Firstly, all good wishes for this new year. As historians and some liturgists know, the new year did not in fact begin until the feast of the Annunciation, traditionally called Lady Day, which falls on 25 March. This christianization of the calendar was successful until 1752, at least in England, when the dating system changed from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar. A remnant of this exists with the tax year in the UK, which still begins on 6 April. While the US fiscal year corresponds to a calendar year, filing must completed by a variable date occurring in mid-April. The French term for calendar year, année civile, is thus called to distinguish it from the former religious year of March to March.
There are many artistic representations of this iconic moment but my favourite by far is Antonello da Messina’s version, above, known as the Palermo Annunciation to differentiate it from his other paintings on the theme. It was his last work, painted in 1476.The work’s use of colour as well as the function of light and shade are of great interest. I’m currently reading an excellent book, Victoria Finlay’s Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, which details how the materials used in painting supplies throughout the centuries have degenerated, though I haven’t yet reached the chapter on blue. This colour is traditionally used in connection with Mary, and is therefore the dominant hue of the stained glass of Chartres Cathedral, which houses the prize relic of one of the Virgin Mary’s veils. If you haven’t been to Chartres then you absolutely must. On a bright day, seeing the sunlight pierce this glass made almost eight centuries ago whose particular shade of blue we still do not know how to reproduce even now, and witnessing the space being filled with dancing spots of azure vibrancy is an experience that I can only describe as like being punched in the stomach. It is stupefying and in a most positive way.
Back to Messina’s own Marian interpretation. It is a remarkable work of a remarkable moment. This Mary is not hesitant nor fearful; her face displays calmness and resoluteness, though the shadows on one side hint at the suffering that her choice will bring her. Art historians underline the detail of her hands. What I find striking is that the right hand is raised almost in blessing, indicating that her assent to the divine plan will bring the highest salvific blessing on humankind. Most noteworthy of all is the fact that she is reading, stressing that she is now the Mother of the Word, an act accomplished by the ultimate speech act of her compliance. The printed word is endowed with a particular kind of power at the date when this image was completed, since Europe was within the first few years of the printing revolution. Moreover, this Mary is an active reader, a participator in culture, and has assertive body language, deftly rejecting patriarchal representations of female submission.
The archangel Gabriel, one of the greatest celestial beings in the court of Heaven, appears to a young peasant girl but, in an unexpected turn of events it is he who pays respect and homage to her rather than the reverse. Catholics believe that this is because she was born without original or actual sin, the sole sinless human in history; my local poet William Wordsworth described her as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast“. Her response, “fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum”, be it done unto me according to thy word, is the moment of transformation in human history, the reversal of Eve’s consent to Satan and heralds the arrival of redemption into this vale of tears. For these reasons, it was, and is, a fitting feast on which to begin a new year. A friend of mine in the UK who does not accept the Gregorian Calendar has his bank’s authorization to write cheques from 1 January to 24 March of each year with the previous year’s date, so this custom is still retained on some cheques circulating in the UK.
Secondly, following on from the first paragraph, normal cufflink blogging will resume soon. I am currently in Paris on a month’s research trip. France does not have a great tradition of cufflink workmanship, though there are a few notable examples. It is hard to find any cufflinks at all in jewellers, let alone decent pairs. However, I have a great stock of images of pairs I have not yet blogged about and have brought eight (unblogged) pairs as my companions on this trip (until my SSIO arrives on 15 January), so there is no risk of running out of matter for the blog!