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When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Paul McCartney Pino Blasone

Women and Angels Female Annunciations in Art and Literature

Lavinia Fontana, Annunciations “Timid hesitations”, in a “peaceful ocean” Few contemporary poets have developed a consonance with the visual arts so, as the English poetess Denise Levertov did (1923-1997). Particularly, let us read the beginning of her poem Annunciation: “We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,/ almost always a lectern, a book; always/ the tall lily./ Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,/ the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,/ whom she acknowledges, a guest”.[1] 1

More than a mere initial input given by figurative impressions, this sounds like a full immersion into the history of art, with special reference to that peculiar segment of it, dealing with the representation of the fundamental evangelical episode in so many painted and sculptured works of the past. To the artists we can add not a few poets, as John Donne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Butler Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke (or the Italian songster Fabrizio De André, in the delightful “Mary’s Dream”, from La Buona Novella)…

Artemisia Gentileschi, L’Annunciazione Such an influence is even more explicit in another fine poem titled Annunciation, where the living American authoress Sally Read identifies herself in part with the Virgin: “Fra Angelico’s Mary remembers/ I didn’t grow, I pooled into plump skin,/ nipple-less breasts, the speculum-/opened white lily. Peer in this keyhole:/ I’m faint, can’t push out a sound./ It takes time to realise angel’s wings,/ the muscular markings in blue./ My hands dovetail, weakly crossed./ If I cried out it would reach you/ with the slow girth of sea-swell,/


millennia later, like the light of a star./ And like dreams, someone’s thrown me/ in unlikely places: intricate halls,/ Italianate arches, rose gardens with spores/ of red blooms”.[2] Certainly, Mary’s character differs according to the interpretation of Denise Levertov, or to the poetic fiction by Sally Read (much more, to the feministic verse by the Irish poetess Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill). In the former case, what shows up is the divine respect for the human free will and an autonomous decision by the young Madonna, before the angel Gabriel sent to announce the miraculous conception of Jesus: “we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions/ courage./ The engendering Spirit/ did not enter her without consent./ God waited.// She was free/ to accept or to refuse, choice/ integral to humanness”.

Michaelina Wautier, Annonciation In the latter case it rather prevails a perturbation, or a sorrowful foreboding inside the girl, puzzled by the apparition and the disconcerting words of the angel (what was suggested by Luke’s Gospel narration itself): “A clarity in the sky as I walked to the temple/ (some things you can’t fight, like night/ or growing). The sun was so strong/ it melted the track, 3

would wither an angel,/ and it pressed like a low ceiling/ over my head”. In an analogous poem by Ní Dhomhnaill, Annunciations, instead we have an invention probably inspired by some old equivocal legends. The denouement of the story is affecting but so pessimistic, that the text was about a little scandal, when translated from Gaelic into English in 1986. More traditional examples are not lacking. A very nice one is the verse by the NorthAmerican poetess Sharon Mollerus (Annunciation, 2005). Here a kind angel does his best in order to make a poor Mary feel at her ease: “The girl kneels on the dirt floor,/ sandals shed, her silence/ veiling an awed heart.// The angel approaches:/ a swift messenger who gentles,/ steps softly to not frighten her,/ pads a terrible voice down to a whisper,/ in deference to His Intended”.[3] Maybe this Madonna appears a bit too yielding. Yet soon her voice will grow the stern one of the Magnificat, harshly denouncing our same old world. That is an announcement of the not-yet-being, not disjoined from a criticism of the actual existing.

Lucrina Fetti, Annunciazione, and Orsola M. Caccia, L’arcangelo Gabriele

In all these cases Our Lady’s character seems congenial to female poets. Obviously enough, such a ground of inspiration and sympathetic attitude is not new at all. First Ní Dhomhnaill has used the term “fascination”, to designate this ascendancy. In the Middle Ages, not a few women had referred to the Annunciation in their mystical writings. The eleventh of the Orationes by St. Catherine of Siena resembles a piece of poetry. No Virgin’s appellative as her “peaceful ocean” sounds so impressive still today. Even Christine de 4

Pizan identified herself with the Annunciate, in The City of Ladies. Much more than the presentiment of a sorrowful one, anyway for all them the event remains a “joyful mystery”. During the Italian Renaissance a close friend of the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, the poetess Vittoria Colonna, dedicated to the theme one of her sonnets. Then she was wondering about Mary’s intimacy, as not the least mystery in sacred history, as well as in human nature: “how I wish I/ could see her face, gestures, hear her humble/ answer, timid chaste hesitations, know// Heaven’s Queen’s strong pity and faith as she/ longs for and accepts with integrity/ the honor she hears and writes on her heart”.[4] This “honor” was an onus too. That is an assumption of responsibility, on behalf of the whole mankind.

Josefa de Ayala, or de Óbidos, Anunciação (detail) The Lilies and the Book Living in her native city with some sojourns at Rome, Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was a paintress from Bologna, the same town where another renowned one as Elisabetta Sirani lived.[5] Generally, that was a golden period for women painters in Italy. Lavinia 5

achieved fame throughout, depicting religious and profane subjects, especially portraits. Her Annunciation today at the Walters Art Gallery of Baltimore, dated around 1576, is Manneristic as much as conventional. Neither the composition nor the atmosphere of this representation express any appreciable novelty, as to the main iconographic tradition. Gabriel and Mary are standing and facing one another, not without any stiffness in their poses. He is a winged, handsome and smart youth, pointing with an index at heaven and looking so concrete as to cast a shade onto the floor. His figure is very similar to that one in an analogous picture by the same artist, in the Church of St. Francis at Pergola (Italy; circa 1590), where the Virgin is kneeling on a kneeling stool. Popularly and modestly dressed for her part, in the former painting she is gazing downward with her hands folded on her breast, as a signal of humble acceptation of God’s extraordinary demand reported by the angel himself. A flying white dove is a symbol of the divine intervention.

Suzanne de Court, The Annunciation However, if we focus better on the floor of the room where the scene is set, will notice two details whose coupling and accuracy may be allusive: a basketful of bread and an 6

open book, presumably a holy one, with some bookmarks inside. Although usually the basket of bread is an Eucharistic symbol standing for Christ’s body, in this case the whole iconic message can be also interpreted otherwise. That is food for bodies as well as for the spirit, according to a general need of human beings, with no rank or gender differences. What reminds us the pages about women in The Book of the Courtier by Baldassarre Castiglione, but also an early eulogy on the Madonna by St. Ambrose of Milan: virgo erat non solum corpore, sed etiam mente […]: corde humilis, verbis gravis, animi prudens, loquendi parcior, legendi studiosior (“not only the body, her mind itself was virginal: her heart was humble; her soul, cautious; she was used to few considered words, and studious in reading”).[6] Already in the opinion of the Latin Church Father, evidently a “virginal mind” was not simply a naïve one as in a medieval misunderstanding. Within a fair dignified body, we may dare to add, it was the beautiful mind of a literate woman and of a learned person.

Marianne Stokes, The Annunciation


If we assume such a conception as a metaphor extensible to a secular ambit, this had been a real novelty of the Renaissance: a new ideal not only of man, but of woman too. It was also a conquest, not free from dangers. Almost a premonition of the vicissitudes, which will trouble her life itself, may be perceived in an Annunciation by the young Artemisia Gentileschi, who has become renowned thanks to her art as much as for her biography. Painted in 1630, currently it can be admired at Naples, in the Museum of Capodimonte. Not yet a ripe masterpiece like later works by the Roman paintress, already though the dramatic scene stands out from a dark background, in the manner of the Caravaggio. By comparing it with Caravaggio’s analogous painting (Nancy: Musée des Beaux-Arts; ca. 1608), actually we will notice some affinity, the figure of the angel excepted. Both of them are Annunciations in the dark, what may recall a Scriptural verse, when Gabriel tells Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”. All the pregnancy of such an adumbration is expressed in the play of light and shade. Seen in profile, and in the foreground, Artemisia’s kneeling angel looks somewhat female more than male. Consequently, his face seems to be reflecting that of the Virgin, standing a little farther back and just bowed toward Gabriel himself. Did the paintress portray the same Mediterranean model, as to both characters? Nothing is more modern and pensive than this effect of an inward specularity, anyhow, as we will see in the next chapter.


Marianne Stokes, Hail Mary An advanced pictorial technique, still wanting in Artemisia’s above painting, is instead well present in another Annonciation by the Flemish artist Michaelina (or Micheline, or else Magdalena) Wautier. Unfortunately, we know very little about her life and activity. A few pictures by her date since 1643 to 1659. The latter is the date of the work we are concerned with, now in the Musée-Promenade de Marly-le-Roy, at Louveciennes in France. Both date and signature were uncovered thanks to a restoration, as late as 1983. This is a full Baroque masterpiece, declining in a delicate wise the lesson of Peter Paul Rubens. Here everything is animated suspense, for all is imagery of life and existence in progress. The angelic ambassador is a nice adolescent, softly descending from cloud to cloud with his bare feet, into the interiority of the Annunciate herself. Indeed, the most original detail are her closed eyes, as if she is dreaming a luminous and coloured vision. Her arms are open, in an attitude of wonder. Beside her, so is the Bible she was reading a moment before, as an Old Testament now waiting for receiving its decisive complement.

Mary L. Macomber, The Annunciation The scene depicted, we may suppose, is part of that vision itself. What makes us think of the European mystic literature of the 16 th century, St. Therese of Avila above all. 9

Actually, religious painting women were not lacking. This is the case of the painter and portraitist Suor Lucrina Fetti (ca. 1590-1650). Born in Rome as Giustina, she spent most life at Mantua, between the Convent of St. Ursula and the local Gonzaga court. As to her Virgin Annunciate and Announcing Angel, they both belong to one virtual composition. Also there, the transition from Mannerism to Baroque is sensible, but of this style we cannot perceive any peculiar rhetoric. Painted about in 1629 and today at the Palazzo Ducale of Mantua, in a Caravaggian way the former oil reflects the experience of the artist: her secluded existence, along with the elevation toward a transcendental light, mystic or artistic it might have been. Other notable Annunciation pictures are by the Portuguese Josefa de Ayala alias de Óbidos (1630-84; Lisbon: National Museum of Ancient Art), or in part ascribed to the French paintress Claudine Bouzonnet-Stella (1636-97; Cathedral of Meaux). An announcing Archangel Gabriel, by the Italian nun Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596-1676; in a private collection), looks so sumptuous as to seem hardly conceived by a cloistered imagination. Yet we have a minor or more decorative art too, particularly the craft of enamelling, at which a French artist as Suzanne de Court was excelling. By her, a fine enamel representing The Annunciation (ca. 1600) is exhibited in the Walters Art Gallery at Baltimore. This precious work stands on the border between late Renaissance and Baroque style. Robed like a princess, Mary is kneeling before an elegant Gabriel, nearly a winged kind of pageboy. Some naivety is concentrated especially in the image of God Father, figured as an elderly bearded man in the upper part of the composition, above the flying white dove conventionally symbolizing the Holy Ghost. A stem of lilies symbol of purity is the converging centre of the view, as an homage by the angel to the Virgin. But the presence of a lectern, by its side, confirms the importance of the Scriptures, and of a reading woman.


Mary L. Macomber, Annunciation The Splitting of the Angel In the second half of the 19th and in the early 20th century, religious art was influenced by the English movement of the Pre-Raphaelites, bringing to a new life the late medieval art. In this sense, generally women painters were not exceptions. Particularly close to such artistic and also literary trend were Annie Louisa Swynnerton (British, 1844-1933), Marianne Prendlsberger Stokes (Austrian, living in England, 1855-1927), Mary Lizzie Macomber (North-American, 1861-1916), Beatrice Emma Parsons (British, 1869-1955). Today in a private collection, an Annunciation by Marianne Stokes is the further elaboration of a smaller picture, Hail Mary, first exhibited at Burlington House, London, in 1890. Both the announcing angel and the Virgin Annunciate are standing in a dark background. Apparently un-winged, he rises behind her like a shadow or a phantom, partially hidden by the person of Mary herself, who is pensively gazing downward. Traditional elements are the haloes on their heads, the stem of lilies in a hand of the angel.


Marianne Stokes, An Angel; Mary Macomber, An Angel and My Angel (University of Michigan, Department of the History of Art) That is the beginning of a process, reducing to formal unity the figures of the archangel and of the Madonna. A synthesis, anyhow, where the female component is preeminent. Mary Macomber is an artist, whose style is consonant with Dante G. Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite lesson. By her, we have two Annunciations at least. The better known one dates back to 1892 and was exhibited in the Columbian Exposition, at Chicago in 1893. In both pictures, evidently the angel looks a woman. Fair female angels were depicted not only by Lizzie, but also by Marianne Stokes and especially by the American paintress Abbott Handerson Thayer. At that time it became a kind of fashion, a pursuit of unusual effects often related with profane meanings, though not devoid of some ambiguity (for example, An Angel by Stokes is a dark winged lady bearing a rose, instead of lilies; the “Mystical Rose” is a traditional attribute and religious appellative of the Virgin, anyhow). After all, the “sex of angels” had been an odd enigma, once upon a time debated even by clergy (among the Greek Fathers, Hippolytus of Rome and Origen had figured angels as female). But what does matter here is the artistic result. And this is an impression of intimate correspondence between the characters of the scene: almost a Platonic splitting of one soul into two persons, as if they were different faces of the same being. In one philosophical sense, the Annunciation itself is a “love story” between essence and existence, divinity and humanness, identity and otherness, supernatural and natural dimensions...


Annie Swynnerton, The Angel of the Annunciation Yet the acme of the feminization, and of a virtual reunification, is reached in The Angel of the Annunciation by Annie Swynnerton (private collection; 1898). The oil is nearly a copy of The Sense of Sight, now in the Walker Art Gallery at Liverpool (1895). More than with the sense of sight, indeed we do deal with a psychological insight. In fact there is a superimposition, nay a real fusion, of angel’s image with the figure of the Annunciate. Rather than the splitting of one soul into two persons, this time it happens as though two souls are joining into one person: Animus and Anima, just to adapt to the circumstance a famous couple of definitions and archetypal concepts, firstly employed by the psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung. For an instant at least, that angelic Animus looks so ravished by his meetingmerging with Virgin’s Anima, as to feel prevented from flying back to heaven. Already in an ancient Hymn on the Annunciation, by the Byzantine poet Romanos the Melodos, the angel felt humanly embarrassed by his announcement to an initially suspicious Madonna. Yet in the poem Verkündigung: Die Worte des Engels by Rainer M. Rilke (“Annunciation: Words of the Angel”, 1902) such a bewilderment becomes an innocent but “human, too human”, imaginary fascination of Gabriel by Mary. In 1970, Mary’s Dream by Fabrizio De André will sing otherwise: “As every evening, the angel came down/ to teach me a new prayer./ All of a sadden, he disjoined my hands./ Then, these arms grew wings”.


Emma Parsons, The Annunciation. “Hail, thou art highly favoured” Despite some theatricality, meanwhile the painting The Annunciation. “Hail, thou art highly favoured” by Emma Parsons (Provo, U.S.A.: Brigham Young University Museum of Art; 1899) is almost a return to the norm of iconographic tradition. Her pictorial style is akin to that of the well known late Pre-Raphaelite John W. Waterhouse, and the Annunciation – since Rossetti to Waterhouse – was a favourite subject in such a production. The scene is set neither within a chamber nor in a sacred interior, but in a field of lilies, as well as her white dress is alluding to Virgin’s purity. Somewhat spaced one from another and watching one another, she and a ghastly, scarce winged angel are standing in the middle. He looks a bit like the character of Prince Charming in the fairy tales. In a magic silence and an idyllic scenery, we can imagine Gabriel’s words sounding as those in the title of the picture, quoted from the salutation to the Madonna in Luke’s Gospel.


Natalia Goncharova, Annunciation, and preparatory study

A “choice integral to humanness” In the meantime Modernism was advancing, and restricting the spaces for a figurative and religious art: where, anyway, religious feelings ran a risk of getting outshined by an aestheticism for its own sake. Notwithstanding this, we will still enjoy not a few remarkable exceptions. For instance, an Annunciation by the Russian artist Natalia Sergeyevna Goncharova (1881-1962), reliably the best female painter in the artistic avant-garde of the century, spacing from Primitivism to Cubism and beyond. Dating back approximately to 1909 and probably in a private collection now, this delightful gouache resumes the tradition of Byzantine-Russian icons in a postimpressionistic manner. It should be interesting comparing it with a drawing by the same artist on the same subject, likely a preparatory study, auctioned by the SovCom Art Gallery at Moscow in 2007. The comparison could better show how primitivism and naivety differ one from another, in the development – and rethinking – of the artistic creation. Going into details, if we notice that in the painting the open book on Mary’s knees has disappeared, actually it might be inferred that Natalia’s primitivism was a kind of simulated naivety.


Anna L. White, Annunciation, and preparatory study It is far later a painting with the same theme and title, by the New Zealander Anna Lois White (1903-1984; New Zealand: Auckland Art Gallery; c. 1948), an artist whose style denotes Symbolistic influences. There a new meaningful detail is the coloured aboriginal countenance of the angel, appearing to Mary in an exotic luxuriant garden. In Study for Annunciation, a drawing in the same gallery dated 1948, the Virgin herself shows aboriginal features, what is less evident in the completed work because of a veil on her head. That is not so much something like a Paradise lost, as in some old Annunciation pictures. Rather, it seems to reflect the reviving hope for a better world, shortly after the catastrophe of the Second World War. Or, even worse, past “two thousand years/ of smoke and fire”, just to quote here the later radical poem Annunciations by Ní Dhomhnaill. A hope, above all, which is not disjoined from the courage of a “choice integral to humanness”, according to Denise Levertov at least.


Ola Okuniewska, Annunciation 1969-70 Last but not least, an extraordinary fruit of her visual and spiritual research is the expressionistic Annunciation 1969-70, by the Czecho-Austrian painter Ola Okuniewska Wolpe (1902-1985): a portable mural in 24 sections, currently in the Collection Katharina Wolpe, at London. There, it can be found also a pertinent preparatory study. It is like a puzzle, we can compose and decompose with our imagination. Not only in the Western history of art, Annunciations themselves look like pieces of a large beautiful puzzle we may recompose in our minds, hopeful to clear up the mystery they tray to represent. In a secular way, of course we are free to deem that religious mystery has nothing to do with our own, or even with the roots of our shared civilization. Nevertheless, a reflection on this limited section of the history of art might drive us to answer a thoughtful question put by Denise Levertov, in the poem quoted here at the beginning: “Aren’t there annunciations/ of one sort or another/ in most lives?”. Unfortunately, the poetess complains, “often/ those moments/ when roads of light and storm/ open from darkness in a man or woman,/ are turned away from/ in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair”. Especially if we add to this summary survey a Déco picture of the Annunciate, as the Madonna by the Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), on the contrary some might wonder whether all here above is true religious art or poetry. Let us listen to Simone Weil’s extensive but pertinent reply, in a collection of aphorisms posthumously published in 1948: 17

“In everything which gives us the pure authentic feeling of beauty there really is the presence of God. There is as it were an incarnation of God in the world and it is indicated by beauty. The beautiful is the experimental proof that the incarnation is possible. Hence all art of the highest order is religious in essence. (That is what people have forgotten today)”.[7]

Marie-Françoise Constance Mayer-La Martinière, Angel of the Annunciation: Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow (1810); and Tamara de Lempicka, Madonna: Musée Départamental de l’Oise, Beauvais, France (ca. 1937) Copyright 2008 [1] Denise Levertov, Annunciation, in A Door in the Hive, New York: New Directions, 1989, pp. 86-88; abridged in The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New Directions, 1997. As to a more radical feminist interpretation of the same theme, cf. Scéala / Annunciations in Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Selected Poems, trans. Michael Hartnett, Loughcrew, Ireland: Gallery Press, 1986, p. 11; or in Patrick Crotty (ed.), Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1995. [2] Sally Read, Annunciation, in the collection The Point of Splitting, Newcastle: Bloodaxe Books, 2005. Just only for the open air setting in this composition, we like to associate it with the hyper-coloured painting The Annunciation, by the Canadian artist Mary Alexandra Bell Eastlake (Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal; about 1900: see here below).


[3] Sharon Mollerus, Annunciation, currently at the Web address With reference to the Magnificat, reported in Luke’s Gospel, see here below the nice painting Mary Writing the Magnificat, by the Swiss “Nazarene” artist Marie Ellenrieder (Karlsruhe: Staatliche Kunsthalle; 1833).


[4] V. Colonna, Angel beato…, in Rime Spirituali (III), 131. English translation by Roland Herbert Bainton in Vittoria Colonna, in Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1971 (rpt. Boston: Beacon Press, 1974), pp. 201218. [5] The tradition of women artists in Bologna started with the nun Caterina de’ Vigri, or Saint Catherine of Bologna (1413-1463); in the church of the local Convent of the Corpus Domini, an illuminated Annunciation has been hardly attributed to her. Today in a private collection at Rome, the anonymous Annunciation here below might better be ascribed to Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665), especially if compared with some details in other known works by this young follower of the celebrated master Guido Reni.


[6] Ambrosius Mediolanensis, De virginibus ad Marcellinam sororem (“To Marcellina his sister concerning virgins”, A. D. 376), II 7; in Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 16, col. 0209A. During the Middle Ages, all over Europe not a few nuns were illuminating religious subjects. Here we like to show an Annunciation by the abbess Herrad of Hohenbourg, from her Hortus deliciarum (“Garden of Delights”, second half of the 12th century). Unfortunately it is a late approximate copy, for the original codex perished in 1870. Nevertheless, a Byzantine styled type of composition can be easily discerned.

[7] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr from La pesanteur et la grace; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1992, p. 137. A topical interpretation of the Annunciation by a female thinker can be found in Luce Irigaray, I Love to You: Sketch of A Possible Felicity in History, translated by Alison Martin from J’aime à toi: equisse d’une félicité dans l’histoire; Routledge, 1996, pp. 140-141. More recent is Annunciazione. Storia di una fascinazione (“Annunciation: History of a 21

Fascination”), by the Italian writer Laura Bosio; Milan: Longanesi, 2008. A quite original pictorial composition is Annunciation II, by the New Zealand artist Melissa Anderson Scott, where the angel is replaced with a symbolic and hypnotic object: a hanging jewel (2007; visible here below or currently at the Web address