Editor’s note: This month we are pleased to publish the third and final winning essay in the Father Ted Colleton Scholarship contest. Senior high school students were invited to reflect on the pro-life nature of any work of art. Each winner received a $1,000 scholarship and all entrants (more than 30 of them this year) received a token of appreciation for their interest in the event.
Splendidly contrasting the lighter background, the deep blue hue of a woman’s clothing draws the attention of even the weariest eyes. Assuming a kneeling position, she remains in a state of tranquil awe, much as the beholder of such a painting is held captive by its beauty. Facing the woman stands an angel, stretching forth towards the woman not a hand, but a modest collection of white flowers.
Such is a description of “The Annunciation,” a dazzling work of art brought to life by John William Waterhouse. Yet, it is not the texture, nor the smooth contours, to which praise is rendered. Rather, the painting is distinguished by its religious significance, as it represents the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Jesus to Mary. Both the literal and symbolic attributes of “The Annunciation” bestow upon us an optimistic pro-life message that extends beyond the immediate religious dimension.
Since the painting is a representation of a biblical story, much of its message comes forth from the viewer’s recollection of the associated scriptural passages. According to the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel told Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and be called the Son of the Most High … and of his kingdom there will be no end.” In this proclamation, Gabriel speaks of the creation of a child as a miracle, through which God intervenes in our lives. Most certainly, life is a miracle, in itself, for what do we possess that can compare with the life we were granted at conception? Gabriel offers hope with the announcement of a new life created in God.
In my opinion, hope and life are actually one and the same, for hope is our perseverance through the struggles of life, also manifesting itself as the joy and rewards that only life has to offer. Our greatest hope, most importantly, is our desire for eternal life with the Father. Clearly, our every hope favours life, in one way or another. Thus, it is natural that mankind should lobby for the protection of life, for it is our hope itself that we are also safeguarding.
Even though much of the message has its foundations in biblical familiarity, a solid footing in Scripture is not required in order to grasp the meaning of the painting. Mary’s reaction to the coming of the angel is wonderfully illustrated in the painting itself and is perhaps the most striking feature of the work of art. Kneeling on the ground, Mary’s right hand lies upon her head, demonstrating her awe in the wonders the Lord has made visible to her. Meanwhile, her left hand is pressed against her chest, recognizing that she is the one chosen by God to carry out his divine plan. Despite being in complete awe, Scripture proves that she is strong in her response, for Mary says: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” For such a demanding task being asked of Mary, she gives an incredibly obedient and faithful response.
She was asked to give birth to the Son of God and she wholeheartedly agreed, submitting to a will beyond her own. If anything gives hope to an expectant mother, Mary’s response certainly does. It is not uncommon for a woman to be weary upon discovering that she is pregnant, nor is it without reason; bringing a new life into the world is not an easy task. Yet, just as Mary agreed wholeheartedly to the task, every expectant mother can find comfort in Mary’s strength. The painting is not restricted to the domain of language and, therefore, illustrates Mary’s worry and fortitude with utmost precision, whispering words of comfort and hope to all parents, present and future. Mothers and fathers are merely handmaids of the Lord, helping him build up his kingdom, one child at a time.
The finest aspect of the painting is the contrast between light and dark. It appears as if the angel is coming from the darkness, and with a collection of white flowers in his hand, slowly protruding into the fringes of luminance. This dimly lit figure, in my opinion, is the most comforting image a man can lay his eyes on.
The majority of people, however, look upon the darkness with insecurity and fear. The problem with society is just that; many individuals regard the uncertainty and darkness in their lives as things to avoid. Yet out of the darkness comes an offering of life, a life as delicate as the flowers stretched forth towards Mary. Such a life can be crushed beneath the foot or, conversely, brought up in the light. One cannot run away from such things, but one must, with dedication, look for the light amid the darkness. Both abortion and euthanasia are the results of people fleeing from the darkness in their lives, attempting to avoid the uncertain future it brings. Yet, the painting calls us to remain strong, waiting for the Lord to make himself known to us.
For many millennia, individuals have aspired to fuse religion and art, integrating artistic expression into places of worship and more significantly, giving life to timeless masterpieces that represent some of religion’s most significant triumphs and sorrows. Few pieces, however, have come close to the splendour of “The Annunciation” by John William Waterhouse. The painting models the joyful mystery in which God became flesh, assuming a life that, as vulnerable as it was, satisfied his divine will.
At this point in history, we are faced with the task of protecting the lives of our fellow beings. When confronted with this immense task, I ask you to simply remember that even the most vulnerable and lowly life was sacred enough to house our God.
Zachary Gowanlock attends St. Thomas Aquinas S.S. in London, Ont.