Monday, 24 December 2012

Advent series: How to look at a religious painting. Part 4: Reality and illusion.

Domenico Veneziano, Annunciation,
c.1442-48, tempera on wood panel, 27 x 54 cm (10 1/2 x 21 inches),
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Source:  Wikimedia (PD_Art).


What is amazing about this painting is the central perspective and the space it creates.  Look at the receding lines of the floor decoration, of the cornices, or of the garden path.  Parallel orthogonals (lines that are at right angles to the surface of the picture) converge.

In real life, parallel lines never converge or meet.  (That's why they're called parallel.)

In painting, parallel lines do appear to meet at a point called the vanishing point.  In Domenico's painting, the vanishing point is in the middle of the closed garden door.

Enclosed garden 
The closed garden door is a symbolic door and may symbolise Mary's virginity.  The garden harkens back to the hortus conclusion (enclosed garden) motif which symbolises the Virgin Mary.

"My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up."
Song of Songs, 4:12 (Old Testament, Bible)

Real space
At the same time, the garden door is a real door in real space.  And these are real rounded columns with shadows consistently attached on the left (suggesting that the light comes from the right).  And this is a real bench on which trails Mary's cloak; and the angel's foot sits on a real bit of floor.

Look at the shadow cast by the rounded doorway onto the pale pink floor.

The Gospel of Luke (New Testament, Bible)
To the left, the angel Gabriel says:  "Ave Maria gratia plena", or:

"Hail thou art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. [...]  And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS."
(Gospel of Luke, 1:28 and 1:31)

To the right, the Virgin Mary submits and says:

"Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word."
(Gospel of Luke, 1:38)
Remember the five steps of the Annunciation which I mentioned last week?  (Disquiet; reflection; inquiry; submission; merit).  And how I said that Francesco di Vannuccio's Virgin was disquiet?  Well,  Domenico Veneziano's Virgin is no longer troubled.

Black squares
Finally, look at the extraordinary black squares on the white wall.  They are windows, covered by a grid of bars.  But they are also black shapes punched out of space.  They are flat; they suck up the light; and they suck up perspective.

The black squares are painted 'real' windows.

They are also signs of 'painting' and of the flat surface of the panel.  They stand for the enigma of all painting:  both a 'real' object in space, and an 'illusion' of 'real' space and light.

Read more:
Read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, compared and illustrated at Gwydir Demon's site.

Have a look at the Fitzwilliam Museum's discussion of the painting and the reconstruction of the entire altarpiece (this is a fragment).

My take on the picture was inspired by Erwin Panofsky marvellous 1934 article  in the Burlington Magazine. on Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding.  A summary of Panofsky's interpretation of Van Eyck.

Check out the other parts of the advent series:

Happy fourth of advent, everybody, and wishing you a peaceful Christmas.


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