I’ve seen plenty of fancy golden altarpieces that are shiny, and that’s their sole allure. Simone Martini’s The Angel and the Annunciation, painted in 1333 in Sienna, now Italy, had a different affect on me. Forget for a moment, if you already know, what the “annunciation” story is. Just look at these folks, er, I mean this angel and this woman. Let’s read their faces:
Angel: I am shooting you daggers, and my words are SHOUTING at you, see! Lady, listen up! This is not all fun and games. Can you read my lips? I’m dead serious.
Lady: I don’t wanna. I’m a sour teenager and I don’t like what you are saying and you can’t make me. Can’t you see I am just trying to read, here? And my self-image doesn’t need anymore bashing—I’ll just hide behind my big cape so no one will see my zits/cleavage/farmers tan/stain on my shirt. Why did you have to come here and tell me all this stuff anyway? Would you please just disappear again?
These faces just scream at me, though the official story is a bit different than the dialogue I invented above. The biblical story has the angel Gabriel appear to Mary, a virgin, and tell her that she is going to have a baby, God’s son, Jesus:
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
The way I’ve always imagined the story is so sweet, so acquiescing. Mary is just a bit perplexed and confused by the angel’s sudden glowing appearance, but not resistant or sour. I hear her voice as an ancient version of “Oh, God wants what? I’m not sure I’m the right candidate for the job, but, if you say so!”
Martini’s version is less saccharine. The Holy Spirit is there, symbolized by a dove surrounded by funny bodiless bird-cherubs, beaming at Mary to conceive. Martini also spells out (literally—in latin) Gabriel’s greeting, almost like a graphic novel speech bubble. The words shoot at Mary’s ear, attacking the potted lily standing between them. And Mary is in her “greatly troubled” state, here looking more like a troubled youth than the notably perplexed saint I have in my head.
Much of what we see is typical of religious art: golden halos for holiness, dove for the Holy Spirit, lilies for Mary’s purity, an olive branch as a symbol of peace and the birth of the future “Prince of Peace” (aka, Jesus). A few things, however, caught my eye: opulent marble floors, detailed wood-grained throne, and intricately patterned fabrics.
PLAID!!! What is this, 17th century Scotland? I was shocked to see the print on Gabriel’s cloak, and set off to research the history of plaid. Turns out, examples of the criss-cross striped fabric have been found in Egyptian tombs and ancient Asian burial sites. It is plausible that Martini modeled this after a celtic fabric, though most likely he was examining a textile woven in Mongol controlled present day Iran or Iraq.
During Simone Martini’s lifetime William Wallace of Scotland was hanged and quartered for treason, crusaders returned to Europe from the Holy Land, and the Hundred Years War began. Martini, who died at Avignon during its brief stint as the seat of Catholicism, missed the first wave of Black Death by a decade. Also worth noting: Marco Polo served in the court of Kublai Khan. The Silk Road you might recollect from high school World History class had become a relatively peaceful trek at this time, due to the stability provided by the vast Mongol influence. This “Pax Mongolica” allowed fancy fabrics like this one, to become part of the wealth of the Catholic church:
Also, plaid. Plaid shows up in a few other artworks of the period, so despite the fact that I can’t find an image of a contemporary swatch made with fine materials, I’ll trust the quotes pulled from inventory descriptions of the religious holdings of the time. While plaid seems a bit absurd to me when looking at a 14th century Italian religious painting, apparently it would have been a recognizable textile in its day, worn only by the very wealthy, which would include the Church.
“Regarding the Angel Gabriel in the Annunciation of 1333, Simone seems to have recognized that clothing sacred figures in imported fabrics, depicted with fantastic realism, could have the dual effect of making the religious event “present,”and, at the same time, distancing it. …By triggering associations between his painted subject and real, contemporary fabrics and vestments, Simone brought the event into the realm of his viewer’s experience. But at the same time, by dressing his protagonist in luxury fabrics, denied to most because of their exorbitant cost or through sumptuary laws, and reserved only for the select few, he emphasized the sacred nature of the scene.” (Hoeniger)
Simone Martini dressed his subjects in modern Italian couture and painted their faces with relatable human expressions. While the fancy silk clothing doesn’t have the same effect on me as the citizens of 14th century Sienna, Martini’s painterly skill still manages to achieve the same feat of elevating the subject while also rendering them human. If God chose this sour-faced teenager to carry the Messiah long waited for by the Jews, then perhaps he can find a way to use me, even when I am resistant and troubled. Though, my house doesn’t have marble floors or gold leafed walls, so perhaps I need to redecorate first… (wink, wink.)
Can you relate at all to the scene in Martini’s Annunciation? Do you hear bagpipes when you look at it?
If you’d like a breakdown of the various symbolic elements in the painting, check out art historian E.J.Duckworth’s own blog entry on the work.
A History of Tartan, aka plaid.
Hoeniger, Cathleen S. Cloth of Gold and Silver: Simone Martini’s Techniques for Representing Luxury Textiles. Gesta, Vol. 30, No. 2 (1991), pp. 154-162. The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center of Medieval Art. http://www.jstor.org/stable/767057