El Greco’s Annunciation was painted late in the artists career when his style had fully developed. Combining the exaggerated colors and figures of the Mannerists with the mysticism he practiced while living in Spain, we have a truly unique envisioning of the Biblical story. Here, El Greco has included the unusual iconography of the burning bush from the story of Moses to highlight the miraculous pregnancy of Mary.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, or commonly El Greco (The Greek), is a Spanish Mannerist Painter who was born in Greece, trained in Italy, and worked in Spain. All three areas influenced his work.
While El Greco’s life overlapped Michelangelo, it is easy to mistake his works for that of a modern painter. He largely leaves behind the realism that is so much a part of the Renaissance and pursues an expressionist style. It’s been said his art was too strange for the time that he lived in, and in fact, after his death El Greco sank into obscurity. He was ‘rediscovered’ in the later 1800’s and inspired much of our modern art development. Picasso in particular was a fan and El Greco’s influence can be felt in many of his works.
El Greco was from the island of Crete, and his early training was in the Byzantine tradition. After becoming a master icon painter, he felt he had more to learn and moved to Italy. There, in Venice and Rome, he learned the many lessons of Renaissance painting. He particularly enjoyed Titian’s colors, and although he thought Michelangelo could sculpt and was a good architect El Greco said Michelangelo couldn’t paint. Despite the unpopularity of these thoughts, that he didn’t keep to himself, he continued to work and develop in Italy.
Mannerism changes the world of art
While El Greco was absorbing the art of Italy, a new style was developing. The Renaissance had emphasized rational thought, scientific observation of nature, and exact representation of what is seen. Eventually, younger artists like El Greco, felt restrained, and that the current trends in art had gone as far as they could go. There were no challenges left to solve. Younger artists began to explore other means of expressing familiar themes, and mannerism developed. Mannerism was short lived, only a few decades, but it transitioned art into its next era.
Michelangelo was the forerunner of Mannerism. His work in the Sistine Chapel had spurred some changes in the younger artist working in Rome. They began to play with perspective, they flattened out spaces, they elongated figures, chose unlikely and vibrant colors, and twisted figures into unnatural poses. In particular, the sibyls in the Sistine Ceiling gave life to the new movement. Young artists, seeking inspiration, would even break into Michelangelo’s home to steal drawings.
El Greco combines Mannerism with Mysticism to further the counter-reformation
Mannerism embraced the artificial, as opposed to the natural. Mannerist artists exaggerated lines and colors to heighten emotional or narrative parts of the stories their paintings told. El Greco took these elements of Mannerism with him when he moved to Spain, and there melded them with the Spanish religious mysticism that was a result of the counter-reformation.
The counter-reformation was a movement by the Catholic church to address some of the issues raised by the Reformation, and to emphasize the distinctives of the Catholic Faith. Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox church embraced mystical visions and the miraculous stories of the saints. Fervor, devotion, and communion with God that had supernatural overtones were popular, and El Greco sought to make these mysterious experiences and emotions visible in his religious paintings.
The Annunciation we are viewing was done late in El Greco’s life, when his distinctive style had fully evolved, and gives us an excellent example of a Mannerist work.
A close reading of the Annunciation
The painting is monumental in size. About 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide. It was originally painted to be part of an altarpiece. This work has elements we’ve never seen before, and some familiar ones, although nothing is presented in a familiar way.
Lack of spatial awareness moves the viewer to the celestial realm
Mary has been interrupted and surprised by the angel Gabriel, who appears to float down from heaven on a cloud. There is no attempt at spatial awareness, or of communicating where this scene is taking place. In fact, there are very few elements that have anything to do with the earthly realm. Mary is standing on solid ground, a pulpit with a book on it behind her. On the floor between her and the angel is a basket with sewing in it, behind the basket is a bush that is on fire, but not being consumed. These are the only parts of the painting in the terrestrial realm, all the rest is celestial.
Mary is young, vulnerable, confused
The identifying elements of Mary’s dress are present, the red of her dress, connecting her to both the earth and the blood of Christ. Her cloak is the traditional blue, signifying her connection to the divine. Her hands appear to be gesturing, perhaps indicating confusion at the angel’s message. It has been suggested that this is the moment where Mary responds to the angels words with the question…’how can it be, when I am a virgin?’ She is not painted in a realistic manner, her hands are indistinct, blurred together.
El Greco is concerned with communicating the deep mystery of this moment. He wants us to identify with Mary’s confusion, faith, and wonder. She appears young and vulnerable, her dress pooling at her feet adds to the impression of a vulnerable girl. Next to Mary on the floor is her basket of sewing.
A simple sewing basket and the veil in the temple
According to Armenian tradition, Mary was stitching the Temple curtain at the moment the angel appeared. Extra-Biblical sources tell us Mary spent a great deal of her time serving and learning in the Temple at Jerusalem. She was one of the virgins chosen to make the new veil for the Holy of Holies. By lot, Mary was chosen to weave the purple and scarlet silk used in the veil. Mary’s mother, St. Anne is the Saint of weaving and lace making, so it’s assumed her daughter was taught these skills.
The veil in the Temple separated the Holy of Holies, or the area where God’s presence dwelled with his people, from the rest of the Temple. Once a year, a priest entered the Holy of Holies to make sacrifices for the nation. Since God’s presence and glory dwelt in the Holy of Holies, anyone entering this area would be consumed (or die) because they could not survive being in God’s presence. Even the priest who entered for the yearly sacrifices had a rope with bells tied to his leg, so that if he was struck dead by God, no other priest would have to enter to retrieve him.
The idea of God’s glory and presence being both glorious and dangerous is key to this painting.
The Temple veil was rent from top to bottom when Christ was crucified, giving entry to all to the Holy of Holies. While it is common for artist’s to include references to Christ death in paintings pertaining to his birth, the use of the Temple veil is a less common symbol. El Greco being from Greece, and an icon painter, would have known all of the symbols and stories told in the Byzantine church. He brings that training and influence with him into this work.
Another symbol from the Eastern Church is pictured behind the basket.
The burning rose bush
God first spoke to Moses out of a burning bush that was not consumed. This prefigures Mary carrying the divine within her, and not being consumed by it.
In the painting by El Greco, the bush is a rosebush, the symbol for Mary, and while aflame, it is not consumed. Anyone familiar with the Old Testament stories would know that seeing God would result in death, being consumed and overwhelmed by His glory. To consider taking the divine into oneself without being consumed was another miracle that perhaps we pass over or don’t consider sufficiently. It is said, that when viewed in person the flames on this rosebush appear to flicker and are quite realistic. When in place behind the altar, the candles on the altar would enhance this effect.
This imagery of Mary and the burning bush is used by the Coptic Orthodox Church in both song and prayer. Here is a portion:
The burning bush seen by Moses
The prophet in the wilderness
The fire inside it was aflame
But never consumed or injured it.
The same with the Theotokos Mary
Carried the fire of Divinity
Nine months in her holy body.
The Angel Gabriel is clothed in what I would call acid green robes. This use of jarring colors was one of the distinctive elements of Mannerism. It is unexpected and draws the eye. The contortion of Gabriel’s body is also worth noting. His feet face forward, standing on a cloud, but his body twists to face Mary. It’s an awkward pose, as is the positioning of his wings, one up, one down. His arms are crossed in the attitude of veneration.
Often Mary is pictured with her arms in this pose, signifying her acceptance and submission to the Angel’s message. El Greco has taken that familiar iconography of Mary, and given it to Gabriel. This emphasizes the veneration that is due to Mary for her willingness to become the mother of God. While we might only think of this as an honor, Mary will endure much pain and suffering as a result of her obedience. Here, Gabriel offers respect and acknowledgement to Mary.
As mentioned earlier, part of El Greco’s purpose was to counter the Reformation that was spreading across Europe. One element of the Reformation was a re-evaluation of the role Mary plays, and how she should be treated doctrinally and in art. El Greco is reinforcing the Catholic doctrines around Mary and emphasizing that she is not just worthy of veneration by believers, but that even the angels of heaven recognize her importance.
Columns of cherubs point to the Dove
Continuing up the painting we have now moved fully into the heavenly realm. Through the light, lined on each side by the heads of cherubs is the dove, or Holy Spirit descending. Between cherub heads we see small golden wings now and then. I’m sure their bodies are lost in the clouds, but I find myself disturbed by the image of just the heads making columns.
The white dove is back lit by yellow and, in a disjointed color choice, shades of blue lighten as the light moves down toward Mary.
The skies above are filled with an angelic host playing music. Most have instruments, and one angel holds the music and has his arm raised as if he conducts the celebratory song. The angels are clothed in contrasting colors that create a sense of energy.
The angel in the center is wearing a robe that mirrors the Virgin Mary’s robe and with the line of the dove descending visually unites the earthly and the heavenly.
I hope that you are learning as much as I am in viewing this work of art. I’m going to be contemplating Mary as the burning bush for a while. I saw a painting El Greco did of Pentecost, it’s made me wonder about flames. In the imagery of Mary and the burning bush we have elements of God’s presence and indwelling, coupled with God’s protection that his creation not be consumed by His glory and holiness. In the account of Pentecost the Holy Spirit indwelt each of the believers and a flame burned over their heads.
If you have enjoyed this article you can find this rest in this series here.
Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 21 Bruegel
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
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.