Friday, December 16, 2011

Fine Art Handout 4: Isenheim Annunciation

 This post links to RAnn's Sunday Snippets

Tanja Cilia's image-laden post on the Annuciation got me thinking about my favorite Annunciation (ok, one of my favorites), the one that's part of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Mattias Grünewald:

I couldn't remember the artist; I get Annunciations confused all the time. Fortunately, My Wife the Art History Professor could listen to my vague description and say, "No, that's not Van Eyck. I think you want the left-hand panel of the second configuration of Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece." Umm...yes! "I'll send you a link to a good jpeg." OK, thanks! (Thank ya Jesus for my wife.)

I have to digress already. Recently in class we were discussing Gabriel's visit to Zechariah, and learned that the Greek word angel/ ἄγγελος simply means messenger, as does the Hebrew word malak/ מלאך (whence the name Malachi). For example in Numbers, when "Moses sent messengers from Kadesh unto the king of Edom," the messengers are malachim. To distinguish a heavenly messenger from the run-of-the-mill sort, the Hebrew Old Testament will say messenger of the LORD, יהוה מלאך, malak YHWH, as in "the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham"; or messenger of God, מלאך אלהים, malak Elohim, as in "the angel of God called to Hagar." In the Greek New Testament (and Greek Septuagint O.T.) we read ἄγγελος κύριος, aggelos kyrios, angel of the Lord (you know, kyrios as in Kyrie eleison).

The kids must understand that angel just means messenger. Then when we get to words such as evangelist and evangelium, they'll know that angels don't have anything directly to do with those words.

To further digress, when LORD is all caps it refers to YHWH. By using LORD in English we avoid pronouncing or writing God's name.

So we were sorting out messenger/ angel, and one of the kids says, "What about Mercury? I dunno- what about him? Well, he's a messenger. Yeah, a mythological messenger, so? He has wings, too. Yeah he does... I bet he was called an angel too! Was that your point? Yes. Genius at work, yes, he's a winged messenger, an angel like Gabriel. Except that Mercury...isn't...real! Yes."

In Tanja's article she points out that as in Grünewald's painting, Gabriel may carry a staff to indicate he's a messenger. Like so:

Oops, that's Mercury. Huh...wings...staff...even his staff has wings...he'd make a mighty robust Gabriel.

And there are other 6th-grade-understandable symbols in this Annuciation:

Above the green curtain temple veil hovers an ethereal dove, ready to overshadow Mary with God's creative energy. And what's that around the dove? A cloud? Yes...what cloud? No guesses? It's the [on the board] S-H-E-K-  Shekhinah! Yes, the Glory Cloud which overshadowed...the Meeting Tent! Yes, and the Meeting Tent covered...the Ark! Yes- so Mary is like...the Ark! Right, so we call her the Ark of the New Covenant. Yes, what? That looks like a church not a temple. Well, were there any churches when Mary was a young woman? No. But there will be, so think of it as both temple and church. The curtains temple veils themselves are pulled back so we can see clearly all the way to the back. What would you expect to see in the Temple when the curtains are pulled back? The Ark! Yes! And do y'all see the Old Covenant Ark? Is it that box? Yes, I think so. Now in a church you'd expect to see a Tabernacle back there... do you see one? Why isn't there one?  'Cause Jesus isn't born yet! Yes! Now tell me about Mary's book. It's the Bible. Yes...or at least the Old Testament, which would reasonably rest on the...Old Ark? Yes. When Mary was alive was there a New Testament? No! Why not? All the stuff hadn't happened yet! Yes! Y'all are so smart. Now show me the Old Ark again...uh-huh. And the New Ark...yep. They're side by side, right under the curtain rod. Which one is leaving the building? They're not moving they're just sitting there. OK, but which Ark has probably been in the temple-church a long time? The Old one. Yes but now it's almost out. Which way is Mary going? In the church! Yes, why? Because she has Jesus in her now. Yes. The stuff in the New Ark is replacing the stuff in the Old Ark.

Say Mary, whatcha reading? Why, Ah'm perusin' this li'l ol' book a Isaiah as pawt a my mohnin' devowtions. Well, that's a long book. Oh, Ah'm jus' readin' Chaptuh sehvun, vuhse fowtteen in the Vuhl-gait: "...ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet filium, et vocabitur nomen ejus Emmanuel." Yeah, that is Latin in the painting...Mary, can you translate? Awl-riyte, "...behowld, a vuhgin will conceive an' beah a sun; an' his nayme shall be cawled Ehmmanuwell." Umm, Mary do you realize that any second now that prophecy..."

Annunciations often show Mary reading Isaiah 7:14, the very prophecy she's about to fulfill. But none of these symbols is the one that makes Grünewald's Annunciation a favorite. It's the one in the upper left hand corner...up there...oops, I accidentally cropped it off from that top image. Here you go:


"Who is that old fork-bearded turban'd guy with another book? A book painted in....Hebrew. Why is he hovering up there in the corner? No guesses? Whose prophecy was Mary reading? Umm...Isaiah's? So? That's Isaiah? Yes, that's Isaiah, and he's reading in his own Old Testament the same 7:14 passage as Mary, but in Hebrew. Isaiah can't read Latin like Mary can...or something. Apparently God's let him out of Sheol long enough to see his prophecy be fulfilled."

Kids love to learn by figuring out pictures like this one. In this case, through our discussions of the Old Testament they already know bits about the temple, the veil, the Ark, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Isaiah, and his prophecies. Prior to this year, they learned the Annuciation story, Gabriel, the Hail Mary, etc. Those accumulations allow them to analyze an Annunciation pretty much on their own with minimal guidance on my part.