The Annunciation by Antonello da Messina: refinement, order, modernity

Antonello da Messina's The Annunciation (Palermo, Palazzo Abatellis) is a masterpiece of refinement and modernity equipped with a solid geometric layout.

A girlish face, with an olive complexion and refined features of a purity difficult to find in other works of art. The deep black eyes, which, with a slightly downward gaze, communicate hesitation, lingering, shyness, perhaps even a little discomfort. The lectern, outlined with a precision reminiscent of Flemish painting and sparing no moths on the surface of the wood. And then the hands, tapering, elegant: the right hand makes a forward movement almost as if to screen itself, the left hand tries instead to close the veil to cover the neck, caught in a slight twist, and the robe that leaves a portion of the chest uncovered, tiny but enough to prompt the protagonist to deem it more convenient to cover it. These are the elements that make Antonello da Messina ’sAnnunciata one of the most seductive works in all of art history.

Antonello da Messina, Annunciata
Antonello da Messina, Annunciation (c. 1476; oil on panel, 45 x 34.5 cm; Palermo, Palazzo Abatellis, Regional Gallery)

Antonio di Saliba, Annunciata
Antonio di Saliba, Annunciation (late 15th century; oil and tempera on panel, 46.8 x 34.7 cm; Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia)
It is remarkable that of a work as exciting as it is capital for Western art nothing has been known for centuries. In fact, the first mention dates back to 1866, when the Palermo prelate as well as art historian Gioacchino Di Marzo wrote that he had seen in Venice a work equal to theAnnunciata, which was then in the collection of a certain Monsignor Vincenzo Di Giovanni. The work, in turn purchased by the noble Palermo family of Colluzio, was then ascribed to Albrecht Dürer. The debate over which was the original exemplar, whether the one Di Marzo had seen in Venice or the Palermo one, went on unresolved until 1907: the year before, theAnnunciata had become part of the collection of what was then the National Museum of Palermo, which has now become the Regional Gallery, and was exhibited for the first time in the rooms of Palazzo Abatellis, where it can still be admired today. The originality of the Palazzo Abatellis work and the attribution to Antonello da Messina (Messina, c. 1430 - 1479) were confirmed by Enrico Brunelli in 1907, who established the precedence of the PalermoAnnunciata over the Venice painting: “smooth, cold, monotonous is the Venice copy, though most diligent: here the execution is of an extreme precision, of a rigor all Antonello-like, and the color is robust and vigorous, more varied even and richer than in the other exemplar. While the robes of the Venetian painting offer a uniform blue surface, without vividness or intensity, here the red of the tunic enlivens the blue of the cloak: the red is a vermilion red, similar to arterial blood, the blue turns to sea green and has a very particular intonation that is sometimes found in the Sicilian sea, when the intense blue of a serene noontide sky is mirrored and seems to merge almost into the calm, deep waters.” The Venice work would later be attributed to another Sicilian painter, Antonio di Saliba, moreover a relative of Antonello da Messina.

The Messina painter’s Madonna is only apparently alone. In fact, Antonello leaves us in a position to perceive the presence of thearchangel Gabriel, who has come to announce to her the birth of Jesus, right in front of her: he is out of the composition because he is in the position in which we who observe the painting find ourselves. Mary has been caught off guard: her hand, reaching forward, almost wants to “block the angel’s message with a surcease of demure surprise but also of questioning,” to use a happy expression by Eugenio Battisti. With that slight movement of her hand, Mary seems to be telling the angel not to proceed further, because she was not prepared for this encounter, and at the same time she wonders what God’s messenger will have to say to her: Antonello has the virtue of translating this complex state of mind into a very simple gesture. The demureness of which Battisti speaks is revealed, as anticipated, by the act of the other hand, which tries in all haste and as quickly as possible to conceal her limbs with the veil (or, to use the exact term, the maphorion, the mantle Mary used to cover her shoulders and head). And despite the swiftness of the action, the Virgin does not flinch; on the contrary: her elegance remains unaffected. Of course, there is artifice as well, for Antonello subjects the entire work to an obvious as well as severe geometric order: the face is inscribed in an oval, the veil forms a triangle, the opening of the veil over the face in turn forms an inverted triangle, the folds fall perpendicular. Despite all this, it is a painting full of life, for the reasons described above: because we are in the beginning stages of an encounter, because a dialogue is about to be established, because the Virgin’s movements are very expressive. And as if that were not enough, there is also a subtle breath of wind that disrupts the pages of the book resting on the lectern: a sign of the arrival of the archangel moving the air around him.

The reading just proposed of theAnnunciation is but one of many that have been proposed for the work. It is, in my opinion, the most suggestive, as well as the one on which there is most agreement among critics, but it should be given that there are those who have tried to interpret Mary’s movements and mimicry in other terms. The gesture of the outstretched right hand, far from being an invention of Antonello, recurs in several earlier Annunciations, and is often interpreted as a sign of acceptance of the destiny that the archangel Gabriel has communicated to Our Lady. In an Annunciation by the Flemish artist Dirck Bouts now in the Getty Museum but first attested in 1810 in the collections of the Foscari family, which belonged to the Venetian patriciate (it cannot therefore be ruled out that it was not in Venice already at the time of Antonello’s stay in the lagoon, between 1474 and 1475), the Virgin stretches out both hands in front of her while the angel, with his index finger pointing, is clearly declaiming the announcement to her: it is obvious that, in such a depiction, the hands indicate the fact that Mary is taking note of the events that have been communicated to her. However, in Antonello, things are made more complicated by the fact that only one of the two hands is brought forward, so that the other may support hypotheses of a different nature.

Antonello da Messina, Annunciata, Particolare del volto
Antonello da Messina, Annunciation, Detail of the Face

Dirck Bouts, Annunciazione
Dirck Bouts, Annunciation (c. 1450-1455; tempera on canvas, 90 x 74.6 cm; Malibu, Getty Museum)

Three years ago, a Sicilian scholar, Giovanni Taormina, proposed a new interpretation, also in light of the fact that the book in front of the Annunciation may be a manuscript with the Magnificat (in fact, a capital “M” can be glimpsed at the beginning of the page lifted by the wind). It is also worth mentioning because one of Antonello’s leading scholars, Mauro Lucco, had the role of “presenter” at the conference during which Taormina presented his study. The title, The Mystery Unveiled, is certainly not one that is best suited to an art history study, because of its mix of pretentiousness (since nothing has been revealed: it is a hypothesis) and that esotericism that makes any very normal iconological question appear as a “mystery,” but the contents are interesting. Taormina starts from the assumption that the “M” mentioned is an M in oncial script (a type of writing with full and sinuous shapes, much used in medieval manuscripts especially in the Mediterranean area), whose roundness would refer to the circle understood as a symbol of perfection: clues that suggest that that letter indicates precisely the beginning of the Magnificat, the prayer that, according to Luke’s Gospel, Mary raises to God during the meeting with her cousin Elizabeth, an episode following the moment of the Annunciation. In the Gospel it is said that during the encounter “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit”: Taormina argues that the Magnificat present in the book is a clue that reveals, in the painting, the presence of the Holy Spirit manifesting itself in the form of the wind that lifts the pages (also in accordance with the etymological root of the term “Spirit”: just think of the verb “to breathe out,” not to mention the terms in Greek and Hebrew with which the word “Spirit” is expressed and which all have to do with the concepts of wind, breath, breath). Moreover, the smile hinted at by the Virgin’s mouth clashes with any motion of surprise suggested by the hands: Antonello, if he had wanted to communicate the feeling of surprise, should have painted a more coherent expression on the Madonna’s face. It would therefore be a pose intended to communicate awareness. If the hypothesis were true, Antonello would have effectively reinvented an iconography.

Whether one wants to consider the above hypothesis convincing or not, there is one point on which Taormina agrees with all critics: theAnnunciation by Antonello is the result of a precise geometric order, as mentioned above. One senses the lesson of Piero della Francesca, an author whom Antonello knew well, and from whom he takes the tendency to regulate the composition according to, precisely, well-defined geometric principles, and to frame his scenes in rigorous perspective settings. The clue considered by many to be most revealing of Antonello’s updating of the conquests of perspective is precisely the right hand depicted in an admirable and sophisticated foreshortening that refers directly to Piero’s art, as Roberto Longhi already noted in 1914, relating the hand of theAnnunciation to that of the lady who appears behind the Queen of Sheba in the fresco with theAdoration of the Sacred Wood and the Encounter with King Solomon that the Tuscan painter had included in the celebrated Stories of the True Cross in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. Longhi first provided a splendid description of the hand: “the right hand moves forward inclined to cautiously attempt the possible limit of the volume; having found it, it stops, while, opposed to it, the book raises on the air the sharp slash of its candid sheet.” And then he went on to locate the references: “without the sloping hand flattened with shadow and light of the lady behind the head of Queen Saba, by the bridge, the hand of the Annunciata of Palermo, the most beautiful hand I know in art, would not have existed.” A hand that, therefore, also serves to create a space between the Annunciata and us: the gesture makes us tangibly aware of the distance that separates the Annunciata from us and helps to make us even more aware of that dual role that Antonello invites us to assume and of which the English art historian John Shearman had spoken in 1992: in fact, ours can be the angel’s point of view or that of mere spectators of the scene.

Piero della Francesca, Adorazione del Sacro Legno e incontro tra Salomone e la Regina di Saba
Piero della Francesca, Adoration of the Sacred Wood and Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, detail (1452-1458; fresco, 336 x 747 cm; Arezzo, San Francesco)

Antonello da Messina, Annunciata, Particolare delle mani
Antonello da Messina, Annunciation, detail of hands

Icona bizantina del Duomo di Fermo
The Byzantine icon in the Cathedral of Fermo
But it is precisely the possibility of stepping into the shoes of the angel, and thus the strong connection that the painter creates between us and the painting, that is the great novelty introduced by Antonello, the element that makes the painting “a revolutionary image” such that “the Annunciation by itself presupposes the angel, vicariously in its functions by the viewer himself” (thus the aforementioned Mauro Lucco in the catalog of the major exhibition that the Scuderie del Quirinale dedicated to Antonello in 2006). Federico Zeri thought that the work was made together with a pendant that never reached us: however, there are no signs on the panel that would suggest any ligatures with other paintings. And the same is true for the other Annunciata, the one that had kicked off the iconographic revolution operated by Antonello: it is the panel, now in Munich, that the Sicilian painter had made just a couple of years before the PalermoAnnunciata (assuming we accept the most widespread dating: 1476, after his stay in Venice, the one in the Palazzo Abatellis, and c. 1474-1475, just before the move, the one in the Alte Pinakothek) and in which he had for the first time eliminated the figure of the angel, treating his Virgo annunciata like a Flemish portrait (also because of the dark background) and giving us who observe the role of Mary’s interlocutors. There were precedents, in the poses and in the choice of certain details: again in the above catalog, Marco Collareta recalled that, to explain the MunichAnnunciation, a Byzantine icon preserved in the Cathedral of Fermo (for the hands depicted in the usual position) and known to Antonello perhaps during the journey to Venice, as well as a Madonna by the so-called Master E.S., an up-to-date German engraver active in the mid-sixteenth century (for the parapet), were called into question. What differentiates Antonello da Messina’s panels from all of his predecessors, however, is the inclusion of the Virgin in a narrative context, as mentioned also by art historian Lorenzo Pericolo, who to explain the Madonna’s attitude proposed rather a comparison with the Virgin Annunciata that appears in the Polyptych of the Mystical Lamb by Flemish artist Jan van Eyck: it is a bit as if Antonello wanted to make a close-up on Mary’s face and hands.

Antonello da Messina, Annunciata
Antonello da Messina, Annunciation (c. 1474-1475; oil on panel, 43 x 32 cm; Munich, Alte Pinakothek)

TheAnnunciata in Palermo is the final stage of Antonello’s revolution. The viewer’s involvement here is greater than in the Munich panel counterpart. The painter has removed the parapet that created a physical boundary between us and the Virgin. The gestures and mental disposition, Collareta again notes, show openness to the outside world, barriers between the space of the painting and the real space are removed, there is continuity between Mary’s movements, her inner upheaval, and our relationship with her. To put it briefly: it is an extremely modern painting, marking a milestone in the history of Western art. And, at the risk of being trite, it can be said that Antonello da Messina’sAnnunciation is a painting of disarming beauty. His Virgin is beautiful because she is pure but at the same time earthly, ethereal and natural, solemn but close and palpitating. A work that, as Gioacchino Barbera has well written, “is astonishing in its ability to represent, with such convincing sense of volume and perspective, a type of idealized Mediterranean beauty in an image that is simultaneously abstract and realistic.”

Reference Bibliography

  • Lorenzo Pericolo, The invisible presence: cut-in, close-up, and off-scene in Antonello da Messina’s Palermo Annunciate in Representations, Vol. 107, No. 1, University of Carolina Press, 2009, pp. 1-29
  • Teresa Pugliatti, Antonello da Messina: rigor and emotion, Kalós, 2008
  • Paolo Biscottini, Antonello da Messina: the Annunciation, Silvana Editoriale, 2007
  • Mauro Lucco (ed.), Antonello da Messina, exhibition catalog (Rome, Scuderie del Quirinale, March 18-June 25, 2006), Silvana Editoriale, 2006
  • Gioacchino Barbera, Keith Christiansen, Andrea Bayer, Antonello da Messina Sicily’s Renaissance Master, exhibition catalog (New York, Metropolitan Museum, December 13, 2005 - March 5, 2006), Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005
  • Giulio Carlo Argan, Vincenzo Abbate, Eugenio Battisti, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Novecento, 1992
  • Eugenio Battisti, Antonello: the sacred theater, the spaces, the woman, Novecento, 1985
  • Sixten Ringbom, Icon to narrative. The rise of the dramatic close-up in fifteenth-century devotional painting, in Acta Academiae Aboensis, Ser. A, Vol. 31, no. 2, ?bo Akademi, 1965

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