a painting by Fra Filippo Lippi and Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The two pictures are Rosetti’s Ecce
Ancilla Domini and Lippi’s Annunciation. Both of the artists were influenced
by their age. Lippi lived in Italy between 1406 and 1469 and Rosetti from
1828 to 1882. Lippi’s background of Italian Renaissance determined his
style to a large extent. In Florence where Lippi lived the economic changes
of the time led to an emerging new class: that of the banker princes. They
lent money to almost all the kings in western Europe and so they collected
great fortunes. From their riches they could give patronage to all kinds
of artists. This gave artists a stable living but did not give them the
freedom that Rosetti enjoyed a few centuries later. Rosetti lived in England
at a time when power came to the hands of a new industrial middle class
who became the new patrons of the arts. They were rich but not as rich
as the church or the patrons of Lippi’s time. Therefore, the artists could
not enjoy the protection of this new class for years. Consequently, an
artist had to sell pictures in open competition with his rivals on the
walls of a salon or an Academy. This competition naturally led to a variety
of styles. Some turned to history or exotic arts and others sought new
One of such artists was Dante Gabriel
Rosetti he turned against the neo-classical traditions of the Academy and
looked for different inspiration. He wrote in 1901 that “an artist, whether
painter or writer, ought to be bent upon defining and expressing his own
personal thoughts, and that they ought to be based upon a direct study
of Nature, and harmonised with her manifestations.” In the same year he
founded with some fellow artists the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood based on
the same principles. These ideas were not welcome by the public
and Ecce Ancilla Domini one of Rosetti’s first paintings was severely abused.
Rosetti was so offended by the criticism that he swore never to exhibit
in public again.
Rosetti’s age did not appreciate
his art because they thought that the style Raphael established was the
crowning of all paintings. This style was based on dark colours, artificial
settings and a triangle composition. Rosetti wanted to free himself from
these restrictions and this is why he turned to a style preceding that
Lippi who died twenty-two years before
Raphael was born was much more determined by his age than Rosetti. Lippi
was not a revolutionary artist, in his style we can recognise the influence
of Masaccio, Donatello and Fra Angelico. It should be stated, however,
that he was a master of his craft and made use of the tradition he learned
with great ease.
First, let us turn to Fra Filippo
Lippi’s picture: Annunciation. The picture was painted about 1444. In it
the modern viewer finds a strange approach to perspective: the setting
itself is unnatural and respect for perspective is only shown in architectural
setting. Even though, the architectural elements are realistic, the beams,
the arches and the pillars seem to have a sole pictorial purpose. No such
building exists where walls are missing and we cannot decide what is inside
and what is outside. It seems that pictorial rules are subordinate to those
of theology. God the Father is present at the top left corner of the picture
with several angels on rock like clouds. An other uncommon feature of the
painting is the angel looking in from an opening at the left side. In this
figure it is possible that Lippi wanted to show us an earlier moment of
the story when Gabriel was just coming to Mary. This way the freshness
of the lily in the hand of the standing angel could be explained as well.
It could show that Mary’s virginity is not in it’s full blossom as it will
be at the time of the annunciation.
All these strange elements are soothed
by the simplicity of Mary and the lovely details of the picture: the flowers,
the dove, the angel’s hair with the wreath. We also notice how the classicizing
background pillars contrast Mary’s purity and give her a certain nobility.
It is also interesting how the pillars guide the eye upward strengthening
the same feeling.
A completely different feeling is
achieved by Rosetti, he shows us a simple, confused Mary who has just woken
up. He does not try to represent the annunciation, rather, like a poet,
he tries to suggest the atmosphere of the event.
In fact, Rosetti was a poet besides
being a painter and in a sonnet composed to accompany his first painting
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, he describes in six lines his later work Ecce
Ancilla Domini, which was painted a year later. ?So she held through her
girlhood; as it were,An angel-watered lily, that near GodGrows and is quiet.
Till one dawn at home She woke in her white bed and had no fear At all
– yet wept till sunshine and felt awed: Because the fullness of her time
There are other connections between
these two paintings by Rosetti. In the Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Mary is
doing a piece of embroidery which is already finished in Ecce Ancilla
Domini. Probably just one night interludes between the two episodes since
the embroidery is still on the stand in the later work. Here, in these
two paintings, just as in Lippi’s painting where the development of the
action is portrayed in the same picture, we can find two compositions showing
two closely related incidents of Mary’s life.
Besides Rosetti’s way of painting
Mary in bed. There are other elements inconsistent with the traditional
approach of showing the annunciation. First the shape of the picture itself
is narrow, then Gabriel has flames at his feet but he has not got wings
and there is some problem with the architecture of the building, we cannot
see where the wall ends and the floor starts. With this we can draw a parallel
with Lippi’s painting where architecture was also illogical.
This brought us to the elements that
connect Rosetti’s painting to a traditional one like Lippi’s. Although
the colouring is mostly white the picture is patched with some gold, red
and blue, the traditional colours of Mary’s virginity. Also, the lily is
present in both paintings, again it is related to virginity and the dove
too appears, which represents the Holy Spirit.
All these differences and similarities
could be related to the problems Rosetti had to face when painting a religious
picture. Probably he wanted to be realistic as much as possible and at
the same time following his ambition he wanted to express his thoughts
as well. This could be achieved by mixing traditional elements with innovations.
One such new element was covering the figures with simple white dresses.
Probably Rosetti did not dress his figures in contemporary clothes because
that would have been strange to the Victorian viewer. Painting the figures
in white was a solution to this problem. This way managing to be realistic
and contemporary at the same time.