Speechless in Palermo.

 “Isn’t this a fantastic picture on this new TV?”

The pictures I marvel at: of Moto GP tyres deforming over kerbing at the Philip island track, polar bears coming out of so-white-it’s-blue Arctic hibernation, sunset bleeding over the Grand Canal. The technology of the screen gives such a crystal clear image, pictures are well chosen, sound superb!

Of course I mean much more than that, the whole technology of getting the images recorded, saved and shipped through the ether to my TV screen is undeniably immense. But because it has been available in some form or another for most of my life, sadly but typically human-like I take it for granted. To this day, while I do understand the technological explanations I much prefer to sit and watch spellbound. Especially now that the London Olympics is on.

And boy is it on! We have twenty plus BBC channels showing the action live, live plus and highlights from sparrow’s breakfast to owl’s supper.

And the pictures are superb. The drama, the controversy, the amusing shots, the crowd scenes, the expressions on the faces of the competitors, at every stage of the competition. Relief, acknowledgement, exhaustion, disbelief, joy, ecstasy. Brought immediately from the stadium, arena or pool direct to my living room.

How very modern.

But, recently, in Palermo I was shown a piece of art that locked such technology into place – from the late fifteenth century. A fine cultural tour, steadily paced: the anti-Mafia statue, the port, the wall, the park, churches (with such fine decoration), statues, a small quiet pool with low jet fountain (that peaceful, distraction-from-the–world sound of running water) and on to the Abatelis.

Inside, much cooler, artefacts well-spaced, icons, mural pieces: a modern setting for ancient and valuable items: but mostly struck by the cool … and a degree of reverence often found in such places, both scholarly and respectful.

Now I have been to the Louvre, joined the queue to glimpse the Mona Lisa and was frankly totally underwhelmed by the portrait. The picture that I have heard so much about (who was she, does the background match itself, what is the meaning of the smile … and there can be no doubt it is a fine picture, but in my mind it was going to be much, much larger. The other bigger pictures in the gallery there, with fine bright colours were largely ignored by the tourists (few of them I suspect doing much more than being able to say later, in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris, Texas or London “I saw the Mona Lisa!”) but seemed equally valid and worthy of attention.

Part of my disappointment I am nearly certain was created by the crowd. So many people. I seriously cannot look at something without time and a little space –and I had neither. Many people had cameras, were trying to take illicit photographs and smartly uniformed, extremely conscientious security guards would simply block the photographer’s view of the picture, so we only intermittently saw the whole. But it is displayed high up on the wall, so that you are literally looking upwards.

The Annunziata in the Abatelis is, cleverly set at eye level (in an uncluttered room), a far more humble position.  Certainly unexpected, a little disconcerting, but this is good. It is also set up in the centre of the small, high ceiling, white walled room and when I walked in I seemed to be walking into to a real life situation: the picture frame becoming a window frame – and I could believe that I was looking, quite simply, into another room, indeed into the past.

Because the face looks so real! Like the face of a young woman frozen by the new-TV technology! A young woman glancing aside from reading (I am, of course intrigued to know what she is reading). She is neither disturbed nor distracted, just taking a pause. There is the blue I now automatically associate with the Madonna, but the scarf draws attention to the features of the face, so skilfully captured by the artist, Antonello de Messina, so many, many years ago. Colours of skin, shadows as photographically perfect as is possible. There is no crowd here. I am able to stop and look; no pressure, I move from place to place, closer, move away a little. Wherever I stand the picture is captivating. The dimensions, accentuated by the fact it is on eye level are life size: I could be looking at another person, my reflection in the glass panel has my eyes in exactly the same place as those in the portrait. Another person capable of smiling, thinking, conversation, intelligence – not just a willing, undemanding “maid”. This lady will have great influence in the years to come, though most of it will be overlooked and uninspected. But her role will be crucial. All of this suggested by the man with brush and oils working on a simple piece of board.

But, unusually there is none of the religious symbolism often associated with “annunciation pictures”: angels, halos, “holy light”. And, indeed, it seems possible that the message may have come from the script she is reading (this thought goes so quickly through my head I almost miss it) rather than from an angelic visitor.  

The hands too are exact, seem to be indicating a “slow-down a moment, are you sure?” kind of gesture (that would fit the text so well of course).But the expression in the eyes, cast slightly to one side, brown, curious, deep and patient-kind has been well imagined and well captured. I sense humour there – “is this a joke?” she may be thinking. Or is she distracted by some small disturbance nearby? A cat, a child, a call from a neighbour, a relative?

For me, in addition to the subject matter, it is the part-of-a-story aspect of art that calls. What, exactly is happening in the picture, what happened before, what will happen next … and this picture has all of the elements I look for and more. I count myself lucky to have seen it. A picture paints a thousand words, somebody once said, though to be honest I am not sure who. This picture does that and more.

It represents a time and art technology, it represents a faith and certainty. It brings something of value to a time and a place where we set store by possessions and, if we are looking properly, tells us that there is more to life than, perhaps, we see.

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