A far cry from Annunciation scenes in the Renaissance tradition, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite paintings, depicts the commonly illustrated moment when the angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she will give birth to the Lord. although Rossetti relies on earlier traditions for many of the symbols he places in the scene, his method of employing these symbols, his depiction of space, and most significantly his portrayal of the two figures represent significant departures from earlier tradition.

Early Netherlandish Annuciation scenes, such as the central panel of Robert Campin's Merode Triptych (1425-30, New York City, The Cloisters), The Annunciation attributed to Petrus Christus (c. 1450, New York City, Metropolitan Museum), Robert van der Weyden's Annunciation (1435, Louvre), and Hans Memling's Annunciation (1480-89, New York City, Metropolitan Museum) all depict lilies, the symbol of the Mary's purity, in a vase nearby the scene of the angel addressing the Virgin. Rossetti also uses lilies, however they are integrated into both the action and environment of the scene: Gabriel holds out a stem with lilies, offering them to Mary and seemingly presenting her with an embodiment of the chastity and purity she is fated to continue throughout her life; an embroidery hanging at the end of the bed, which Rossetti depicts her working on in The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, plays a contextual role -- this is a young girl's bedroom and so one might expect to find her needlework in this space -- as well as perhaps representing her active choice to live purely since she has chosen to embroider a lily.

Rather than dressed in blue, as is the case in three of the four Netherlandish Annunciations mentioned above, Mary wears a simple white dress. Rossetti does not ignore the importance of blue as the color associated with the Virgin and heaven: he places a blue screen directly behind her, and out the window, the sky is a similar shade of blue, alluding to heaven. Furthermore, as most Annunciation scenes have candles that have just blown out as a result of the entrance of the Holy Spirit, so Rossetti paints a wall sconce with the hint of a flame -- a different presentation of a usual symbol. Rossetti includes a dove, embodying the Holy Spirit, however in this one case he does not drastically transform a traditional symbol.

Rossetti's imagined space shows great innovation. Compared to the Netherlandish interiors rich with elaborate floor tiles, stained glass, wooden furniture, rugs, pillows, and other such details, the Virgin's bedroom in this painting is shockingly simple. White stone tiles cover the floor; the walls have white paint; the window has no panes, and the only object in the room not already mentioned is a simple, low wooden bed with a white mat and pillow atop it. Rather than the Netherlandish paintings in which the room draws the viewer in and the eye is allowed to move through the scene to the back wall of the bedroom, Rossetti places Mary in a room that is almost claustrophobically small. The use of perspective is unconvincing: Mary's bed appears about to slide out of the painting and the floor on the left of the painting blends into the wall, furthering the steep plane effect. In addition, the view out the window at back, which Rossetti could have used to give the scene depth by employing the plateau composition and allowing the viewer to see a scene in the distance, instead shows only blue sky and a part of a tree.

Rather than a winged, long-haired boyish angel, Rossetti paints an androgynous Gabriel, without wings, his face only visible in highly shadowed profile, with the hints of yellow flames around his feet.

Most striking in this scene and the most drastic of Rossetti's innovations, the figure of Mary sits on her bed and slouches against the wall. She is markedly adolescent with her beautiful young features, unbrushed straight hair, childishly skinny body, and the hesitance, fear and melancholy with which she responds to the angel Gabriel's glorious pronouncement. Wisps of her messy, auburn hair spread around her neck, silhouetted against her white dress, reminiscent of Christ's crown of thorns or a bloodshot eye. Rossetti has no use for the stiff, exaggerated poses of primitive Virgins. He seems most concerned with the sincere response of a young girl who has been saddled with a burden that is both wonderful and laden with responsibility. In this endeavor, he thoroughly succeeds. The confined nature of the space, the barrenness of the surroundings, Mary's intense expression and her expressive pose all further the image of a young girl who is confronted with her own adult identity and is terrified.

Questions

1.Why might Rossetti have obscured Gabriel's face?

2. How is the painting affected by Mary's youthfulness?

3. In Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Mary and her mother, St. Anne, appear oblivious of the halos that hover above their hands, demarcating their holiness. In that painting, Mary's lack of consciousness about her fate, despite the numerous symbols around her, has a strong effect on the painting: the viewer has knowledge that the virgin does not yet possess. On the contrary, in Ecce Ancilla Domini Mary is keenly aware of her position, and it is this self-awareness and terror that endows the painting with its power. How does this difference between the two paintings affect the feelings they elicit from the viewer?

4. Early Netherlandish Annunciations were devotional pieces, intended to inspire a viewer to religious contemplation and prayer. Could this painting serve that purpose, or does its message transcend religion and speak more strongly to universal issues of growth, responsibility and youthful vulnerability?


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Last modified 3 October 2004