With the ongoing scrutiny of sexual harassment by powerful men, broadening the discourse to art history may not be as cockeyed as it sounds. Analyzing, from a feminist perspective, female images in canonical, “Old-Master” works reveals much about gender roles in earlier times. Do Annunciation paintings, a favorite subject of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, speak to us today? In these scenes, the archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary her selection as mother of a babe who will grow up to be Jesus Christ. Should we consider Mary an ideal archetype and positive role model of womanhood? Or is her depiction an impediment to female empowerment, “glorified” — as Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex — “only by accepting the subordinate role assigned her”? If a courageous accuser of the #MeToo movement described such a scene today, would it be called Denunciation? Renunciation?
In the current talk about sexual assault, no one has noted — no disrespect intended to believers — that the Annunciation scenario represents a case of asexual assault (or at least asexual intervention). Of course, an asexual approach doesn’t apply to Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein — to name just a few of the alpha males implicated in alarming behavior. But does it apply to the original Alpha and Omega: God the Father?
Other common subjects for paintings are mythological scenes of randy Greek gods swooping down to have their way with unsuspecting mortal beauties like Leda, penetrated by Zeus disguised as a swan; Danaë, impregnated by Zeus in a shower of gold; Daphne, who evaded Apollo’s unwanted advances by turning into a tree; or Persephone, kidnapped by Hades. Pagan gods have long been considered fallible and fictional. Images of their predations don’t inspire more than a shrug of “So?” No woman today sees her destiny mirrored in such paintings.
Yet Annunciation paintings, regarded through modern eyes, can suggest comparisons to conversations about female submissiveness and male dominance. In this spirit of inquiry, we might imagine some push-back against the portrayal of a Christian Lord sending his enabler, the archangel Gabriel, to inform the Virgin Mary that she’s been selected to bear The Almighty’s progeny. Did anyone think to ask Mary if she wanted to be impregnated — however immaculately — and to bear a son who’d be known as a Man of Sorrow acquainted with grief?
Certainly the evident pregnancy complicated Mary’s relationship with her future husband Joseph. Imagine explaining the miraculous process of a seed planted in her womb that would turn into a Y-chromosome male. No parthenogenesis possible there, or Christ would have been a double-X-chromosome Christine.
Males in the church hierarchy commissioned these 15th- to 17th-century Annunciation paintings. Sublimely rendered by male artists like Leonardo, Botticelli and Fra Angelico, the depictions imply a lot about gender roles. Generally, a youthful, comely Mary sits in a loggia, often reading a book. Far from her thoughts and desires, no doubt, was the prospect of being anointed Mother of God.
Yet when the feathered emissary announces what must have been unsettling news, male painters don’t portray on her face shock, confusion, alarm or refusal. The vibe is sometimes an instant of wonder, but passive acquiescence is the usual reaction. Whatever you say, Mr. Angel, Sir.
In Luke 1:26-38, where the scene is described, Mary expresses ignorance as to how she could be pregnant if unmarried. Gabriel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Mary’s response: “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” From the first millennium, capitulation to an omnipotent lord seems the norm.
Of course, there are nuances to consider. Iconography dictated the Virgin’s poses and gestures (rather than facial expressions) to indicate her state of mind. Mary’s emotions were said to range from disquiet or reserve (symbolized by palms turned outward), reflection (hand to breast or chin), inquiry (one hand raised) and submission (arms crossed at breast) to, finally, meritorious consent (arms crossed, Gabriel departed). The latter is interpreted by feminist scholars of Mariology to indicate not just acceptance but courageous cooperation in birthing a redeemer for the world.
But voluntary consent is not the visual message conveyed by these images produced in a patriarchal age. One wonders how a female preyed upon by a macho male might portray an Annunciation today. Perhaps a modern Mary’s attitude would be defiant, telling the angel to go take a flying leap or find someone else to impose upon. Perhaps she would have swatted away the dove descending to her breast at the moment of incarnation. Maybe she would have ripped the halo from her head like bachelorette Mary Tyler Moore tossing her beret as a chorus swells, singing, “You’re gonna make it after all!”
And what if a proto-feminist, Baroque painter like Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) had dared to chuck aesthetic convention and depict the scene honestly? That’s the same Artemisia, by the way, who was raped by her art teacher as a young girl and who painted the Biblical tale of another powerful male, Holofernes, who lusted after the righteous Judith. With her brush, Artemisia shows Judith lopping off the predator’s head, although lopping off another part of his anatomy might have been satisfying too.
Discussing a Biblical analogy to today’s sexual harassment exposés may seem far-fetched. Yet a defender of now-defeated Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged predilection for teen girls invoked a Biblical precedent as exoneration. Jim Ziegler, Alabama’s state auditor, told the Washington Examiner that Moore “is clean as a hound’s tooth.” He added, “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.” Notwithstanding the fact that there’s no mention of the ages of the Holy Couple in the Bible and that Joseph is not deemed the biological father of Jesus, are we to believe that 2,000-year-old dating and mating protocols make it fine and dandy for males in a position of authority to foist their attentions on young women?
And then there’s Alabama pastor Flip Benham, who defended the Bible-thumping Moore’s behavior (allegedly pursuing girls as young as 14 when in his thirties) by explaining Moore sought the “purity of a young woman” — a modern version of the Immaculata, if you will. (Unremarked upon is the paradox of seeking untouched virgins with the aim of deflowering them.)
Musings about any possible influence of Annunciation scenes on gender roles today may seem ludicrous, even blasphemous. Yet throughout history, women’s voices and interpretations of classic stories have been stifled. Why not re-examine these tales and images by men, which — after all, in terms of shaping cultural narratives and views of gender roles — were yesterday’s equivalent of movies, plays and television shows today?
In portrayals in art of Christ’s conception, Mary bows to dictates from above. The canonical images show her not as an agent of her fate but a person to whom something is happening. She seems more a vessel (in Biblical terms, a “tabernacle”) accommodating a male desire to reproduce than an active collaborator and arbiter of her fate.
Looking at these iconic images through 21st century secular eyes, what message do they send young girls about forced consent to a predetermined role? Admittedly, subjecting a 15th-century masterpiece to analysis through a contemporary lens distorts its value as art created to reflect a certain time, place, and culture. No sacrilege is intended; a sincere attempt to re-examine a hallowed genre of art requires asking questions.
A masterpiece earns its rank as part of our universal heritage because of its durability as a carrier of an individual’s vision and skill. A masterpiece (or should we call it a “mistress-piece?”) can never be a dusty, musty relic but eternally relevant to each era. It’s worthy of reverence because it offers each generation a continuously fresh view of its content, context, composition, style and message.
In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls art-collective asked, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” (Their poster pointed out that only 5% of artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern collection were women, while 85% of images of nudes were female.) Museums have since made progress in diversifying their collections and exhibitions. But what about images of females in the pre-19th century sections of museums? Supine nudes and submissive Marys don’t speak for women seeking images of self-reliance and strength, not just physical beauty, virginal purity or religious devotion.
Art makes us see differently. It shoves us out of our daily rut and blasts us into orbit. That’s why looking at old Annunciations through new eyes matters. It’s an example of the need to reimagine the possibilities for humanity — how roles may have changed and ought to change.
A nonprofit organization originated by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg called LeanIn.org has a mission to “empower women to achieve their ambitions.” Partnering with the stock-photo archive of Getty Images, it aims to disseminate active images of girls and women as models. Its slogan is “You can’t be what you can’t see.” A twitter hashtag (#RePictureWomen), inspired by the goal to overturn gender stereotypes, posts images sent in by women demonstrating their variety and accomplishments.
If Barbie can be an astronaut, surely the Madonna can be seen as more than a mother and icon of purity. Why not a warrior Princess of Peace? Our modern Mary could do her own announcing, eliciting a new form of address: “Hail Mary full of grit.”