Angels We Have Heard on High: The Annunciation

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Angels We Have Heard on High
The Imagery of Angels in Christian Art
Curated by Camille O'Leary

Francisco de Zurbarán, The Annunciation, 1650

Wow. This painting has even more babies.

Francisco de Zurbarán,  nicknamed "the Spanish Caravaggio" for his skillful use of chiaroscuro, moved away from the Mannerist movement of gracefully attenuated figures and returned to stark realism. His take on the scene of Annunciation combines crisp, severe details with an invading smoky haze, the contrast giving the scene a new intensity. A heavenly light enters Mary's austere chamber from above, heralded by the dove representing the Holy Spirit, and a crowd of putti spectators watch the unfolding action between Mary and Gabriel. 

Compare this Gabriel to van Eyck's, from the painting of the same subject some two hundred years previous. Zurbarán foregoes the gaudy ornamentation of his Netherlandish predecessor. This Gabriel's wings are a smoky greyish-blue and detailed down to the vanes on the feathers, and his intricately embroidered clothing, while by no means austere, is much more restrained. (Zurbarán demonstrates here his skill with white drapery, one of his specialties.) The harsh lighting creates deep shadows and further emphasizes that whiteness. 

Putti have gathered above, some with their hands together in prayer, and others pointing out elements of the scene below. Further back, they melt into the smoke and become mostly indistinct. The eerie, unearthly quality of the babies above is not Zurbarán's usual style; the rest of the painting is sharply defined. Through this contrast, he heightens the tension of the scene, provoking the viewer into contemplation. This was one of the main goals of Counter-Reformation artists, as showcased by many other works from the time period, which depicted saints being tormented or murdered in a variety of grisly ways. The intent was to remind your average illiterate citizen of the sacrifices that were made for the sake of their faith - what have you done recently?

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