Symbolism in Narrative: A Look at Bernat Martorell’s The Annunciation

Theoharis Vouitsis

Pictorial narratives serve to instruct and augment one’s understanding of a particular event. Religious themes, frequently expressed as pictorial narratives to inspire Christians, served well in climates of illiteracy and spoke to a visually stimulated crowd seeking religious instruction. Symbolism was employed, whether overtly or subtly, and was often used to relate far more than what could initially be seen. Bernat Martorell’s The Annunciation, located at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is an example of this use of symbolism from which much could be learned. Does this pictorial narrative of the Virgin Mary, receiving word from the Archangel Gabriel that she was to bear the baby Jesus, conform to traditional uses of Christian symbolism? Furthermore, are there any stylistic or symbolic elements used by Martorell that were not universally applied or were specific to Spain in that period? The narrative and symbolism of The Annunciation will be examined in an effort to fully appreciate its symbolic virtue. This essay will present the painter and in particular his representation of the annunciation in his Our Lady retable, accompanied by an in depth discussion of Martorell’s conformity or non-conformity with respect to particular stylistic elements as well as the mudéjar, or the influence of the Muslim religion in Spain at this time.

Bernat (or Bernando) Martorell was a Catalonian painter whose date of birth is speculated to be around the turn of the fifteenth century and who died in 1452 [1]. His earliest existing work, The Annunciation, was originally part of theOur Lady retable commissioned by the Franciscan monastery of Santa Maria de Jesus in Barcelona [2]. The narrative presented by Martorell is from the Gospel According to Luke, who writes: “And having come in, the Angel said to her, Rejoice, highly favoured one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” [3]. The Biblical text continues with Gabriel explaining to Mary the Incarnation of the Son of God and, ultimately, Mary’s faithful response makes her a model of obedience to God .

The faithful account of the coming birth of Jesus Christ was certainly not left to Martorell’s discretion. The commission of a retable in Spain at this time required a formal contract between patron and painter and Martorell would have been given various specifications in regards to measurements, panel preparation, delivery, and method of payment. More importantly, his contract would discuss the content and composition of the altarpiece, limiting the artist’s creative freedom [4]. For the commission of another retable of the Virgin, for the Convent of Pedrables, Martorell was asked for a preliminary sketch (traça, or modelo) in his contract dated 1427. Although this was not the contract for The Annunciation, this example serves to illustrate a patron’s control over execution of the panel.

Scriptural narratives were seldom simple renderings of past events, as will be discovered through the exploration of Martorell’s The Annunciation. Herbert L. Kessler writes:

Through purposeful selection, references in costume and setting, and intertextual interpolations, [pictorial narratives] were constructed to make the ancient stories from distant lands relevant to the present viewers. [5]

There are three noteworthy stylistic elements presented in Martorell’s The Annunciation. The first is that the whole scene takes place in a room. The second is that Gabriel enters the room from the left and the third is that Gabriel is shown kneeling before a startled Mary.

Although no mention of the setting is made in the scriptures, the idea of having Mary portrayed in a house was popularized by Catalan literature in the fifteenth century. Accounts of Mary, in a house, are described in the De Incarnatione Verbi Sermo, and preached by San Vicente Ferrer in the Cuaresma(1413). It was also included in the Vida de Cristo, by Fra Eximenis (ca. late fourteenth century [6]. Martorell adheres to this popular depiction and shows Mary in the room of a house.

In Byzantine art the Archangel Gabriel is shown standing as he delivers his message. During the fourteenth century, Franciscan Christianity embraced a book attributed to Saint Bonaventure called Meditations on the Life of Jesus Christ [7]. It depicts a series of colourful scenes from the Bible appealing to the emotions of a Sister in the order of Santa Clara. Driven by imagination, Saint Bonaventure is the first known artist to depict the Archangel Gabriel kneeling before Mary [8]. Many Italian painters of the fourteenth century regularly drew on this reference, as did Martorell by prominently displaying Gabriel before the Virgin [9].

My final observation brings into question why Gabriel entered from the left. This deliberate directionality in Martorell’s The Annunciation was not always the same in paintings of this scene at the time. Was it theologically correct to have the Angel enter from the left or was this simply a stylistic decision? The scriptures do not define the setting but paintings do exist that depict Gabriel entering from the right. Don Denny testifies to, “knowing of no single theological doctrine that discusses the manner, in which Gabriel entered the room, be it from the left or the right” [10]. Early Christian iconography depicted Gabriel entering from the right but somewhere between the sixth and seventh centuries, the Annunciation from the right lost its appeal [11]. In early Christianity, as suggested by Jewish reading habits, the narrative flowed from right to left [12]. Some suggest that reading of the narrative reversed, as Europeans desired to conform to the flow of the narrative since the populace read from left to right [13]. In fact, by the early Middle Ages, the Annunciation from the left, with the odd exception, becomes standard in both Byzantine and Western art [14].

Another stylistic element that can be read for symbolic meaning is Martorell’s take on the inclusion of columns in Annunciation scenes. In the early Middle Ages artists repeatedly portrayed the Annunciation with a column separating Gabriel from the Virgin Mary [15]. Piero della Francesca’s The Annunciation (1467-68) is an example of this portrayal, as is Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation (1435-1440). Even Rogier van der Weyden, in his version of The Annunciation (1431), separated the two figures by a column, in this case by a bedpost.

Martorell has used separating columns in his Barcelona Hours, another Annunciation piece, but curiously, in the MMFA’s The Annunciation, he does not use a column but separates the two protagonists by a vase of lilies. Lilies are a familiar element in scenes with the Virgin Mary. They are iconographically symbolic of the Virgin’s purity and chastity [16]. Saint Fulbert of Chartes describes the Virgin Mary as, “a lily among thorns, preserved from all impurity of the flesh and the spirit because she was to be the receptacle of Divine Wisdom” [17].

Apart from the lilies, another use of symbolism is that of the dove to represent the Holy Spirit [18]. Luke (1:35) writes: “And the angel answered and said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that the Holy One who is born will be called the Son of God” [19]. Martorell illustrates the Holy Spirit descending upon Mary amidst celestial light. The dove, or the Holy Spirit, is seen hovering directly above Mary as it prepares to consume her.

Just as Luke introduced God in his verse: “The Power of the Highest will overshadow you,” Martorell chose to honour the verse by illustrating God in the uppermost left corner, barely visible through the painting’s frame. God emanates the rays of light from one hand and holds a sphere representing the world in the other. On top of the world, Martorell placed a crucifix. The sphere and crucifix serve as a reminder to the Christian viewer that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of all mankind. The book on the table symbolizing Mary’s wisdom is a recurring theme first appearing in the ninth and tenth century. By the late thirteenth century the book comes to symbolize the Old Testament Book of Isaiah (7:14), who prophesied: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive…” [20].

Martorell’s The Annunciation also shows the influence of the Muslim religion on Christians in fifteenth century Spain. The initial invasion of the Muslims occurred in 711. Most of Spain had been captured and it was only after the re-conquest of Granada in 1492 that the centuries of frontier warfare ended and Christianity ruled Spain once more [21]. Large Muslim populations still lived relatively peacefully in Aragon [22]. Travel in Spain became frequent in the fifteenth century and exposed various Catalan commercial interests to the Middle East [23]. By the late fifteenth century instability deepened and, where Christian rulers had once tolerated the Muslim and Jewish communities, intolerance grew [24]. Centuries of Arab rule in Spain implied pronounced mudéjar influence, as demonstrated by Martorell’s heavily-patterned floor and ceiling decorations. This was not uncommon, especially when considering the already growing influence of foreign styles, particularly from France and Italy, on Spanish Christian art [25]. I propose an alternative to this accepted truth. Perhaps Martorell simply wanted a peaceful, harmonious coexistence between Muslim and Christian and tried to convey that through his inclusion of repetitive geometric designs in a Christian altarpiece.

Through observation, dissection, and inference we are able to understand Martorell’s manner and motivation for the organization and presentation of The Annunciation. His use of symbolism and stylistic elements lend themselves to a greater appreciation of this oeuvre. The panel is a stunning achievement that is both beautiful and vibrant. Charged with emotion, it appeals to the viewer in a heart-warming manner that captures a certain emotional element, which is reflected in both the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel.

List of Illustrations

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1. Mary Faith Mitchel Grizzard, Bernando Martorell, Fifteenth-Century Catalan Artist, (University of Michigan, 1978), p. 15.
2. Ibid., p. 16.
3. Luke 1:28. King James Version.
4. Judith Berg Sobré, Behind the Altar Table: The Development of the Painted Retable in Spain, 1350-1500 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989), pp. 31-2.
5. Herbert L. Kessler, Spiritual Seeing, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), p. 1.
6. Grizzard, p. 111.
7. Émile Mâle, Religious Art, (Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 102.
8. Ibid., p. 103
9. Ibid. 
10. Don Denny, The Annunciation from the Right from Early Christian Times to the Sixteenth Century(Garland Publishing, Inc., 1965), p. 1.
11. Ibid., p. 8.
12. Ibid., p. 11.
13. Ibid. 
14.  Ibid., pp. 14-5.
15. Ibid., p. 53.
16. Leslie Ross, Medieval Art: A Topical Dictionary, (Greenwood Press, 1996), p. 90.
17. Mirella Levi D’Ancona, The Iconography of the Immaculate Conception in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance (College Art Association of America in Conjunction with the Art Bulletin, 1957)
18. Ross, p. 16.
19. Luke 1:35. King James Version.
20. Ross, p. 16.
21. Angus MacKay, Spain in the Middle Ages, (The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1977), p. 1.
22. Sobré, p.239.
23. Grizzard, p. 274.
24. Marilyn Stokstad, Art History Volume One, (Pearson Education Inc., 2005), p. 550.
25. Ibid.