Imagination is a Powerful Force: A Question of the Legitimacy of Academics in Religious Art

Imagination is a Powerful Force: A Question of the Legitimacy of Academics in Religious Art

In this essay I will establish a connection between the language and visual arts. I will analyze two great works of Renaissance art, The Annunciation, by two different artists (and one apprentice), and the narratives behind them as well. I will clearly demonstrate the impact of a dominant masculine religious agenda superimposed on the female anatomy, mind, and autonomy. I will incorporate science where I believe it applies, and, raise questions as to the overall impact of the above-mentioned agenda on the health of women’s minds and bodies. The paradigm I will establish may be utilized for the benefit of other minorities as well.

“The iconography of The Annunciation derives primarily from the canonical Gospels of Matthew and (above all) Luke (1:26-38).” (Fazio-Smith, Rafaela). For those students as yet unlearned in the fundamentals of Catholicism, The Annunciation is the visitation of an angel named Gabriel to a virgin named Mary either announcing, or asking her (as is interpreted by some) to conceive of and bear the son of God, named Jesus. The title of the work indicates an announcement, rather than asking the virgin if she is willing.

In modern times, the literary question arises as to the origins of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke themselves, since these gospels have become the source of multi-national, or global, depictions of the virgin, including Japanese Madonnas with child, places where we are pretty certain Jesus never visited. In other words, is the Bible the Word of God to begin with, and is The Annunciation thus a depiction of a historical, recorded event or is it simply a metaphor for the birth of a new religion after a monumental struggle between  polytheism (which Socrates should be accredited with attempting to eradicate, prior to Jesus), and an even crueler monotheism? Is Jesus, the concept of a benign, humanitarian God, merely a compromise between competing myth-makers?

I argue that the Bible is a heavily censored, mistranslated work of language art. When the same academic and scientific principle of the visual arts, “paint it as you see it,” is applied to the Bible, “write it as you see it,” we arrive at a “truth,” albeit an agnostic one: God is unknowable.

I will compare and contrast The Annunciation by Simone Martini with his apprentice and brother-in-law, Lippo Memmi (1333), and The Annunciation by Fra. Filippo Lippi (1453). I will additionally prove that the introduction of optical science into art beginning with Giotto Di Bondone (Father of Modernism) has resulted in more unanswered questions about God than we ever had to begin with, thus the only true “good” religion is agnosticism, which includes everyone and excludes no one.

Imagination is a powerful force that can be used for evil as well as good. But religion, imagination and science do not mix. A garden variety of cult leaders, quack doctors in theology, throughout history have led their flock into the wilderness in pursuit of Utopia; an ideal city, an Arcadia, a fête gallante, Eden restored, the promised land, a religious state, or a Communist bloc, etc., only to fail and conclude with group suicide. Time after time explorers, pilgrims and conquistadors have brought ancient temples to ruin and built their own church literally on top of the rubble. In modernist thinking, it is mind-boggling to consider that many, if not all, of these religious architectural structures began as an academic study in linear perspective and a blueprint intended as a place for the god of the universe to live.

Renaissance artist Giotto Di Bondone (1266-1337) was one of the first artists to develop the “paint it as you see it” technique in the visual arts as compared to painting from imagination (though he is not alone credited with this technique. Chillman, James, Jr.). But what if the same principle was applied to language art? What if the authors of the Bible “wrote it as they saw it”? If that were the case, there would be no Annunciation, (or any number of religious paintings, perhaps not even a Bible), for certainly neither Simone Martini nor Fra. Filippo Lippi were present to witness such an event. How much more can be said of the author/s of Genesis? Did any author or priest witness a serpent speaking to Eve? Did they “write what they saw?” Of course not, for Eden is referred to as the ancient past of the author himself, whoever he is (it is generally accepted that Moses was/is not the author of Genesis).

The danger of academia is its ability to impart scientific tools and skills to religious artists, both visual and literary, who either write about or reproduce by way of painting/drawing, etc., events they could not possibly have witnessed, and the academic skill lends the work more credibility, or believe-ability, than it actually deserves.

One can think of patriarchal good reasons to promote a virgin culture; daughters are dependents and have to be married off. To be fair, one might guess that Joseph was a virgin, too. It is not my intent to write feminist literature. This is simply a conversation I would like to join. Women are not guinea pigs for a masculine social science experiment. Michelangelo used male models for his sculpture, Night, and put breasts on it, almost as an after thought, as the only indication the figure is female. It was not uncommon for that time period for women in paintings to be represented with heavily muscled masculine arms. Biblical language art works the same way. It is a masculine, strong-arm god-concept (wives should be virgins and good mothers) projected onto female anatomy and which women must embody, or disembody, depending on the work. I will elaborate on this projection in my analysis of Simone Martini’s Annunciation. Until there are more female scientists and more female authors producing a female body of work, things are going to be funky.

I would like to point out that within the Ten Commandments, a prohibition against rape is suspiciously absent. Perhaps one day the title of The Annunciation will become La Richiesta (Italian for The Request). But that is not the worst of it. In the Book of Numbers, 31:18, we read about the Midianite massacre; one in which God commanded Phineas to “kill everyone who is not a virgin.”

Now that I have introduced the concept of masculine religious literature imposed on female anatomy, I will move toward the actual works to be discussed. I chose to analyze the two different versions of The Annunciation by Simone Martini and Fra. Filippo Lippi not because of the rape culture issue surrounding them, but because of their “fairy-tale” charm and jewel-like colors. By sheer coincidence, I happen to have been born of a date-rape and I’ve done my homework. War and rape are nearly inseparable. Raping the women of a culture one is at war with is one of many ways to demoralize “the enemy” and is indeed done deliberately (Brownmiller, Susan).

Medieval and proto-Renaissance art, in the style of Berlinghieri, or the Limbourg Brothers’ Book of Hours appeal to me in the same way fairy tales appeal to children. No doubt many modern female Artists and Professors began their careers coloring in the lines of The Evil Stepmother in their Snow White coloring books. Today, any novice artist could make plenty of money sketching flat, black-lined, one-dimensional characters, and printing them inexpensively as coloring books on Lulu, Ex Libris, or Amazon’s Create Space, and that is not a bad thing.

Beginning with Giotto, as Renaissance artists redefined the straight, flat line to a series of dots, for instance, and a simple box was transformed into a cube, with a shadow, the paintings took on a new depth and dimension. The visual arts became more realistic, more scientific, more pleasing to the optical nerves. But what of the language arts they were founded upon? Does the addition of science to the visual arts make the narrative behind it more or less true? That is the question I ask the reader to ponder.

Now that I have established a link between the language and visual arts, I will examine The Annunciation by Martini and Memmi, and next, the same legend painted by Fra. Fillipo Lippi. I have greater personal interest in the narrative behind these works, and predominantly examine them from that view-point. Fra Fillipo Lippi’s (presumably) later work, Madonna and Child with Two Angels (1465) simultaneously demonstrates his progression and skill at incorporating applied science into a less “divine”, more humanist art while the narrative behind it, that of a monk (Fra. Lippi himself) who leaves the priesthood to marry a nun makes for some interesting literature, as well.

Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi Annunciation (Sienna, International Gothic style): 1333, altar piece, Sienna Cathedral, tempera and gold leaf on wood.

The fame of the work is it’s sheer beauty. The gold-leaf of the Gothic throne is the dominant color. Many colors were derived from precious metal, and this is gold leaf itself. The lines forming the Gothic throne are delicate and lace-like. Producing the cobalt blue, or lapis lazuli (ground from precious stone) for Mary’s cape is a skill Martini may have gleaned from a chemist or pharmacist.There are interesting, high quality videos to be found on the internet about the history of colors.

Overall, Martini’s lines “flow,” that is they are single, uninterrupted, continuous curves, which is not an easy skill to master, either.

Although matter, weight, dimension, and perspective appreciated in the soon-to-come “realist” art is nearly absent, the “insubstantiality” of Martini’s Annunciation was appreciated by the patrons of his time as the spiritual realm of light and weightlessness rather than the carnal world of fleshly pleasures and burdens of guilt.

The angel Gabriel has lighted down on Mary’s throne, the Church, as Queen of Heaven. In pagan days, the Queen of Heaven was Venus, but that myth was abolished after science discovered there are literal, not figurative, volcanoes on Venus, as real as Mount Vesuvius which buried Pompeii in hot, molten lava. That was a heaven no one wanted to go to anymore. But since the study of the universe has always seemed to man the portal to God, one can make an educated guess that the Virgin may be a metaphor for the astrological constellation, Virgo.

There is classic iconography. The white dove symbolizes the holy spirit. White lilies symbolize purity. The blue and gold cape Mary wears symbolizes her royalty as Queen of Heaven. Latin words are “seen” pouring from Gabriel’s lips to Mary’s ear: “Hail Mary, full of Grace.” She will conceive by “hearing the word.” She will give birth to the Word of God, incarnate. The Word will be male of course, setting female authors at a disadvantage for all time, except J.K. Rowlings.

Indeed, there is only one word incarnate to describe Martini’s Annunciation, and that is beautiful. This painting is a contemplation of beauty, appreciated more, I think, when one has been educated in the skills required to produce it.

In spite of unquestionable beauty, however, I conclude this analysis by returning to my own belief that religious art, literary or visual, is a social agenda of masculine control projected upon the autonomy and anatomy of women and other minorities. The knowledge of just how difficult it is to produce something, such as the skill involved to format and publish an e-Bible, for instance, does not make it more “true”.

I am not criticizing Martini the painter, or the painting, or the skill per se, only the narrative that inspired it. I question the implication in Martini’s Annunciation that the good mother requires disembodiment, dependency on the masculine, and insubstantiality if she is to claim virtue and social standing. The virgin is not the only Biblical narrative up for consideration by women; there is Mary Magdalene, the non-virgin, sometimes referred to in the extreme as a prostitute. Although the literature of the French revolutionary, the Marquis de Sade, father of sadomasochism, was censored publicly by Popes and Holy Emperors, and de Sade spent most of his adult-life in prison, in private the Madonna/whore complex is a very real dilemma the modern woman faces. It is outside the scope of this essay to elaborate on the Marquis, but suffice it to say that his literature, Justine and the Misfortunes of Virtue and Juliette and the Fortunes of Vice, which essentially claim that sexual vice will inevitably ravage the virtuous therefor it is profitable to be a prostitute and futile to be virtuous (Bloch, Iwan), is a legitimate argument, albeit an abominable one, and one which accurately depicts the challenges many an unwed mother faces. Supposing the narrative of the virgin is true, then Mary Magdalene and Hustler magazine are no less true as the story of exhibitionism and voyeurism. The literal definition of pornography is in Greek, literature about prostitutes.

Women must take control of their own narrative. We have, for too long, allowed men to superimpose their erotic world views on the female psyche. To be fair, reverse discrimination against white males is a crucial pitfall to avoid. We learned this from the Duke La Cross team false gang rape case. One can only hope to enlist them in the protection of women. But I digress.

Prior to the development of the global printing press, the role of artists as story-tellers was to promote the dogma of the medieval church (Chillman, James. Jr.), not health, which is generally defined as wholeness. For a male artist to take the liberty to portray a woman as “insubstantial” is a bit like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

The medieval visual arts and the language arts of the time, the Bible, when viewed as such, are identically one dimensional. The legend of Jesus contains large gaps in the development of his character outside the womb. We know nothing of Mary’s family background except that she has a cousin named Elizabeth. The dialogue between characters is not dialogue, it is monologue: God “telling it like it is,” which ultimately says nothing. The plot from beginning to end can be summarized in one word incarnate: macabre. If there is any good God at all, he or she is not to be found in this book, not wholly, anyhow. I am glad I did not live during medieval times, for I would have been burned alive as a heretic.

Fra. Filippo Lippi, Annunciation (Florence, Palazzo de Medici) 1449-59, egg tempera on wood.

Lippi’s Annunciation is also a study of the astonishingly beautiful, but with a difference in composition, that is the layout and setting, and its narrative. The Angel Gabriel is positioned outdoors in a cultivated garden-like scene on the left and Mary is positioned indoors, in an architectural structure, a porch, on the right. Both figures are “enlightened” with halos. Compared to Martini, Fra Lippi has incorporated obvious academics (to the trained eye) of art into his rendering of The Annunciation. It may be compared to Raphael’s School of Athens in composition. Lippi was raised and educated in a Catholic orphanage.

The iconography includes the Medici family symbol below the urn of lilies. Mary is literate. She is reading. There is linear perspective, depth and shadow throughout. The painting includes sophisticated masonry in the flooring, even for modern times. Fra. Lippi has been trained to avoid obvious outlines. Instead, images are created using shapes. The drapery is simply graceful. Referring again to artistic skills, drapery is not easy to reproduce.

This is a remake on the Genesis narrative. Here, God is not irrationally telling Eve she is not allowed to “eat” from a tree of knowledge one cannot envision, only imagine, and there is no talking serpent in defiance of everything modern man knows for a fact about animals and speech although, in contradiction, the virgin will most unscientifically conceive of a child. This is a God who otherwise makes sense, the Modern God of Better Homes and Gardens. Learning is encouraged. We do not have the sense that the two divine beings in this picture, who are obviously metaphors for the masculine-feminine dynamic that I have been referring to, are throwing “information bombs” at each other for subconscious processing when they are in bed at night, longing for one another, though we do retain the sense that sexual relations are taboo. These two beings are engaging in a gentle and noble exchange of information.

We do not have the sense that after this exchange of information Gabriel is going to fly back off to his dwelling in a now- known violent “heaven.” No, there seems to be a house for him here, now. We walk away from this work satisfied that these two divine beings are cultivated to live in the “real world,” here and now.

There is no particular “moral” to this painting, though we have awareness of the original narrative, the Bible, bubbling in the background. Nietzsche said it best, I think: “Lying to man to make him moral is immoral.”

As a second-year college student, I am not aware of whether or not there is a literary “rule” equivalent to Giotto’s “paint it as you see it.” A “write it as you see it” rule apparently did not exist at the time the Bible was written. By bringing it into existence now, it allows one to legitimately question its doctrines. The same academic intelligence that may have lent credence to medieval art works otherwise incredible can, by the same rule, the same tool, and the same intelligence, dismantle them.

Works Cited
1. Bloch, Iwan, Dr., The Marquis de Sade: His Life and Work, 1899, PDF here:
2. Brownmiller, Susan, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, 1975 print. PDF here:,%20women,%20and%20rape%20[blackatk].pdf
3. Chillman, James Jr., Giotto and Modern Art, PDF here:
4. Fazio Smith, Rafaela, “Iconography of The Annunciation,” Global Dispatches, Feb 10, 2010 Link here:

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