St Bride's: Sermon Series

Duccio - The Annunciation

 

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In this season of the Lenten festival of the Annunciation I am fortunate to be able to draw your attention not just to St Luke's economical narrative with its five episodes, but also to Duccio's picture reproduced in the postcard provided for us to have in hand. 

Go even one better. Let your imagination and your hand reach out to the original. You would have in your hand a panel of poplar wood some 17 inches in height. The width is approximately the same. The paint is egg tempera and it was applied in the year 1311 as one of a series of seven depictions of scenes from Christ's birth, infancy and childhood.

This series of seven was at the base of a large altarpiece, which in turn was backed by another extensive altarpiece : this meant that the completed construction, when carried through the city streets of Siena from Duccio's workshop to the Cathedral, would be gazed at from both sides in wonder and rejoicing. When it was set up at the altar we can place our picture at the left hand end of the altar table's top : the eyes of the priest, as he came to this left hand, 'Gospel', side of the altar, would alight on this Annunciation scene when the moment for the gospel reading arrived. The scene contains the seed of the gospel itself.

And within the picture it is moments we are given. Into the regular background of the architecture there enters the mouvementé angelic figure, striding in from the left, and reaching across into Mary's space. The bowl of lilies he will brush past, as he draws closer to penetrating that entrance, to crossing that arched threshold. Mary's body language leaves us in no doubt : her reaction is shock, fright, questioning.

Look across at this point to St Luke's text, and we find him dusting down a rare word (used only here in the New Testament) to give massive emphasis to the disquiet Mary was being subjected to. The Greek word, before ever this writer added his augmenting prefix, has as its root meaning what a plough does to a field, or a revolution to a city.

The route taken across our picture space is not haphazard, for St Luke insists that Gabriel is 'sent from God', and so that corridor taken by the angel through the architecture reflects the newness of the message he brings : the newest, pointed, voguish, Gothic arches cover the narrow space, hiding yet exhibiting all the brilliance of their science and technology – the old rounded arches have had their day, now that there is to be a new daystar from on high. (The three pointed arches in question stand behind each of the figures and exactly between them.)

This Mary, though she lets drop her book and her right hand flies up protective, keeps her visitor in focus, level eye to eye, engaging evenly despite the recoiling move. For her acceptance of the task laid upon her, as also of the new life implanted within her, have to come from her free response. So the Lucan conflict narrative resolves itself, and concludes before the angel's departure : 'Be it unto me according to thy will'. At the right hand margin of our picture the wall is buttressed or inflected at the very site of Mary's conception.

This small and intimate pointer gently drawn may serve to transfer our attention from St Luke and from Duccio to ourselves, worshippers gathered together at this season of Our Lord and his lowly Virgin mother. Today's collect envisages a journey longer than that pictured in the revolutionary new Gothic corridor : the collect's journey takes us on through the cross and passion to the glory of his resurrection.

May the responsive obedience of our Lord's mother guide and inspire all our new choosings, and fill us with thanksgiving and boldness as we face the rest of our days.

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