Whispering Across the Void - Giovanni d’Ambrogio’s Annunciation
Áve María, grátia pléna, (Hail Mary, full of grace). With this announcement, the Gospel according to Luke initiates us into the miraculous conception of Christ. According to dogma, the angel Gabriel, sent by God, makes a quiet visit to Mary as she contemplates His Holy Book. The angel announces that she has been chosen to be the mother of the Savior. At first Mary is confused and frightened. “How can this be?,” she asks. All things are possible with God, Gabriel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you.” Mary then calms and accepts these words as the will of God.
The scene of the Annunciation is frequently depicted in Western art. It holds a place of vital importance as the inception of the story of the life of Christ. Many artists through the ages have had a hand depicting the exchange. Giovanni d’Ambrogio’s two figures of the Annunciation were not originally intended for the Porta della Mandorla (door of the mandala) of Florence Cathedral, where they were placed. The Porta della Mandorla is a secondary side door located on the north side of the cathedral that is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was the last door to be completed and considered the most visually successful because of the talent of the sculptors who had a hand in its completion, including the young Donatello. It has an importance to art history because it was constructed during the passage of the last stages of the Gothic and the beginnings of the Renaissance. It shows the transition of styles from the ridged severity of the Gothic to the classically inspired fluidity of the Renaissance. The Porta della Mandorla takes is name from the relief sculpture in the tympanum over the door, which depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (when Mary ascends into Heaven) in an almond shaped aureole. The mandorla is a traditional symbol indicating an event of extreme spiritual transcendence. Under the tympanum, there is a gothic lunette where the Annunciation was originally located until 1490. After 1490 the present mosaic depiction of the Annunciation replaced it.
The two figures of the Annunciation sculptural group are now attributed to Giovanni d’Ambrogio, but this is still under dispute. Several other sculptors who are associated with Florence Cathedral have been suggested including Nanni Di Banco who was the sculptor of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary from the Porta della Mandorla that is positioned in the tympanum above it. However, d’Ambrogio was the Master of Works for Florence Cathedral from 1401 – 1418. During this time, he contributed designs for the Porta della Mandorla project along with others. The figures of the Annunciation were carved during the last years of the 1300s and were originally placed inside the cathedral. They were placed temporarily in the niche above the door by 1414 to decorate the bare lunette during construction. The scanty evidence of the artists involved in the design of the ornamentation of Florence Cathedral leans more favorably to d’Ambrogio being the artist given that as Master of Works he had the skill and authority to design, create and position the decorations.
The figures of the Annunciation along with the rest of the Porta della Mandorla are art historically important because they depict in the sculpture, the stylistic transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance. The Annunciation group leans strongly in the Gothic tradition. Both the angel and Mary still incorporate the Gothic sway, instead of a true contrapposto. The Gothic sway was a Medieval sculptural convention that attempted to depict the shifting of the weight of a figure to one foot. While the Gothic sway was not anatomically correct in portraying this common stance, it did provide a sense of movement that was a development in Western sculpture that moved three dimensional art away from the static columnar sculptural style that was common in early medieval art. The drapery of the figures keeps the tradition of the Gothic where it is seemingly acted on from forces outside of the figure rather than being acted on by the figure inside of the clothing. However, the renewed interest in looking back to Classical form that marks the Renaissance is shown in the Greek Hellenistic treatment of the face and stance of the angel Gabriel through his more naturalistic looking head and the more realistic (yet somehow not quite accurate) step forward he seems to be taking as he approaches Mary. Mary still retains some of the static immobility of the Gothic tradition in her body, while her head is nearly a copy of a Roman bust of an adolescent male down to the hair treatment, giving her an androgynous look. This looks curious to our modern eyes, but the renewed interest in appropriating Classical styles was of greater importance for the artist than following the usual format and was revolutionary at the time. It not only showed that by the late 14th century artists were interested in developing sculptural forms that were more naturalistic, but it also signaled concurrently, a relaxing of the Church’s taboos that prohibited the use of pagan art as an influence on Christian religious art.
Despite missing his wings and the lily he had been holding, Gabriel can still be distinguished by the diadem on his head which denotes his celestial nature. The lily is a symbol of purity through its whiteness of color and the well of fruitfulness through its vaginal form. Its possession by Gabriel indicates that he as the messenger, and God as his dispatcher, understand Mary’s virginity and see it as a necessary condition for the Mother of Christ. Gabriel transliterates to “Might of God.” His role as an archangel is to herald the mysteries of God to those chosen to receive them. Gabriel here is shown in the act of getting Mary’s attention away from her studies to surrender to God’s grace.
Mary is depicted distracted from her meditation on the Word of God. She is turning away from the book she holds in her hand. Her face shows a bewildered, frightened expression. It is the moment just before understanding; the instant of being distracted by something unexpected. D’Ambrogio has captured this elusive moment with complete skill. He froze it in that particular place where the communication between the two figures looks palpable. Even though Gabriel and Mary can stand alone, when in each other’s presence, they interact across the void that exists between them. Each statue responds to the other. Gabriel whispers, “Hail” and Mary turns her face toward the direction of her destiny.
For all of the Annunciation’s figures evident interaction, it wasn’t the miracle of these two pieces of stone in communion with each other that fascinated me. It was Mary’s hand clutching the book that was captivating. Its delineation of lightly balancing its weight against her torso. The thumb holding her place. The elegance in the curve of the fingers. The flesh-like quality of the marble that sets apart the hand from the pages of the book and the drapery of her robe. All point to the artist totally investing his time and attention to this detail. As if the holiness of the Word Mary is reading requires the devotional excellence in the artist’s execution.
I have been able to see d’Ambrogio’s Annunciation twice. First in Florence at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where it resides permanently, and again at the exhibition Sculpture in the Age of Donatello at the now closed Museum of Biblical Art in New York. To be honest, probably owing to art overload, this sculptural group made no impact on me in Florence. It was in New York where I experienced the full impact of d’Ambrogio’s genius. Having been raised in the Catholic tradition, I have seen many depictions of the Annunciation in many media from simple line drawings, to crude plaster reproductions of great depictions of the scene, to stained glass treatments in church windows. While many could be used as a meditation point on the mystery of the conception of Christ, most I did not consider art. D’Ambrogio’s depiction made me stop and reconsider all of the other artistic portrayals I had seen of this exchange and offered me a new understanding of this mystery. I felt privy to a very private spiritual experience between two individuals and a special experience of my own that only great art can bring.
Arthur Bruso ©2019
28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
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