Friday, December 10, 2010

An Interesting Annunciation

A few years ago while I was working at America, I read about an unusual depiction of the Annunciation at the former chapel of Rutgers, in which the angel coming to Mary is upside down.

Here's the image (and as always, click on it to make it bigger):


Mary's there in the blue frock, leaning over the table.  And the angel hangs before her, her head slightly above Mary's. Can you see it?  There are words the angel's speaking, too, but you can't really see them.  Which is too bad, because fun twist, they're backwards!

Now, you know how I like to riff on things like this.  But, in this case let me take you to the source. Megan Marlatt painted this work.  And again, lo those many years ago, I wrote her to ask what was her inspiration for this painting.  And this is what she had to say:

Why the upside down angel?  Well, pulling from my education as an artist I would tell you that anything is possible on the picture plane.  After all, its just a flat piece of paper, canvas or wall and it follows no verbal logic whatsoever.  Pulling from my inner Catholic child I'd say, why not upside down?  God did send an angel from heaven down to earth to tell Mary she was with Child, so who's to say he came feet first?  No, better to think that he dived in, head first, into a pool of mortality.  Its the same visual quandary I was in when my eldest sister had died from breast cancer 15 years ago.  Because I could not reconcile on a very primal level the fact that my sister was buried in the ground but was still in heaven, my pictures began to split in the middle between a strong underground and above ground.  This strong horizon line began to dominate every image I made.
And, really, if you think about it, this annunciation thing has got to be scary.  Many images of the Annunciation in the early stages of Christianity have Mary hovering in the corner, which certainly would have been my reaction.  I remember a Greek student of mine showing me an image of his Eastern Orthodox Church's vision of a Cherubim.  This wasn't our Roman, Western European one with its cute little baby face and little cheek wings.  No, this was a ball of eyes with seven wings and all I could think of is if I saw that thing I'd be scared out of my wits.  I guess the point I'm making here is while we all think we would like to experience something spiritually miraculous, do we really have the courage to see a glowing ball of eyes sweep through our living rooms or a trumpeting angel tell us we're pregnant when we don't even know what sex is?
My annunciation angel at St. Michael's is very close to Mary's face, and their faces are the same height as the face of a viewer who would enter into the small chapel.  The space in intimate, and I wanted the relationship between the angel and Mary to be intimate as well.  Almost as if they were lovers, because, this angel is the vehicle God used to inform Mary of her pregnancy and he was going to have to be very kind to her if he wasn't going to frighten her.  He appears more ethereal than Mary, because he is formed out of the plaster of the wall and she is painted in full volume.  However, the irony is that in reality he has more mass in lime plaster than she does, as she is only a nth thick of paint.  So, she is really more the illusion than he.  His words are backwards only because he is upside down and I had to spell them out as if they were coming from his mouth, not hers.  Hence, the standard reading from left to right wouldn't work here. 
Some great things to think about, no?

Megan runs a blog about her work.  And she has her own website, too!  Among her really interesting works there's this really cool image of St. Francis and an angel, too.


Thanks to her for her great insights, for permission so long ago to show this piece and for her work! Isn't she great?

1 comment:

Fran said...

This post is from last year, but as I was searching around the internet for ideas for a reflection that I am offering, I found my way here.

That image is so provocative! It did not end up in my reflection that I will offer at church tomorrow night, but it will stay on my heart.

Thank you and peace!