Simone Martini’s Annunciation
Simone Martini’s Annunciation is a wonderful example of Gothic art. We’ve explored Duccio’s, ‘Maesta’, earlier in this series, Martini is one of Duccio’s students and is believed to have worked on portions of the Maesta. In that post we discussed how Duccio chose to continue in the Gothic style of art, despite his exposure and comparisons to the pre-Renaissance works of Giotto. Martini continues in this tradition.
International Gothic Style and Color
Martini is often cited as a prime example of the International Gothic Style, and this painting is an excellent example. The International Gothic style emphasized decorative patterns, gold leaf, and elegant, elongated figures. In this work we see that Mary in particular, is composed with long, elegant lines. The gold leaf is highly decorative with detailed tooling, and elaborate details in the arched top of the tryptych.
The colors in the Annunciation also reflect the influences of Duccio and Sienna. The city-state of Sienna was an artistic center that rivaled Florence, and what set Sienna apart were the pigments used in the paint. The pigments produced intense, rich colors, and many of the works, like the one we are examining here, were painted on wood panels. Wood panel paintings were done in tempera, in contrast to the fresco paintings that were also popular. In fresco’s the paint is absorbed into wet plaster, thereby softening the colors. In tempera, the pigment is mixed with egg yolks and the application keeps the colors true.
The work was done in 1333 on a wood panel. You can read how panels were prepped here. The Annunciation is currently housed in the Uffizi in Florence.
A Triptych Altarpiece
The work is a tryptych, a work made on three panels. The panels are frequently attached with hinges and are meant to be viewed together. Triptych’s were often the style used for altarpieces. In this case, art historians are not sure that the side paintings were originally viewed as they are now framed, but we do know they were meant to be viewed together. The saint on the left is Ansamo. and the saint on the right is Margaret.
The painting was completed for the altar of St. Ansanus in the transept of Siena cathedral. The cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The saints were painted by Martini’s brother in law, Lippo Mimmi, a celebrated artist in his own right. While the saints are beautiful they are not the focus of today’s post. We are going to focus on the central panel.
Viewing a reproduction of an image is always difficult. First, you don’t get a sense of size, the colors are often off, and fine details don’t photograph well. I’ve included a picture of the altarpiece hanging in the Uffizi so that you can get an idea of just how large it is. The central panel is 10 feet wide.
The gold that you see on the painting is real gold and there is a lot of it. Remember, an altarpiece would be in a chapel without electric lighting. The gold was a beautiful reflective, luminous surface, and seen by candlelight would have had an otherworldly beauty.
The gold has punch work and tooled designs that add to the ornate beauty. This gold work is another indication of the International Gothic Style that. Much of this intricate work can be hard to see in photographs.
The frame that the work is exhibited in is not the original. This ornate frame was made in the 1800’s, and can detract from the painting because it cast shadows onto the work, but the style is probably similar to the original frame.
Reading Martini’s Annunciation
In the painting we have the angel Gabriel arriving on the left. We know that he has just arrived as his cloak still swirls behind him, and he is leaning in and speaking to Mary. Gabriel’s head and neck are thrust forward into the center arch of the work, while his wings are framed by the left hand arch. Interestingly, the inside of Gabriel’s cloak is a plaid pattern, a Scottish angel??? Actually, there were many textile mills around this area, and plaids were known but very uncommon. All of the fabrics in the painting are luxurious and expensive, and the angel’s resembles some used in church vestments.
Gabriel is carrying an olive branch (scepter) and is wearing a crown made of olive leaves. The crown and scepter signify royalty, while the olive branch signifies peace, together they tell us that the Prince of Peace is coming. Additionally, the olive branch is associated with Noah. When Noah sent out the dove (the symbol of the Holy Spirit) and it returned with the olive branch it was a sign that God was now at peace with man, and had saved Noah and his family.
The Virgin Mary
Mary on the other hand shrinks back into the right arch, turning away, clutching her cloak. Martini has chosen to paint the exact moment that Gabriel has swooped into the room. This is Mary’s initial reaction to the angel appearing. She had been reading, the Bible or a devotional, and the book has dropped with her finger holding her place. Mary is almost always reading in paintings of the Annunciation.
Mary’s facial expression reminds me of a sulky teenager. It’s hard to get past it. However, Martini has chosen to paint her right when the angel greets her, prior to her learning that she is to carry the Messiah. At this moment she is troubled, frightened, and suspicious, all reasonable reactions. Later in the story she comes to terms with the angel’s message and humbly submits. Making this painting of the annunciation so specific in time humanizes the Virgin at the start of her holy journey.
Her blue robe is a rich, deep tone of blue that flows in a curved, graceful line creating an elegant figure, who against the gold background, almost appears to be a cut-out. This effect highlights Mary as the central figure in the painting and our eye is drawn to her. She is seated in a chair, that resembles a throne. Around her head is a band of gold resembling a crown, that and the chair hint at her coming role as the Queen of Heaven.
The Floral Centerpiece and Ava Maria
Between the angel and Mary is a heavy golden vase with lilies bursting forth. Lilies are frequently used in Annunciation scenes and signal that Mary is pure and virginal. Also between the angel and Mary are the Latin words “Ave gratia plena dominus tecum” or “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” The words seem to have a living force, coming from the angel and pushing Mary back.
These words on the painting are made more significant because the prayer ‘Ave Maria’ had been gaining use, so as a worshiper read the words on the altarpiece, they would also be reciting the prayer, the Hail Mary.
The punch work and tooling that is done into the gold leaf can only be appreciated when viewed close up. It is intricate, ornate, and beautiful, adding a bit of an engraved element.
The Three Arches
The three arches are peaked, which was a feature of Gothic architecture that the artist has used to add height and elegance to the room Mary inhabits. The room is a shallow space with a beautiful marbled floor. Painting the effect of marble was something that Martini was known for, and he would often paint the back of his wood panels to resemble marble.
Three windows, three arches are often used to signify the trinity. In the center arch we have the dove surrounded by cherubim. The dove is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit and we can see rays of light streaming out of the dove’s mouth straight at Mary. This image is used to convey the moment of the conception, and we will continue to see similar images in other Annunciations. The round space above the center arch is believed to have had a painting of God the Father. So the trinity would be present in this painting. God the Father looking on from above, the Holy Spirit in the form of the dove, and Jesus, now inside of Mary’s womb.
I hope you are enjoying our examination of Nativity Art.
You can view the list of Advent Art works that I will be exploring this month (Dec. of 2020) here. These were originally posted in 2017, and I’m in the process of updating them as the month progresses. .
Please, subscribe to the blog so you will receive notifications as the updates are completed.
Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 6 Book of Hours
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
Let’s Explore Art.wordpress.com
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.