Text by Geoffrey Smith
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We are witnessing one of the most solemn moments in the Christian story. An angel has appeared with a message from heaven; the recipient of that message, and of God’s will, kneels. The world holds its breath – the instant draws out into a timeless lacuna, filled with silence, pregnant with momentous consequences.
The cool austerity of the imposing classical architecture enhances the mood of solemnity and wonder, engendering a feeling of ordered peace. This sense of order is underpinned by the precision with which Botticelli has locked the components of his architectural caprice into a mathematically rigorous perspectival system. No hint of decoration relieves the formality of the outer vestibule and although the colour scheme throughout maintains and underlines the sober serenity of the piece, the Virgin is allowed a few furnishings within her sanctum to mitigate the asceticism of her surroundings. A white curtain, echoing Gabriel’s apparel, is gathered and fastened for the day; red cushions, mirroring the terracotta floors of the antechamber, adorn her bench (the same colour is used again for the covers of two books which balance atop the entablature of the settle).
The angel Gabriel has approached through a gap in the colonnade although he could just as easily have materialised within the room without any need to observe the physical constraints of our earthly realm. He bows, and is in the process of kneeling, hitching up his voluminous robe to enable such a manoeuvre. He holds a splendid stem of lilies – the white flowers match the angelic wings and garb but the real reason for their presence is to remind us, through the purity of their ivory whiteness, of the innocence and virtue of Mary.
Gabriel has delivered his speech. ‘Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee …thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.’ Mary’s perplexed response that she ‘know(s) not a man’ has been countered by the angel, telling her that ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee’ and it is this momentous event which is recorded here as a stream of divine light enters the outer colonnade speeding above the kneeling angel into the inner chamber, illuminating (and impregnating) the Virgin as she kneels submissively.
Today, Botticelli is rightly one of the most popular artists of the Italian Renaissance and this wonderful jewel of a painting is a good example of why he is held in such high regard. However, this was not always the case. During his lifetime his reputation as one of the greatest painters in Italy was assured. But the achievements of the High Renaissance were soon to eclipse his standing and it was not until the last half of the 19th century that renewed appreciation among scholars, with Walter Pater and Bernard Berenson in the vanguard, led to a rehabilitation. In part this was due to a 19th century revival of interest in humanism at the Medici court where, in line with the intellectual tastes of the time, Botticelli was noted for the iconographic complexity of some of his pieces. But in this picture he shows us that he is also a consummate master of profoundly moving simplicity.
Image: Web Gallery of Art
1483 Domenico Ghirlandaio: The Vocation of St Peter and St Andrew, Vatican, Sistine Chapel
1485 Leonardo da Vinci: The Virgin of the Rocks, Paris, Musée du Louvre