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Rembrandt van Rijn: The Annunciation

Rembrandt van Rijn: The Annunciation (ca. 1635)

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

To a greater extent than his Dutch contemporaries Rembrandt (1606-1669) devoted himself to the depiction of biblical stories. While his Calvinistic colleagues specialized in landscapes, still lifes and genre pieces, his Catholic contemporaries like Jan Steen did render biblical subjects, but limited themselves to themes sanctioned by tradition. Rembrandt, however, also chose subjects that fell outside the traditional canon. When he did select a standard theme, he often rendered it in a unique manner. The latter is the case in the drawing of The Annunciation, which he made in 1635.
The annunciation is the visual representation of Luke 1:26-35. In the history of painting it has continually been a beloved and major theme as it depicts an important dogma of the Church: God becoming human in Jesus of Nazareth. The annunciation is sometimes portrayed outside, but more often, however, inside. The angel usually approaches Mary from the left. At the moment that Gabriel enters the room, Mary is usually reading the Bible, opened at a particular passage in Isaiah. Reverently, the angel draws near to Mary, sometimes kneeling down before her. Occasionally, Mary makes a frightened gesture of resistance; more often she also kneels down reverentially before the angel. Another standard element is the dove descending along a ray of light towards Mary’s breast. Sometimes, however, the ray enters her ear, as Christ is the Word. At times a baby is depicted in this ray of light with or without a cross in his tiny hands. This is how the moment of conception found expression.                                                                      
Let’s now look at how our drawing renders this moment. Little is left of the traditional rendition of this theme. The angel approaches Mary from the right and there is no dove. At first sight the drawing makes a rather messy impression with a lot of unclear scribbling. The meeting of the angel and Mary is not a serene and elevated scene here, but rather a chaotic and emotional spectacle.
Gabriel, as we can see from the flowing lines behind him, has flown into the room at full speed. He bends carefully over Mary and looks at her filled with concern. His left wing is only partly depicted; the paper was too small to contain his imposing presence. Mary is totally overwhelmed by his entrance. She slides down from her chair, while her left arm seeks the support of the left arm of the angel and her right arm hangs aimlessly in the air. The book glides down from her lap. Her face, full of shadow lines, is dark with emotion. Or is this a reference to Luke 1:35: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’? Or does she feel ashamed? How would this moment actually have felt for Mary?
But there is something more. Rembrandt makes use here of the formula, often occurring in 17th-century art, of the woman in danger: the woman’s face is turned aside; she is in a sitting position (even though she is slipping down here). This formula Rembrandt also employed in his renderings of the bathing Bathsheba, of the bathing Diana, and of Susanna and the Elders -- all women in danger due to the threat of the overpowering by a man. Mary is also a woman in danger here because of the power of the overshadowing of the Most High, which will moreover lead to a life full of suffering. By the way, do you see the one on whose account she will suffer, the baby, shoot across the ground in the middle at the bottom of the drawing?
There are a few more details worthy of observation. What do we see in the centre of the image (usually a place of central importance)? Remarkably, we see an empty spot there, in sharp contrast with the chaotic tangle of lines just above it that seem to portray the inscrutable mystery of what is going on in this unique moment. The empty spot, however, has something of a triangle that is pointing down. Is this a portrayal of the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who, in the traditional rendering of this theme, are usually depicted separately? Is the Trinity descending into her lap?
Also the empty slipper in the foreground on the left is worth noting. Such a slipper often hints to bed scenes in Dutch 17th-century art, but it could also point to Moses, who had to take off his shoes at the burning bush. We may well say that we are standing on holy ground here!
Thus, we see that Rembrandt has placed his own accents while rendering this well-known theme. The humanity of Mary’s reaction, for instance, suggests that she is not a saint who towers high above us, but through and through a woman of flesh and blood. Rembrandt moreover has emphasized the majestic appearance of the angel and the incomprehensible grandeur of what is happening in this moment. But perhaps the most special element in this drawing is the great care of the angel for Mary, his nearness while he bends towards her, spreading his wing over her to protect her, in a blessing. For even though we may receive impossible callings, and even though we are people in danger, whoever abides in the shadow of the Almighty, he will surely shelter with his wings.
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669): The Annunciation, ca. 1635. Drawing with pen and ink, 14,4 x 12,4 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie de Besançon, France.
ArtWay Visual Meditation Christmas, 2009 


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