Day 80 – Gabriel’s Mission

Giotto, Gabriel’s MissionThe Annunciation and The Visitation, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Ah – Scrovegni Saturday! How many more will there be, I wonder? So far we’ve looked at the West Wall, with the Last Judgement (behind us, in the photo below), and the Virtues and Vices along the bottom of the South and North walls respectively, the Story of Joachim and Anna atop the South wall (on the right of the following view) and the Birth and Betrothal of the Virgin at the top of the North wall (on the left here).

So now – the chancel arch, at the East end. That is, ecclesiastical East, as the chapel is actually angled towards the North-East. But whatever the direction, we are looking at the triumphal arch which leads towards the altar. We will start at the very top, in the section that is mainly blue, like the sky.

And the reason why it looks like the sky is because that is where we are – beyond the sky, in fact – in Heaven. In the centre, God the Father sits enthroned, and yes, there are three steps Heaven, or at least, to the throne. Sadly much of the painted surface is damaged, but that doesn’t get away from the fact that God – and the throne – look substantially different. And that is because they are. Whereas everything we have looked at before and will look at after in this chapel is painted in fresco – i.e. onto wet plaster – the throne was painted with egg tempera on wood. This throne is actually a door. By 1278 it had become a tradition in this part of Padua to re-enact the Annunciation on the feast day itself, 25 March, even before the Scrovegni Chapel had been built. In all probability the drama was performed again when the chapel was consecrated, and dedicated to the Annunciation, on 25 March 1305. This door may well have been opened to allow a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, to fly out and settle on the Virgin Mary. However, as doves themselves are reasonably unpredictable, it would have been a model dove, on a piece of string, lowered down to the choirboy performing the role of the Virgin Mary. This is how the National Gallery of Art in Washington describes the performances of the ‘Golden Mass’ which took place in Bruges in the 15th Century, performances which seem to be echoed in Jan van Eyck’s painting of the Annunciation which we saw on Tuesday (POTD 76):

Two young choirboys—with “sweet high voices”—don costumes in the sacristy. Gabriel carries a sceptre. After the singing of matins, they take places near the main altar. Gabriel stands and Mary kneels as the deacon begins the Gospel reading from Luke:  “At this time, God sent the angel Gabriel to a city of Galilee called Nazareth, where a virgin dwelt, betrothed to a man of David’s lineage; his name was Joseph and the virgin’s name was Mary. Into her presence the angel came and said….”

At this point the choirboys pick up the narrative. Gabriel genuflects three times, then sings: ave gratia plena: dominus tecum: benedicta tu in mulieribus…. [Hail, full of Grace, most favoured among women, the Lord is with you….] He calms Mary’s initial bewilderment and explains that she will conceive and bear a son. Mary asks, “how is this possible as I have no knowledge of men?” As a dove is lowered from the choir, the angel explains: “the Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the Most High will overshadow thee. Thus this holy offspring of thine shall be known as the Son of God….”

Before giving her response, Mary stands. She turns to face the altar and raises her hands; her gesture during the reenactment, as in Van Eyck’s painting, parallels the expancis minibus made by the priest during the mass. She submits: Ecce ancilla domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum [Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word]. The actors remain in place as the mass continues, and the dove is raised again during the singing of the Agnus Dei.

A long quotation, I know, but I think it’s worth it. Let’s get back to the painted decoration – the black line going through the picture here is one of the braces, holding the walls together, just in case you were worried. God the Father sits enthroned surrounded by angels, who are gathered playing music and looking around at one another. Two angels flank the throne, one on either side – and the one on the left takes a step towards the deity: God gestures down to him. This is the Archangel Gabriel, being given a mission from God – to seek out Mary, the most perfect woman ever born – Immaculate, even (POTD 71 & 72) – and to tell her that she will be the Mother of Jesus. He flies down to the left, where we see him in a tabernacle which could so easily be part of a temporary stage for a religious drama, announcing the good news to Mary who is in an equivalent tabernacle on the other side of the chancel arch. 

To enhance the development of the narrative, Giotto paints these ‘tabernacles’ to match the house towards which Mary had processed after her betrothal to Joseph. When looking up to the top left of the left-hand image you can see that the end of the story of Mary is just above the announcing Angel on the adjacent wall – we have taken a step down, as we will again on the other side when Jesus is born – the story is spiralling down towards us as it becomes more significant.

For Giotto the Annunciation is a non-nonsense affair. Gabriel holds a scroll, intended to represent the angelic salutation, Ave gratia plena, but no staff or lily. Mary kneels, hands crossed in front of her chest, in practical acceptance. She has been at her desk, and holds a tiny volume of the scriptures. Beams of light seem to come down from God the Father, and, on the other side, they also emanate from Gabriel – there may well have been gold detailing, which has been lost, in both cases. In true theatrical fashion curtains have been drawn back to reveal the protagonists, and they are tied around porphyry columns to keep them out of the way. 

Churches often have the Annunciation depicted on either side of the Chancel Arch, but wherever the subject is represented it is always worthwhile thinking about the implications of the location. Gabriel says ‘Hail, full of Grace’ – and if you imagine the words being written out (as they are, by Jan van Eyck and others), then the space between Gabriel and the Virgin is itself ‘full of Grace’. In the Scrovegni Chapel the greeting acts to sanctify the chancel arch. Gabriel is announcing the birth of Christ across the archway which leads to the altar. This is where Mass is performed and bread is transformed into the body of Christ: Gabriel is announcing the birth of Christ exactly where he will indeed be ‘born’ through the miracle of transubstantiation. And, as I mentioned last Saturday (POTD 73), Mary was sometimes referred to as Porta Coeli – the Gate of Heaven – as she will give birth to the means of our salvation. In this setting the chancel arch represents that triumphal entry – Mary is both ‘the Gate’ and painted on ‘the Gate’.

It is immediately after the Annunciation that the Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary went to visit her cousin Elisabeth, who was with child. Giotto implies that Mary headed out straight away, wearing the same clothes – the differences in colour between the two images are probably the result of the photographs being taken at different times on different cameras under different lighting conditions and at different stages in the restoration history of the frescoes. This scene on the right is frequently represented as it is very important – The Visitation. At the beginning of her visit Mary greets her cousin, and the child moves within Elisabeth’s womb. This is how Luke reports it in 1:41-44:

And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.

Even before he has been born, John the Baptist has recognised his cousin Jesus as the Messiah – and Mary acknowledges the fact with the words ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’ – which become the words of the Magnificat, sung during Anglican Evensong.  But how does the painting fit onto the chapel walls?

It is directly below the image of the Annunciate Virgin – as if Mary has just gone downstairs. Notice how notice that Mary’s movement, like Gabriel’s in the Annunciation is, as ever, from left to right. And then, see how Giotto reverses the colours across the arch. Whereas Mary is on the left in red greeting Anna in yellow, on the other side of the arch a figure on the left is in yellow, with another on the right in red. This is the sort of symmetry that Giotto delights in across the chapel. As to what that scene represents – well, we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to find out!

Before we go, let’s just stop to think about the flow of the narrative. Last week we traced the birth of Mary, her arrival at the temple and her betrothal at the top of the wall on the left here. We then take a step down to the Annunciation, where we are joined by Gabriel, who has been sent by God from the very top of the chancel arch. Mary then leaves the Annunciation, heading down – in the same clothes – to the Visitation below. And then the story continues at the same level on the right wall – the first image we will see next week is the one between the windows to the right of the Visitation. But before then, I will leave you with a detail that shows the love between two cousins, and Giotto’s skill at characterisation: the Immaculate Virgin, with her cousin Elizabeth, ‘well stricken in years’.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “Day 80 – Gabriel’s Mission

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: