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Images in movement

The Cestello Annunciation (1489-1490) opens on a pas de deux: the angel painted by Botticelli a few years before the end of the 15th century enters the dance and the Virgin Mary, brimming with grace, gives the hint of a movement. As in the Allegory of Spring, painted a few years earlier (c. 1478), the bodies are as light as air, as strong as the wind and as fluid as a shower of rain sparkling in the sunshine. As a child the dancer Isadora Duncan would spend hours in contemplation of the Florentine painting. “I would stay in front of it until I truly saw the painted flowers opening, the naked feet dancing and the bodies moving, until an angel of joy came to visit me and then I thought: I shall dance this image...”. As in The Allegory of Spring, the painter’s Annunciation perfumes life. The Word is made a flower. The picture is set in motion.

“The Cestello Annunciation” (1489-1490)

Inspired by an art of movement, late 15th-century images show an inventiveness which enables them to travel. This is the inventiveness of exegesis. Their de facto interpretation of Scripture makes all contemplation pass to the living picture. In fact there are paths in the Bible which are inviting to the traveller. Thus a pathway unfolds through the networks of meaning produced by the play of itineraries and associations. The word is then no longer read, it becomes a verb which we hear when we enter the subject of the paintings. The Virgin in the Florentine picture no longer has to do with books. She is, every part of her, the life itself of the Holy Book and of the painted work. Botticelli, who in those same years painted The Madonna of the Book (c. 1480-1481), has delineated a new image. Against the background of a window that opens on to the clear sky of a vision-filled morning, the Virgin’s hand and that of the Child turn the pages of the book open at the verse of Isaiah: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14). The book has become them, incarnate even in the bracelet in the form of the crown of thorns that clasps the tiny wrist of the Child Jesus, and in the cherries and figs in the ceramic basket placed beside them.

Perhaps it is in contemplating the paintings showing innumerable Madonnas reading – in which the angel surprises the Virgin in her reading and interrupts it so that she may become its heart – that the Italian painter becomes in turn a dancer of the image, as the small Isadora was later to become. Does not the genius of art really lie in being capable, not of halting life but rather of letting it flow before eyes that recognize it and proceed to draw from its source? In this movement artists do not have the age of the centuries. They have the age of a past that passes. They can likewise converse with time and understand the common language that both the angel and the Virgin of the Annunciation speak.

Moreover it was also in observing Botticelli’s The Allegory of Spring that in the 1920s Aby Warburg conceived of “the historical anthropology of the imagination”, namely his theories on that life of images through which one enters the dance, following the angel’s example. Neglected by the historical sciences, “survival” (Nachleben) is the central concept of the thought of this German Jewish historian and of his anthropological approach to Western art which consists of grasping the instant the very moment in which the gem on the stem enables one to intuit the opening of the flower. The consequence of this is a fresh way of looking which promises to see the movement of the past reach even to us. To this end Aby Warburg cites heterogeneous works, juxtaposing artists and scenes far distant in time, connecting, for example, the medieval images of the death of Christ with ancient depictions of the death of Laocoön, the hero of the Greek myth. There is no danger: this is not a continuity which would make the Christian God the successor of the pagans! Survival, according to Warburg, is not thought of in terms of continuity but rather in terms of interruption. No sculptural affiliation exists between them! It is in the intensity of the plastic formulas, ready to strike the senses to the point of activating them, that Aby Warburg, just like his contemporary Isadora Duncan, looks at the past passing. It is also necessary to see, over and above every temporal succession, the force of what seeks to make a way for itself in the same way that a trickle of watercontinues to flow underground and then re-emerges in the form of a cascade.

Sandro Botticelli, “The Madonna of the Book” (detail, 1480-1481)

To imagine the Virgin is to enter similar images in movement. It is to create a fantasy in order to see the life of the work surge up, in the sense indicated by Isadora Duncan. It is to create a space in order to see appearing the time that survives, which is not that of nostalgia, a past without a present, and still less that of a dream with eyes wide open, a present without a past. In this sense the time of the imagination is not that of the past alone, because this would not do anything other than recall what has already passed. Nor is it that of the future alone, for this would do no more than forget the past. The time of the imagination has the active present of words which fulfil what they say, like the paintings of the Annunciation in which the book becomes flesh, precisely where the words are no longer announcing.

The Middle Ages calls this art of imagining, even of the words of the Virgin that give life to the Word, “the art of memory”. Deriving from antiquity, this art of memory theorizes the creation of images in the active present. It consists of creating a place, not in the world’s most usual, that is, topographical, sense but rather an environment in which the power of life can be manifest. In such “places of memory” images with a pulsating heart could thus come into being, in accordance with the etymological origin of the term souvenir itself, deriving from the Latin sub-venire, “to come from beneath”. These images nourished the art of writing, just as they nourished the art of painting. The school of poetry of the nuns of Helfta in the Rhineland at the end of the 13th century is accordingly dedicated to similar processes of remembering in order to imagine their dialogue in the present with the Virgin Mary. Meditation on Sacred Scripture focused on the monastic liturgy, the art of imagining of Matilda of Hackeborn (d. 1299), the nun of Helfta who entered the monastery as a child, constitutes the backbone of her book, Liber gratiae specialis, “the Book of Special Grace”. At the end of the meditation the Marian images come to life in the heart of the nun who imagines, for example, the wavy hair of the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation: “The hair of the Blessed Virgin Mary seemed of marvellous beauty”. When she dares to stroke that silken mane, the Virgin says to her “You may touch my hair; the more you stroke it the more beautiful you will become. My hair symbolizes my innumerable virtues; touching it is imitating these virtues and consequently growing both in beauty and in glory”. The life of images is connected to the images of life, here in the female description of Marian grace, when it is a question of imagining it.

Sandro Botticelli, “The Allegory of Spring” (detail, 1482)

A silken mane, the Virgin’s flowing tresses, is an image in movement which thus seems to be linked with the long history of “survival” dear to Aby Warburg. The image is therefore located far beyond any straightforward form which relates the scene to a simple virginal turmoil or to a pious discovery of Mary’s virtues. It is impossible moreover not to remember the curls of hair and the fluttering sensual veils that flow around the figures in Botticelli’s The Allegory of Spring, in order to demonstrate the power of intensification of movement or gestures that can pass through time, wafted on the breath of the wind which models the fabric on the body. It is once again this swirling image which Bernadette Soubirous sees during her first apparition in Lourdes on 11 February 1858, which impressed itself on her memory as an adolescent, ready to see bare feet starting to dance, flowers opening and the angel of joy arriving: “The lady” she sees “looks like a 17- or 18- year-old girl with blue eyes. She is clad in a white gown with a blue sash which encircles her hips and hangs down her garment. She wears a pure white veil on her head, which barely reveals her hair and falls down her back to her waist. Her feet are bare, lightly covered by the folds of her clothing; on both feet a yellow rose is resplendent”. And in the same trajectory of the history of surviving images in movement through time it is also important to understand why the hair of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, healed by the Virgin’s smile when she was 10 years old, is today the only bodily relic of Thérèse kept in her room at Les Buissonnets, Lisieux, which has been made into an oratory.

The Marian story thus lacks a story of the imagination which would have free eyes and hair blowing in the wind in order to discover the past of survival and its present, and to reread a story that causes the Virgin Mary’s voice to be heard in a breath of wind which makes her flesh.

Sylvie Barnay




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 23, 2019