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Work Panel of the Virgin Annunciate

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Panel of the Virgin Annunciate

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Georges Poncet

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Author(s):
Meurice Cédric

This fragment of a wood panel depicts a bas-relief of the Virgin Annunciate. This image, which is rare in Coptic art, is interesting both for the expression of the Virgin and the direct communication established between the viewer and the object. This extremely refined work is one of the masterpieces of the Louvre's Coptic Rooms.
 

Fragment of an Annunciation Scene

The work, made of fig wood, is incomplete. Initially, it was probably part of a small piece of furniture or a chancel wall, as indicated by the presence of a thin tapered edge by which this object could fit into another element. The Annunciation scene is partial: Archangel Gabriel is missing from the fragment. Yet his right foot can be seen at the bottom right section of the work. The archangel would have been wearing a tunic decorated with wide bands. The Virgin is seated on a tall, square-legged chair, which places her in a dominant position. She is portrayed in profile with her legs almost crossed; this position helps to identify her activity at the moment of the Annunciation. Her long dress is covered with a short-sleeved cloak that features many pleats, thanks to the sculptor's meticulous work. The remaining traces of color, notably violet and pink, along with the well-conserved black background, indicate that this work was once entirely painted and was clearly meant to draw the viewer's attention.

The Virgin Spinning

The Virgin was busy spinning wool to make a veil for the Temple when the archangel arrived. A small basket, finely decorated with a lattice and striped pattern, rests on her right knee. The basket is filled with wool, and the Virgin's right hand, which must once have held a spindle, is raised. It is her face, turned to the right facing the viewer, that creates such a strong sense of intensity in the bas-relief. She seems to be calling upon the visitor as a witness to the scene. Her large eyes reveal her astonishment; they are painted in black, accentuating Mary's unswerving expression.
 

The Virgin in Iconography

Of the four Evangelists, only Saint Luke spoke of Mary's annunciation (I:26-38). The theme depicted here, or rather the Virgin's activity, links this episode to the story in the apocryphal, or non-canonical Gospel texts, which were highly influential in Christian art.
The Virgin acquired a leading role in Christian imagery as of 431, during the Council of Ephesus. As the Mother of God, she became the favored intermediary for the new Christians, and the theme of the Annunciation - the first episode in the life of Mary - would become one of the major themes depicted by artists.

Bibliography

Bénazeth Dominique, Rutschowscaya Marie-Hélène (sous la dir. de),
L'Art copte en Égypte : 2000 ans de christianisme, cat. exp. Institut
du monde arabe, Paris, 15 mai-3 septembre 2000 et musée de l'Éphèbe, Cap d'Agde, 30 septembre 2000-7 janvier 2001, en collaboration avec le Conseil supérieur des antiquités égyptien, Paris, Institut du monde arabe, Gallimard, 2000, p. 179 et 185, n 198.
Santrot Jacques (sous la dir. de), Au fil du Nil : couleurs de l'Égypte chrétienne, cat. exp. Nantes, musée Thomas Dobrée, 19 octobre 2001-20 janvier 2002, Paris, Éditions Somoy, Nantes, musée Dobrée, 2001, p. 27, n 1.

Technical description

  • Panel of the Virgin Annunciate

    Late fifth century AD

  • Painted fig wood, sculpture

    H. 28 cm; W. 14.20 cm; D. 5 cm

  • Purchased 1945

    E 17118

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Gallery of Coptic art
    Room B

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