Antoniazzo Romano’s Annunciation – meaning, how the Virgin Mary can miss the most important moment of her life
It is found in the right chapel of the church (looking on from the enterance), which takes its name from the Confraternity responsible for its foundation – Cappella dell’Annunziata. The Confraternity of the Annunciation itself was established by a Dominican – the Spanish cardinal, Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468), the uncle of the famous in Spain inquisitor, Tomasso Torquemada. Cardinal Juan, was an important figure on the papal court, a great supporter of the idea of Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, but also a man known for his charity. He died in Rome and was buried in this very chapel. The duty of the confraternity established by him, was to aid girls from poor families in securing their dowry, which would facilitate marriage, since a dowry was one of the most important, if not the most important element, in this matter. The scale of this social problem, can be testified to by the large number of young girls, often sold by their families, or if they were unable to find any other way to support themselves in life, ending up on the street as “queens of the night”. It is assumed that at the end of the XV century, approximately 6800 women, of all walks of life – exquisite courtesans and street prostitutes selling themselves for few pennies, earned their living in such a way in the Eternal City. Another problem was the unwanted pregnancies, which at that time were a real plague upon the city. Abortion, or simply discarding newborns into the Tiber was a common procedure. This was not changed by the year 1490, when the first symptoms of a disease, which in a decisive way changed the face of Europe – syphilis – were recognized. Although it seemed to be a form of divine punishment for debauchery, it did not diminish prostitution.
After the death of cardinal Torquemada in 1468, the Confraternity ordered an altarpiece from the valued Roman painter Antoniazzo Romano, which was to commemorate the deceased and remind of his charitable deeds. This was one of the last works of this artist, finished in the Jubilee Year of 1500. It depicted a scene well-known from the Gospel of St. Luke – the moment in which Archangel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary, to announce the miraculous news that, thanks to the Holy Spirit, she will become to mother of Jesus Christ – the Son of God. On the painting, however, we see Mary who had just finished reading, who does not even notice the divine messenger carrying a white lily (the symbol of purity), because she is busy giving three girls – mentees of the aforementioned confraternity – bags with money. Next to them we will notice the figure of Juan de Torquemada, in the Dominican habit, who with a protective gesture seems to be introducing the girls to Mary. Here, the cardinal seems to fill to role of St. Nicholas of Bari, who – as we know – in the very same way, much earlier, attempted to help girls in marriage. However, when we take a closer look at the painting, we can experience a sort of a doubt, whether all of this will succeed, which is testified to by the amount of elements placed in the scene by the painter. As we know from the Bible, the Archangel was to surprise and scare Mary with his arrival he was to give her the wonderful news, while Mary after a moment of thought, was to give in to the will of God. Yet here we see that the dove sent by God the Father is already approaching her, while the Archangel still remains unnoticed, and Mary herself, as was mentioned, is busy distributing pouches of gold. One of them she has already given out, and she is in the process of giving another, but the third is still at her side. It seems that the miraculous act of “divine impregnation”, will take place soon, but is Mary going to be able to hand out the third bag and finally notice the angel, not even mentioning the time needed to ponder the moment, as was described in the Bible, since the dove is so very near? Will Mary finally be able to concentrate on the annunciation itself?
This crowding, which we are witness to, was not, as it seems, accidental, while the act of the annunciation and the care over the poor girls were purposefully combined, giving the Confraternity of the Annunciation an exceptional rank, while also providing the girls who experience its help, with the conviction of the exceptionality of this deed and its wondrous consequences. It is not the members of the confraternity who are gifting them, but Mary herself – the Mother of God, at the moment so important to her and for the whole Church. The reward for remaining pure, is not only the perspective of finding a husband and having happy children, but also the particular protection of the Mother of God.
The campaign of giving out bags with money was practiced by the Confraternity of the Annunciation annually on the Feast of the Annunciation, meaning 25th March. This gift was granted to selected girls, after three years of trials and after turning fifteen, when it was decided that they are worthy of help. The money was given during a celebration which took place in a church, in the presence of a clergyman.
A similar and equally interesting scene of the Annunciation, can be seen a few steps away, in the Carafa Chapel, on a fresco by the Florentine artist Filippino Lippi and it must be admitted that he was an inspiration for Antoniazzo. Here, Mary is also surprised by Archangel Gabriel. These two outstanding works are separated by a mere seven years, however, it is impossible not to notice the chasm between the visions of both artists. Antoniazzo’s painting seems firmly set in a medieval style, while he himself is a traditionalist painter. This is not only testified to by the characteristic for this time period gold background, which is an emanation of divine light, but also a hieratic perspective. Could we imagine, what would have happened if the kneeling Mary had stood up? She would not have fit in the painting. And this was not a mistake of the painter, but an artistic convention, which for centuries expressed significance of figures through appropriately chosen proportions.
The work is found in a chapel, which in the XVI century was thoroughly reconstructed by the architect Carlo Maderno. Only the old painting remains from the previous furnishings. The new arrangements were caused by the desire to place the tombstone monument of Pope Urban VII in the chapel, who, while only having governed the State of the Church for twelve days (1590), gave all his earthly possessions to the Confraternity of the Annunciation. The main altar of the chapel is adorned with two sixteenth century frescoes ( by Niccolò Stabbio), depicting St. Dominic (the founder of the order) and St. Hyacinth (Polish Dominican). On either side of the painting there are two tombstone monuments – one created only in the middle of the XVII century to commemorate the aforementioned cardinal Torquemada, the other almost its twin, for cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani.
The Annunciation, Antoniazzo Romano, 1500, tempera on wood, Cappella dell’Annunziata, Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
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