advent experiment 5, week 1 (gem 1)

December 2, 2007

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[Rosetti’s famous painting] caused something of a stir, not least on account of the manner in which Rosetti portrayed Mary.  Mary — here modelled 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 …

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 restoration of the crucified Christ, but fear — fear at the unknown, similar to Rudolf Otto’s famous notion of the mysterium tremendum …

Again, when the shepherds … see the glory of the Lord around them, their immediate response is fear (Luke 2.8-9).  Something awesome has happened.  Glory, if it is truly glory, causes us to be terrified, and at a loss for words to describe it.  Gabriel’s declaration to Mary leaves her shocked and astonished in about equal measure.  The great theme of the fulfilment of divine prophecy suddenly ceases to be an abstract idea, and becomes something particular and specific that will transform her life and — through her obedience — the life of the world.

Alister McGrath, Incarnation (Truth and Christian Imagination)

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