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The Annunciation
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Arty Fact

sjohnson's picture

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Rubens painted The Annunciation before departing for Italy, during his time as a court painter.

Court painter is role he shares, by the way, with Tosa Mitsuoki of the Japanese Edo period, Hyewon of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, Bishandas for the Mughal emperor Jahangir, Dürer, Titian, van Eyck, and many others. The Annunciation was for the Jesuits in Antwerp, one of several services of Rubens to the Jesuits, who, according to Erik Larsen and Vernon Hide Minor, educated, promoted and supported his art practice.

The symbolism behind the image itself could take up this entire article, but we will restrict it by saying that Ga-vri-El, גַּבְרִיאֵל‎, is the original Hebrew name of the angel depicted in this allegorical image, called by the papacy "the Annunication," in which Gabriel lets Mary, originally, in Aramaic, Mariam, know that the Big Guy is expecting a little boy, and hers is the lucky womb. The odd raunchiness of this story bothered some of the early Christians, a heretical sect of Jews in the Roman Empire who were cut off from their communities by leaders who considered them sorcerors-in-training. But people love a ribald story - there are chapters in the Written Torah which are sexually blunt - and the annunciation story won out, and appeared in the Greek Book of Luke.

The unusual thing about the Book of Luke is the word they use to describe the action of Gabriel toward Mariam: εἰσελθὼν, eiselthōn. It means "entered into," "came unto," "came into," etc. So the announcement of pregnancy is the planting of the seed. But in the older tradition of the Talmud Bavli, Gabriel represents the "left side" of the divine attributes, the side of din, justice, limitation, and "tough love," harsh lessons to deter people from sin or to cleanse their sin. For example, Gabriel hurts people physically in the Talmud Bavli, like the attendants of Pharaoh's daughter who accompany her to the river, as part of her ritual observance of Judaism, to prevent them from seeing the baby Moses and causing trouble. In Judaism and subsequent Abrahamic faiths, Gabriel is sometimes like a huge bodyguard with an earpiece who does dirty work for the Blessed Holy One. He is not necessarily a guy you want to think about too much. He's similar to The Terminator. This is why both Judaic and Christian sources agree that you should never pray to him.

Why didn't Luke introduce Mi-cha-el, the angel of kindness and compassion? Rubens does use the color of Michael, the color white, by making his Annunciation Gabriel a blond man. "Light pours down across the curtain from the right," the side of kindness and mercy. 

Sources

Sources

  1. Cohn, Werner. Rubens. Milano: Electa Editrice, 1984.
  2. "εἰσελθὼν." BibleHub, https://biblehub.com/greek/eiseltho_n_1525.htm.
  3. Freedberg, David. Rubens: the life of Christ after the Passion. Oxford: H. Miller, 1984.
  4. Held, Julius Samuel. The Oil Sketches of Peter Paul Rubens: A Critical Catalogue, Volume 1. London: The National Gallery of Art, 1980.
  5. Kaplan, Aryeh. Meditation and Kabbalah. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991.
  6. Larsen, Erik, and Vernon Hide Minor. "Peter Paul Rubens and The Society of Jesus." Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History 46 (1977 - Issue 1-4): 48-54.
  7. Matt, Daniel Chanan. Volume 5 of the Zohar. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.
  8. Néret, Gilles. Rubens. Köln: Taschen, 2004.
  9. Rooses, Max. Rubens, vol. 1. London: Duckworth & Company, 1904.
  10. Sauerlander, Williband. The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2014.
  11. Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. Edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Schneer. New York: NYU Press, 2012.