Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla. Part 2 The Murillo Exhibition

Murillo Exhibition at Seville

……….when I arrived at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a special exhibition on marking the 400th anniversary of Seville’s great painter Bartolomé Estaban Murillo.  It had opened in November 2018 and was still running. The city of Seville had been celebrating the 400th anniversary of his birth for the last twelve months and this exhibition, which ends in April, was the culmination of the celebrations.

Self-portrait by Murillo

Murillo came from a very large family, the youngest of fourteen children.  His father was both a barber and a surgeon.  His parents died when he was young and he went to live with a distant relative and artist, Juan del Castillo who started Murillo’s artistic education.  He stayed with Castillo until 1639 when his mentor had to move to Cadiz.  Now Murillo, aged twenty-two, had to fend for himself and scraped a living by selling some of his paintings.  In 1643 he travelled to Madrid where he met Velazquez who was also from Seville and had now become a master of his craft.  He took pity on Murillo and let him lodge in his house.  Murillo stayed in Madrid for two years before returning to Seville.  In 1648, at the age of thirty-one, Murillo married a wealthy lady of rank, Doña Beatriz de Cabrera y Sotomayor.   Murillo died in 1682 aged 64.  He lived a humble and pious life and was a brave man.  On his death he left a son and daughter, his wife having died before him.

The Seville exhibition was a collection of fifty-five paintings by Murillo from museum collections around the world. The exhibition was divided into nine sections each providing a glimpse of the world through Murillo’s eyes. The sections were designated as Holy Childhood, A family of Nazareth, Glory on Earth, The Immaculate Conception, Compassion, Penitence, Storyteller, Genre painting and Portraiture. It was a journey through his religious works to the social realism of 17th century Seville, which has been described as a city of paupers and saints, of rascals and wealthy noblemen and merchants who, through their wealth, were able to have Murillo paint their portraits.

The Good Shepherd by Murillo (1665)

In the first section, there was the Prado-owned painting entitled The Good Shepherd, which Murillo completed in 1665. The scene has a rural setting along with classical allusions in the form of archaeological ruins which we can see in the left background. Jesus is portrayed as the boy who exudes an air of determination as he holds his shepherd’s crook in one hand whilst his left-hand lies across the back of the animal. There is a certain gentleness about the scene and the sheep, seen with the boy, represents the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), which is talked about in the scriptures. The depiction of the lamb as being obedient and submissive is all part of the divine plan.

The Holy Family with the Infant St John by Murillo (c.1670)

One of Murillo’s paintings in the Family of Nazareth section was The Holy Family with Infant Saint John, which Murillo completed around 1670 and was loaned to the Seville gallery by Budapest Museum of Fine Arts. This was a pendant painting forming a pair with his work The Flight into Egypt, which was also on show. In the depiction, we see Saint Joseph, in the background, with his carpentry tools. In the foreground, we see the Christ Child and the young Saint John busily tying two sticks together to form a cross. Mary watches over the children as she busies herself sewing. A sense of depth has been added to the composition by the inclusion of a background of mountains and clouds.

The Holy Family (The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, (1675-1682)

In the third section, Glory on Earth we have the Murillo painting The Holy Family (The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities) which was loaned to the museum for this exhibition by London’s National Gallery. This work of art encapsulates the religious theory that Jesus is both God and man and thus belongs to both the Heavenly Trilogy of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as well as belonging to the Earthly Trinity – the family from Nazareth as seen in the painting with Jesus’ closeness to his mother, the Virgin Mary and his father, her husband Saint Joseph.

The Annunciation by Murillo (c.1660)

Murillo completed many paintings featuring the Virgin Mary and many were on show at the exhibition. The Annunciation by Murillo, which he completed around 1660 and had been loaned out by the Prado, was a great example of this focus on the Mother of God.

The Virgin and the Rosary by Murillo (c.1680)

The Dulwich Gallery-owned work by Murillo entitled The Virgin and the Rosary was also on view. In this work we see the Virgin seated on a throne of clouds floating in the celestial sphere and unlike other versions of this work by the Seville painter, clouds and angels have now been added to become her throne and footstool.

Mater Dolorosa by Murillo (1670-1675)

One of my favourite pieces of religious art by Murillo, which was at the exhibition, was Mater Dolorosa an artwork, which was part of a private collection belonging to a Dutch family. Mater Dolorosa or Our Lady of Sorrows refers to the sorrows in the life of the Virgin Mary and is a key subject for what is termed Marian art in the Catholic Church. In 1939 when the painting was bought from the Amsterdam art dealership, de Boer, by a private Dutch buyer, there was some doubt as to whether this painting was by Murillo but the German art historian August Lieberman Mayer, who was one of the most prominent art historians of the early 20th century and the era’s leading specialist for 17th century Spanish painting, wrote to the new owner stating his belief that it had been painted by Murillo. In his letter dated July 12th, 1939, he wrote:

“…I deeply regret, that actually I cannot make a new edition of my book in „Klassiker der Kunst“, but I hope to publish another monography of Murillo in Spain“ The picture is, in my opinion, a very fine, well preserved, genuine and most characteristic work by B. Murillo, executed most probably about 1668, the period, I consider the best and most powerful of the master. I reserve me the right of the first publication of this important and impressive work..”

Despite Mayer’s opinion, many art scholars still question his attribution. August Mayer never did publish another work on the Spanish master. As a Jew, he was forced to leave his offices in Munich by the Nazis.   He then fled to Paris in 1936 but was later arrested and was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 where he died.

I am not a great lover of religious art, probably not due to the quality of the work but more to do with the subject matter. I was therefore very pleased that after seven rooms of religious painting the final two rooms were devoted to Murillo’s genre paintings and his portraiture.

A Peasant Boy leaning on a sill by Murillo (c.1675)

I especially liked Murillo’s painting A Peasant Boy Leaning on a Sill, which he completed around 1675.  When London’s National Gallery acquired this work in 1826, it was the first Spanish painting to enter the museum’s collection.   The National Gallery of London loaned this to the Museo de Bellas Artes for the Murillo exhibition. This striking depiction of a cheerful boy is related to Murillo’s depictions of street urchins in his larger canvases. We see the boy at a window, the implication being that there is a lot going on that we are not aware of and so we have to be satisfied with what we have before us. So what else is going on? What has been excluded from the depiction? What is the boy looking at?   Some would have us believe that this work had a companion piece painted by Murillo, which was to be hung to the right of this one which would allow us to see what the boy was looking at.

Young Girl Lifting her Veil by Murillo

That suggested pendant piece was Young Girl Lifting Her Veil, (which is privately owned and was not included at the Seville exhibition). However, many art historians cast doubt on the two paintings being pendant pieces but the fact is that they were painted around the same time, they are both half-length depictions and are of similar size.  I have included the Young Girl Lifting her Veil and let you decide whether the two paintings hung side by side on a wall would add to your belief that they were pendant pieces. Was this beautiful girl the subject of the boy’s gaze?  Some think that the boy’s demeanour has an air of mischief about it and his expression was not instilled with innocent sincerity, like that of the girl. I will leave you with one further clue. At the sale of the two works at the Peter Coxe London saleroom on March 20th, 1806 of paintings owned by the Marquess of Lansdowne, the catalogue described them as:

“…No.50. Murillo. A Laughing Boy – delicately treated in every part – one of those performances so rare to be met with, & in his best style of perfection.

No.51. Murillo. Portrait of a girl treated with the same tone of harmonious colouring, as the preceding Lot, to which it is a companion, in the same happy effect of management…” 

The two paintings were sold at the auction to separate buyers.

Four Figures on a Step by Murillo (1655-1660)

The most bizarre painting at the exhibition, and one I particularly like, is Four Figures on a Step, which is owned by the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. At first sight, I thought somebody had defaced the painting by adding a pair of thick black spectacles to the woman on the right.

Before us, we have four very different characters. In the central background, we have a young woman. Her face is somewhat distorted into a smile, even a knowing wink, as she raises her scarf over her head. What is the significance of the gesture?   Art historians have hypothesised that it is a coquettish gesture whilst others say that that is reading too much into her manner stating that the depiction is a simple scene with a family scrutinising the goings-on in the street outside. However, the scene to many historians is to associate it with one of procurement. Procurement?  They would have us believe that the older women with the thick dark glasses, resembles the character of a Celestina, an aged prostitute, madam, and procuress, of Spanish literature. The old procuress,  Celestinacomes from the 1499 book La Celestina, which is considered to be one of the greatest works of all Spanish literature, a timeless story of love, morality, and tragedy by Fernando de Rojas. The Celestina is often represented as a crone wearing enormous glasses and a headscarf hence the belief that Murillo’s painting includes a procuress!   So, if she is procuring, is she offering the man the pleasures of the young woman? More conservative historians point to the fact that on the contrary to the Celestina idea, the mature woman also resembles the bespectacled characters in Dutch and Flemish genre paintings, which Murillo would have seen.

The possible “procuress” is seen cradling the head of a young boy whose bottom is exposed by his torn breeches. In less liberal times Murillo’s depiction of the bare bottom had offended the public and had been over-painted for reasons of regaining a modicum of modesty but the painting now, after restoration, is seen as Murillo intended.

So the question I leave you with is this depiction simply a portrayal of the colourful characters to be found in the streets of Seville, or does the painting carry a reproachful, message, urging the viewers to avoid enticements of worldly decadences?

Portrait of Juan de Saavedra by Murillo (1650)

In the final room of the exhibition, we have Murillo’s portraiture.  Murillo’s earliest dated portrait is a newly discovered canvas, which depicts Juan Arias de Saavedra y Ramírez de Arellano an aristocrat from Seville and one of Murillo’s patrons. The subject of the painting was a knight in the Order of Santiago as indicated by both the red cross on his left shoulder and the pendant with a scallop shell.  The portrait is shown as being in a stone frame, which includes the sitter’s coat of arms. Murillo often used this stone-frame device in his bust-length portraiture. Also in the painting are two putti each holding a tablet. The one held by the putti on the left records the age of the sitter as twenty-nine while the one on the right has the date on which the portrait was painted – 1650. Below the portrait, there is a lengthy Latin inscription which is about Saavedra. Saavedra, it states, was a senior minister of the Holy Inquisition and is described in the inscription as a “profound connoisseur of the liberal arts, and of painting in particular”. The inscription also includes a passage by Murillo, which offers convincing proof of the connection between the artist and the nobleman with Murillo admitting his gratitude and sincere regard for Saavedra.

Portrait of Josua van Belle by Murillo (1670)

My last offering for this blog is another work of portraiture by Murillo, which was loaned to the Seville museum by the National Gallery of Ireland.   The sitter is Josua van Belle. He was born in Rotterdam and became a Dutch shipping merchant who lived for a period in Cadiz and Seville, where this portrait was painted in 1670. Van Belle was a celebrated art collector and amongst his collection of paintings, was Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, which also resides in the National Gallery of Ireland. This portrait is looked upon as one of Murillo’s finest.

The Museo de Bellas Artes’ exhibition was excellent, full of beautiful masterpieces by Murillo and you have until the last day of March to visit this Sevilla exhibition.

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The Altarpiece of the Church Fathers by Michael Pacher

Altarpiece of the Church Fathers by Michael Pacher (1471-1475)

For My Daily Art Display today I am going to look at an altarpiece by the fifteenth century Austrian painter and sculptor Michael Pacher.  As far as I can remember, I have only presented one other altarpiece in my blog and that was way back on December 7th 2010 when I talked about the exquisite Isenheim Altarpiece crafted by Matthias Grünewald.   Before I go into details of Pacher’s altarpiece let me talk in general about altarpieces.

Altarpieces are normally carvings, sculptures or paintings or a combination of all three.  They can be split into two main categories.  One type is known as the reredosIt is this type which is positioned behind the altar, rising from ground level and acting as a backdrop to the altar.  The other category is known as the retable, and these altarpieces stand either on the back of the altar itself or on a pedestal behind it.   In some churches, one can see both types of altarpieces.  The actual positioning of the altarpieces is often dictated by their size.

In the early days, before the use of canvas was the norm for painting, altarpieces were usually constructed of two or more separate wooden panels on which a set of religious depictions would be painted.  When the altarpiece comprised of just two panels, usually hinged together, it would be known as a diptych.  If the altarpiece construction was made of three hinged panels, a central panel and two side panels, then it was known as a triptych.  There were some altarpieces which consisted of many panels hinged together, side to side, but these side panels were also split horizontally giving small top and bottom independently hinged panels.  These were known as polyptychs.

Within the anatomy of altarpieces with their central and side panels,there are also such things as roundels, spandrels, predellas and pilasters and I won’t go into great detail about each of these but suggest you look at the website below which graphically explains the various “add-ons” that artists used to give to their altarpieces.  The website is:

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/anatomy-of-an-altarpiece

Today I want to concentrate on one particular altarpiece which Michael Pacher created for the Neustift Monastery high in the mountains close to Brixen, the south Tyrol town in northern Italy, known by the Italians as Bressanone.  The altarpiece which is part painting and part sculpture is entitled The Altarpiece of the Church Fathers and Pacher completed it in 1483.  Art historians have ranked this altarpiece as Pacher’s second most famous work, only being bested by the altarpiece he conjured up for the Church of St Wolfgang two years earlier.  My reason for choosing the one I have is that I liked the various stories attributed to each of the panels.  However before I look in detail at the altarpiece let me tell you a little bit about its creator.

Michael Pacher, an Austrian by birth, was born around 1435 in or around the town of Brixen, which presently lies on the southern slopes of the Italian Alps, close to the border with Austria.  Little is known about his upbringing or his early life except that he is thought to have trained under the Tyrolean artist, Hans Von Brubeck, who had a painting school in the area.  Records show that Michael Pacher set up his own workshop in the town of Bruneck (Italian: Brunico) in the southern Tyrol region about 35 kms from Brixen.    It was here that he fashioned his altarpieces.  In the days of Michael Pacher, the town of Bruneck, which lies in the Puster Valley, was on a well used trade route between Augsburg in Germany and Venice and the small town became a stopping off for both merchants and their goods and with that,  came affluence and fame for the small town.  The town of Bruneck is now often referred to as Michael-Pacher-Stadt.

Most of the work carried out by Michael Pacher was commissioned by the church and it was mainly his altarpieces which were in great demand.  Pacher was not just a skilled painter but a master wood carver and his altarpieces often consisted of a beautifully carved figurative centrepiece flanked by religious paintings on the side panels.  He spent most of his time in the area around Brixen and Bruneck although he did travel, on a couple of occasions, south to Mantua and Padua.  It was when he was in his late fifties that he moved to Salzburg where he took on the large commission for the high altar of theFranziskanerkirche, the Franciscan church, but he was never to finish the commission, dying in Salzburg in 1498.  Unfortunately what he did complete has not been preserved.   Fortunately though , the statue of the Madonna with Child, one of Michael Pacher’s masterpieces, was integrated in the high altar designed two centuries later by Fischer von Erlach and has been preserved for posterity.

And so to My Daily Art Display featured work, The Altarpiece of the Church Fathers.  The picture shows the internal panels of the Altarpiece, the ones seen when the altarpiece is fully opened.  It is a combination of carved shrines and wood panel paintings.  The altarpiece is divided into a centre panel which consist of two separate works and two hinged side panels, which have paintings on both sides.  Each panel depicts one of the four Great Doctors of the Western Church.  Each of the depictions serve to remind us of a legend attached to the depicted saint.  The Catholic Church bestowed the title Great Doctors of the Western Churchon saints whose writings the whole Church is held to have derived great advantage from and to whom “eminent learning” and “great sanctity” have been attributed by a proclamation of a pope or of an ecumenical council.  The four men we see on Michael Pacher’s altarpiece are Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Pope Gregory I all of whom were the original Doctors of the Church and were named as such in 1298. They were early and influential theologians, eminent Christian teachers and great bishops and are known collectively as the Great Doctors of the Western Church.

St Jerome

On the inner left side panel of the altarpiece we have Saint Jerome.   Jerome of Stridonium, who was born around 347AD, is best known for the legend in which he drew a thorn from a lion’s paw, and in Michael Pacher’s depiction of the saint, we see him draped in the red robes of a cardinal, stroking the lion.  Jerome was also a great scholar and was the translator of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. Jerome’s edition of the Bible, the Vulgate, is still an important text of Catholicism.   Jerome was a noted Christian apologist, a term given to people who present a rational basis for the Christian faith, and who defend the faith against objections, and by doing so attempt to expose the errors of other world views.

St Augustine

If we move to the right of the St Jerome panel we come to the central part of the altarpiece which is formed by two separate panels.   The left hand side of this central panel depicts St Augustine.  Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo Regius (now the Algerian town of Annaba),  was born around 355AD.  He was a philosopher and theologian. Augustine is looked upon as one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity. Augustine was greatly influenced by the writings of the great Classical Greek philosopher, Plato.   He framed the concepts of original sin and just wars as they are understood in the West. If you look closely at the panel painting you will see a small child sat at the feet of St Augustine.  The reason for the child’s inclusion harks back to the legend regarding St Augustine and his struggle to understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which goes as follows:

 The scene is the seashore, where there is a small pool, a little boy with a seashell, and a sandy beach on which St. Augustine, clad in his Episcopal robes, is walking, pondering with difficulty the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

 “Father, Son, Holy Spirit; three in one!” he muttered, shaking his head.

As he approached the little boy who was running back and forth between the sea and the pool with a seashell of water, Augustine craned his neck and asked him: “Son, what are you doing?”

Can’t you see?” said the boy. “I’m emptying the sea into this pool!”

Son, you can’t do that!” Augustine countered. “I will sooner empty the sea into this pool than you will manage to get the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity into your head!”

Upon saying that, the boy, who was an angel according to legend, quickly disappeared, leaving Augustine alone with the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity.

St Gregory

The right hand side of the central panel depicts Pope Gregory I.  Saint Gregory, or Gregory the Great as he was known,  was born around 540AD and was made pope in 590AD and held that high office until his death in 604.  He was also known as Gregorius Dialogus (Gregory the Dialogist) because of his four-volume Dialogues, in which he wrote of the lives and miracles of the saints of Italy and of the afterlife.  In the panel painting we see him seated in conversation with a man wearing a crown and who appears to be standing in the middle of a fire.  So what is this all about?

The legend surrounding  Pope Gregory the Great, was that while he was walking through the Forum of Trajan, he thought of the justice of that emperor towards a poor widow deprived of her only son by a violent death.  On entering St. Peter’s he prayed that the soul of so virtuous an emperor might not be forever lost, and his prayers were answered.  The panel painting depicts Gregory rescuing the Roman Emperor Trajan from Purgatory by the power of prayer.

St Ambrose

The right hand side panel is of Aurelius Ambrosius, who would later be known as St. Ambrose of Milan,   Ambrose, who was born around 330AD,  was the  bishop of Milan and who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century .   In the side panel we see Ambrose sitting at writing desk but more interestingly at his feet is a baby in a cradle.  Once again there is a reason for the baby’s inclusion and, like the other wood panel depictions, it is all about a legend, which is attributed to the main character in the painting.  In this case it is a legend about Ambrose when he was a baby.  Legend has it that a swarm of bees settled on Ambrose’s his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and “honeyed tongued”.  For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in depictions of St Ambrose.

In each of the paintings the four Church Fathers are depicted with a dove, which symbolised the presence of the Holy Spirit so as to represent their holiness.  All four are set inside beautifully decorated individual recesses, but appear to jut out from the picture plane into the viewer’s space.   One gets a feel of deep perspective as we look at the altarpiece and this is due to the way Pacher has foreshortened the floor tiles and by the way in which he has given the four overhead canopies a feeling of depth which make them appear as they are jutting out towards us.

On the reverse sides of the two wing panels there are two further paintings which can only be viewed when the altarpiece is closed.  One of these depicts St Augustine liberating a prisoner whilst the other depicts the Vision of St Sigisbert.

The Annunciation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Annunciation by Rossetti (1850)

My Daily Art Display today is, like my last offering, another painting depicting a scene from the Bible.   The scene is The Annunciation and has featured in paintings by many of the Renaissance Masters.  However this painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Rossetti has some subtle differences from these earlier works by the likes of Fra Angelico, Raphaello Santi, El Greco, van Eyck and Botticelli.

The story of the Annunciation is probably known by most and it is documented in the bible in the book of Luke (1: 26-38)

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

The painting I am featuring today is entitled The Annunciation which Rossetti painted in 1850.  That was not its original title given to it by the artist, Gabriel Rossetti.  He had originally decided to call the painting Ecce Ancilla Domini meaning “behold the handmaid of the Lord” but at the last moment changed his mind.  In the painting, Rossetti has just used the three primary colours, red, blue and yellow along with white.  The use of these colours by the artist is symbolic.  We have white for feminine purity, blue for the Virgin Mary, red for the Passion of Christ and yellow or gold which symbolises holiness.   There are other things in the painting which are symbolic.   The Angel Gabriel holds a lily and in the foreground we see a red cloth on to which we can see that Mary has embroidered white lilies.  Maybe this signifies the young girl’s decision to live a very pure life.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Rossetti (1849)

Mary and her mother, St Anne, can be seen embroidering that very cloth in Rossetti’s painting The Girlhood of Mary Virgin which he painted a year earlier.   Lilies symbolize purity, chastity, and innocence and white lilies represent the purity of the Virgin Mary.  In most paintings of the Annunciation we see the Angel Gabriel presenting Mary with a white lily when he announced to her that she would give birth to the Son of God.

The setting Rossetti has given this scene is very unusual.  In Renaissance paintings of The Annunciation we look at settings which are sumptuous.  Tapestries and heavy velvet curtains often abound.  Light frequently can be seen entering the scene through exquisite stained glass windows lighting up elaborate furnishings and floor coverings.  Rossetti chose not to go down that line.  As we look upon the scene the first thing that strikes us is the claustrophobic compactness of Mary’s room.  It could almost be termed minimalistic in its accoutrements.  Look at the window opening on the back wall.  There was no attempt by Rossetti to give a feeling of depth to this painting by depicting a town somewhere in the far distance.  The window opening is plain and uncovered and through it we just see part of a solitary tree against a blue sky, the colour of which mirrors that of the colour of the screen at the end of Mary’s bed.

In most depictions of this scene we see Mary dressed in blue robes quietly and in some cases joyously receiving the news that she will give birth to the Christ child.  However Rossetti has depicted Mary’s mood differently.  We see Mary dressed in a white shift dress shrinking back from the Angel Gabriel.  Rossetti has added the colour blue which is associated with the Virgin Mary in the form of a blue cloth screen hanging behind her.

Rossetti has also included a dove which embodies the Holy Spirit.  He has depicted the golden-haired Angel Gabriel without wings, which was the norm for Annunciation paintings.  Gabriel’s face is in shade and his facial features are almost hidden from us.    He can be seen in this painting hovering just above the floor with flames all around his feet.  I wonder if I am just imagining it but it looks as if he is pointing the lily stem at Mary’s womb.  It is little wonder that the combination of his words and this action make the young girl almost cower and recoil against her bedroom wall.

Take a while and look at Mary’s expression.  How do you read Rossetti’s depiction of this young woman?  Look at her facial expression.  This is not one of acquiescence or pleasure.  This is a look almost of horror at what she has just been told.    This terrified look adds a great deal of power to Rossetti’s  painting.  Mary herself in Rossetti’s painting looks much younger than we are used to seeing in similar scenes.  She exudes a youthful beauty but only seems to be a mere adolescent with her long un-brushed auburn hair contrasting sharply with her white dress.  She is painfully thin and her hesitance and sad look tinged with fear endears her to us.  We can empathize with her situation.  Rossetti through this painting wants us to put ourselves in the position of Mary at hearing the news of what has been mapped out as her future.  The various Christian religions would have us believe that Mary has been honoured by being chosen as the future Mother of God but Rossetti is asking us to consider carefully whether this young girl, Mary, has been given a wonderful opportunity or whether her life has been saddled with an onerous responsibility.  You need to study her face and decide for yourself.  The model for Mary was Christina Rossetti, the poet, and the artist’s sister

I believe a number of the “standard” Annunciation paintings were meant to inspire us to lead a “good” life and for that reason we see the Virgin Mary delighted to be given the role as Mother of God.  The “standard” depiction of Mary with her happy smiling face leads us to believe that leading a pure and holy life will give us similar pleasure.  However Rossetti’s depiction of the Annunciation questions Mary’s happiness to accept her future role in life.  It is a role that will take away many of the pleasures a young girl would be looking forward to enjoying as she enters adulthood.

I suppose how you look at the painting and how you interpret what you see will depend on your religious belief.