Comparinga painting by Fra Filippo Lippi and Dante Gabriel RossettiThe two pictures are Rosetti’s EcceAncilla Domini and Lippi’s Annunciation. Both of the artists were influencedby their age. Lippi lived in Italy between 1406 and 1469 and Rosetti from1828 to 1882. Lippi’s background of Italian Renaissance determined hisstyle to a large extent. In Florence where Lippi lived the economic changesof the time led to an emerging new class: that of the banker princes.
Theylent money to almost all the kings in western Europe and so they collectedgreat fortunes. From their riches they could give patronage to all kindsof artists. This gave artists a stable living but did not give them thefreedom that Rosetti enjoyed a few centuries later. Rosetti lived in Englandat a time when power came to the hands of a new industrial middle classwho became the new patrons of the arts.Order now
They were rich but not as richas the church or the patrons of Lippi’s time. Therefore, the artists couldnot enjoy the protection of this new class for years. Consequently, anartist had to sell pictures in open competition with his rivals on thewalls of a salon or an Academy. This competition naturally led to a varietyof styles. Some turned to history or exotic arts and others sought newideas.
One of such artists was Dante GabrielRosetti he turned against the neo-classical traditions of the Academy andlooked for different inspiration. He wrote in 1901 that “an artist, whetherpainter or writer, ought to be bent upon defining and expressing his ownpersonal thoughts, and that they ought to be based upon a direct studyof Nature, and harmonised with her manifestations. ” In the same year hefounded with some fellow artists the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood based onthe same principles. These ideas were not welcome by the publicand Ecce Ancilla Domini one of Rosetti’s first paintings was severely abused. Rosetti was so offended by the criticism that he swore never to exhibitin public again.
Rosetti’s age did not appreciatehis art because they thought that the style Raphael established was thecrowning of all paintings. This style was based on dark colours, artificialsettings and a triangle composition. Rosetti wanted to free himself fromthese restrictions and this is why he turned to a style preceding thatof Raphael’s. Lippi who died twenty-two years beforeRaphael was born was much more determined by his age than Rosetti. Lippiwas not a revolutionary artist, in his style we can recognise the influenceof 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 learnedwith great ease.
First, let us turn to Fra FilippoLippi’s picture: Annunciation. The picture was painted about 1444. In itthe modern viewer finds a strange approach to perspective: the settingitself is unnatural and respect for perspective is only shown in architecturalsetting. Even though, the architectural elements are realistic, the beams,the arches and the pillars seem to have a sole pictorial purpose.
No suchbuilding exists where walls are missing and we cannot decide what is insideand what is outside. It seems that pictorial rules are subordinate to thoseof theology. God the Father is present at the top left corner of the picturewith several angels on rock like clouds. An other uncommon feature of thepainting is the angel looking in from an opening at the left side. In thisfigure it is possible that Lippi wanted to show us an earlier moment ofthe story when Gabriel was just coming to Mary. This way the freshnessof 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 willbe at the time of the annunciation. All these strange elements are soothedby 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 classicizingbackground pillars contrast Mary’s purity and give her a certain nobility. It is also interesting how the pillars guide the eye upward strengtheningthe same feeling. A completely different feeling isachieved by Rosetti, he shows us a simple, confused Mary who has just wokenup.
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 besidesbeing a painter and in a sonnet composed to accompany his first paintingThe Girlhood of Mary Virgin, he describes in six lines his later work EcceAncilla Domini, which was painted a year later. ?So she held through hergirlhood; 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 timewas near. There are other connections betweenthese two paintings by Rosetti. In the Girlhood of Mary Virgin, Mary isdoing a piece of embroidery which is already finished in Ecce AncillaDomini.
Probably just one night interludes between the two episodes sincethe embroidery is still on the stand in the later work. Here, in thesetwo paintings, just as in Lippi’s painting where the development of theaction is portrayed in the same picture, we can find two compositions showingtwo closely related incidents of Mary’s life. Besides Rosetti’s way of paintingMary in bed. There are other elements inconsistent with the traditionalapproach of showing the annunciation. First the shape of the picture itselfis narrow, then Gabriel has flames at his feet but he has not got wingsand there is some problem with the architecture of the building, we cannotsee where the wall ends and the floor starts. With this we can draw a parallelwith Lippi’s painting where architecture was also illogical.
This brought us to the elements thatconnect Rosetti’s painting to a traditional one like Lippi’s. Althoughthe colouring is mostly white the picture is patched with some gold, redand blue, the traditional colours of Mary’s virginity. Also, the lily ispresent in both paintings, again it is related to virginity and the dovetoo appears, which represents the Holy Spirit. All these differences and similaritiescould be related to the problems Rosetti had to face when painting a religiouspicture. Probably he wanted to be realistic as much as possible and atthe same time following his ambition he wanted to express his thoughtsas 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 becausethat would have been strange to the Victorian viewer. Painting the figuresin white was a solution to this problem. This way managing to be realisticand contemporary at the same time.