>Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, an event recounted in the Gospel of St. Luke that is familiar to most Christians (St. Luke 1: 10-38). Because of the spiritual importance and the emotional impact of the event, the Annunciation has been portrayed many times in the history of art. Oftentimes, such depictions gave the artist free reign to play with luxurious materials in the robes and wings of the Archangel Gabriel, or to impress us with his understanding of linear perspective.
Occasionally however, the artist chose to show a more humble, simple vision of St. Luke’s account. Last year I wrote about two interesting, but simple presentations of this scene by two very different artists. Stripping the scene down to its bare essentials can allow prayerful contemplation without the distraction of an artist, for lack of a better term, gilding the lily.
However, an example of this kind of minimalist treatment which I have never particularly cared for is that of the prominent English Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His “Ecce Ancilla Domini!” of 1850, currently in the collection of the Tate Britain Gallery in London, is admittedly pretty in its way, but somewhat strange. The Virgin Mary, looking like a model out of a 1960’s Prell Shampoo advertisement, is recoiling against the wall from a wingless Archangel Gabriel, who has woken her up in bed to offer her some white lilies.
The painting was roundly criticized by contemporary art critics of Rossetti’s day, who thought that the symbolism was either too obtuse, or that the painting was really just a secular, non-spiritual scene of two interacting figures with some halos attached. There is certainly some truth to the latter criticism, since Rossetti was an atheist who often referred Christian themes when he wanted to sell a painting. Presumably this was his expression of the P.T. Barnum school of how to please the public taste.
Eventually, according to William Rossetti, brother of the artist, the painter had to re-work some parts of the picture and re-title it “The Annunciation” so as, as he put it, “to guard against the imputation of popery.” After all this was mid-19th century England, and anti-Catholicism was still very much a part of Establishment thinking. Cardinal Newman had only come into the church five years earlier, and Pope Pius IX had only re-established the Catholic dioceses in England the same year this painting was finished.
This is not to say that an artist who is not a devout Christian is incapable of producing a painting, a piece of music, or the like of intense spiritual depth and beauty. To say otherwise, of course, would be to deny that God can work how and through whom He pleases, and would also deny the believer the possibility of discovering Truth throughout creation, not just in the more easily acceptable bits. However in this particular instance, although this is a very pretty tableau Rossetti put together, it is simply that: a display window in a department store of historical imagery.