analysed and codified already in the late MiddleAges, mostly as an interpretation and comment on Luke’s Gospel (1: 26-38). Pertinentexamples are
 De laudibus Virginis matris
by Bernard of Clairvaux, in the 12
th
century; the
 
Meditationes vitae Christi
by Giovanni de Cauli or John of Caulibus (Pseudo-Bonaventura;13
th
century); the
Sermones de Annuciatione
 by Fra Roberto Caracciolo of Lecce (15
th
century). De Cauli and Caracciolo explicitly allude to their visual representation. That was atime, when one language let the intellectuals communicate in large part of Europe. But artwas a far more popular one, all the more in the great majority of illiterate people. Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Montesiepi:
 Annunciation
, detail In the latest Latin work, we can even find a list of stages crossed by Mary’s soulduring the event of the Annunciation:
conturbatio
(initial surprise and trouble),
cogitatio
(reflection, subsequent to the disconcerting announcement),
interrogatio
(inquiry,concerning the words of the angel),
humiliatio
(humble acceptance and faithful submissionto God’s will),
meritatio
(intimate joy, thanks to the miraculous conception of Jesus).Indeed, especially St. Bernard regards the
humiliatio
as a free choice by the “full of grace”. No doubt, those concepts had an ascendancy on the artists. Yet sometimes theyvisually anticipated, even exceeded their verbal formulation, in accordance with the truespirit of art. Let us consider the case of an
 Annunciation
by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in theOratory of St. Galgano at Montesiepi, not far from Siena in central Italy. Dating back to thefirst half of the 14
th
century and very deteriorated, the fresco was detached during arestoration in 1966. Under that, a sinopia was discovered, quite different from the final picture. This preparatory drawing is a typical scene of 
conturbatio
. The Virgin looks so perturbed by the apparition of the angel, that, instinctively, her arms clasp a near column.Evidently, later the painter or his clients had a rethinking about. In the finisheddepiction, Mary’s hands are folded on her breast, to signify a full assent to her exceptionallot. What may be included into a typology of the so defined
humiliatio
, about a century before the classification by Caracciolo. More surprising is the resemblance betweenMontesiepi’s sinopia and a Virgin’s figure study, for a stained glass window in St. Martin’s-
2
 
on-the-Hill Church (Scarborough, England, circa 1862; now in the Tate Collection atLondon). Sure, the author Edward C. Burne-Jones could not know that Lorenzetti’s precedent. Once again though, the resulting
 Annunciation
is unlike its preparatory drawing. E. C. Burne-Jones, London: study for an
 Annunciation
, detail 
Conturbatio
 If we wish to detect some possible reason for the changing representation in the work of Lorenzetti, we might rather read the
Meditationes
by John of Caulibus, which had a widecirculation then:
 Non fuit turbata turbatione culpabili, nec de visione Angeli. […] Turbata fuit in sermone eius, cogitans de novitate talis salutationis. […] Commendabatur enim quod esset gratia plena, et quod Dominus erat secum, et quod erat benedicta super omnesmulieres: at humilis non potest sui commendationem sine rubore et turbatione audire
(“Shewas perturbed for no culpable motive, nor by the vision of the angel but by his words, sincethoughtful about the novelty of his salutation. […] In fact, he had praised her thrice: as fullof grace, telling that God was with her, and that she was blessed above all women. Indeed,no humble person might listen to be exalted likewise, without perturbation and blush”).[2]Probably, Lorenzetti’s patrons or counsellors valued a humble image of the Madonnaas a model more proper and edifying than a disquieting one. Such an iconography will beadopted in most further 
 Annunciations
, so that Mary’s arms or hands crossed on her breastwill become almost a standard in this figurative genre. What does not mean the examples of 
conturbatio
are few, in the history of art. In the
Cestello Annunciation
by Sandro Botticelli,Mary’s hands are hold out in a defensive attitude (Florence: Uffizi Gallery; ca. 1489).
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