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Byzantine Annunciations An Iconography of Iconography
1 - Fresco in Priscilla’s Catacombs, Rome
Out of the Depths of Soul Art may be considered a collective visual memory, not seldom somewhat prefiguring the future. What does mean it is not a simple memory, but rather a reminiscence, projecting the unconscious into conscience. Such seems especially true for a kind of representation, whose main subject is the act of announcing. Let us imagine a tour on the traces of the origins of the Annunciation representation, in the history of art. Firstly, it could be an engaging way to choose an itinerary, to visit the ancient and medieval Rome. The starting point should be Priscilla’s Catacombs on the Via Salaria, running to the north of the city.
In this Early Christian underground cemetery, a vault fresco of the early third century shows both images of the main evangelical characters. A not yet winged angel stands on the right, addressing an enthroned Virgin Annunciate. Indeed a schematic, faded and a bit naïve pictura compendiaria, to use a Latin definition by Pliny the Elder. Nothing to do with learned iconographic possible models as the pagan couples Orpheus and Eurydice, or better Eros and Psyche, for example. Nevertheless, such a soul archetype rising de profundis is the germ of a figurative development, almost as lasting as our shared civilization.
2 - Fresco in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, and mosaic in the Basilica of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Out of the catacombs, let us reach the archaeological site of the Roman Forum, at the centre of the town. There we may find the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, which served the Greek colony. Its frescos date from the 6 th to the 9th century. On the right side of the apse, particularly a damaged Annunciation is confused with the remains of later paintings, in a kind of palimpsest. We can hardly see a small part of Mary’s face. A residual face more is so refined, as to be called the “Fair Angel”. When in 1900 these fragments were discovered,
a first impression was such, that they were likened to Pompeian frescos (in the case of an Annunciation, the emotion of the discovery might be even stronger than usual). In the central nave of the same church, fortunately a fragment is large and clear enough, so that an announcing winged angel can be better discerned. If we compare it with another Gabriel of a post-iconoclastic mosaic fragment in the Basilica of Hagia Sophia at Istanbul, will realize the angelic figures were not yet well fixed then, or there was some ambivalence in figuring an archangel as Gabriel. Undoubtedly the former looks classically manly, nearly the image of a biblical wrestler, according to the etymology of his original Hebrew name: “Strength of God”. Instead, the latter shows some Hellenistic feminine grace. In a hand, both of them hold the shape of an orb. Reliably, rather than a crossed globe as in other representations of that epoch on the same subject, this object is a theurgic-like mirror made of jasper and reflecting the divine “Holy Wisdom”: in Greek, Hagia Sophia.
3 - Mosaic in the Basilica of S.ta Maria Maggiore, Rome
If the presumable character, approached by the second announcing angel in S.ta Maria Antiqua, was really the Virgin, the symbolism grows more complex. In fact, the light
of divine power reflected by the mirror is going to “overshadow” her, according to Luke’s Gospel. In later prevailing representations, such rays of light descend upon her directly from heaven (the best “Mirror of Divine Wisdom” is the Madonna herself, in an intuition by the Renaissance mystic Jakob Böhme). So, the role of mediation by the archangel results somewhat diminished. Actually, the angel worship had been a problem for the Church since early Christianity. Above all, the “Seven Archangels” were considered nearly semi-gods. What may look unimportant to us was not such in Byzantine mentality, in a period of adjustment of the religious orthodoxy. For instance, later the above mirror will become a crystal bowl filled with baptismal water, or will be inscribed with a “X”, the initial of Christos in the Greek alphabet. This can remind us the Gnostic text Pistis Sophia, with its contamination between the figure of Jesus and that of Gabriel. A possible remedy was to turn into symbolic innocuous forms any risk of heterodoxy or even occultism. Iconography could serve as a popular means, to achieve a goal like that. But some symbols might have an ascendancy again, even past centuries, varying their meanings with the new circumstances.
4 - Jacopo Torriti, mosaic in the Basilica of S.ta Maria Maggiore, Rome
The “Greek Manner” in Central Italy
However, general Byzantine influences in medieval Rome are evident. And S.ta Maria Antiqua’s frescos are precious also in such a sense, for artistic witnesses concerning that period are rare even in Byzantine countries, because of the religious iconoclastic crisis which troubled them from 726 to 843 (female emperors as Irene and Theodora had a decisive role in bringing it to an end). In order to enjoy a complete Annunciation scene, we have to step back into time entering the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, founded in the 4th century, where some original 5th century mosaics have been restored more than once. The Scriptural event is represented on the triumphal arch over the altar, in the upper left. The Madonna is robed like an ancient princess. At the same time she holds a spindle, as weaving a purple veil for the Temple where she serves, according to an old apocryphal source as the Proto-Evangelium of James. Quaintly here the angels are more than one, still flying or already landed. They can be also interpreted as the same Gabriel in various moments of the episode, whose canonical version is to be read chiefly in Luke’s Gospel.
5 - Pietro Cavallini, mosaic at the Basilica of S.ta Maria in Trastevere, Rome
Another mosaic on the Annunciation can be admired in the apse, at the extremity of a band running below the main larger image, on the left side looking at the altar. This work is far later. It was executed shortly after 1286 by the Sienese artist Jacopo Torriti, a friend of two other famous painters: the Florentine Cimabue and the Roman Pietro Cavallini. They all concurred to put an end to the long lasting Byzantine influence in Italy, opening a way to an independent artistic evolution. Nonetheless the Annunciation mosaics by Torriti in S.ta Maria Maggiore and by Cavallini in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (ca. 1291), similar one to the other, are still Byzantine styled. They stand on the border between the so called “Greek manner” and a new promising perspective (with all the more reason, it can be said of a Gabriel by Torriti, a vault fresco in the nave of St. Francis’ Upper Basilica at Assisi: this angel shows a “Mirror of Divine Wisdom” in his left hand).
6 - Theophylactos, Announcing Angel: mural detail in the Church of S.ta Marina and Cristina, Carpignano
In both masterpieces, a conventional gilded background expresses the sacred dimension. In form of a dove, the Holy Ghost flies down from heaven along a ray of divine light. The standing angel is blessing by the right hand. In Cavallini’s version, with the left
he bears the baculus viatorius: a long thin staff, being a sign of dignity for imperial messengers (otherwise, it is associated with the ceremonial stick of the ostiaries, doorkeepers in the churches). In a later tradition it will be replaced by a stem of lilies or a olive branch, a leaf of palm or a red rose, as a various significant homage to a young Mary. She is sitting on a majestic throne or standing with it behind her. In Cavallini’s depiction, a novelty may be seen in her hands: no longer a spindle nor a pitcher as in a different iconography, but a holy book, most likely an Old Testament. As a signal of a literate and learned woman, such is a vague reflection and announcement of changing times.
7 - Guido da Siena, icon in the Princeton University Art Museum
Probably the main artistic novelty is the movement concentrated on the angel’s figure, breaking with a previous static attitude. Not by chance, this transition period – otherwise sensitive to Gothic influences from central Europe – has been named ProtoRenaissance too, as a first stage toward a modern dynamic and historical feeling. Modernity is deemed to be the prevailing of an immanent world-view. Better to say, Renaissance will be such at its best, when the transcendence will grow immanent, without renouncing to its
deep sacred essence though. And the Annunciation scenes strove to illustrate a dialectic event like that. It is a fact that never we had so many painted or carved Annunciations. Meanwhile and elsewhere in Italy, we have other anticipatory Annunciation (and Nativity) scenes, as those sculptured by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano on their pulpits respectively in the Baptistery of Pisa and in the Cathedral of Pistoia. As to the south, part of it had long been under Byzantine rule. Here we have to omit Norman Sicily mosaics, so as have done with Ravenna famed ones. But we must recall the Greek names of two painters at least, Theophylactos and Eustathios, operating in the Crypt of S.ta Marina and Cristina at Carpignano Salentino between 959 and 1020. There, people speak some Greek still now. A surviving wall painted Annunciation by the former is ingenious in the composition and betrays Mediterranean deep remembrances. Its archangel Gabriel – so androgynous looking indeed, as to be possibly mistaken for a Madonna – is worth being called “Fair Angel”, not less than the fragment discovered in S.ta Maria Antiqua at Rome. Yet the “Greek manner”, to use an expression by the late Renaissance artist and historian of art Giorgio Vasari, will especially evolve in Siena, from Guido da Siena to Simone Martini.
8 - Mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice
Guido of Siena was active during the 13th century. What we know about him is very little and even controversial. Anyway, two Annunciation paintings are attributed to him. The first, today at the Princeton University Art Museum, is supposed dating back to a while between 1262 and 1270. The latter is in the National Pinacoteque of Siena and reliably was made between 1280 and 1290. Particularly by the former the resemblance is such, that it could be hardly distinguished from a Byzantine icon, as in the whole as in details. In both cases, Gabriel approaches from left as mostly usual. In the former case, he carries a cross stave. Between the foreground and the golden background, a few medieval buildings or a stylized tree give the impression of a landscape. As to the Virgin, her manifest attitude is a first reaction of reluctance. In the respect of the Scriptures, a psychological insight begins permeating the scene. Identical coyness may be noticed in the celebrated Annunciation by S. Martini (1333), now in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence. That is an epilogue of Middle Ages. More than ever, the beginning of the Renaissance is at hand.
9 - Mosaic at the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Istanbul
A Long Trip from Venice to Moscow
It is up there, in the transept of St. Mark’s Basilica at Venice. In the mosaics of the Byzantine cathedral, a forest of symbols are awaiting to be filled with the sense we are able to give them. What we are concerned with is a rare scene of the so called Annunciation at the Well (circa 11th c.), inspired by the event as narrated in the Proto-Evangelium of James and in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. A first encounter does not happen at home or in the temple of God, but while Mary is going to draw water with a pitcher from a well, a fountain or a spring. Literally the angel appears flying down from the sky, rather than from heaven. In order to meet an analogous “Annunciation at the Well” we have to travel a long way, as far as Istanbul, the ancient Byzantium or Constantinople, capital of the old Byzantine empire. The wall mosaic is in the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, today Kariye Museum. It is dating back circa to 1315. Then, the iconoclastic controversy was just only a memory. Figurative art had flourished again. In part at least, it was like reviving from where had been arrested centuries earlier. That is a peculiarity of the late Byzantine art.
10 - Mosaic in Euphrasius’ Basilica, Parenzo/Poreč
Along our trip from Venice to Istanbul, we may rest in Parenzo/Poreč, a little town in Istria which was in the Byzantine influential area. There we should visit the paleochristian Cathedral of Euphrasius, whose mosaics were executed in the 6 th century. Let us confront them with those in the Kariye Museum. At first glance, it could be difficult to tell their early Byzantine style from the latter, respectively before and after the iconoclastic period. Religion as well as history have projected both of them into an enchanted timeless time. Paradoxically such a palingenesis, culminating in the so defined Palaeologan Renaissance (13th-14th centuries), became almost an iconography of iconography itself. Repetition is the rule; innovation is an exception, as to the models and to the inspiring sources. A mystic explanation may be that the effort was to represent a prototypal essence, rather than the mutable existence. Balancing between iconoclasm and a risk of iconolatry, some theologians argued that religious art must imitate the Christian mystery of incarnation. The matter has to be worked in, like the flesh of an art not fully abstract, nor too realistic.
11 - Mosaics in Euphrasius’ Basilica, Parenzo/Poreč
In the “Basilica Euphrasiana”, mosaic Annunciations cannot be lacking. Actually, here we may find two of them. A first sight difference is that in a depiction Gabriel is standing and facing a seated Mary; in the other, he is kneeling to a standing one. Both attitudes betoken a deference by the angel to Our Lady. But in the latter case, for the first time, we can perceive a gesture of surprise by the future “Mother of God”. In chronological order, anyhow a comparison should be made also with its closer precedent, which is in S.ta Maria Maggiore at Rome. Not only details and background are changing. In the essence of the representation itself there is an evolution, as a difference urging inside the repetition. Albeit imaginary, the best route for us ought to cross the Greece. After all, Byzantine art had its roots there. Of course, the renowned monasteries of Mount Athos are worthy of a new stop. So many mural paintings, mosaics, panel icons, handmade miniatures – not a few of which Annunciations –, make them the most extensive Orthodox art gallery all over. The only paradox is that a living Madonna might meet with some difficulty, as women are not admitted. There we can learn about a Macedonian School or a Cretan one, watch a work ascribed to Theophanes the Cretan or know the story of Theophanes the Greek.
12 - Andrei Rublev, icon in the Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow Kremlin
During more than thirty years of his life (ca. 1330-1410), this monk spread the ripe Byzantine lesson into Russian art. In 1378 he worked at the Church of the Transfiguration in Novgorod; in 1405 decorated with murals the Cathedral of the Annunciation at the Moscow Kremlin, assisted by Andrei Rublev. On the iconostasis, Andrei is credited with scenes of the Annunciation. He will become the first well known Russian artist. In 1502 Rublev’s late follower Dionisy, with his sons, painted four Annunciation frescos at the Ferapont Belozero Monastery, in Belozersk region. Again, one of them is of the typology “Mary at the Well”. Searching for Another Renaissance Indeed, the representation of the Annunciation theme is far older in Russia and Ukraine art, as evidenced by mosaics respectively with Gabriel and Mary on two pillars of
Saint Sophia in Kiev (ca. 1040) or by two frescos inside the same cathedral (11 th century). Most likely they were by different authors, also because of some contrast between the joyful mosaics and a dramatic atmosphere suggested by the wall paintings, executed around the same period. Anyhow, they represent both typologies above mentioned: Mary at the well and a spinning one at the moment, or at the subsequent moments, of the miraculous event.
13 - Dionisy, fresco in the Ferapont Belozero Monastery
As to the typology we have seen depicted by Cavallini in Rome, that of a reading Virgin interrupted by the appearing angel, we have to wait for the 14 th century. For instance, a mural by the master Damiane in St. George’s Monastery at Ubisi, in Georgia. If compared with the dark colours of the frescos in Saint Sophia at Kiev, Damiane’s Annunciation results coloured and animated, as due to a dissimilar perception of the event or of the current times or, more simply, of life by the painter. Albeit peripheral, it looks one of the best productions
influenced by the Palaeologan Renaissance. After that, Georgian art will know an autonomous growth. Sometimes, Annunciations may announce a cultural identity too. However, that renaissance regards a time projected out of history, whereas western Europe one was a renaissance of the past, looking at future. The angel of the Annunciation is a tireless pilgrim, as his baculus viatorius often denotes. He is able to travel through the space as well as along the time. Nay, his main task seems to give a sense to the course of time. Before going on with our pursuit, we should wonder what ourselves are searching for.
14 - Frescos in the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, Kiev
Gabriel is not only visiting and announcing, but offering too. His gift may be the making of a meaning. So many artists did see his staff flowering of lilies, or converting into a palm leaf. A few mystics as Jakob Böhme caught a glimpse of the “Mirror of Divine Wisdom”. Each one has his own vision. What we can agree on is that such angel does not seem hurried home, unlike the ancient Ulysses. As the herald of a timeless time, he announces a nowhere place. Eden or Ithaca, it is everywhere, for is our conscience itself. Today more than ever, he invites to enlarge it, beyond any narrow mind or empty erudition. If you are not too tired yet, a survey on the periphery of the Byzantine influential area is interesting anyway, since we can discover surprising productions and explore original
cultural identities. This is the case of the Armenian one, so long ignored or even neglected. We have a few ruins of monumental painting or sculpture. But Armenian artists developed an intense illuminating activity, consistent with the migrations to which their people were inclined or compelled. A lot of manuscripts are in the Matenadaran Library at Yerevan, the capital of modern Armenia, not a few from countries concerned by Armenian immigration.
15 - Damiane, mural in St. George’s Monastery, Ubisi
No wonder, their miniatures show Byzantine as well as local artistic influences. Just for this, they seem to be set within an universal cultural change horizon. In the Matenadaran collection, a pertinent example is The Annunciation in a codex of the Gospels, written and illuminated by Mkhitar Anetsi at Sultanyeh, Iran (n. 7740; 1356). Such a work combines Middle Eastern traits with the Byzantine style. Moreover, we have some Annunciations of the type “Mary at the Fountain”, obviously a variant of the iconography “Mary at the Well”. A bit disconcerting may be a comparison between a miniature in the manuscript 2877, a 10th century Gospel, and the stone relief of an announcing angel dating to the 8 th century, discovered in 2003 under the Anglo-Saxon Cathedral of Lichfield. In both cases
Gabriel’s baton has become a biblical sprouted, three-foliated rod, evoking a Trinitarian conception of the divinity. In the miniature, Mary holds a “Paradise Lost” flower apparently received by the angel himself. Then, Christendom was more unitary than in modern age. Despite their appearing in different periods on the opposite sides of it, probably both works derived from similar Byzantine figural exemplars, which began to travel as portable icons.
16 - Mkhitar Anetsi, miniature in a codex of the Gospels
When Repetition grows Difference From Armenia, let us conclude our journey in Egypt, where the oldest Mediterranean civilization was born. There is also the most ancient Christian monastery in steady activity, that of St. Catherine in the Sinai. Survived to iconoclasm and to other dangers, thanks to a
general respect inspired by the holy site and to its isolation in the middle of desert, the local collection of Byzantine icons and illuminated manuscripts is one of the richest worldwide. Here we like to signalize at least one of the Annunciation scenes, dating to the 12 th century. It is also remarkable, because it was painted on the so called “Royal Doors” or “Beautiful Doors” of a church iconostasis. Often these were adorned with scenes of the Annunciation (another nice example of the same type can be found at the Monastery of Chelandarios, in Mount Athos: do you remember we have made a halt there, before?).
17 - Grigor and Vardawsan, miniature in a manuscript at the Matenadaran, Yerevan; and stone relief from the Cathedral of Lichfield
Not much less old is the Monastery of the Syrians in the Wadi al-Natrun, from where important manuscripts reached western Europe libraries and museums. Both Syrian and Coptic monks inhabited it. Within that, in the choir of the Church of Lady Mary, in 1991 a restoration has uncovered a wall painted Annunciation, which can be dated before 1200. Sure restorers remained astonished, as it is incredibly beautiful and unconventional, even if compared with a later one in the same church or with the Sinai paintings above mentioned.
The distinction between religious art and craft should scarcely matter, for every product like that has to work as a window on the spiritual dimension. In some cases though, we may annotate, such windows open more than usual. In an age of relative “reproducibility of the work of art” as the current one, they make us better realize how slowly repetition evolve or involve into difference, especially if we are so patient as to scan details. At any rate, human history cannot stay out of doors for ever, even if those are “Holy Doors”.
18 - “Royal Doors” in the Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai, and in the Monastery of Chelandarios, Mount Athos
In the Wadi al-Natrun masterpiece, the angel approaches from right as congenial to Semitic cultures, following the direction of writing. Only his evangelical salutation to the Madonna is written in original Greek. Yet in later Coptic icons possible messages are often written in Arabic, since it had become the popular language after the prevalent Islamization of Egypt. This is the occasion for a last glance, at Islamic miniatures on our chosen topic. The Annunciation is important not only in Luke’s and not canonical Gospels, but in the Koran too (the announcement to Mary prefigures the revelation itself by Gabriel to Mohammed). Depictions of the episode are rare in Islamic culture, because of a general
contrariety to figurative art, which is in common with Jewish sensitivity and with the periods of Byzantine history we have read of here above. Yet, in such cases, iconographic similarities stand out more than differences. Referring to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, we speak of “revealed religions”. It might be added, we deal with announcing ones as well.
19 - Fresco in the Monastery of the Syrians, Wadi al-Natrun
El Greco: a Cultural Feedback By our imagination, we have travelled mainly from West Eastward. There was one artist at least, who made a similar trip in the opposite direction. Domenikos Theotokopulos far better known as El Greco was born at Candia, Crete, in 1541. He died at Toledo, Spain, in 1614. His early activity was in his homeland, as a very Byzantine painter. Michail Damaskinos, Georgios Klontzas, Emmanuel Lambardos, were his probable masters or local models. The few works we have by him of this period credit such a circumstance. The most
original one, quite damaged though, is in the Benaki Museum at Athens today. It represents St. Luke portraying the Virgin, where Mary’s portrait is an artwork inside the artwork itself. In Venice, Parma, Rome, from 1566 to 1575, El Greco had occasions to admire and imitate other painters, as Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, the Tintoretto. The result was a synthesis, projecting him among the greatest western Europe artists of every time. Meanwhile, he went on signing his name in Greek characters. Scholars have long debated whether his inspiration is more Byzantine or fully Italian, or else Spanish (commenting his long limbed figures, someone insinuated he was simply “astigmatic”!). A diffuse impression is that more he got aged, more his roots returned to permeate his art. The later El Greco looks subtly mystical, somewhat tormented, so spiritual as to result visionary. Not less than the contemporary Caravaggio, in a peculiar way he preludes the Baroque style. So many and beautiful, his Annunciations illustrate – and perhaps express at its best – such a ripening (unfortunately, we have no specific example of the Cretan period). Here we can focus on one of them, dating to 1596-1600 and now in the Prado Museum at Madrid, comparing it with St. Luke portraying the Virgin of which above. Hardly they seem the same Madonna, by the same author. Yet please observe a hand of the painted painter, in the former picture, and those of the Annunciate in the latter. That painting hand looks like interfering with and integrating those of Mary, into an unique musical sequence of gestures.
20 - Miniature in an illuminated Koran
In some ecclesiastic milieus, the ancient legend of the Evangelist portraying the Virgin could well have been used against iconoclasm, in its religious and historical variants. Nonetheless, it might be interpreted in another sense too, as a participation of art and of artists in a wider drama. What is the play of veiling and unveiling by an ultimate reality, which cannot be ignored even in modern age. Nay, then is when this contrast grows jarring. Old Byzantine plus European Renaissance education contributed to give El Greco a complex perception of reality. “On the one hand”, the theme of the Annunciation signifies faithful acceptance. “On the other hand”, that is also a rejection of the world “as it is”, or rather as it appears. A bit like that of the angel, the artist’s hand arises just in the midst, to recompose this human contradiction. But such hand is not alone, in its effort. In St. Luke portraying the Virgin, another one is emerging to support it, from the picture within the picture. That is a hand of the “Mother of God” herself, pointing at the Christ Child held on her left arm: alias the Hodegetria of the Byzantine tradition, “She who shows the Way”. The Virgin Hodegetria is the iconic passage from an annunciate to an announcing Madonna, like that we can read in the Gospel Magnificat. Indeed, in the Greek culture this archetype is nearly a prototype, even if in a different form. It is the goddess in the poem On Nature by Parmenides, showing the right thinking way to the Pre-Socratic philosopher. Her answer to the proverbial question “to be or not to be” was a full integrity of the Being, overshadowing any illusory alteration. Yet, she warned, that way is long and hard. And a Christian paradox is that, just to perceive such a Being, ours need frequent radical changes.
21 - El Greco, St. Luke portraying the Virgin, and Annunciation, details
Copyright firstname.lastname@example.org 2008 Concerning the Lichfield Angel, special thanks to the archaeologist Rosemary Cramp, as a gentle correspondent. As to Theophylactos’ Archangel, it is to be mentioned at least: F. dell’Aquila and A. Messina, Le chiese rupestri di Puglia e Basilicata, Bari 1998. Articles on the like, by the same author, can be found at the Websites below: http://www.scribd.com/doc/2531940/Space-and-Time-of-the-Annunciation; http://www.scribd.com/doc/2681466/The-Cat-and-the-Angel-of-the-Annunciation; http://www.scribd.com/doc/2913375/The-Hands-of-Mary-States-of-Mind-in-theAnnunciate; http://www.scribd.com/doc/2988387/Hail-Mary-Nazarene-and-PreRaphaeliteAnnunciations; http://www.scribd.com/doc/3817130/Women-and-Angels-Female-Annunciations.