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In the Wake of the Annunciation                          




Annunciation. Finitude pierced. God, deus ex machina, hidden from the participants, but not always from us, the distant onlookers, sends His proxy, Gabriel, the sexless angel with the gendered Proper Name, to inform a virgin of her unexpected fortune. Even as Gabriel speaks (in some versions the communication and the event, like a speech act, are co-terminous) He implants her with His Son. The ethereal lightening of the infinite short-circuits the physiology and biology of sub-lunary reproduction.


Response. An instinctive welling-up of disbelief in addressee and witness alike is the pre-condition of the force of belief. The foundation is also the ground of rejection; for what will arise above must not touch its base, least like anti-matter it vanishes upon contact. Mythic exceptionalism alone will do for the Word made flesh - made image. A late-Medieval genre enacts the sacrifice of experience as the condition of faith. A small price: practical reason is deferred for the oceanic sense of religious community; the double-binding of belief by means of a virgin birth. Faith is called an act: it is more properly called a ritual. The performative relation depicted in the image underpins the performative transaction of the believer. Flash of feathered wings. White dove of a new dawn. Annunciation.


If we take the Annunciation scene depicted in the Chapel of the Annunciation, in Sancta Maria Sopra Minerva, painted by Antoniazzo Romano, in Rome, in 1508, as our point of reference, then two features immediately call for further explanation; the left to right movement of the narrative (the Annunciation and the Conception) and the position of God on the left hand side of the image. The left to right movement is the default directionality of represented time, the arrow of time in art. However the deity, source of the moral sense of left/right in the image's mis-en-scene, is on our left; strange given our culture's (indeed most cultures') negative tagging of left-handedness - its intimate relation with taboo.  This other left/right directionality -called Left/Right (Moral) in contradistinction to Left/Right (Narrative)- is God's eye view. His preferences trump ours; our subjective co-ordinates are inverted. God's Right supersedes our 'left'. The combining of these two co-ordinates, L/R (Narrative), and L/R (Moral) into a single image can be found in the majority of cases of the Annunciation genre, where the God/Virgin relation takes the object's right (God is on the image's [top] right). However, this union of axes is supplemented by the Virgin/Supplicant relation which is found to be taking place in the viewer's, subjective priority (the virgin is on our right) following the traditional sense of  good and bad, or mighty and lesser, as apportioned between (our) right and left. Two 'rights', that of the subject (third person priority) and the object (second person priority), therefore combine with the left/right of narrative direction and are further augmented by the upper/lower relation, as the divider between temporal and a-temporal (or eternal) entities. In this particular example of the Annunciation we can even find the inner frame (a frame within a frame) normally used to differentiate a prior event from the present, used here to frame the image's key a-temporal entity. Two hierarchies are coded according to different directionalities and based upon different traditions (based upon second and third person relations in representation). The arrow of time, so often presented in this genre as a beam of light (as causality) is present as a pure directionality which carries the conception of Christ into Mary from (our) left to right. We are its (third person) witnesses. In an elegant solution, we find the incorporation of the counter-intuitive L/R (Moral) with the default L/R (Narrative) as the latter's point of origin.


If we begin with the reflection of this image in the present, the trail of the Annunciation will lead us up through the hallways of the arcane to the familiar; the twentieth century photograph. However, if we step back through the image, we find, waiting behind its serene face, the secret configuration of its elements - a secret that will lead us away from the Late-medieval Annunciation all the way back to the Bronze Age Assyrian statuette.


The Wake of the Annunciation. A trail leading from the genre's pious zenith in the late-Medieval and Renaissance periods through to the profane nadir of the twentieth century. Its track is that of a spectre superimposed upon the image (a double-exposure), ghosts present at the birth of the work of art, palimpsests steering the hand of the artist. The trail of the Annunciation is the trail of its imprint on form, its marks upon the history  of the image in the continuities of left/right and their attendant influence upon the image's mis en scene. The guiding hands of this form (both left and right) dispose and encourage today's deposition of entities in the image and so steer our assumptions as to their meaning and value. Like a persistent negative, opposite in values to its photographic image but identical in form. The after-life of the Annunciation.


A contemporary of Romano's, Garofalo, in 'St Augustine' (1520) and 'The Agony in the Garden' (1520-39) may offer the viewer the typical and effective use of the co-ordinates of the Annunciation as found in other genres (the Saint's Life, the Life of Christ). However, it is Bernini's, 'St Teresa in Ecstasy' (1645-1652), popular as a sacred and profane icon since its creation, that mimics more precisely the patterns that distinguish the Annunciation as a genre.  St Teresa is pierced left to right by Cupid's arrow; the winged Cupid and Teresa take the positions of the angel and the virgin: in contrast to her younger sister, 'Beata Ludovica Albertoni' (1671-74), who is also 'in ecstasy', but depicted facing (our) right and with no relation to  a visible agent. In an extension of the Left/Right (Moral) relation into the church itself, Bernini has moved the St. Teresa ensemble from the right into the left aisle. Even the giant cog of context must click into place, obeying the law of directionality; meta-relation and installation are interrelated as mis-en-abime. If Bernini's St. Teresa also shows an annunciation, it is not as the inception of a sacred child, but rather as an annunciation of the soul, an annunciation aimed at the white ghost of the witness, the birth of a sacred state within perceiver and perceived alike (a relation included within the installation itself, but gendered - the witnesses are all male).


At the same time in Northern Europe, we see the grim expression of the Vanitas, the mocking skull at the feast of life, disturbing the serene face of the Still Life. The sacred makes its disquieting entry into a genre dominated by the profane beauty of possessions. In 'Still Life: Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life', by Harmen Steenwyk (1640), the light of the heavens illuminates the ubiquitous skull of the Vanitas genre, highlighting it amidst a table of sundry, if allegorical, objects (the Vanitas skull is most famously found, albeit obliquely, in Holbein's, 'Ambassadors'). Originating in the painting's top right-hand corner, the light moves cross the image (from our left to right) not to inseminate, that is to perpetuate the sacred through the means of human reproduction, but to perpetuate the reproduction of the sacred through a figure. This incitement to revelation and self-examination leads to a new purpose, a newly reinvigorated religious identity (in this way the painted image functions precisely as a ritual).


Crossing the threshold of the French Revolution, the step before the door of Modernity in Europe, the skiamorph, or shadowshape of the Annunciation can be found ordering two complementary images of death; one Romantic, the other Neo-Classical. The direction of light in Anne Louis Girodet's Romantic death-bed scene, 'Atala', (c. 1800), and in David's, allegory of justice, 'The Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons' (c. 1800)' runs in parallel, and (in the David) echoes as well as illuminates the action and the flow of the narrative. All directionalities run from (top) left to (bottom) right as in many other generic and non-generic images from the Baroque to the nineteenth century in what is perhaps western art history's favourite diagonal. All combine with Left/Right (Moral) to illustrate the pictures' themes; be it the transfiguration of the afterlife in contrast to earthly misfortune, or the all-to-human problematics of an ideal loyalty (duty to the State) dividing the family and the self in David's depiction of a non-fictional tragedy.


A photograph that is four hundred years old. What would better incarnate the very matter of the medieval Annunciation than the modern marriage photograph? Moving from a marriage made in heaven to mariage ŕ la mode, we arrive in the early twentieth century. In Gianni Berengo Gardin's photograph of a bride in Florence, the same lines, directions, positionalities and combined relations of gender and power are to be found as in the Annunciation. Even the symbolic downward flow of the balustrade and the hovering cathedral (the default position of the Holy Ghost) reveal the palimpsest lying just below the surface of the image.  This photograph is remarkable for its light yet faithful translation of the 'original' painting into the modern vernacular; but there are others whose reproduction of the Annunciation formula in the still pool of the photographic image offer a more sinister reflection.


Before we tarry with the negative and step into the shadow of the Annunciation, let us first note two positive uses made from its structure. One use is traditional, a matter of first and last things: the other a matter of things in between, of instruction. Doris Ulman offers the African-American way of death and sacrality in 'Black Grave, South Carolina', also a Still Life strung out on the sacred diagonal, and in her atmospheric 'Baptism Scene, South Carolina' (both 1929-30). Whilst in 'Children looking at Ronald C. Moody's Midonz: Godess of Transmutation' (photograph, 1937) hierarchy is shown in what is perhaps one of its few positive aspects, that of the ideal, that which we look up - as the children do, along that same diagonal, to learn of a positive image for themselves.  For, contrary to figure and opinion, both black and white (and all shades in between) appear, even if reversed, on photograph and negative alike (negatives are not black).


The lifting of the veil from the grey muscle it barely concealed offers the truth of the relation of hierarchy to violence. Twentieth century photography reveals these relations in an image which appears to appropriate the symbolic directionalities of the Annunciation in order to include all and any form of domination within its frame. These gradients of hierarchy and oppression can be seen in a range of photographs taken from the Museum Ludwig, Köln: ranging from the economic socialisation of Lewis W. Hine's, 'Glass Factory' (1908) and Alexander Rodchenco's violent rhetoric of progress, 'Photomontage for LEF, Nr. 3' (1923), through images inspired by the destruction of war in Lásló Moholy-Nagy's, 'Militarism' (1924), and Wolf Strache's, 'Berlin, Kurfürstendamm, After a Major Air Raid' (1942), to the chilling allegories of oppression and catastrophe found in William Klein's, 'Playing Children with Gun' (1954-55), and Astrid Klein's, '30. 1. 33' (1983). Moreover, the tendency of the Left/Right (Moral) formula in the photographic image of the twentieth century to depict relations of dominance is not just an aberration, not just a short detour away from the path of the sacred and of last things. For the Left/Right (Moral) relation will be found to be returning home when it represents power and its negative effects - for it is the depiction of the place of power that is its original source and inspiration. To understand how this can be, we must first retrace our steps, reversing our passage through time.


The Wake of the Annunciation. Now the wake can be found stretching-out far behind the Annunciation, a trail receding into the past, a disturbance marking the sea up to the horizon of our vision, the horizon of the history of the image. (Now whatever else there may be must lie beyond, hidden in the past of the past, in the pre-history of the image).


One ancient avatar of the Annunciation may be found in an image long buried in the sands of Egypt, that of Nut, Egyptian goddess of night, as depicted in the Book of the Dead and in the underground tombs of the pharaohs. As a deity the female moves from her usual lower right hand position to take the (our) left top position in the image.  Again light moves from (top) left to (bottom) right, but this time the point of origin is a sacred female (its source, intimating biological reproduction, is placed by the lower body of the goddess) and the recipient, a male pharaoh. Nut gives birth to the day she has eaten, in what appears to be an Annunciation once removed. Light does indeed shine again upon gods and men, but the gender of active and passive entities has switched, only the overall directionality remains the same, again flowing from left to right. (Even if the sun rises in the East, that is, traverses the sky from right to left: perhaps the significance contained in the Left/Right formulas are more powerful than any naturalistic mimesis  - or else they demand that the implied viewer is facing South...).


It may be sculpture, however, that is the oldest source of the valorised left position in the image (our left; object's Right). In this relationship of hierarchy and power, it is the imperative face of power that we find before us prompting the homage of kings and vassals. For the face on the regal statue insists, by asserting the priority of its right hand, that it is its own point of view that must come first. It is the prerogative of power to inflict upon those that dare to engage it face to face its own set of values - not least its own sense of left and right. The second person relation of the statue reminds us of its priority over us; again the living accept directions from the dead. The trail we have been following has now lead us to its terminus, to Gudea's naked right arm (the ruler of the Assyrian city state of Lagash in 2100 BC famously depicted with his muscular right arm uncovered) part of a genre of statues and statuettes whose reign lasted well over a millennium and a half. The shadow of the deity is that of the strong-arm man hiding, just out of frame, behind the top left corner of the image.


The vortex of directionalities and depths that constitute the trail of the Annunciation appear to have at least a double origin. From sculpture, we are offered the source of the left position for God, the object's Right, the place of power: in contradistinction to its subjective opposite as found in the image as such (which offers the right hand as the valorised side). From the history of narrative directionality and causality in the image we receive the fundamental movement of the arrow of time represented as in motion from Left to Right.


The Annunciation: a genre becomes the privileged manifestation of a set of co-ordinates fecund and profound in the history of the image. A similar position is occupied by Greek Tragedy in literature, where it has become the canonic encryption of the contradictions of the Social and the division of the Self in conflicts of loyalty (with a Community cast as Religion, State, Family, feudal lord, class, caste, marriage partner or Ideal); a conflict to which the literature of every epoch bears witness. Like the conflict behind the labours of literature, the forces behind (or before) the Annunciation remind us of the reflexive challenge of civilisation - its foremost contradiction, the sour ubiquity of hierarchy and its ever-present potential for violence. Even amidst the gold and glory of its omnipresent Transubstantiation, the ritual transformation of the water of nature into the wine of civilisation, the Word and the Image, the witnesses of verbal and visual culture, manifest even in their most sacred forms, the profane  truth that it is not just Nature that is red in tooth and claw. For the synecdoche that contains the truth of the Transubstantiation reminds us that the wine in the cup is not red with the fruit of the grape, but with the blood of humanity. An infinite drip feeding the altar of temporal ends, masked by the love of infinity.







                                                            Copyright 2002 Peter Nesteruk