Sunday, April 08, 2007


The Annunciation, Anonymous, Icon from St. Climent, Ohrid, early 14th C.

The Annunciation, Botticelli, painting for the Cestello Chapel, 1489-90

Both pictures tell the same story of the Annunciation, how the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will conceive, as recounted in Luke 1: 26-38. It is one of the favorite subjects of Christian Art, for numerous reasons, including the entry of the divine into the mortal world and the response it creates in Mary, who is often surprised or fearful. Also, this is the moment of the Virgin's conception, so the scene is pregnant, er, with potential.

A comparison and contrast between the two pictures reveals the differences between space conceived before the discovery of single-point perspective, on the left, and afterwards. In the icon both figures are fairly rigid and face each other solemnly. Gabriel's hand reaches out to make his announcement, Mary's hand is both an acknowledgment to the angel and a blessing for the viewer. The artist has gone to some pains to render each of the bodies in space, so that their robes drape convincingly around the legs. However, each character is perched on a separate platform which looks tilted awkwardly to us. In our world it might even be difficult to remain there without having to hold on to something to prevent sliding off.The Virgin has been framed by a canopy around the throne where she sits, thus creating a sense of 3-dimensions, it is not realistic. The background is entirely gold leaf, symbolizing the rich and splendid

Renaissance perspective changes the world. The space before us in the work of art-as in the Botticelli to the right-is made to resemble the space around us in the world itself-or even more so. The scene, composed according to the relatively recent technique of single-point perspective, creates a 3-dimensional space laid out on the 2-dimensions of the canvas. The relationship between the human virgin, on the right, and the heavenly angel, on the left, is made to be a compelling part of the story. Their hands almost touch in the middle of the composition. Instead of posing, as if for us, each character plays a part in the drama, reacting to the other, not to the viewer. The scene extends backwards into the room and then further back into the world outside. Our eyes are taken back there, first by the lines of the floor panels, and then by the winding stream. Only the impossibly tall tree in the background breaks the illusion of realism, though its stately presence seems quite natural.

Each composition accomplishes its purpose splendidly. Perspective, of course, does not make paintings "better," but for us it does tend to make them both more familiar and more realistic.

Perspective is achieved by organizing the lines that appear to extend into the background of the painting-orthogonals-so that they create a consistent pattern with respect to a vanishing point on the horizon line.