#CCenatypicalAQA: The Annunciation

The Annunciation is one of the most typical and famous scenes in the History of Art, discover some classic versions

A Anunciação, Simone Martini, 1333.
The Annunciation, Simone Martini, 1333.

The Annunciation, as the name implies, is the biblical passage that narrates the episode during which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary announcing that she is giving birth to the son of God and that she should call him Jesus after his birth. This scene, therefore, does not carry a complex and unknown story behind it like the ones other scenes that we present in this section, but its importance for the history of art is no less important because it is more “known” than the others. 

Its importance lies, above all, in its apparent “simplicity”, since the composition of the Annunciation is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the same: Mary and the angel Gabriel. In this way, the Annunciation is a typical scene that allows for a profound comparative analysis between works produced at different times, with different techniques and by different artists. Certainly a version produced during the first phase of the Renaissance, the Trecento (14th century), will be very different from those produced in later phases such as the Quattrocento (15th century) or the Cinquecento (16th century). 

A Anunciação, 1442, Fran Angelico.
The Annunciation, 1442, Fran Angelico.

When studying the History of Art, we often have the habit of placing works from different periods in the same “heap”, as if the Italian Renaissance, for example, had been a fleeting and passing movement and as if every Renaissance artist had painted the same way. way and at the same time. What is worth noting is that the Renaissance, for example, was a movement that spanned more than three centuries: XIV, XV and XVI. And so two Renaissance paintings depicting the Annunciation can be more than 100 years apart, which is roughly the difference between a painting by Pablo Picasso and one by Damien Hirst. 

For the analysis to be possible, a cut is necessary, so we restrict ourselves to the Italian Renaissance. The works are organized from the oldest, at the top of the article, to the latest, at the end. Thus, it is possible to observe some evolutions quite clearly. The oldest is a work by a Sienese artist named Simone Martini, from 1333. It was made using the tempera technique, which involves pigments and a binder that was often egg white, on wood. The golden background is typical of the pre-Renaissance period and the beginning of its first phase. Aspects such as volume and perspective are still very incipient: the figures are “flattened” on the surface of the canvas. One of the main characteristics in the evolution of the Renaissance is the approximation of the sacred to the human and the consequent and gradual “humanization” of sacred figures. In this work by Martini, it is still not possible to think that the figures that compose it are human, they are still elevated to the status of “divine representations”. 

A Anunciação, 1472, Leonardo da Vinci.
The Annunciation, 1472, Leonardo da Vinci.

Already in Fra Angelico's version, made in 1442 and, therefore, about 100 years after the first, it is possible to see some differences: instead of the golden background, we have an earthly landscape; the figures are now slightly more “human”; the depth and volume of the work were improved and it is now possible to see the study of perspective with the presence of a vanishing point. However, the observer still has the impression of a sacred representation: both the angel and Mary have halos over their heads that still elevate and distance them. 

Then, thirty years later, Leonardo Da Vinci presents his version of the scene, painted in 1472, when he was only 20 years old and therefore far from his artistic maturity. Even so, Leonardo's version already demonstrates a huge evolution in technique. Both the angel and Mary are represented in a more “humanized” way and the perspective and volume are already much improved. Also noteworthy is the set of trees in the background. Da Vinci was passionate about nature and studied a lot, the concern to portray such different trees comes from this assiduous observation and study of the natural. 

A Anunciação, 1489, Sandro Botticelli.
The Annunciation, 1489, Sandro Botticelli.

At the end of the fifteenth century, in 1489, Botticelli paints the same scene. His version, compared to Fra Angelico's, is much more sophisticated. Through the window it is possible to glimpse a landscape in the distance, which indicates the concern with form, study and technique beyond what is being portrayed in the foreground. During the evolution of the renaissance, little by little man began to study himself and the world around him more and this is clear in works of art. In this work, both the angel Gabriel and Mary now resemble human figures, although they are still portrayed with halos. 

Already reaching the conclusion of this analytical journey, we have the master's version Rafael, painted in 1502. In this work, the mastery of perspective, the notion of architecture, volumetry, harmony and proportion are undeniable. If it weren't for the angel's wings and a representation of God above, on the left side, we could say that they are not Mary, mother of God and the angel Gabriel, but two ordinary human beings, without halos, costumes or special sparkles.

A Anunciação, 1502, Rafael.
The Annunciation, 1502, Raphael.

A century later, in 1608, Caravaggio, the greatest exponent of Italian Baroque, paints the Annunciation. Despite not being renaissance and the baroque having motivations and specificities completely different from those of the previous movement, it is interesting to place this canvas alongside the others to observe exactly the difference between the renaissance and the baroque. The transition of light, the straight line that curves in the baroque, the slightly chaotic composition and the humanization of the sacred. Maria on Caravaggio's canvas is just a woman, who bows before the presence of an angel. They are not even represented on the same line: the angel is above, Mary is below. 

A Anunciação, 1608, Caravaggio.
The Annunciation, 1608, Caravaggio.

There are still, which is not the place to analyze here, many other representations of this scene. Belonging to many other artists, from countries and movements other than Italy, to which we restrict ourselves here. However, the invitation is for analysis. Getting to know the portrayed scene can be the first big step towards understanding the movement in which this portrayal is inserted, the way it takes place and what it represents for the History of Art. So, watch out for the upcoming #CenatypicalAQA.

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