Veit Stoss, The Annunciation, 1517-18, St Lorenzkirche, Nuremberg.
It’s been over two months since I last discussed The Annunciation. Back then it was the calm, rational, yet mystical version by Piero della Francesca, which is at the heart of his True Cross cycle (Picture Of The Day 7). I’m surprised I haven’t talked about more versions, there are so many. But on Sunday, I was talking about Mercury’s caduceus – his staff of office (POTD 67) – and I said that the Archangel Gabriel used to have one too – a staff of office, that is, not a caduceus. As far as I’m aware, Mercury is the only person to have one of those. From classical to medieval times – and beyond – messengers showed their authority to convey messages by carrying a staff or rod, and this is what Gabriel holds in early representations of the Annunciation. He still does in Veit Stoss’s magical polychrome sculpture in the Church of St Laurence – the Lorenzkirche – in Nuremberg, even though that doesn’t really class as ‘early’
The sculpture hangs from the vaulted ceiling on a chain, and has done almost constantly since it was completed in 1518. At one point there was a petition to replace the chain with a hemp rope, as that would be cheaper, but, although the petition was successful, the rope broke. It was also taken down and stored during the Second World War, which was just as well, given that the church was completely gutted. The ceiling you see here dates from the 1950s, but gives an entirely convincing sense of the lofty heights of the brilliantly illuminated medieval church. The stained glass is also original – like the Annunciation it was removed and preserved – as was the elaborate candelabrum to the right of the image, which is topped by a small sculpture of the Virgin Mary. The candelabrum was commissioned at the same time as the Annunciation, and was intended to illuminate it. The patron was a local businessman – and council member – Anton Tucher, who had a particular devotion to the rosary. The candelabrum was there so that people could see the Annunciation in the hope that it would facilitate their prayers.
The dedication to the rosary explains the structure of the ensemble, which is made up of many different sculptures. Gabriel and Mary are central, perhaps a little too close for comfort given the nature of their exchange, and they stand not on the floor, but on the outstretched cloak of an angel. They are surrounded by a rosary, which is made up of a ring of small, stylised roses, with five circles arranged around it. There are another two of the roundels top left and right, with everything overseen by God the Father, perched on a cloud. Hanging from the bottom is a serpent, an apple in its mouth. Closest to the devout, this would be a constant reminder about the need for prayer. Hanging around the rosary is another string of prayer beads: seven gold beads punctuate sequences of black: there are three of the latter at either end, and then six sets of ten black beads. A rosary would usually have six sets like this, although only one would hang free, with the other five sets looped together. The same structure is replicated by the ring of roses. Although you can only see eight of these in between the roundels, if you look from the back, there are in fact ten – it’s just that each roundel hides two of them. This is a real sign that this is a devotional work, as there is nowhere where you could see the two hidden roses clearly. You say – or ‘tell’ – the rosary by running it through your fingers and saying a prayer on each bead. On each of the large beads (represented by the gold ones on the hanging chain, or by the roundels) you would say the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father…”), and on each of the smaller ones, a “Hail Mary” – which is a version of the angelic salutation to the Virgin Mary, the very reason why the Annunciation is the central image. While saying the “Our Father” you should meditate on one of the mysteries – but I’ll tell you what those are later. Despite my frequent exhortations to ‘go round the back’ of sculptures (e.g. POTD 68), there is relatively little to be learnt here – although if you move around the full 180˚ of the ‘front’, the relationship between Gabriel and Mary will constantly change.
Gabriel looks a little duller here, because this photo was taken before a relatively recent cleaning – and yes, the sculpture has been cleaned and restored numerous times: it would have to be. You will know from your own homes how soon the dust settles. And given that there is a candelabrum that used to be piled high with candles not so far away, it would also have been covered in soot. But all that aside, it is in a remarkably good condition, because from the very beginning the sculpture had its own big, green bag which was only taken off during Mass and on special feast days. The process was expensive, and as a result the frequency with which this happened gradually decreased. And then in 1525 Nuremberg became Protestant, just seven years after the sculpture was completed, so it’s surprising that it survived at all. However, rather than destroy it, they just left it in its bag. It’s only relatively recently that it has been on display all the time.
The angel Gabriel comes as a messenger from God the Father, who sits atop the sculpture, symbolically outside the world, above the clouds, in heaven. He blesses with his right hand, and holds an orb in his left. The orb represents the world, divided by a loop around the centre (the equator, effectively), and with an additional loop going round the bottom (usually, though, it goes across the top). Thus the globe is divided into three – Europa, Africa and Asia, the three known continents. OK, by the time Stoss carved it, the Americas had been ‘discovered’, but no one ever thought to change the orb. The cross on top represents God’s dominion over the world. When the orb is held by a monarch, it stands for that monarch’s dominion over their particular part of the globe on God’s behalf. Beams of heavenly light radiate out below God, but we can’t see those in this detail. Gabriel is mid-announcement, his lips open, and a look of awe in his eyes – Mary truly is as beautiful as he had been led to believe. His right hand points up, symbolically, towards God, and he holds his staff of office in his left. This really is a staff of office – there is no hint that it might be even slightly like a lily. Around it is wrapped a scroll, bearing the angelic salutation in full – ‘Ave gratia plena dominus tecum etc.’ – ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee’. The ‘Mary’ was added later for the prayer, and for the sake of clarity.
Gabriel and Mary don’t exactly look at each other – a bit like a skype call or Zoom, they appear to be on the same screen, and yet in different places. They are not quite looking at each other – or the camera. Despite their physical proximity, they should be imagined as being further apart, and facing towards each other – Stoss has abbreviated the space as a result of the requirements of the ensemble. On hearing the greeting – or, given that Gabriel is still speaking, while listening to him – Mary appears duly humble. Her left hand holds the book she was reading – the Jewish scriptures – against her lap, and it presses on the blue lining of her gold cloak, although I can’t help thinking that, with the surprise, she is letting it slip to the ground. Her right hand goes towards her chest as a sign of her humility, although it hasn’t got there yet – it stands free of her torso, a fantastic piece of carving. In all of the ensemble the the wood is carved deeply, notably around the draperies where corners always stand free, looking almost paper thin. To prevent th cloaks falling over the rosary, they are held up by angels, who are multi-tasking: they also ring bells in celebration. This is quite a noisy sculpture. The Holy Spirit has landed on Mary’s head, almost like Philip Larkin’s ‘faint hint of the absurd’. I’m not sure why Stoss chose to do this: he is happy for angels to be mounted on rods, why shouldn’t the dove do the same? It could well be a sign that, as the dove has landed, this is the very moment of conception. The roundels are, I hope, clear enough to read here. They are relief carvings of scenes from the lives of Mary and Jesus, arranged in a sequence starting at the bottom left, just below Gabriel’s feet.
On the left we see the Nativity, with the baby Jesus lying on the floor, in between Mary and Joseph, both kneeling and praying. On the right, Mary and St Peter kneel on either side, with others in the background. The Holy Spirit flies, wings outstretched, at the top of the image – this is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended and the Apostles went out to preach to the world (POTD 58 – we’ll hear more about it on Sunday).
On the left, after the Nativity, comes the Adoration of the Magi. The eldest magus kneels and hands the gift of Gold to Jesus, who sits on Mary’s lap and leans over to touch it. The other two Magi stand behind – the middle-aged one bends over from the left, and the young, black king looks out above Jesus’ head. As well as the three ages of man, the Magi also came to represent the three continents – thus linking to the orb above. To the right we see the Ascension of Christ (POTD 64), which precedes Pentecost by ten days. Mary and Peter kneel on the ground looking up as Christ’s feet, and the hem of his robe disappear behind the top of the roundel.
Finally, at the top, we have the Resurrection (POTD 25) – which completes the cycle. Or rather, it links the images on the left and right, a clockwise narrative, from the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi, through the Resurrection and on to the Ascension and Pentecost. The two additional scenes continue the story of Mary, with the Death of the Virgin (often referred to as the ‘Dormition’ – as she didn’t so much die as go to sleep – more of that another day), and then, in the top right, an image which combines several different ideas. Mary and Jesus are both crowned as Queen and King of Heaven, with swirling blue around them. Within this is the notion of Mary’s Assumption into heaven, and her subsequent Coronation. There are also angels with a viol and a lute – more music to add to the bells.
Almost all of these roundels are taken from the ‘mysteries’, those events that should be contemplated while saying an “Our Father” on the larger beads. There were, traditionally, three sets of ‘mysteries’, although Pope John Paul II added a fourth. I’ll just list the traditional three, which were the Joyful, the Sorrowful, and the Glorious Mysteries:
Joyful: the Annunciation; the Visitation; the Nativity; the Presentation at the Temple and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple.
Sorrowful: the Agony in the Garden; the Flagellation; the Crowning with Thorns; the Carrying of the Cross and the Crucifixion and Death of Christ.
Glorious: the Resurrection; the Ascension; the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost); the Assumption of the Virgin and the Coronation of the Virgin.
Notice, however, that the Adoration of the Magi doesn’t actually feature here – so, although all of the other roundels represent ‘mysteries’ of the Rosary, this should really be elided with the Nativity.
Having said that, listing the mysteries does make this sculpture seem more academic than it really is. What comes across more than any thing else, given the rich colours and the flights of angels, the clanging of bells and sweet angelic music, is that The Annunciation is a truly joyous event. The ‘sorrowful mysteries’ are completely omitted and there is the recognition that, with the Annunciation, Salvation is on its way. So let’s finish with some entirely joyous angels!