Tuesday, May 08, 2007

...of elements and an angelic sprite


Let me say a few words about another painting that came up in a conversation lately, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini ("Behold the handmaid of the Lord"), painted in 1850. (Click - and again - to enlarge.)

The theme, the Annunciation, was a common one (scroll down for gallery) in Late Medieval and Renaissance art. Rossetti has adopted many of the conventions of that time, but given them a new interpretation.

In the earlier paintings, Mary is generally portrayed as a mature woman, up and about, dressed for the business of the day in red and blue. She is slightly abashed by the words of the angel, but usually appears as if she were expecting the message and accepts her fate with equanimity.

Rossetti's virgin is a young girl, perhaps just woken from sleep, in her night clothes of virginal white. The traditional red is seen here as an embroidery hanging on a folded embroidery frame (we have seen it before in an earlier Rossetti work, The Girlhood of Mary). A blue screen is in the background, and a blue sky.

The lilies, the white dove, and the just extinguished candle (here a wall sconce) are all Medieval and Renaissance conventions.

Something new is going on here.

The angel Gabriel is a slightly androgynous young man, wingless, naked beneath his simple gown. He hovers just above the floor on fiery feet. The stem of the lilies points to Mary's womb. Here are the usual three blossoms, representing, presumably, the Trinity, but one of them is still in bud.

Mary is -- well, you tell me. She seems to be looking at something -- a hint of angelic tumescence? -- that Gabriel's turned posture does not allow us to see. She is aroused, embarrassed, fearful. She doesn't seem to have a clue that she is being invited to be the mother of God.

We are a long way here from the Age of Faith. We are witnessing a very modern drama, one that has less to do with the salvation of the world that working out the tangled scripts of Rossetti's -- and our -- psychosexuality.

If yesterday's Pontormo painting anticipated Copernicus, Vesalius and Agricola, this 1850 work of Rossetti anticipates Darwin and Freud. If we want to understand the painting, it is not to the theology that we must turn, but to evolutionary psychology.

In her big fruitcake of a book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia has a lot to say about Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite "decadence" (although, curiously, she does not mention this early painting). She does mention the influence on Rossetti of "Italian Catholicism's vestigial paganism," and I think here she is close to the mark. In its sacramental colors and symbols, its frank sensuality, and its mythic interpretation of dreams, Rossetti's Annunciation -- this very Catholic painting -- takes us away from the supernatural drama of sin and salvation and back to the forest groves and caves where our neural circuitry acquired its primal wiring.