Sunday, December 12, 2010

Other Annunciations

When it comes to the Christmas season, there are plenty of moments represented in the history of art, the nativity itself foremost among them. 

But from the season of Advent, far fewer moments have inspired artists.  There are plenty to choose from: the annunciation to Elizabeth, the annunciation to Zechariah;  Zechariah's inability to speak; the annunciation to Mary, the annunciation to Joseph; Mary's visitation to Elizabeth; the birth of John.   [There's a lot of annunciations, aren't there?]

And yet, it's mostly "the" annunciation -- that is, the Annunciation to Mary -- that has been the subject of creative work over the centuries. This medieval rendering, by Fra Angelico, is one of the most famous: 

Usually in artistic portrayals, the young Mary is demure, humble, eyes downcast, maybe even begging off on account of her felt unworthiness:

If there is a challenge with these portrayals, it's that they're so familiar that we don't really "see" them. And we can't get to the person of Mary behind the presentations. 

That's why I'm always in the hunt for versions that somehow jolt or jar, make the familiar strange and interesting once again.  Megan Marlatt's upside down angel is one such cool variation. I've got two more for you today. 

The first, below, is a very modern version of the Annunication. Mary is dressed like a contemporary day school girl, reading a book, and Gabriel stands before her not colorful, not dazzling, but in a muted choir robe, and as a man.    

That last choice, making Gabriel very clearly a man rather than a woman (as in the paintings above) or something hermaphroditic, creates an unsettling feeling.  What is he going to do to this girl? Yes he has his head down, in a somewhat reverential pose, but still, if we didn't know the story, I'm not sure it would be clear.  It reveals in a way most paintings don't the radical, almost heart-breaking vulnerability of Mary. In this painting, she really is just a kid. 

The other more modern rendition that I like is this one: 

Unlike most renditions, here the angel is not anthropomorphized at all; it's just a golden light that glows before Mary.  And Mary herself -- what is she doing? Her head's cocked down a bit, and yet not in that reverential, "do with me as you will" way we're used to.  She doesn't seem scared, either. She's just...interested? Waiting to see what happens? In the middle of a silent conversation?   

I look at this version and wonder whether it doesn't capture the dynamics of prayer, that sense of silent dialogue and complex receptivity.  Perhaps our every conversation with God is a sort of personal annunciation.

This week if you're looking for something different to do, you might try googling different events from the Advent season, and see what sorts of images you discover.  Find a couple that speak to you, and sit with them, one by one, full screen, just letting your eye wander over them and allowing your attention and affection to go wherever they want to go.  Rather than thinking or talking to God, you can just be present before a good image, and let it speak to your heart. 


Michelle said...

The Tanner is in Philadelphia, where I live, and is enormous, the size of a wall in my house - which I had never realized until I saw it in person. The size makes that golden light feel slightly overwhelming, a tiny taste perhaps of what Mary encountered?

That is my favorite Annunciation of them all!

Jason said...

I recently discovered an Annuciation painted by Tanja Butler:

It depicts Gabriel as an ordinary workman, his merely suggested wings reaching up and connecting him to the heavens, and Mary situated just beyond the door of salvation--closed since the fall of humanity as symbolized by a wilting tree at the top of the top panel--just before she utters her affirmation. A ladder leads from the lower panel to the upper, connecting the earthly realm to the heavenly.

Jason said...

Ok, that link didn't show.

Try this one:

Click on the thumbnail on the middle of the top row, then click on the image to see the full.

Stratoz said...

I like my friend, Michelle, dig Tanner's. Greta post.

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Thanks for the great comments!