Looking at some Annunciations

4 Sep

I’ve been reading Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, specifically Lippi: ‘Fra Filippo di Tommaso Lippi, a Carmelite, was born in Florence in a street called Ardiglione, below the Canto alla Cucilia and behind the Carmelite Convent. The death of his father left him a sad and solitary orphan since his mother had died not long after he was born…’ He was brought up by his aunt who found him hard to handle so when he was eight she sent him to the Carmelite Convent where he was very good at drawing and hopeless at learning – he ‘scrawled pictures on his own books and those of others.’ He learnt from Masaccio – so well, it was often said that ‘Masaccio’s soul entered into his own body.’

He was also very amorous – he gave up being a Carmelite when he was seventeen and if he couldn’t buy a woman’s favours, he cooled his passion by painting her portrait. Vasari says Cosimo de Medici tried locking him up so he wouldn’t ‘wander away and waste time.’ When desire proved irresistible, he ripped up sheets, turned them into ropes and jumped out into the night. He painted four Annunciations, and his model for at least one was Lucrezia Buti who was so beautiful he stole her away from the nuns on the day she was supposed to make a pilgrimage to see a very important relic: the ‘Girdle of Our Lady. I first saw this Annunciation when I was twelve. It hung on the on the wall, along with a miscellany of Madonnas, of the second flight of stairs, which I passed each morning on my way down to breakfast at school.


Mary is tall and thin, probably golden haired – a flat gold halo sits on the back of her veiled head. Her body is draped in a blue cloak edged in gold. Lippi found hands hard to paint. The hand pointing to her heart is small, plump, pink – at odds with her long body, and the hand which holds her cloak a blurred claw. The Holy Spirit in the form of the white dove slides down a shaft sent from God’s heart, or his mouth – conception by breath or spirit – to Mary’s cloaked body. She stands behind her prédieu, ready to greet the angel, a beautiful hermaphrodite with tawny owl-like feathers, a crown of red and white roses, a scapular round his neck. So much complicated theology compressed into this painting. How reluctant the Church was to allow this child to be conceived like the rest of us. The golden stream on which the dove glides represents the Holy Ghost ‘coming upon her’ and by the power of ‘the Highest, ‘overshadowing her.’

She doesn’t seem too overawed by Gabriel’s arrival – she doesn’t recoil like Martini’s Mary, as Jenny Bornholdt observes:

She draws back in her

chair, doesn’t want to know

about the child. She wants

to know love, wants the

long back of desire which

endures like earth, or

rock – rock being

the hardest thing.


I suppose I like Vasari because reading him is like talking to him, or listening to someone who’s partial and prejudiced, who has favourites and is dogmatic, who’s mad about art and knows a lot, but if he doesn’t he invents; I know people like him – you can imagine him standing in on Saturdays for Mary Kisler – telling Kim Hill ‘he was there’ the day in the Sistine Chapel when Pope Julius arrived unexpectedly and told Michelangelo to get on with his work.

Angels are messengers; they look human yet they have no bodies — are pure spirit rising and falling in an endless song of praise, but they have wings. And the wings mean they come from some liminal other place; to tell us something we need to know, which, but for them, we can never know. They come, as the poet says, ‘across distance’ — spatial, temporal — with beating wings, light, trailing clouds of glory. Their wings are the opposite of our tethering feet.

And what about Mary? She is often reading when the angel arrives: he seems to interrupt. Is she scared, or excited? In Botticelli’s Annunciation, the angel’s clothes billow and swirl with the rush of recent arrival. He may not  have told her yet. His hands and Mary’s nearly touch; their fingers are open, they hint at a caress. Her hand seems to contradict the twist of her body: he’s on his knees, lily in one hand, staring at her with a kind of direct reverence.

Botticelli Annunciation

In many paintings of the Annunciation, Mary is in a house, or at least a room, separated from the angel by a column: a division between human and divine; a barricade emphasising her spotlessness. Botticelli’s virgin’s eyes are closed — it’s the way their hands reach towards each other that makes the moment so intimate. Outside the quiet room a door leads to a garden, and beyond the garden, a gate, a tree — the world. The tree is ambiguous: no doves or golden showers to remind us of the Incarnation — this tree is an omen of his death: the lignum Crucis or wood of the Cross.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is painted at a different moment. When you look, you know the words have been said. This angel genuflects; their eyes meet. Mary stays seated, but her body leans towards him, their hands mirror each other’s suggesting serene acceptance: she has just uttered the ultimate Christian response: ‘Be it done unto me according to thy word.’


McCahon angels are different from the  angels of Martini, Botticelli and Fra Angelico.  He’d seen reproductions in books of Italian Quattrocento and early Cinquecento paintings, and the Angel in The Angel of the Annunciation enters from the left of the painting like most Northern hemisphere angels. McCahon angels are outlined in black, however, they’re as heavy and physical as the mortals they’re visiting. Gabriel has round breasts and solid legs; traditionally angels were sexless, but those breasts and that blue dress seems to turn Gabriel into a woman. S/he hangs over hills like a brooding sculpture, like the hills themselves, rather than a gathering of light. A wing tip and an upward hand point to a cloud whose ochre underside is earth-coloured.

5McCahon angel of the Annunciation

The quiet room filled with lilies, the virgin reading at her prédieu have gone. Mary in this place is standing, exposed, outside what could be her house, but is actually the Tahunanui Golf Clubhouse – McCahon’s attempt to locate these stories amongst us. There is a door but it’s dark and black, there is a window— perhaps. The angel is looking down at the top of her head; her eyes are at the same height as the angel’s knees, and she seems to look out of the frame, over the triangle of words squashed themselves into the left-hand corner of the painting. She has no hands. But there is a connection between angel and woman: Gabriel’s hand against a grey sky points up: he’s definitely referring to something, but the message seems melancholic, and the tilt of the woman’s head suggests resignation more than acceptance.

In the smaller Annunciation, you can hardly tell who is angel, who is woman.

The angel’s almost brush the top of Mary’s head — only her halo prevents touch; these two close-together heads are sharing something: the message is whispered into the Virgin’s ear. This is a private moment: the fact we see only part of the angel’s head makes me think we are looking at through a keyhole and might also be a reference to the idea of conception occurring by hearing.


Gretchen Albrecht’s Pacific Annunciation painted more than thirty years after McCahon’s Angel of the Annunication refers to their artistic legacy differently. Maybe because she actually stood in front of the paintings McCahon saw only in books, walked through churches, saw how they fitted into its architecture. She was also interested in the idea of the Annunciation differently from McCahon. Of all the paintings concerned with the divine birth, Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto had the most profound effect on her. She wrote:

It was discovering the Madonna del Parto (in San Sepulcro) standing within a fur-lined circular tent its sides held open by a pair of angels to reveal the blue gowned Madonna pointing to her unbuttoned dress and her pregnant belly. The tent has a curved top curving itself again into the (original) curved romanesque architecture that prompted my sense of the shape intensifying the experience of looking and understanding and ‘presenting’ the image to me — or making it become visible to me through the fabric of the structure. A perfect containment for revelations.



Her Pacific Annunciation is a distillation of all she saw when she went to Europe. She asked her father, a builder, to bolt two quadrants together to form a semicircle which she has always called ‘hemispheres’. Within this space she was able to refer both to the architecture of the northern hemisphere, and the semi-circular tent of the virgin held open by the angels in Piero’s painting. Gretchen Albrecht reinterprets Piero’s Madonna’s confidence within the structure of the hemisphere: its curve echo her fecundity, and although she uses the traditional colours of the angel and the virgin, their separate quadrants acknowledge the separate, equal, and co-existent conditions of divine and human. The lightness and shimmering quality of the pink paint is not unlike the swirl of the angel’s clothes in the Botticelli Annunication: as if the angel has just arrived, while the dark pulsing blue of the Virgin’s quadrant suggests Mary’s grave consideration of the words.



1 Lippi  Madonna http://www.google.co.nz/search?q=lippi+annunciation

2 Martini Annunciation, Uffizi

3 www.google.co.nz/search?q=botticelli+annunciation

4 http://mccahon.co.nz/cm001039





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Steph Matuku

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