The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary; and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.” So begins the Angelus, the prayer that celebrates the Annunciation. To the eyes of faith, the coming of Christ was the high point of human history, and so the Church prays the Angelus each day at noon, the high point of the day. Federico Barocci portrays this revolutionary turning point as a serene and graceful moment: The angel Gabriel, who has just alighted, tilts his head toward Mary with a smile of greeting. She in turn raises her hand in mild surprise and calmly sets aside her prayerbook; the angel’s “Be not afraid” seems hardly necessary.
A departure, then, from the conventional, but hardly a surprising one. Barocci’s etching is a response to the Counter-Reformation and the profound reorientation of European culture in the late sixteenth century. The Council of Trent, which spelled out widespread reforms within the Catholic Church, ended in 1653 with a session defining the role of the arts within the reformed community. The council fathers recognized that the arts, especially the visual arts, carry an emotive force that can support and may even transcend the power of the written word. Reformers like St. Charles Borromeo called for a new art that would be an equivalent of their theology, an art of clarity, simplicity, and truth, an effective stimulant to the prayer life of the
Religious art had been in just as much need of reform as theology. Prior to the council, religious pictures were prone to arcane subject matter, an anti-classical convolution of form and slickness of surface, deliberate ambiguities of space and composition, and esoteric and often eroticized intricacies (complaints, it might be noted, all leveled against the art of today). “Art for art’s sake” seems to come and go throughout the cycles of art history; according to the Tridentine reformers, it was time for it to go.
Engaging Mind & Senses
This is not to say that Barocci’s picture is a simplistic narrative, spelling out the event and nothing more. In the Christian view, every object in the natural world carries a supernatural meaning beyond itself. Centuries of Christian painting reflect that view: Ordinary objects carry a freight of symbolic meaning. In Barocci’s Annunciation, for instance, Gabriel’s feet are bare. Since biblical times bare feet have symbolized the fact that one is standing on holy ground, and what ground could be more holy than this? In his left hand, the angel carries a lily, a symbol of purity, to remind us that it was Mary’s freedom from the taint of original sin that fitted her to bear the Son of God.
Mary, in her turn, holds a small book, which she sets aside as she turns her attention to Gabriel, as if she had been interrupted in a moment of prayer. But the book she puts away would have been recognized as a reference to the Old Testament: presumably she would have been reading Scripture or praying the psalms, the daily prayers of the faithful Jews. In setting aside her book, she sets aside the Old Covenant, which is superseded by the coming of the Messiah, the living Word of God. At Mary’s right hand stand an inkpot and a quill to symbolize that Word, which is yet to be written.
Even the lighting is conceived in symbolic terms. The sunny landscape seen through the window is pale in comparison with the supernatural light that bursts through the cloudlike drapery above and announces the presence of God. The natural order is thus superseded by the uncreated light of the Spirit as it breaks the boundaries of the natural world. Yet the moment comes so quietly, so unobtrusively, that it does not even wake Mary’s cat, which is sleeping at the lower left with its cheek resting peacefully on its paw. This is more than a charming domestic detail, however: an educated audience would have recognized the cat as a symbol of evil, darkness, and the devil. On another level, then, so quietly did Christ come into the world that he caught the devil napping.
Deciphering the hidden symbolism in a picture like this was meant to be more than an esoteric game for the initiated. Art and life were less compartmentalized in the sixteenth century than they are today, and a picture like Barocci’s Annunciation served multiple purposes. The artist’s choice of the etching medium made it possible for him to produce multiple images and disseminate them more widely; the visual arts lagged behind printed works in reproducibility, and artists struggled to close this gap. All artists collected prints like this one as a way of keeping up with new developments. Prints were cheap, too, and they gave the general public access to images that previously could belong only to churches or to the very rich.
Finally, in addition to being accessible and decorative, pictures like this one served a deeper purpose: they were meant to be an integral part of one’s prayer. Contemplation of images like Barocci’s Annunciation involved both the viewer’s intellectual faculties (as he worked out the artist’s hidden meanings) and his senses, and so could help him reach a fuller engagement in prayer and truly put himself in the presence of God.
Mary Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children. They live in Naples, Florida.
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“Barocci’s Annunciation” first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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