Pino Blasone

Hail Mary Nazarene and Pre-Raphaelite Annunciations

Johann von Schraudolph, Die Verkündigung Mariae Annunciation and Visitation of the Other German Nazarenes in the first, English Pre-Raphaelites in the second half of the 19 th century, were respectively a Romantic and a Decadent way to revisit medieval and Renaissance art. Both groups of artists – some of them, men of letters too – were associated like confraternities more than as artistic schools or cultural movements. No doubt, the

Nazarenes had an influence on the Pre-Raphaelites. Yet there are also differences between them. Although opposing academic Neoclassicism, the “Brotherhood of St. Luke” appreciated Raphael’s painting better than what the so called Pre-Raphaelites will do. More religiously oriented, as their acquired name shows, and politically conservative, they did not lack some nostalgic and utopian spirit at once. In their youth they migrated to Italy, attracted by art history local vestiges and by its natural landscapes, as well as by a Catholic milieu. Among them Franz Pforr, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld and Johann von Schraudolph, are to be mentioned peculiarly in this context. The Annunciation was an inevitable appointment, in their pictorial production of holy subjects. Most Nazarene Annunciations share an architectonic figurative pattern made of arches, in background or in foreground or else in both of them, circumscribing the scene, the characters, the landscape, like in a theatre scene painting. Surely this scansion of the space has its Renaissance inspiring models. But it looks also reflecting an idealistic influence, so that the open architectural frame works as a distinction between an intimate “Ego” and a natural “Not-Ego”. The sacred scene is like an interface between these levels of the Self.


Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Die Verkündigung That may be particularly true, as to few Annunciations painted or etched by Von Schraudolph and Von Carolsfeld, where the so framed ground is a country landscape. Instead the background of an Annunciation (and Visitation; Basel, Kunstmuseum; 1814) drawn by Overbeck is the view of a village garden, with a biblical symbolic value. Anyway, usually we do not attend a wild nature, rather a humanized and idyllic one. As in the setting as in the attitude of the characters – mainly the archangel Gabriel and the Virgin annunciate –, or between the former and the latter, we cannot perceive any apparent dramatic tension. What is not so evident in Sulamith und Maria, indeed (Schweinfurt, Germany: Georg Schäfer Museum). This diptych was painted in 1811 by Pforr. On the left wing we can contemplate the Shulamite, a female Old Testament character. Her vitality contrasts with some melancholy of Mary, portrayed on the right. Sitting in her chamber before a window, she reads the Bible and plaits her hair with her hands. Most likely, there the announcing angel is still to come. That is part of a series of pictures worked on by Pforr and by Overbeck, where annunciation and visitation are complementary moments, in one explicit or implicit symbolic way. So, a sense of expectance mitigates the loneliness of the maiden. Such a pensive Madonna seems to be a fair image of the modern soul. Besides, it denotes an attention to contemporary German philosophy, by Nazarene leading members at least.


Franz Pforr, Sulamith und Maria, detail If the Shulamite is an exegetical prefiguration of Mary in the Song of Songs, the Visitation is an episode next to the Annunciation, and referring to Mary and Elisabeth in Luke’s Gospel. The latter meaning looks wider in a Nazarene view. It may concern the visit by the angel to the Virgin too, as an immersion of the divine into the human. It regards some revisiting the past and a future perspective, after the transition from the Old to the New Testament. Last but not least, generally it implies a meeting with the Other, especially when this one bears a different culture. In western Europe’s history, it might represent a reconciliation between Protestant and Catholic traditions. No wonder, Overbeck depicted Elisabeth and Mary as Italy and Germany allegories, probably influenced by Novalis’ essay Christendom or Europe and by his “religion of love”. According to it, Johann G. Fichte’s philosophic “Ego” and “Not-Ego” are more Christianly substituted with “I” and “Thou”. If someone wants to recall the cultural clime, which made possible a kind of renewed Marian worship, actually nothing better than reading some quotations from Novalis’ writings: “Madonna: each people or time has its favourite female character. […] The fine

secret of the virgin, making her so ineffably charming, is a presentiment of motherhood, the presage of a latent world which should develop from her. She is the most proper likeness of the future” (Fragments 729-34). The Romantic feeling of modernity, by the German poet, evolves breaking away from the Enlightened one. The figure of the Virgin becomes an icon of a possible alternative development, to which the meeting or reconciliation between religion and philosophy, nature and art, might highly contribute. In his Hymns to the Night issued in 1800, he expressly refers to so many artists trying to sound Mary’s mysteries, in the history of art: “A thousand hands, devoutly tender,/ Have sought thy beauty to express,/ But none, oh Mary, none can render,/ As my soul sees, thy loveliness”.[1]

Dante G. Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini Nostalgic and Literary Annunciations


Dante Gabriel Rossetti was son of an Italian patriot exile in England. Even more than liberal patriotism, he inherited love to Italian art. With other English artists, in 1849 he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In theory at least, their Medievalism was so strict, as to exclude Raphael from their historical pictorial inspiring models. Nevertheless, the critic John Ruskin gave them an orientation to a modern symbolism and aestheticism. In such a group, there was room for William Morris’ social nostalgic utopianism. And Dante Gabriel was a poet too. In his sonnet firstly titled Ancilla Domini, later For An Annunciation, Mary’s figure works as a hinge between an old and a new era: “She was Faith’s present, parting what had been/ From what began with her, and is for aye./ On either hand God’s twofold system lay:/ With meek bowed face a Virgin prayed between”. The poem was written in 1849. In the handwritten original, its subtitle is “for an early Florentine picture”. In the printed version the full title sounds For An Annunciation, Early German. What is a clue of various influences on the artist, when he went to paint his Ecce Ancilla Domini (London: Tate Gallery; 1850). In the famous picture, the perception of the Annunciate is changing, from a state of humble acceptance prevalent in the past to one almost of fear at present, in front of the announcing angel: from an attitude of humiliatio to one of conturbatio, to use late medieval definitions. Crouched on her bed within her chamber, the girl cowers against a wall, casting down her eyes. She is staring into a vacuum, like into a prevision of what Gabriel does not dare to tell, that some day her “joyful mystery” will convert into a sorrowful one. “Since first her task began/ She hath known all”, we can read in For a “Virgin & Child” by Michael Angelo, another Rossetti’s sonnet.[2]


E. C. Burne-Jones, Annunciation Bereft of his usual wings, even the angel looks “human, too human”, here paraphrasing Friedrich W. Nietzsche. The sensual realism of this depiction was a disconcerting novelty, a signal of the ending Romanticism and of a forthcoming Decadence, as conventional seasons of Western art and culture. Indeed, in Ecce Ancilla Domini of medieval precedents there is a vague memory, surely not some idealized but irrecoverable serenity. That is, sometimes between theory and creativity there is a fertile gap. Other Rossetti’s Annunciations were more traditional, less disquieting but less impressive too. Such are not few Pre-Raphaelite pictures of the same genre, with some remarkable exceptions. The most interesting is an Annunciation by Edward C. Burne-Jones, in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Liverpool (1876-79). This is an admirable philological work, proceeding from Byzantine icons through Fra Angelico’s painting to an original synthesis. The iconography is an ancient one, so defined of “Mary at the well or at the fountain”, inspired by apocryphal Gospels. The same typology may be found in two Annunciations,

respectively by Arthur Hacker (London: Tate Gallery; 1892) and Sidney Harold Meteyard as illustrator of The Golden Legend, a collection of verse by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Rupert Ch. W. Bunny, Ancilla Domini Both painters were strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite lesson, and a poem by Longfellow was strictly related with that type of representation. Meteyard illustrated Longfellow’s poem Mary at the Well in 1910. Yet, firstly, it had been issued in 1872, what does mean that both Burne-Jones and Hacker could have read and appreciated it. In this fiction, the North-American poet makes the Virgin herself narrate the event, describing its atmosphere shared between a natural and a supernatural dimension. According to the apocryphal tradition, at least its initial setting is in open hair, rather than in an interior so as suggested by canonical Luke’s Gospel: “Along the garden walk, and thence/ Through the wicket in the garden fence/ I steal with quiet pace,/ My pitcher at the well to fill,/ That lies so deep and cool and still/ In this sequestered place.// These sycamores keep guard around;/ I see no face, I hear no sound,/ Save bubblings of the spring,/ And my companions, who, within,/ The threads of gold and scarlet spin,/ And at their labor sing”.[3] Instead of a fenced garden, in Burne-Jones’ Annunciation the open air setting is a walled court. What allows him to depict a classical architecture around the scene, as in a Renaissance fashion. On the front of a building in background, we can discern a marble

relief. Just like in old Italian paintings by Fra Angelico or by Giovanni di Paolo, or else by Lorenzo di Credi, it represents the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden after the original sin. That is the nostalgia of a Paradise lost, which Mary as a “new Eve” is about to concur to recover, in the perspective of the divine incarnation and redemption. In the form of a wall fresco within an interior, such a symbolic picture inside the picture may be also detected in a beautiful Annunciation titled Ancilla Domini, by the Australian painter Rupert Charles Wulsten Bunny (Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia; ca. 1896).

John W. Waterhouse, Annunciation Annunciation, Denunciation, Renunciation Annunciations in a garden are not lacking. A nice example in the Pre-Raphaelite manner is The Annunciation. “Hail, thou art highly favoured” by Beatrice Emma Parsons, set in a field of lilies symbolizing Virgin’s pure soul (Provo, U.S.A.: Brigham Young University Museum of Art; 1899). More traditional according to its times, La salutation angélique by the French artist Eugène Emmanuel Amaury-Duval is rather influenced by the Nazarenes, so framed by an arch and closing up through different levels of view from the foreground to the background, which is a deep country landscape (Paris: Musée d’Orsay; 1860). In both cases we deal with excellent oleographies, as well as for an Annunciation by

the Danish painter Carl Heinrich Bloch, an oil on copper executed in a late Nazarene manner but showing an exotic scenery in background (Salt Lake City: Hope Gallery; 1875). Probably, the best open air Annunciation is by John William Waterhouse (London: Sotheby’s Collection; 1914). It is a ripe and coloured fruit of Pre-Raphaelitism. Seldom we have a neutral background, such as in an Annunciation by the U. S. artist Mary Lizzie Macomber, exhibited in the Fine Arts Palace during the 1893 Exposition at Chicago. Often, an internal setting continued to recur. If Nazarenes had travelled to Italy, two artists went as far as the Holy Land to improve such an interiority. It became not only a formal but also a substantial one. Mostly alien from exoticism, their trips were a search for authenticity and for a truer realism. They were the French painter James Jacques Joseph Tissot and the Afro-American Henry Ossawa Tanner. Currently, their respective Annunciations can be admired in the Brooklyn Museum (ca. 1886-96) and in the Museum of Art at Philadelphia (1898). In both pictures, doors or windows are not visible. In a poor oriental chamber, details are the strict necessary. The only gleam is shed by the angel, identifiable as a winged shape in the case of Tissot, as a source of light in that of Tanner.

James J. J. Tissot, Annonciation The Virgin is seated on a floor carpet in the former, on her bed in the latter. We cannot see her full face, in the depiction by Tissot. Yet the shape of the angel has a woman

face, as to suggest an inmost specularity between the two figures, like between the unconscious and the conscience of a same person (at Tissot’s times, the birth of psychoanalysis was at hand). As to Tanner’s Mary, she is one of the most touching representations in art history. She stares at the angelic appearance with a perplexed, more than alarmed or inquiring, expression. Her clenched hands show the fingers intertwining in her lap, betraying her thoughts. Especially in this painting, besides the religious announcing a possible better world, indeed a secular denunciation of the same old one is transparent. That drives our minds back to the Magnificat, soon after the narration of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. Then a now pregnant Madonna speaks to our hearts, exhorting to renounce any dangerous, even unaware selfishness: “[God] hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away” (1: 51-53, K. J. Version). Inside Western civilization likely Tanner’s Annunciation is an early learned expression of a new subjectivity, a step toward a more complex and broad identity, somewhat renouncing to narrow ones. That is, once more art itself works as a form of anticipatory consciousness.

Henry O. Tanner, Annunciation


Finally, let us return to the English ambience of Pre-Raphaelitism. In front of the overcoming Modernism, Waterhouse’s Annunciation is an extreme episode of resistance and compromise at the same time. There, Gabriel and Mary are facing one another like actors of an old drama on the stage, as spirits of Middle Ages and of a popular modernity. Actually, she looks like coming out from a magazine cover or a silent film. The “Golden Age”, or the Belle Époque, is at an end. 1914 is the first year of the First World War. Dating to the same year, Claughton Pellew’s Annunciation represents a divergent solution, less seductive and more surreal. Almost an absence of colours, a drawing reduced to the essential, a residual inspiration by Italian late Medieval or early Renaissance models. The setting is in Virgin’s chamber. An open door shows a rural and artisan background scene. The angel peeps into from a small window. But his and Mary’s gazes meet no more. Here, rarefaction and dissolution go hand in hand. It is about the death of an iconographic genre. Of course an archetype like that owns resources, which can develop beyond, even against the known tradition. So, we have several examples in the contemporary art. No doubt, further ones will follow. Early Annunciations painted in a Modernist manner can be ascribed to Maurice Denis, French artist of the group Les Nabis: Annonciation (Paris: Musée National d’Art Modern; 1912) and Annonciation sur les arcades à la fleur-de-lys (private collection, 1913). Yet we like to focus on a witness, coming from outside our civilization. In a Nativity Annunciation by the living Chinese painter He Qi, Mary is combing her hair, when an angel leans out from a mirror offering a flower by his hand. Well, it looks a way to mean she is an universal image of the soul, of each one’s conscience at its best, while announcing to itself which everybody wishes to be. Just a moment before the choice that may determine our beings, like Our Lady did once upon a time and forever.


Claughton Pellew, Annunciation Copyright 2008 [1] Friedrich Leopold von Hardenberg “Novalis”, To the Virgin, translated by Charles Wharton Stork in The German Classics of The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Masterpieces of German Literature Translated into English vol. IV, edited by Kuno Francke, 1914. In a later edition, the Fragments quoted here above are classified as 2017 and 2018. In Novalis’ philosophic view, the Lógos is never really disjoined from the Mýthos, so that the Marian “myth” looks concomitant with the allegory of Sophia, understood as divine wisdom. At the same time, the process of redemption should coincide with progress and evolution, so as to involve mankind as well as generally nature. [2] Dante G. Rossetti, For An Annunciation, Early German and For a Virgin and Child, by Hans Memmelinck (originally titled For a “Virgin & Child” by Michael Angelo), in The Poetical Works, 2 vols. edited by William Michael Rossetti, Boston: Little, Brown, 1913; vol. I. Cf. Sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, manuscript at the Tinker Library, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Actually t is really curious,

by the author, the change of some titles from an early Italian reference to later German or Flemish ones. [3] Henry W. Longfellow, Mary at the Well, in The Nativity: A Miracle-Play, in the Collection Christus: A Mystery, Part II: The Golden Legend, 1872 (in The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Laurel, NY: Lightyear Press, 1993).


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