Lotto's 'Annunciation' Painting Is Gem for Advent

A unique picture of the Annunciation of the Incarnation of our Lord to the Virgin Mary, which is temporarily on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, has special meaning for this Advent season and for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8. It also highlights a less well-known Marian feast, the Translation of the Holy House of Nazareth to Loreto, Italy, celebrated on Dec. 10. The painting is Lorenzo Lotto’s unforgettable canvas, over five feet high, commissioned around 1530 as the main altarpiece for the oratory of the Confraternity of Santa Maria sopra Mercanti in Recanati, a small town near the Adriatic coast in the Marches region of Italy. Departing from the familiar (and by then, hackneyed) Italian composition in which the angel Gabriel enters from the left, Lotto shows the Virgin Mary turning suddenly away from her meditation on the Scriptures to face the viewer, just as the angel enters through an arched doorway behind her and raises his right hand in salutation. In addition to the brilliant colors, billowing draperies, and dance-like movements of the figures, the picture captures the viewer’s imagination with its details of humble life in a sixteenth century provincial town, including the unusual motif of a house cat scurrying across the room to hide under the bed. Tradition identified the cat with the devil—and particularly with the sin of lust—thus, the fleeing cat symbolizes the devil’s terror at the approaching Incarnation. Lorenzo Lotto, born in Venice around 1480, was an artist who excelled in psychological portraiture far in advance of his time, and in religious painting. Many of his works have been loaned to the National Gallery of Art for a show dedicated to this deservedly "Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance." Lotto was sensitive to the religious and social turmoil of his day—Marian Luther and Henry Viii of England were his contemporaries---and his religious works respond to the Protestant challenges to the sacraments and other doctrines of the Church, with profoundly personal and very original statements and other doctrines of the Church, with profoundly personal and very original statements of faith. Indeed, some of them became models for later generations, after the Council of Trent, when the Catholic Reform demanded religious art closer to the feelings and experiences of common people. The Annunciation from Recanati is Lotto’s interpretation of the Gospel account which is read on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Focusing on St. Luke’s description of Mary’s first reaction. Lotto shows her as troubled at the words of her celestial visitor and pondering their meaning. This dramatic presentation underlines Mary’s humility. At the time Lotto painted the picture, he was working also on several paintings for the nearby Basilica of Loreto, site of the Holy House, a shrine which had come to have great importance during his lifetime. It is known that in 1253 St. Louis, King of France, heard Mass in Nazareth in the house where it was believed Mary received the Annunciation. Because the shrine was under threat from the Muslims in the Holy Land, it was carried miraculously by angels first to a field in Dalmatia (present-day Croatia) and them to the hamlet of Loreto, near Recanati, on the night of Dec. 9-10, in 1291, according to tradition. The house disappeared from Nazareth, and when it reappeared in Italy, it was found to be built of all materials native to Nazareth but foreign to both Dalmatia and Italy. Since 1294 pilgrims from all over the world have gone to Loreto, including many popes who prayed there. (In 1920, Pope Benedict XV declared the Virgin of Loreto to be the patroness of aviators, because of the angelic flight which had rescued it.) Starting in 1468, the present basilica of Santa Maria di Loreto was built over the site of the house. The latter fifteenth century was also the time when the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which had not yet been declared a dogma, received strong backing from Pope Sixtus IV. Shortly after 1500, the Holy House, now situated under the dome of the Basilica, was enclosed in a splendid marble casing designed by the architect of St. Peter’s, Bramante, and decorated by the best sculptors of the era. Lotto certainly knew the masterpiece of this sculptured program, a marble relief of the Annunciation by Andrea Sansovino, of 1518-24. When he made his very different Annunciation for Recanati about a decade later, Lotto showed that he had the Holy House in mind by taking several elements from Sansovino’s interpretation, such as Mary’s curtained bed and the presence of a maleficent cat. Like Sansovino, too, the painter depicted the Eternal Father directing the angel Gabriel on his mission from the sky. But unlike Sansovino, Lotto did not complete the Blessed Trinity by showing a dove hovering between the Father and the Virgin’s womb. Perhaps the unseen wind, which flutters through the draperies of the two figures and frightens the cat, is Lotto’s unconventional way of representing the Spirit’s presence. In 1554 Lorenzo Lotto, in the words of his biographer Vasari, "decided to end his days living at the Holy House in the service of the Madonna," and it was there that the aged artist painted his last work, a poignant Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is included in the Washington show, along with some 50 other works. The "Lorenzo Lotto" exhibit will remain until March 1 at the National Gallery of Art, Constitution Ave. and 4th St., N.W., Washington, which is open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day. For information call 202/737-4215.Nora Hamerman, an art historian, will be speaking on "Angels in Art" on Dec. 5 at Corpus Christi School, across from St. Anthony Church, 3301 Glen Carlyn Rd., Falls Church, at 1:30 p.m. For information call 703/820-7112. Copyright ?1997 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

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