This altarpiece is quite large—120”x104”—which always makes me think about what it would be like to be in its presence on a regular basis when it was part of the chapel decorations in Siena Cathedral. (I would urge you to look at it on Google Art as you can zoom in and see all the little details I’m discussing.) No one pays much attention to the side panels—probably executed by Lippo Memmi—largely because the two saints (St. Ansanus and St. Maxima) are patron saints of the city of Siena but never really made it to the universal Catholic big-time. St. Ansanus has a great martyrdom—after being secretly baptized, he proclaimed his faith openly and was persecuted by the Roman emperor Diocletian (ca. 303); first he’s scourged, then thrown into a pot of boiling oil which he survives, so he is then decapitated, converting pagans to Christianity whenever and wherever the Romans attempt to kill him.
It’s the center panel that we focus on. There is much about the panel that indicates the importance of this commission: the size, the delicate woodwork frame, the expense of the gold leaf, the rich blue paint (made from lapis lazuli) used for the Virgin Mary’s robe. The face and hands of the angel are so delicate; the wings are frozen yet the tunic flutters behind. Mary has a most amazing pose—finger in her interrupted prayer book, she manages both to lean her whole body in its enveloping robes away from the angel and incline to him.
Theologically (Luke 1:26-38), what makes Mary pregnant is represented by the dove of the Holy Spirit, supported here by a ball of little angel heads and wings. Simone paints them tipped to the Virgin and etched into the gold of the background, we can see a powerful beam of heavenly rays that descends upon her. Visually, what makes Mary pregnant however are the words which cut diagonally from angel to Mary: ave gratia plena dominvs tecvm (“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”). Words activate the scene. Words make the action happen.
What I find really interesting is that the words have been there for a long time—the gospel of Luke is written (probably) around 60-70 CE. It’s easy to understand why it takes a while for the words to percolate through the culture—Christianity doesn’t really begin to hit enough critical mass until the 4th c. when Constantine passes the Edict of Milan (313) so as to protect the constituency that helps him consolidate his imperial power and even in the 6th century, there are enough different varieties of Catholicism that one could understand the lack of emphasis on the Marian story. After all—the whole nature of Christ as God Incarnate/wholly human/wholly divine was a matter of pretty intense debate. It’s not really surprising that Roman ivory book cover panels or the mosaic in the church of Sta. Maria Maggiore (432-440) don’t have words in the scene of Mary’s Annunciation.
And we could argue that large scale public art showing Christian stories needed to rely on visual depictions without words—widespread literacy in the Roman Empire/former Roman Empire is not assumed. But in a format like a manuscript, say the Sacramentary St. Gereon, 9th c., where literate audience can be assumed, it seems unusual to not see the words. Most books of the Carolingian and Ottonian period that show the Annunciation don’t write out the words on the image.
So what happened between 1008-1015 when the Doors of St. Michael’s at Hildesheim—beautiful big bronze babies!—depict the scene of Gabriel greeting Mary without an inscription and 1152-1156 when the doors cast for Plock Cathedral (Poland) show the same scene with the inscription? And after that—with images like the Pisa Cathedral doors (1180), the Monreale Cathedral doors (1186), the manuscript illumination from the Gospels of Henry the Lion (1173)—all show the inscription in some way. That’s NOT to say that the visual form without the inscription ceases to exist, but the inscribed form goes from none to many examples.
We have to blame Benedict of Clairvaux. In the middle years of the 12th century, Clairvaux was a powerhouse of scholarly engagement and monastic power under his leadership. His writing and preaching changed the course of history, especially when he preached on the importance of the Second Crusade 1146-9 (which on the whole was not very successful). De Laudibus Mariae was a series of homilies and poems that placed the Virgin Mary at the center of intercessory prayer for Christians. Bernard’s writings and preaching hit a period chord for medieval Christians. Liturgy and prayer to the Virgin Mary increased dramatically during the period, and Bernard was at the center of it.
I would close with another altarpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece, by Jan van Eyck and Hubert van Eyck, 1430s.
You really have to look at it in detail on the Closer to Van Eyck site!
We could talk about the upper 4 panels which contain the images of Micah, the Erythraean Sibyl, the Cumaean Sibyl, and Zachariah. All four are pictured with banderoles of text that remind the viewer of the predictions of the Christ Child.
It’s the panels just below them, however, that take us back to my main point: Words make things happen!
The four panels are one continuous space, despite being divided by the frame of the altarpiece. We get to see into one room, floor tiles matching up across the space. Over the portico, we see a lovely (Netherlandish) city in the distance. Gabriel kneels on one side; Jan van Eyck has delicately painted the angel’s open mouth. But the letters are gold–not naturalistic, distinctly vibrant and valid on the drab interior. They stretch across the room–AVE GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM–and line up to pour into Mary’s waiting ear (as the dove of the Holy Spirit settles above her head). Even lovelier: Mary’s response–ECCE ANCILLAM D(OMI)NI (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord”)–spills from her mouth to meet the words of the angel’s call. Loveliest of all–Mary’s response is upside-down, to be read by God as a sign of her willingness and humility.
That’s how you see the action of words.