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
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Mary Elizabeth 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 and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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