Speaking of angels….
‘And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.’ Luke 1:29
I was flying back from Rome a few years ago and I got talking to a man who had been standing behind me at the check-in. He was a professor of art history. Not some desiccated academic, thank God, but a chap with a lively twinkle in his eye and an easy smile. We talked our way all through the airport. Then we nattered away the air miles on the plane. We seemed to cover everything from the wonder of Italian wall-paintings to dodgy British pension schemes. The pair of us were still talking as we reclaimed our bags in London and came out through the International Arrivals. There we exchanged business cards, pecked each other on the cheek, and parted the best of friends who never expect to lay eyes on each other again.
‘How does someone like you speak such good Italian?’ was his opener after over-hearing me talking at the check-in desk in Rome. I’ll say straight off that I wasn’t thrilled about that “someone like you” I’d heard similar things said over the years with that same quizzical tone of surprise, so I knew exactly what he meant. This was ‘politespeak’ for how does some random black-British woman of advancing years manage to be so nifty with the Italian. Tell me. How can that be?
I ought to be used to it by now, but it still amazes and annoys me in equal parts; the fact that a black woman with a talent for anything, other than belting out a tune or sprinting like a greyhound, can still be a thing of wonder for even some of the smartest people you run into. You can see their mental machinery working overtime as they try to match the limits of the visual message they’ve received with interesting new information.
Still, on this particular occasion, someone like me, decided to let the remark slide. I decided to let friendly curiosity be the better part of unconscious bias. Besides I liked the look of the professor with his curly dark hair and his fetching smile. He reminded me a lot of my old university tutor, years ago. It was only natural that sooner or later the conversation should fall to Italian art where my total lack of any formal knowledge on the subject didn’t stop me weighing in with this expert in the field.
‘I’ve got a bit of thing for Annunciations’ I confessed to the Professor as the
plane taxied towards the runway and the flight attendants cut up and down the aisle slamming the overhead lockers. He smiled and raised his eyebrows in what I took to be a sign of encouragement. So like a truck with faulty brakes, recklessly I plunged on.
‘I’m probably saying this to the wrong person, I know, but it’s just that here in Italy, you sometimes feel as if you’re drowning in religious images; all those sombre ranks of saints, and the endless Nativities and Madonnas. It can be overwhelming. But I have to admit I’ve always had a soft spot for Mary and Gabriel.’
‘And why’s that?’ asked the Professor, who was now looking at me over the top of his spectacles with an expression that told me he was prepared to humour me. ‘Why do you think you’re so drawn to that particular scene?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe I like to keep things simple. There’s so much going on in some of the other paintings such as the Nativity scenes; The Holy Family, Wise Men, shepherds, livestock, the angelic host. It’s all very busy. But the Annunciation seems like such a private party. Intimate really. Just one man and a woman’
‘Surely you mean just one divine messenger and a woman’ he was quick to correct me.
‘That’s true. It’s Mary before things get complex isn’t it? Before she becomes public property. She’s still just a girl. It’s a glimpse of the simple girl she might have stayed, the everyday life she might have had as an ordinary wife and mother. The next time we see her she is usually one of a pair with the baby Jesus attached. If the paintings are anything to go by, after The Annunciation she’s sitting around a lot fulfilling her destiny as the Queen of Heaven.’
‘Mmm, I see what you’re saying’ he said, ‘You mean it’s Mary before she becomes “The Madonna”’. Before she’s burdened with eternal suffering’
I nodded as the conversation threatened to take a darker turn, but then the Professor suddenly brightened.
‘But what about Gabriel? The heavenly being? He’s not just any angel after all, is he? He’s one of the top angels, if you like. This is very much his show too, isn’t it? It’s his most famous visitation. Perhaps you’re attracted to him. Him and his impressive wing span?’
I smirked as the Professor gave a cheeky chuckle. ‘You know people do seem to get very turned on by angels’ he said. ‘There’s no getting away from it.’
‘Well if it’s angels you’re after, in Italy there’s definitely no getting away from it. Here, they’re two-a-penny; from the hard-core boys, like Gabriel, to the all-purpose hovering variety. They’re ubiquitous.’ I said, glad of a chance to use one of my favourite words.
‘But you’re right about Gabriel.’ I added ‘He is a fascinating character, though the versions of him vary so much, don’t they? Sometimes he’s all muscular energy with a cracking pair of legs, and in other versions he can be quite limp and effete, wafting that lily about.’
‘That’s what I mean’ insisted the Professor ‘From a modern viewpoint, a non-Christian viewpoint, if you like, he may be more interesting than her. Like I said, angels are hot property in popular culture. They have a universal appeal that goes way beyond any religious significance.’
‘Yes, but here’s the big mystery for me’ I said looking him squarely in the eye as if I was counting on him to get to the bottom of it.
‘Why doesn’t Mary look more surprised? I mean here I am, at home, saying my prayers in a moment of quiet devotion and suddenly this dazzling apparition alights with wings a-quiver and starts talking in riddles about the ‘fruit of my womb’. I’m just a young impressionable gal, remember. I mean, come on, you’d think I would pass out from the shock alone. Or at the very least I’d be reeling.’
‘Mmm. I’m not sure that that’s entirely true’ he said furrowing his brow in concentration. ‘I mean, that she never looks surprised. Doesn’t react. No. In fact I’m just trying to think of some instances where she does make a real response. Now then, let’s see….yes I’m sure there are some….’
‘Really?’ I said dubiously. Clearly I wasn’t ready to relinquish this cockamamie theory of mine just yet. Not even to an expert in the field. But I’m not sure that he even heard me because the academic, who has facts and figures at his fingertips, had suddenly surfaced. I could see this by the way he pressed his lips together and drummed his fingers on top of the briefcase resting on his knees. He was riffling through his mental catalogue of Annunciations. Flicking through the files in search of a responsive Virgin Mary.
I left him to ponder as I went on protesting in my head. But it’s true, I tell you. Mary is always in a posture of serene acceptance. At most, she’s leaning slightly, almost coyly, away from Gabriel. There’s never the big reaction you would expect. ‘According to your word’ she says, but you do wonder if she can have any idea of what she’s letting herself in for.
They started to announce the refreshments trolley over the intercom and we trailed off the subject in the end. He couldn’t seem to put his finger on a precise painting or image that illustrated his point. I guessed he was privately miffed about it. Being unable to immediately refute my claim as poppycock had put a little dent in his professional pride.
And it turned out I was right. I had got under his skin, flaunting my untutored opinions that owed nothing to fact and everything to feeling. Days later, I was trawling through my emails, and up popped a message from the Professor. He’d been glad to meet me and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, and by the way, please see the Annunciation attached.
“Here’s an Annunciation where, I think you’ll agree, Gabriel gets a bit of a reaction from Mary, (though maybe still not as overt as you would like!)” he wrote.
I clicked the attachment open and was delighted to find a painting by Simone Martini of the Sienese school. The Siena connection gave me an instant thrill of recognition. We might be separated by more than seven centuries of history, but Mastro Martini and I had both kicked over the dust in Siena’s glorious Piazza del Campo; he in the 1300s as a respected jobbing artist, and myself, in the late 1970s, as an assistant English teacher in a high school. This felt like home ground.
Though very much of its time, the Martini Annunciation is a dainty altar piece painted on wood in a brilliant gold ground. Being early 14th century it’s in the formal gothic style with the figures very stiff and mannered. The painting features the seated Virgin and the kneeling Gabriel, the central pair flanked on either side by two dour saints. All four figures appear under ornate ecclesiastical canopies in a straight row, but yes, Mary is definitely not thrilled with Gabriel. She’s clutching her mantle about her as if to ward him off. She looks like she just smelt bad fish. No. No way. You’ve got the wrong girl, her body language is saying. I don’t think so. I’m not ready for this.
Nicely done; I thought, and I had to smile as I chalked one up to the flying Professor. Here, after all, was an Annunciation that I could do business with. Even with all the stylistic restraints of its time, I liked this image of an uncompliant Mary who appeared to be actually recoiling from Gabriel.
Looking at the painting I realised for the first time, that it’s not what it starts, but what it finishes, that attracts me to The Annunciation. This beginning of something momentous has an inevitable sub-text; it’s also the end of something achingly precious. In announcing her future, Gabriel officially signals the end of Mary’s youth and innocence. It’s over, he’s saying. Time to grow up and face your destiny. The joyless saints standing guard in the Martini painting seem to be backing Gabriel up like a celestial heavy mob. There is no room for negotiation. Resistance is futile. Together this holy gang will carry her off into the captivity of her glorious womanhood as a mother, a martyr and a saint.
In this life-changing moment with Gabriel at her feet, we are seeing Mary in the last fond glow of her girlhood. And who wouldn’t want to hang onto that a little longer? Who wouldn’t be tempted to send the angel packing? It’s her, the girl that she might have become, that I find so compelling. It’s as if we find her and lose in the same moment.
No, I’m not hung up on angels, whatever the Professor may think, but I suppose there’s something to be said for the ‘Gabriel moment’. I don’t mean being frightened out of your wits by a dazzling apparition who’s talking miracles; more like, being taken aside by some wise, kindly soul and told that it’s time to grow up and get serious about a life plan. No need for divine interventions and prophetic signs, just a quiet word and a friendly nudge in the right direction. You may not feel you are ready to hear it, but some of us need it. Some of us linger too long in the careless borderlands between youth and maturity. But unlike Mary, we don’t always get the message right away. It can take a while to sink in. It can take weeks, months, or, in my case, a year caught in the luminous embrace of that glorious piazza in Siena.
In the meantime I’ve enlisted the help of friends for my ‘Find the most freaked-out Virgin Mary’ project: I’m grateful to Marcia McKean for discovering the one above. In this amazing Annunciation which has a cartoonish quality it seems to me, Mary really does look ready to make a run for it. The scared cat adds a lovely domestic touch to the famous scene. Over two hundred years separates Martini’s Annunciation from this one of Lorenzo Lotto’s and it’s interesting to compare the styles.
Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci (1472-75) the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Annunciation with St Margaret and St Ansanus by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (1333) Uffizi Gallery, Florence (originally in cathedral of Siena)
Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto (1534) Museo Civico, Villa Colloredo Mels, Recanati (Macerata)