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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Art and Jesus--the Annunciation

Annunciation, 1433-34, Fra Angelico
Annunciation, 1442-43, Fra Angelico
Although we today think of Jesus' birth as being the beginning of his life on earth, artists of the past began to tell the story of Christ not from his birth but from what they've termed "The Annunciation," or the gospel recounting of the angel Gabriel breaking the news to Mary that she was to be the mother of the Messiah. Such depictions began as far back as Roman times but became most popular as subjects for altarpieces during the Renaissance. A priest named Fra Angelico painted two of the earliest annunciations, approximately ten years apart. The earliest, (above, left) is rather Medieval in style, while the second (above, right) is done in an Early Renaissance manner reflecting both a maturation in painting style as well as the artist's personal vision. His work was to influence the great Leonardo da Vinci's depictions some thirty years later (below).

The Annunciation, 1472, Leonardo da Vinci
In Germany, the work of Robert Campin's Annunciation Triptych known as the Merode Altarpiece (below), from around 1425, stands apart from most of the others. Interestingly, the left panel depicts the donors who paid for the work while the right panel includes Joseph at work in his carpenter's shop. Painted with the paid assistance of two other artists, Campin's mastery of oil painting came at a time when most artists outside of Germany still painted frescoes or with egg tempera.

The Merode Altarpiece, 1425, Robert Campin

The Annunciation, early 1300s,
Cathedral of St. Gatien's, Tours, France
Artists in stained glass have also found the theme appealing. The Cathedral of St. Gatien's at Tours, France, which dates from the early 1300s has many excellent stained glass examples of Gospel episodes dealing with the life of Christ. The Annunciation (left), while appearing rather stiff as compared to painted depictions, quite effectively served its purpose, that of relating the story of Jesus to those who could neither read nor had access to printed texts from which to do so. As was quite common during this period, the identity of the artist is unknown. Especially where religious works and cathedrals were concerned artists considered themselves mere craftsmen, unworthy to have their names associated with the building of places of worship.

Church on Annunciation in Nazareth, a mosaic from the people of the Philippine islands.

A 19th Century Annunciation
The annunciation has continued to fascinate painters up through the 19th and 20th. Their depictions have updated and modernized the event. In Nazareth, where it all took place, the Church of the Annunciation features a mosaic (above), a gift from worshipers in the Philippines. In Africa, the country of Cameroon, we find the Mafa have their own vision of the annunciation (below, right).

The Annunciation as seen by the Mafa in
Cameroon, Africa
During the 20th century, religious paintings have tended toward highly realistic illustrations for prints, religious books, and periodicals. They have often broken from traditional depictions in favor of more modern, introspective, images similar to After Thoughts (below) by an unknown artist dating from 1931.
After Thoughts, 1931. Modern images of the
annunciation have become quite introspective.


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