There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
1 Jn. 4:18
To be chosen, to be favored over another—would not such an honor bring about great pleasure and delight? Not everybody, to be sure, is privileged to be selected. To be chosen means to be paradoxically distinguished from other equally tenable possibilities. No decision takes place if the best choice is already obvious because of its own merits and consequently the lack of it in others. All that is needed is to observe, weigh, and compare, and by elimination, as in a beauty pageant, the queen is distinguished from the hypothetically less beautiful, the supposedly undeserving. Whence the smiles and tears of the victor as she is crowned and adorned with flowers, bathing in confetti: she was chosen among others, because of her charm, beauty, intelligence, her body, or by whatever standards which, definitely, were already determined before she or any other candidate even appeared. Like Cinderella’s glass slipper, to be chosen in this commonplace sense is to be able to fit best to the fixed measurements defined in advance. Thus what is chosen is at bottom never him or her who was chosen, but only the measurements themselves. The chosen is paradoxically never chosen; it only masks predetermined criteria, becomes only an instance or example, a trivial model. That it was him or her who was chosen in the end becomes a matter of great indifference.
To think the phenomenon of being chosen radically, the standards by which choices are made must disappear. And to set aside predetermined categories or criteria would mean having to suspend rationality which alone decides on the standards for selection. There is something arbitrary when it comes to the most important choices and decisions we make: reasons cannot be supplied to explain why this was selected and not the other. Nor is there any need to explain one’s self. As in the case when I choose to love this one person among many equally (or more) beautiful possible lovers, I cannot give any explanation to justify my choice without betraying the beloved or lying to myself. It is her whom I love without a reason, without a why. I choose her not because of this or that incentive, not because she successfully passes my requirements and possesses all the “qualities,” as we say, that I look for in a lover—ultimately I know without being able to explicate it that I choose her because I choose her. The irrational or tautological character of our fundamental choices receives its determination obviously not from the office of the intellect but from the ridiculous play of our freedom which both requires it and makes it possible. Reasons fail or disappear when it is already a matter of love. Love is free inasmuch as it can choose to love without reason—even in spite of it.
One consequence of the absurdity of freedom and love is that both are rarely understood. And of things we do not understand, we at times flee in terror. So it happens that I can shock and upset the one that I choose to love when I first confess my desire for her. Unable to give an account for my choice, offering nothing else than a promise and a hope, I place my beloved in an impossible situation, that of having to face the question my sudden confession of love posed, a question she perhaps neither saw coming nor wanted to answer. The absurd and unforeseen arrival of love, never asked for and usually undeserved, assails us with questions rather than with confetti, and instead of all those pretty smiles and the exhilaration we thought being chosen would bring, it happens that in the wake of the announcement of love we shake in fear and trembling. Why me?—when it could have been anyone else easily.
Caravaggio, Annunciation, 1608–10
Oil on wood transferred to canvas, 1121⁄4 x 803⁄4 in. (285 x 205 cm)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy
While receiving presents in different occasions is initially and for the most part pleasing to us, there are instances, too, when we experience dread upon the arrival of an unexplained, even mysterious gift.
Luke tells us that when Gabriel announced to Mary that she was favored by God, her first response to the angel was one of neither excitement nor gratitude, but of great fear. Mary, the gospel says, was perplexed when the archangel addressed her thus: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Lk. 1:28). Confused, she wondered what the greeting meant and why she had earned God’s favor. This virgin from Nazareth, this young lady of simple birth and state, betrothed to a carpenter of no greater distinction—why and by what ways did she please the omnipotent God? What could that even possibly mean, to be favored by the God who watches over all things and peers into all the hearts of men? Why was she, who was neither wealthy nor a queen, chosen and not another? Above all: Why did God choose her to be the mother of His son who will be the King of kings? Gabriel does not ease her confusion; he explains nothing. Her fright before winged messenger, her perplexity in being chosen to be the mother of the Savior, and her bewilderment as to how she will conceive him, all these, we are to imagine, left Mary stupefied. And Gabriel confirms Mary’s dread by saying in the plainest of words: “Do not be afraid, Mary” (Lk. 1:30).
Little else is said to describe the first moments of Mary’s reception of the archangel’s thundering announcement, one which, it is easy to suppose, produced in her so many powerful and confusing emotions. We are left to imagine the intricacies of those deep passions simplified and abridged by the bare words we are left with. What we lack, we have to provide. It is up to us to portray the unseen faces of the persons in scripture, to paint the moods and atmospheres of events long past. To relive or to revive the irretrievable, to give appearance to what is invisible or hidden, that is the chief duty and high claim of the painter. Religious art receives its meaning and purpose in showing us what has been scantly written. In paintings we come face to face with the angel or demon, the saint or the sinner, the cross and the garden, events in Christ’s life from his birth to his death. Face to face: the page is given a new vocabulary by the painter, a language no longer for the mind to understand and divine, but an embodied vocabulary of shapes and substances, colors and shades, faces and even emotions—the language of sight. The painter gives to us what the writer could not, that is, the gift of vision. The painter fulfills our all too human desire to see what cannot or can no longer be seen. What is more, the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion says that authentic paintings, unlike representations or copies of natural objects, are wholly new phenomena: the painter gives birth to the unseen as well as to the unforeseen. The painter is the magus who delivers the gift of seeing new appearances. “And to see is to receive, since to appear is to give (itself) to be seen” (Marion). It is the painter we turn to when the writer lacks or fails to stir up emotions or inspire.
Unlike most other Annunciations in art, Caravaggio’s Annunciation, considered as his last great altarpiece before the end of his short but tumultuous life, marks the terror and surprise of the archangel’s visit. We shall be guided by this particular painting to see what could have happened to Mary on that fateful day. If the story starts with Gabriel, so too must the description begin with him. Most other Annunciations show Gabriels very much unlike Caravaggio’s: they often come in regal dress and with golden halos above their heads, with handsome faces and peaceful countenances. Caravaggio’s Gabriel is no archangel but a cupid, a boy that as one writer remarked was plucked out from the chaotic streets of Malta and Rome and forced to wear a pair of dark wings. (It was characteristic of Caravaggio to employ people from the streets he roamed day and night as models. He was accused, probably correctly, of using a prostitute as a model for the virgin in his The Death of Mary.) The boy’s face is barely seen. The shadow of his right shoulder dims his face, coloring it almost red, leaving only traces of his eyelids and nose exposed to the viewer; the rest that we see is his ruffled hair. Below Gabriel’s feet, a cloud not of heaven but of smoke supports him as he bends to an almost horizontal position well above the virgin. His posture and distance from Mary are also distinct from most depictions. Works by the other masters (Rubens, Botticelli, da Vinci, Angelico, Fouquet, Lippi, among others) show Gabriel either kneeling or bowing, some at a great distance from Mary, or assuming a plane lower than hers, in homage to his future Queen. Caravaggio’s has just entered the frame, as in a blitz, from the unseen window on the left which lets in the little light that enters the gloomy room. (Caravaggio distinctively painted most of his backgrounds black.) He hovers well above Mary, yet close to her, and his extended right arm collapses the distance even further. Having just rushed into the scene, with a dark face and a cloud of dust and smoke delivering him, his forefinger so close to her—what was this virgin to think of this boy-angel: Was he herald or executioner? What were the lilies for?
There are various opinions regarding Mary’s posture and what the expression on her face means. Was her pose one of humility, subservience, or of fear—or did it speak of experiencing all those emotions at the same time? Kings and queens are respected because we both honor them and fear them. The virgin’s eyes are neither open nor half-open as in most other paintings, and are here closed in the way that we seal our eyes when we think. If she appears pensive, even lost to the scene, it is because she contemplates what is to become of her fate—that everything shall change from now on. It is always the surprise, the shock which startles: she was not ready for this, and no one will ever be, no one can ever prepare for being called, favored, and loved. Her austere surroundings confirm how she was startled by the angel and his announcement: the bed at the back is unmade, the wooden chair behind her tells us that she probably had been sitting when the angel rushed in, a bread basket and an untidy piece of cloth lie on the floor. The lady of the house was unprepared for what will be the most significant visit in her life. The darkness of the room alone was not ready for that surge of light. Called and sent forth by God to fulfill His promise, Mary is the first apostle who had to abandon the modest life and world she hitherto knew and deliver the living bread which was to nourish mankind.
If Caravaggio paints an unflattering Annunciation, it is because the places where the greatest moments of our lives come to pass are not always flattering. Caravaggio’s radical point of view of life, which remains scandalous to some today, came nowhere else than from his harsh surroundings. His was a world of taverns and drunkards, gamblers and cardsharps, beggars, fortunetellers and prostitutes, duelists and criminals. (He was convicted of stabbing a man after a heated argument over a bet in a tennis game.) He made his art imitate life to bring both life to art and art to life. Life however is not pretty. The fruits in his early still life were rarely appetizing. Many of the pieces of fruit in his Bacchus are rotting, and in his Basket of Fruit a worm-eaten apple cannot be missed. That a number of patrons and cardinals who commissioned him to make altarpieces eventually rejected his paintings—with unpleasant portrayals of saints, the Virgin, and even of Christ—is not surprising at all.
So if we are to understand Caravaggio’s unique portrayal of the Annunciation, we need to go back to the world of the story it belongs to and inaugurates. In its barest form, the Nativity story is the timeless narrative of a lady who, refused a suitable place to stay in with her companion, gave birth in a stable of oxen. But the often forgotten part of this story, overshadowed by the majestic arrival of kings from the east and the spectacular star which guided them, is where the story all began—there, in Mary’s humble abode of unmade beds and wooden chairs, unwashed cloths and bread baskets lying on the floor. The story of our salvation begins with that implausible event when one unremarkable woman from one unremarkable place was remarkably chosen without her knowing why and without her being prepared. That woman says Yes, and her life, and ours, will be forever changed.
But to be chosen, to be favored—that is not enough. When love announces itself, you must first respond. A decision must be made. Shall I doubt the love offered to me, remain in disbelief, knowing I do not deserve it?—One always finds ways to excuse one’s self when it comes to love. I can say that I am not yet ready, or that I am unworthy. I can also refuse the gift because I simply cannot understand it. It happens also that the arrival of love simply terrifies us, leaving us afraid to love and be loved.—Or shall I receive the gift, dare my fate, and make that heartrending wager of love? If we are to learn anything from the Annunciation, it is that the greatest decisions we make ultimately come down to a decision between fear and love.
Mary teaches us the great lesson that love overcomes fear and perplexity and makes us richer and more beautiful than we are. “Let it be done to me according your word” (Lk. 1:38): Mary’s fiat tells me that love begins by pronouncing that virginal Yes to the one who first chose to love no one other than me, undeserving and unprepared I may be.
December 24, 2011