Advent Again … Pierced

December 18, 2012

Gerhard Richter, Annunciation After Titian, 1973 (Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.)

Gerhard Richter, Annunciation After Titian, 1973
(Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.)

Titian, Annunciation, c. 1535 (Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice)

Titian, Annunciation, c. 1535
(Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice)

Another annunciation. This week I’ve been looking at Gerhardt Richter’s 1973 version of Titian’s 1535 painting. He says he copied it from a postcard he got on a visit to Venice. Of course, he did much more than copy it.

It must be said that the standard take on Richter’s painting is that he was making a statement about the ‘end of art’—that a painting like Titian’s cannot be made any longer. There has been just too much water under that art historical bridge.

Fine. Okay. Now, I want to just look.

Richter takes Titian’s relatively sharp composition and puts a soft filter on it, like we’re looking through a window that’s fogged up or frosted and we can’t quite make out what’s going on. Sure, we can see the main features (Mary, the angel, the setting), but it’s hard to make out some of the other elements—the partridge, the fruit, the basket, and even the lily are all but lost. And thus, much of the symbolic content is neutralized. Without symbols to talk about (which is always a safe place for me), we have to contend with the main action.

What have we got?

Richter exaggerates an already dynamic composition. Our eye immediately drawn to the angel’s bright red swirling drapery. His arm and finger lead our gaze over to the diagonal shaft of light, which directs us to look at the brilliant face and hand of Mary. The pages of the book (which are considerably brighter in Richter’s version) lead us to look back toward the angel in some kind of feedback loop.

Regardless how many times my eye circulates through the painting, I always end up staring at that light, which seems so aggressive to me. Richter has dissolved the image of the dove (so sweet, so delicate) into a big burst of white that extends and pierces the space. It seems like this is the instant right before that light strikes Mary. She has no idea what’s about to happen—just look at her serene face. She’s about to get blind-sided. With the Holy Spirit, no less.

Mary didn’t ask for this. She did not volunteer to give birth to the Son of God. God picked her. He thrust this on her. Sure, it’s an honor to be chosen, but it comes with a terrible burden. She will be pierced.

Other parents have recently been pierced. It has been only three days since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. Those parents didn’t sign up for that—they never expected their children to die such horrible deaths.  A crushing burden has been laid upon them. It’s a nightmare.

We often think of Mary as extraordinarily blessed to be chosen, but today I see only the pain she will endure. That beam of light, which is supposed to signify the conception of God in her womb, seems only to be a sword that will cut her deep.

Hail Mary, full of grace.


5 Responses to “Advent Again … Pierced”

  1. Mel Says:

    Wow, that’s beautiful. Have never seen the Richter–I love it. Have you seen Damien Hirst’s The Virgin Mother (a couple different versions)?

  2. Mel Says:

    And your commentary is very moving, very perceptive.

  3. Mel Says:

    No one knows the subject of this tiny Elsheimer drawing–could be Bathsheba or Susanna–but I like to think of it as Mary after Gabriel has departed. So pensive, frightened, alone.

  4. Mel Says:

    The seven swords of sorrow that will pierce the heart of the Virgin….

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