Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ecce Ancilla Domini

Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London in 1828, but his parents were from Italy, which influenced some of his work. Rossetti trained briefly at two different academies, including the Royal Academy, but soon trained with other painters. He began the piece Ecce Ancilla Domini in 1849 with the intention of entering it in the Royal Academy exhibition, but did not. He completed the piece in 1853, which he renamed The Annunciation. The painting accompanies his earlier work called The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.

Ecce Ancilla Domini depicts a scene only found in Luke (Luke 1:26-35). The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that the Lord is with her. Verse 29 says, "But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be." The angel goes on to tell her not to be afraid, but that she will bear a son, even though she is a virgin. There has been many paintings or renderings of this scene, but Rossetti's is not typical of other depictions. Though his perspective is technically incorrect, which he has been criticized for, it combines with other elements to create a more accurate depiction of what is written in Luke.

Rossetti's piece was so radical because it shows Mary as a frightened, pale young girl. Her eyes are sunken in and she cannot face the angel, but looks down. This Mary is not eager to accept her fate. Her body shrinks back with discomfort and fear. The cloth on the stand before her bed is an embroidery of lilies that Rossetti depicted Mary making in his earlier piece, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. This further illustrates her youth, if her petite body and young face are not enough. Traditional renderings of the Annunciation often depict a mature Mary complacently accepting her fate, but this piece shows what it must have actually been like. A divine figure suddenly appearing would have been frightening to anyone, but his news for the young virgin would cause further excitement. She seems pained by the choice to give up the simplicity of childhood in return for such great responsibility.

The angel in the painting contrasts Mary. He stands strong and upright, while she looks weak and sits scrunched. His depiction seems accurate as well. He has no wings or boyish face. He is an angel of the Lord, and is strong from doing God's work. Earlier, Daniel says of Gabriel that he looked like a man. (Daniel 8:15)

The distorted perspective in this piece actually helps depict the scene accurately--it enables viewers to see how young Mary must have felt at this point. The bed seems to be longer than the wall, and the floor and back wall fade into each other. The room is small, and Mary tries to scrunch as far away from the angel as she can, yet the distorted angles makes it seem as if her efforts will fail and she will fall toward the frightening being. It's hard to get your bearings of the cramped, disproportionate room, and the window offers some hope of stabilizing the room with concrete objects depicted outside. However, we just see part of a tree, which furthers the dizzying elements of the room. Viewers cannot actually feel the burden that Mary was faced with, but Rossetti helps us get an idea.

Rossetti's use of white in this piece is also notable. In other works portraying Mary, blue is seen as the color worn by the virgin, but Rossetti dresses her in white. He does include the blue curtain behind her though, and the blue from the sky outside the window outlines the angel's head, which represents heaven. The angel, walls, floor, and bed are all white though. Many call this as an excessive use of white, but again, it helps Rossetti depict the reality of the scene. Many may fail to recognize how young Mary actually was, and the white represents the innocence and purity of her youth. It also further distorts the spatial perspective because everything is white.

The embroidered lilies and the live ones in Gabriel's hand further depict Mary's purity and youth. The lilies in his hand look as if they are pointing to Mary's womb, though it's hard to tell with the distorted angles. He seems to be presenting to her the great responsibility that lies ahead with the lilies.

Finally, there is a dove coming from the window, from the blue of heaven, representing the Holy Spirit. In Luke, the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her. The dove also gives reason for Mary to react as she does. She is young, and perhaps fearful of giving birth in a seemingly impossible way, but she will not give birth to just anyone. She will give birth to the Son of God. Perhaps she had doubts about her adequacy to give birth to the holy Son.

Rossetti's painting gives more of an accurate depiction of the annunciation than many other painters have. Mary reacts genuinely as a young virgin would to this drastic news and reality.
The perspective is not accurate, but its unsettling effect accurately depicts how Mary must have felt. One inaccuracy, would be her skin color. Mary would probably not have been this white, but the white further depicts her youth and innocence. The painting is accurate in the ideas and feelings it portrays--Mary's youth and surprise by the news.

By: Nicole Braunsdorf


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