I’ve been over in the UK the past couple of months and just arrived back in NZ this morning. So, as I’ve been airborne for most of the past day and a bit, I felt it only apt that today’s advent offering should depict a winged creature. J.W. Waterhouse’s painting, The Annunciation, offers us a vision of Mary’s visitation by the angel Gabriel as told in the Second Testament book of Luke 1:26-38. Waterhouse has added some interesting details to this gospel tradition – Mary appears to have been spinning yarn before Gabriel appeared to her. There is also what looks like a Torah scroll on a stand to her left. Perhaps she was doing some scriptural study?
Moreover, dressed in a gorgeous deep lilac tunic with red trim, Mary also appears to be connected visually to the angelic form who stands before her. For, compared with more traditional depictions of angels in art, Gabriel is not swathed in white, but in various violet tones; even the wings are a lush indigo. And, unlike the angelic figure we read about in Luke, this divine messenger appears to be female. Perhaps Waterhouse wanted to suggest the possibility of a bonding between these two characters – a shared understanding of the news being imparted and the implications that it would bring to this young Jewish woman. Mary does look aghast at the news of her impending pregnancy, but the angel’s placating stance, her gift of white flowers, and her shared feminine identity (which is also accentuated by the women’s matching dress colours) allows Waterhouse to depict this dramatic scene as a visit by one friend to another, rather than a traumatic intrusion of the heavenly into Mary’s thus-far peaceful earthly existence.
Following on from Stephen’s advent offering yesterday, I thought I would continue the annunciation theme with a painting by American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. While the angelic annunciation to Mary in Luke 1.26-38 is a hugely popular subject in art through the centuries, Tanner’s depiction stands out in my mind for a number of reasons. First, rather than the standard figure of the angel we are used to seeing in annunciation paintings (typically equipped with wings and flowing robes as we saw last Monday), the heavenly messenger is instead represented by a stunning, tear-shaped lozenge of light that hovers to the left of the picture, casting an amber glow over the rest of the scene. Its presence is awe-inspiring, but also a little disquieting, as we are left unsure of what it actually is.
Equally disquieting is the figure of Mary, who sits, seemingly mesmerised by this strange visitor. Hands clasped and shoulders hunched, she looks pensive and afraid, her oversized robe accentuating how young and vulnerable she really is – we cannot help but feel anxious on her behalf. Similarly, the small details of the rumpled bedclothes and crinkled rug accentuate the very human location of this biblical tradition and invite us to see the events through Mary’s eyes – the magnitude and trauma of this uninvited visitation and the massive task being imposed upon her by the heavenly messenger. What is she thinking right at this moment? How does she feel about what lies ahead of her? The annunciation scene is usually spoken of and represented as the most sacred of moments, yet perhaps Tanner shows it to us here as something far more complex.