Although the Virgin Mary is depicted in the gospel text and other religious literature as primarily a humble “handmaid of God,” imagery in medieval representations of her tend to downplay that aspect of her personality. Instead, social class is what is most often emphasized, with the depiction of Mary's superior social standing echoing that of the either the painter or the patron who commissioned the work. The royal, “Queen of Heaven” aspect of her personality becomes what is most important, while other characteristics such as humility fall by the wayside. This paper will address two such paintings by northern European artists in the 15th century: “The Merode Altarpeice” by Robert Campin and the “Washington Annunciation” by Jan van Eyck. Both of these are paintings of the Annunciation to the Virgin by Flemish painters around the same time period. Both depict the Virgin Mary at a social standing equal or greater to the level of the patrons – the audience has to be able to view her as socially higher than them in order for her to be respected. To add an extra level of analysis, these paintings will be compared not only to each other, but also to the 1898 “Annunciation” by African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner.
[...] When the angel Gabriel announces Mary's divine mission to bear Christ, Mary replies, “Ecco ancilla domini Behold the handmaid of the lord.” Mary humbly accepts her role and refers to herself in the position of a humble handmaid. During the visitation to Elizabeth, Mary is at once exalted as full of grace “above all women,” but her humility is again emphasized as well. This virtue is what is most often mentioned in the scriptures as an important aspect of her personality. [...]
[...] Bernard she was reading Isaiah at the time of the annunciation, with the angel appearing just as she read, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.” This also shows that her role is a simple girl serving in the temple” but as a link between the Old Testament scriptures and the new era that was to come with the conception of Christ. Thus, iconographically speaking, Mary becomes more than a humble maiden, the mother of Christ, or the Queen of Heaven she is a tangible link between the Jewish traditions of the Hebrew Bible and the new traditions of Christianity, showing that there is a connection between the two. [...]
[...] He “possessed a class perspective with a strong sympathy for the disadvantaged in general he was pressured to shift to themes that transcended class consciousness and appealed to a broader audience.” So, much like paintings of the past, the social class of the audience determined how Tanner presented Mary in his “Annunciation”. However, in this case, despite rich patrons, his aim was to appeal to people across class lines. Since his paintings were being sold, people with money must have accepted seeing the Virgin Mary and other Biblical figures depicted as normal people rather than royalty. [...]
[...] “Naturalism and Allegory in Flemish Painting,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism p. 237-249 Frinta, Mojmir S. Genius of Robert Campin” Harbison, Craig. “Sexuality and Social Standing in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Double Portrait.” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol 43, No (Summer, 1990), pp 249- 291 Harper, Jennifer J., Early Religious Paintings of Henry Ossawa Tanner.” American Art, Fall 1992 Jones, Leslie C. and Jonathan JG Alexander, Annunciation to the Shepherdess,” Studies in Iconography, 24-2003 Kurtz, Amy. “Individual, Family, and Community in Henry Ossawa Tanner's “Spinning Monnas, Lisa. [...]
[...] However, this concession to Mary's humility does not in any way reduce her social standing to anything below that of the patrons, but rather emphasizes more of a “queenly” humility expected of those of the upper class. No reference is made to the poverty that kept her out of the inn or her self-reference as a “handmaid of God”. Henry Ossawa Tanner's “Annunciation” came from an entirely different world than the pre-Renaissance painters of Flanders. An African-American expatriot living in France to escape the racism of post-Reconstruction Philadelphia, he was the son of a bishop of the AME Church. [...]
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