The Annunciation Story – A Feminine Perspective in Paint and Words by Enjeong Noh and Jeanne Murray-Walker

Annunciation by Enjeong Noh

Annunciation (2002) by Enjeong Noh

Canadian/American poet Heather McHugh describes the quality of a great poem as being one that finds the unexpected in the over known. Well, hats off to painter Enjeong Noh, born in Seoul, South Korea and now resident in Pasadena California! A poet in paint, she has found the utterly unexpected in the Christian story of the Annunciation – the proclamation to Mary by the angel Gabriel that she would give birth to Jesus, the son of God.

The Christian season of Advent which leads up to Christmas begins with the Annunciation. And if ever there was a well known, and dare I say, over known story, in the Christian bible this is it. But in Noh’s contemporary painting she turns the story as we know it, especially in paintings, on its head.  Gone is the male angel with wings, the lilly, the open book, a demure Mary fully clothed and the dove overhead. To see what I mean here is Bottecelli’s version.

Bottecelli's Annunciation

Bottecelli’s Annunciation

The difference in the two depictions is shocking. But the eye-opener for me, thanks to poet and friend, Rosemary Griebel , is that pretty well all of the best known paintings of the Annunciation are by men.

Rosemary was a participant in a recent poetry-as-prayer retreat I held in Calgary. And one of my so-called writing adventures was to write a poem on the Annunciation using a painting and/or  poem by another writer as a prompt. Most of the poems I used as examples were by women but all the painted images I provided  were by men.

A few days later Rosemary posted the Noh image and added this: The images {in the adventure] were incredibly powerful and inspiring, and all by male masters. How would a female artist interpret this defining moment of divine love? Here is a version of the Annunication by female Korean artist Enjeong Noh. Mary is an ordinary woman in bed, and the messenger is a little girl in white who stands, reticently, just inside the door.

Rosemary’s image sent me to my book shelves to check out the book  Annunciation by Phaidon Press Limited where I found my images for the writing adventure. Out of the one hundred and twenty images portraying the Annunciation in the book only one image was by a woman. I missed this ! Utterly!

Look how, as Rosemary says, a female artist, Noh, interprets the scene. All the grandness and drama is gone. No overt signs of the sacred. No special lighting effects or signs of the miraculous. Without the title of the painting it would be hard to give any special spiritual or religious meaning to the painting. In this way it it firmly sets the extraordinary into the ordinary.

The room is plain, the stained glass minimal and simple. The open book on the bedside table shows a painting by Rembrandt and a drawing by Picasso. A lovely but understated gesture to the history of art which includes countless versions of the Annunciation. The only overt Christian symbol that I can see is the shape of the cross in the gray door.  A prefiguring of the crucifixion? if so, a subtle one imbedded in the realistic depiction of the door.

I am struck by the stillness in the painting and its enigmatic tone. Both figures seem frozen in the moment, no motion evident, facial expressions muted to say the least! And they seem so removed from each other. So distant.  The bare breasted female figure sitting upright appears to be looking away from the young girl who stands so passively, her hands by her side. The drama for me is in the lack of drama. And the intimacy of the partially naked woman in bed stands in such contrast to the stark setting of the bedroom and the fully-dressed little girl.

What does the painting evoke for me? A tenderness and vulnerability. No supernatural figure is imploring or imposing something on the young woman in bed. Perhaps this gives her a real chance to think things over. Perhaps it might be easier to say no! Perhaps a yes if it is said would be a more courageous yes.

How unexpected I find Noh’s Annunciation scene . It makes me reconsider a story I thought I knew so well. What if the outcome wasn’t pre-ordained? That question becomes the focal point, not of a painting, but of a poem, also by a woman, the celebrated American poet,  Jeanne Murray-Walker.

Murray-Walker’s poem turns the Annunciation story upside down in a very different way. What if Mary wasn’t the first young woman asked to accept the divine invitation. What if someone had said no first! Like Noh, Murray-Walker bring the story down to a very human scale. Makes the extraordinary outcome of the divine entering the human more extraordinary!

Portrait of the Virgin Who Said No to Gabriel

—for Henry William Griffin

This is the one Ruebens never painted.

She looked up from baking that morning, hearing
his feathers settle and his voice scatter like gold coins
on the floor. He told her, his forehead sweaty
from the long trip. Me? she breathed, Oh sure!

But after he walked away, she couldn’t forget his look,
the strange way his feet rang like horseshoes on the stones.
What she’d been wanting before he interrupted
was not the Bach Magnificat, I can tell you, not stained
glass. Nothing risky. Just to keep her good name.

Small as she was, how could she keep in her heart
those centuries of praise? But I praise her,
anyway, for wanting a decent wedding
with napkins folded like hats and a good Italian wine.
I praise her name, Lenora. I praise the way

she would practice carefully, making the L
like a little porch, where she could imagine standing
to throw a red ball to some children she loved.
I praise the way, year by year, she let herself see
who that visitor was. Think of her collecting

belief slowly, the way a bird builds her nest
in an olive tree. Then finally how one year,
after the leaves fell, she was an old woman
looking at the truth, outlined against
the salmon sky, knowing it was true.

For not despising her own caution then, I praise her.
For never feeling envy. And for the way, once,
she stepped past her fear to hand a cup of water
to a thirsty carpenter fainting by her door.

In every room of this gallery I think I see her picture.

Jeanne Murray-Walker from Imago Dei, ed. Jill Pelaez Baumgartner, Abilene Christian University Press, 2012

Two women artists. Two unexpected takes on the Annunciation. Two ways to see an old story with new eyes.  To see, as if for the first time the extraordinary courage and vulnerability of the young woman, Mary,  who said yes to God. And to see with such compassion, the vulnerability, and in her own way, the courage, of a young woman called Lenora, who said no.

Big thanks again to Rosemary Griebel who brought me back to this story again through the eyes of a woman painter. Who reminds me to look always for the unexpected in the over known. To question my assumptions.  To look, as a man, at this world through different eyes. In the case of paintings of the Annunciation, through a woman’s eyes!

If anyone wants to write a poem of the Annunciation based on Noh’s poem please feel free to share it with me!

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