Museum Purchase, Laura T. and John H. Halford, Jr. Art Acquisition Fund, Lloyd O. and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund and Jane H. and Charles E. Parker, Jr. Art Acquisition Fund
The Annunciation, frequently depicted across Renaissance Europe, illustrates the moment when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become mother to Jesus. Gabriel’s instructive gesture appears before the backdrop of a garden, emblematic of the Immaculate Conception, which is symbolized in God’s penetrating hand, parting the heavens and emitting light. Mary welcomes the divine presence with modesty within a contained domestic setting, flanked by lilies, a sign of purity. She interrupts her reading of an open book, shaped like the tablets of the commandments. This small painting was likely commissioned for use in personal devotion. As a visual presence in a pious household, this work had a tangible impact on the lives of the residents. Counter-Reformation Europe experienced an upsurge in devotional art and literature, and new spiritual movements and meditative practices centered on the establishment of a closer, more personal relationship with God.
The Marian Ideal
Depictions of the Annunciation provide insights into social, cultural, and religious aspects of early modern society, particularly the implementation of gendered codes of conduct. Catholic preachers and writers of numerous works on the life of the Virgin emphasized Mary’s obedience and submissiveness as characteristics of model behavior for women. Humanist treatises and conduct manuals argued for reformations within the church and larger society, encouraging audiences to emulate these prescribed models of gendered behavior. Guidebooks for husbands and wives, for example, were extremely common. Evoking the injunctions of these conduct manuals and humanist treatises, early modern visual culture frequently fashioned a Marian ideal as a way to reinforce and promote these types of gendered expectations. Calvaert’s poignant rendition of Mary is emblematic of behavioral norms set for women and popularized by the Cult of Mary: modest appearance, downward gaze, protected posturing, and reading material as evidence of her dedication to study.
Margaret E. Boyle
Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, Bowdoin College
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