Sunday, 16 December 2012

Advent series: How to look at a religious painting. Part 3: Psychology.

A troubled Virgin

Francesco di Vannuccio
Source:  Musei senesi
When I visited Girton in November, I couldn't believe what was hidden away inside:

   in a building

                 off a corridor
                          in a room
                                in a corner:

This breathtaking little painting.

And it is little.  It's tiny!  You could hold it on a lap like an open book.  Except you can't touch, of course.  

My favourite things about this painting:

• its otherwordly grace

•  the chubby red cherubs hovering in the heavens

•  the little donors in black clothes, kneeling and praying  (they commissioned and owned this painting once upon a time)

•  the slanted eyes of the Virgin at left, her contorted pose, her mannered forefinger

•  the intricate incisions in the gold ground

•  that dour little figure at the bottom of the Assumption at right


The Annunciation is based on Simone Martini's famous Annunciation of 1333 (in Siena):

Source of image: Madelineinflorence's blog

The Assumption is based on the Assumption with Doubting Thomas by the Ovile Master (formerly in the Ospedale della Scala in Siena).

I first encountered the five steps of the Annunciation in Michael Baxandall's Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy.  

Baxandall quotes the Renaissance cleric Fra Roberto:

'The third mystery of the Annunciation is called Angelic Colloquy; it comprises five Laudable Conditions of the Blessed Virgin:
1.  Conturbatio -- Disquiet
2.  Cogitatio -- Reflection
3.  Interrogatio -- Inquiry
4.  Humiliatio -- Submission
5.  Meritatio -- Merit
The first laudable condition is called Conturbatio; as St Luke writes, when the Virgin heard the Angel's salutation -- "Hail, thou art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women" -- she was troubled.'
That's what we see in the delicate Annunciation at Girton:  a troubled Virgin, the angel Gabriel in profile, a momentous occasion explored with subtle drama and psychology.

If the little figure at the bottom of the Assumption (which is when Mary is brought straight up to Heaven after her death) is indeed a kind of Doubting Thomas (who didn't believe that Christ had risen from the dead and stuck his finger in Christ's side wound to find proof), then this little figure is also troubled:  "What?  She goes to Heaven, in soul and in body?  I don't believe this!"

Two small paintings that deal with human beings who are completely overwhelmed by divine forces beyond their ken.

The rest of us can but marvel.


What:  Annunciation  and Assumption of the Virgin.  A diptych painted by Francesco di Vannucci.
When:  Around 1380.
How:  Egg tempera on wooden panel.
Where:  Girton College, Cambridge.  In the Lawrence Room.
How can I see this?  Open to the public every Thursday, 2-4 pm.

Another painting by this artist:
• The Crucifixion (Bode-Museum, Berlin)

Check out the other parts of the advent series:

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