The Annunciation by Guercino
While every moment of Christ’s time on earth is immeasurably valuable, artists, often at the direction of the clergy and theologians, have chosen to depict certain momentous events in Our Lord’s life more often than others. Thus the Annunciation, the moment of Our Lord’s Incarnation; the Nativity, Our Lord’s birth; the wedding at Cana, Our Lord’s first miracle; the Last Supper, the moment when Our Lord instituted the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Holy Orders; the Crucifixion, the moment of Redemption; and the Resurrection, the ultimate proof of Our Lord’s Divinity, have been portrayed to a far greater extent than other events in His earthly life. Moreover, while innumerable artists have painted these events in various forms and styles over the centuries, the basic iconography remains rather static, based as it is on Biblical accounts.
For example, paintings of the Last Supper show Our Lord at table with the Apostles. Even the great Leonardo’s Last Supper contains this basic depiction. The wedding of Cana routinely depicts Our Lord directing the stewards to fill the jars with water while Mary watches. The Resurrection also contains the simple iconography of Our Lord rising from His tomb while the Roman guards appear stunned. Paintings of the Crucifixion vary somewhat. Artists often simply show Our Lord alone on the Cross -- as in the masterful painting by Diego Velazquez. Often painters depict Him alongside the two thieves, while other times an artist might depict the moment when St. Longinus thrusts his spear into the dead Body, as in the breathtaking painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Of course, numerous paintings portraying Our Lord’s death include His Blessed Mother, St. John, and Mary Magdalene in addition to various soldiers and civilians.
Paintings of the Nativity have given artists more latitude in their interpretations as the Biblical account includes angels, shepherds, and wise men along with the Holy Family. Thus, artists have created depictions as simple as Our Blessed Lady adoring the newborn Infant, as seen in Correggio’s classic painting. Other artists have added Joseph to the scene so that he and the Blessed Mother adore the Infant. Still others have added angels, magi, and shepherds, e.g. Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, and Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi.
Yet of all these great events, none has so strict an iconography as the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel appears to Our Lady to ask if she will become the mother of God. To these two indispensable characters, artists have variously added God the Father, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and angels. However, the varieties of depiction seem extraordinarily limited given the very basic nature of an angel announcing an event to a young woman. Yet around 1648, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino (the Squinter, the Italians loved nicknames) created a version of the Annunciation that while not unique was quite rare.
Guercino’s Annunciation (1648, Forli Art Museum) depicts not the Annunciation per se, but rather the moment just before the angel Gabriel appears to Mary. In room, barren of even a prie-dieu, Our Blessed Lady kneels on the floor and reads the Scriptures in silent prayer. She is simply, and traditionally, dressed in a red tunic with a blue mantle. Through the open door, a landscape with a castle rises in the background. (Painted as it was for the Church of St. Philip Neri in Forli, the landscape may depict the Forlivese countryside.) Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the praying Virgin, in Heaven above world-changing events are taking place.
Unlike the peacefulness of Mary’s room, Heaven bursts with activity. The Archangel Gabriel has rushed to hear the words of God the Father. The angel, his long hair and cloak blown back by the speed with which his wings have carried him to the Father, holds a lily in his hands, a sign of Our Lady’s purity. With his arms crossed over his chest in supplication, he waits for God’s command. The Father, His left hand on the earthly globe, points down to the Blessed Mother. The Father appears as a kindly old grandfather with a shiny bald pate and long flowing hair and beard. Yet the Father also possesses a noble bearing with His straight nose and handsome face. The meaning in His gesture is clear: in a moment, the events described in Luke 1:26-38 will come to pass.
Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, resting upon the globe, also peers down at the Blessed Virgin. Guercino has painted the Dove with lovely lifelike accuracy from His beak to His toes. In a moment, the Holy Spirit will join that scene that so many artists have portrayed over the centuries.
Into this dramatic scene, Guercino has also included a little whimsy. Four little cherubs flit about Heaven. The cherub on the left holds back the Father’s cloak while his companion at the top seems to hold back the Heavenly clouds so that the Earthly viewer can behold the momentous event. One of the angels on the right has found a comfortable cloud upon which to sit as he looks out at the viewer. Beside him, another friendly cherub reclines on a cloud and looks upward to see the exploits of his fellow little angel.
In the Annunciation, Guercino has taken the classic Annunciation iconography but presented it in a way that noted Guercino scholar, Denis Mahon has described as “not very common.” Yet this seems barely to honor his creation. This is a rare depiction of an often-painted event. Guercino has taken the elements and blended them in a new and remarkable way to create something breathtakingly rare. For an artist, is there a higher accolade that viewers can bestow?