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Persian carpets, a peacock, and a cucumber, understanding Crivelli's Annunciation

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius, 1486, egg and oil on canvas, 207 x 146.7 cm (The National Gallery, London). A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the National Gallery in London, looking at a large painting by Carlo Crivelli, who comes originally from Venice. - [Beth] He's associated with a region on the eastern coast of Italy, known as the Marches. - [Steven] He's one of my favorite artists. There's something incredibly compelling about his attention to architecture, to material culture. - [Beth] The kind of hard-edged realism that makes everything almost pop out and move into our space, but he's clearly a master of perspective, so we're pulled in at the same time. - [Steven] The surface of this canvas is almost bejeweled. It's so decorative. - [Beth] The ornament, the jewels, the gold, even the bricks and the marble. He's clearly showing off his skill as a painter, and in that way, making us aware of the incredible craftsmanship of the art of painting. - [Steven] And it's so focused on the particular that it takes a moment to locate the subject, which in this case is an Annunciation. - [Beth] When the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear Christ, that God will be made flesh, and she will be the mother of God. - [Steven] In a traditional Annunciation, we see the archangel Gabriel almost always on the left, kneeling, having just landed. And we see here, Gabriel's wings are still outstretched. To the right, we see the Virgin Mary, and she's inevitably shown reading the bible. - [Beth] So we have a very typical Annunciation iconography here. The angel Gabriel raises his hand, greeting the Virgin Mary, in his left hand he holds a lily, a symbol of Mary's virginity, her purity. On the right, the Virgin Mary accepting the message of the angel Gabriel, her hands folded in front of her, this expression of her humility. So all of that makes sense, but we have a third figure. - [Steven] And I can't remember another Annunciation scene where a third figure was taking such an active role. - [Beth] This is St. Emidio, the patron saint of Ascoli, and the convent that this painting was made for is located in that city. He's attempting to engage Gabriel, and St. Emidio holds a model of the city in his hands. - [Steven] This painting was a commission that was meant to commemorate a very important event in the city's history. The city had been able to reach an agreement with the pope, to cede to it a kind of local political autonomy, which was enormously important to the city. - [Beth] It was a kind of freedom under the protection of the pope, and we can see that clearly in the bottom inscription, which says Libertas Ecclesiastica. - [Steven] This painting was commissioned to commemorate that freedom. - [Beth] And along the top of the triumphal arch, we see a papal messenger giving this document, that announces the freedom of the city, to an official. A critical thing here, though, is that the people of the city received this news from the pope on the holiday that honored the Annunciation. - [Steven] And so there was this clear connection in the minds of the townspeople between the Annunciation and the freedom that they had gained, and this painting is bringing those two things together. And in fact, every year a procession was held to commemorate the gaining of this freedom, and the procession would end at this painting. - [Beth] We see also the life of the city. Some Franciscan monks, and people, some rich, some poor. - [Steven] This painting is filled with objects, and many of them have symbolic meaning. - [Beth] For example, we see a bird in a cage. That's a goldfinch, a symbol of Christ's death on the cross, his sacrifice for mankind. - [Steven] But there are also other birds. There's this incredible peacock. Look at the decorative quality of the pattern of the tail. The peacock's a symbol of immortality, of the idea of the resurrection. - [Beth] That cucumber and apple in the foreground. - [Steven] Well the apple is easy enough to read. The apple is generally the fruit from the tree of knowledge, the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate. - [Beth] So the apple is about their fall from grace with God, and that refers back to the scene that we see before us, because it's Mary and Christ who, in a way, fix that original sin caused by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by Christ's sacrifice. And the cucumber is filled with seeds. And because it's filled with seeds, it's a symbol of the resurrection, of the idea of life after death, the central miracle of Christianity. - [Steven] And we see the golden light of heaven. It pierces the wall of the house, so that it can enter and make its way to the Virgin Mary, and we see the white dove, the Holy Spirit. But there is a kind of conflict here. The conflict between the idea of the sacred and the wealth that's being expressed in this painting. Mary, who we know was very poor, and yet, she's living in a house that couldn't be more lavish. It's filled with expensive objects, with gold. - [Beth] She kneels on a Persian carpet, there's another Persian carpet in the loge above. We're reminded of the trading that was happening in this region. - [Steven] And so there are two parts to this. One is that there were medieval traditions that understood Mary as being of a royal lineage. But the other part of it is that the worldly possessions are seen as a symbolic way of representing her divinity. So in order to read this painting, we need to understand not only the story of the Annunciation, but the traditions of how that story is painted and we need to have some specific understanding of the circumstances under which this particular painting was made. When we look at the extraordinary work of an artist like Crivelli, I think it prompts us to think about why we focus almost exclusively on painting made in Florence or Venice. And I think part of the problem is the way that art history itself was written at the end of the 19th and through the 20th century. And it does a disservice to the more complex reality that existed in what we now call Italy. - [Beth] It's important for us to see Italy as connected to the Adriatic Sea, and therefore to the Ottoman Empire. And Europe as an interconnected place, many artists who moved and served patrons in different places, the way that Crivelli did, and to be able to therefore really appreciate more work from the Renaissance than the usual superstars that we see. (jazzy piano music)