Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Cestello Annunciation (Image #1) and Ecce Ancilla Domini (Image #2)
  • Creator: Botticelli, Sandro, painter (Image #1);
    Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, painter and poet (Image #2)
  • Description:

    In the Cestello Annunciation, Botticelli interprets the moment in which the archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will bear God’s child. The painter focuses the viewer's attention on the gap between the figures' two hands. Gabriel crouches on the ground, angelic wings extending behind him. He raises one open-faced hand towards Mary while the other carries a large lily. Mary in reaction retreats from Gabriel, pressing against the edge of the painting. Her arms are outstretched in simultaneous refusal and acceptance. Both Gabriel and Mary are haloed. The idyllic kingdom framed by the stone entryway behind Gabriel holds potent Cistercian symbolism; a walled garden for Mary’s virginity, an aqueduct for Mary’s unending grace, and a vast tree for the crucifixion and the Tree of Knowledge. Botticelli produced the egg tempera painting in 1489. It was commissioned by Benedetto di ser Francesco Guardi for his newly acquired family chapel in the Cestello monastery church. Its relatively low reported value (30 ducats) may be explained by the Cistercian preference for simplicity and the austerity of the chapel's architecture. Botticelli produced two other paintings of the Annunciation, though neither has achieved the same fame as the Cestello Annunciation.

    Ecce Ancilla Domini! captures a similarly imagined scene of the Annunciation. Dante Gabriel Rossetti worked on the oil painting from 1849-1853, though the painting is officially signed and dated 1850. Gabriel is depicted without wings or elaborate robes- instead, his supernatural status is conveyed through the flames by his feet and the golden halo (added in 1853) that tightly encircles the archangel’s head. A simple, parted robe reveals a section of the angel’s naked skin. Gabriel extends a lily towards Mary; the lily holds three flowers, with one of the flowers still budding. The budding flower faces Mary, symbolizing the impending Virgin Birth and the coming to earth of the second person of the Holy Trinity. Meanwhile, Mary shrinks back with fear, her red hair radiant against her white gown and golden halo. Mary’s face is carefully painted, conveying both fear and a sense of responsibility. The painting is largely rendered using primary colors. The models for the two figures were Rossetti's sister Christine and brother William Michael. The title translates to, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord”, the words Mary spoke to Gabriel upon receiving the divine news (Luke 1:38). Rossetti retitled it The Annunciation in 1853 when he sold it. His brother explained the change in his diary as an action "to guard against the imputation of ‘popery.'”

    Ecce Ancilla Domini! demonstrates the artist’s role as a pioneer of the early Pre-Raphaelite movement. Rossetti co-founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 along with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. According to Linda Nochlin, it was “mainly due to Rossetti that the Pre-Raphaelite movement made its decisive turn away from contemporary subjects like Brown’s Work or Hunt’s the Last of England, and toward mystical, medieval, and literary ones.” Produced only two years after the P.R.B’s founding, Ecce Ancilla Domini! displays realist qualities blended with the spirituality and creative integrity of medieval art. Rossetti utilizes rich medieval symbolism to convey his religious emotion and conviction, drawing from both medievalist technique and content.

    Even though they were painted nearly four hundred years apart, the two paintings resonate with one another across generations. Both works conceptualize Mary primarily as human- her reaction to the Annunciation is characterized by a psychological approach rather than a purely spiritual one. Ecce Ancilla Domini! received mixed reviews upon its debut, primarily due to the realism that prominent critics viewed as inappropriately equating red-haired Mary with Jews and poor immigrants in the London metropolis. While traditional works depicting the Annunciation typically feature an ecstatic or graceful Mary, Rossetti's painting portrays Mary with a less than joyful expression. Mary shrinks back from Gabriel, her eyes fixed on the lily that he extends towards her. Similarly, Botticelli’s Mary is captured in a moment of tense apprehension, suggesting that the angelic news was more difficult to receive than many artists might suggest.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons (Images #1 and #2)
  • Rights: Public domain (Images #1 and #2)
  • Subject (See Also): Angels in Art Botticelli, Sandro, Painter Mary, Virgin, Saint- Annunciation Medievalism in Art
  • Geographic Area: British Isles (Image #2); Italy (Image #1)
  • Century: 15 (Image #1); 19 (Image #2)
  • Date: 1489- 1490 (Image #1); 1849- 1853 (Image #2)
  • Related Work: Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli, 1481, Uffizi.
    Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli, 1485-1492, Metropolitan Museum.
    Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli, 1490-1495, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
    Two panels: Archangel Gabriel by Sandro Botticelli and The Virgin Annunciate, 1495-1498, State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
    The Annunciation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1855, Agnew's London.
    The Annunciation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1861, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
    The Annunciation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, circa 1855, pencil drawing, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.
    The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849, Tate Gallery.
  • Current Location: Florence, Uffizi, Room 10-4, Inv. 1890 no. 1608 (Image #1)
    London, Tate, N01210 (Image #2)
  • Original Location: Florence, Church of the Cestello Monastery (a Cistercian house for monks), Chapel of the Guardi family (Image #1)
    London (Image #2)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Painting; (Images #1 and #2)
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Tempera paints; wood (Image #1)
    Oil paints; canvas (Image #2)
  • Donor: Layman; Benedetto di ser Francesco Guardi, a moneychanger in Florence (Image #1)
    Layman, Francis MacCracken, a cotton manufacturer in Belfast and art collector. He purchased the painting in 1853 but did not commission it. When Rossetti exhibited it in 1850, critics disapproved. (Image #2)
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 150 (Image #1); 72.4 (Image #2)/156 (Image #1); 41.9 (Image #2)/
  • Inscription: Image #1:
    SPIRITUS SANCTUS SUPERVENIET IN TE ET VIRTUS ALTISSIMI OBUMBRABIT TIBI [“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you;" (Luke 1, 35)]
    ECCE ANCILLA DOMINI FIAT MICHI SECUNDUM VERBUM TUUM ["'Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.'” (Luke 1, 38]
    Both Bible verses are inscribed on the frame which is the original. It also has the arms of the Guardi family and the figure of Christ in pietà.
    Image #2 D.G.R. March 1850 [The initials and date are inscribed in the lower left.]
  • Related Resources: Blume, Andrew C. "Botticelli and the Cost and Value of Altarpieces in Late Fifteenth-Century Florence." The Art Market in Italy 15th-17th Centuries/Il Mercato dell'Arte in Italia Secc. Xv-XVII. Edited by Marcello Fantoni, Louisa C. Matthew and Sara F. Matthews-Grieco. Franco Cosimo Panini, 2003. Pages 151-161;
    Botticelli and the Search for the Divine: Florentine Painting between the Medici and the Bonfires of the Vanities. Edited by John T. Spike and Alessandro Cecchi. Muscarelle Museum of Art, 2017;
    Bullen, J. B. Rossetti: Painter & Poet. Frances Lincoln, 2011;
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Edited by Julian Treuherz, Elizabeth Prettejohn and Edwin Walker. Thames & Hudson, 2003;
    "Ecce Ancilla Domini!- Scholarly Commentary." Rossetti Archive. A collaborative project of libraries and museums worldwide;
    Parry, Joseph D. "Phenomenological History, Freedom, and Botticelli's Cestello Annunciation." Art and Phenomenology. Edited by Joseph D. Parry. Routledge, 2011. Pages 162-191;
    Roe, Dinah. The Rossettis in Wonderland: A Victorian Family History. Haus Publishing, 2011.