Today marks the beginning of Advent. For many, the occasion has been lost to the commercialization of Christmas, but in essence, it is foremost a time of fulfilled expectancy. In Jesus, we have the convergence of man’s collective longing with God’s eternal love. During His ministry, He often said He came to seek and to save that which was lost. As bearers of the imago Dei, the very image of God, man intrinsically understood his connection to the eternal, but his soul was darkened by the sin in which he sequestered himself.
As Alister McGrath wrote
The great Egyptian city of Alexandria was noted for its philosophical sophistication. Several schools of thought, all basing their ideas on the great classical philosopher Plato, argued for the existence of an ideal world, lying beyond the world of appearances. But how could this shadowy and elusive realm be known? Or, more tantalizingly, how might it be entered? Growing importance came to be attached to the idea of the logos, a Greek term best translated as ‘word’, referring to something — or perhaps someone — that could mediate between these two very different, yet apparently interconnected, worlds. But how might this gap be bridged? Who could bring the ideal realm into the everyday world? Or bring people from the present order of things to the ideal world lying beyond it?
Into this world came Jesus, the Logos of God. Though man understood his connection to God, restoration through religion and reason was insufficient to bridge the chasm. Restoration was possible in only one way. God must come to us.
And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.”
Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850
In the period of the Renaissance, Mary is often depicted as a noble lady, dressed in golden finery, humbly accepting the great responsibility placed upon her shoulders. Gabriel is generally portrayed as carrying a lily, long accepted as a symbol of purity. Yet too often, the essential humanity of the situation seems to be missing. It was as if the sheer surprise, even shock, of the angelical announcement could be ignored or overlooked. No such criticism can be directed against Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s famous painting Ecce Ancilla Domini (Behold the handmaid of the Lord), which was first exhibited in 1850.
The work caused something of a stir, not least on account of the manner in which Rossetti portrayed Mary. Mary—here modeled by Rossetti’s sister, Christina—is depicted as a young woman in a state of fear, cowering against a wall, with her eyes cast down, almost in dread. Mary, we are told, was ‘greatly troubled’ by Gabriel’s greeting (Luke 1:29). Rossetti captures her state of mind beautifully. What he depicts is far from the humble acceptance of the noble Marys of Renaissance annunciations. If anything, Rossetti’s Mary seems to be trying to get as far away from Gabriel as the small, everyday bedroom allows. The tension of the work is accentuated by its shape: its tall, narrow frame focuses attention on its central figures. There is nothing of the sumptuous gold cloth and exquisite ornamental buildings of Renaissance annunciations; Rossetti sets the scene in a small, slightly shabby, Victorian bedroom.
‘How can this be?’ Rossetti’s vivid depiction of the scene conveys Mary’s astonishment, located somewhere between dismay and fear, at the news that Gabriel brings. Her eyes seem fixed on the lily—symbolizing purity—that he holds, perhaps sharpening the question: how can I, a virgin, be about to bear any child—let alone the ‘Son of the Most High’ and successor to David? Rossetti subtly emphasizes the purity motif by allowing white to dominate the painting. Only small areas of blue, red and yellow are to be seen.
Rossetti’s dramatic portrayal of fear echoes a fundamental biblical theme—that experiencing or encountering God evokes a sense of awe and overwhelming anxiety. When the women discover the empty tomb of Christ on the first Easter morning, their immediate reaction is not one of joy at the p 10 restoration of the crucified Christ, but fear—fear at the unknown, similar to Rudolf Otto’s famous notion of the mysterium tremendum.
Alister McGrath, Incarnation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 8–10.