The Uses of Enchantment: Filling an Empty Altarpiece

Altarpiece. Annunziata Historical Building (formerly Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata), Ravello, Italy (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

RAVELLO — There’s a deconsecrated chapel perched high on a cliff in Ravello, Italy, overlooking the Amalfi Coast. It is the former Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata, but it is now known as the Annunziata Historic Building, used as one of the venues of the Ravello Concert Society.

As a music hall, it is exceptionally intimate, resonating with full, rich bass tones and extended decay. Built in 1281, it features an open, vaulted entrance chamber instead of a facade, with smoothly plastered, whitewashed walls offering a mix of Gothic and Modern. Inside, the white walls are interrupted only by the horizontal band of a decorative, frieze-like fresco running along the baseline of the vaulted ceiling.

The simplicity of the interior draws your eye immediately to the large, imposing altarpiece — I estimated it to be seven and a half to eight feet tall — a captivating combination of painting, gilding and woodcarving, with a trompe l’oeil midsection of a Renaissance arcade overlooking a landscape that recedes into the blue haze of atmospheric perspective. Below the painted panel is a crèche, and above it is a lunette with the Madonna and angels. Thirteen figures, presumably Christ and the Apostles, line up along the bottom edge.

The material richness and formidable presence of the altarpiece’s carvings and pigmentation were such that it took a moment to realize that there was nobody in it — the entire artwork was devoid of actual figures, and the Madonna, angels, Christ and Apostles were nothing but white silhouettes on a blue field. Even the painted landscape was depopulated, with the only sign of life being a cluster of ships moored in a distant harbor.

The lunette figures were especially confounding, because the Madonna’s halo and most of the angels’ wings, which were made of gilded carved wood or gesso, were still intact. These elements, combined with the expressive contours of the angels’ robes and limbs, and the gentle tilt of the Madonna’s head, conspired to create a ghost-image of what was long gone: my eye kept conjuring an illusory bas-relief of the absent actors, refusing to acknowledge that these were simply flat, empty shapes.

The vacant crèche imparted less of a sense of mystery — it was obvious what had once been there — but what is one to make of the painted arcade, which connects to a narrow interior chamber on the right?

In all likelihood, given the chapel’s name, it contained an Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel brings the news to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Christ Child. In many versions of the scene, such as the ethereal fresco by Fra Angelico in the Convent of San Marco in Florence (ca. 1450), Gabriel arrives from an exterior space, with Mary seated inside.

This explanation would be consistent with the structure of the altarpiece, in which the narrative continues with the Nativity on the level below, except that the interior chamber of the arcade is pretty tight, and the exterior portion is pretty wide. There seems to be barely enough room to fit a proportionate effigy of Mary inside the space, which is separated by a freestanding miniature column, while there is more than enough room for a single angel outside.

Were there other figures joining Gabriel, such as donor portraits of the Rufolo clan, who built the breathtaking villa next door, which at one time incorporated the chapel? This is unlikely, since the Annunciation is ordinarily depicted as an intimate exchange between Mary and the angel.

If there were but two characters positioned along the horizontal expanse, the question arises as to what kind of figures they were — bronze, marble, porcelain, painted terra cotta? The last possibility invokes the local tradition of crèche, or presepio, figurines, realistically painted and dressed in real clothes, and in many ways it’s the most intriguing.

Not only would a presepio statuette of an angel delight the eye, filling this long space with swirls of satin rippling from its wings, but the decoration of an altarpiece with such a humble, popular art form (one usually shunted to the back of the church or mounted in a seasonal display) would also elevate the enchantment inherent in these figurines and their theatrical settings to an iconic status normally reserved for artworks made from far more costly and durable materials.

Their doll-like character foregrounds the magical foundation of religion and in many ways defangs it. Dogma is met with mystified innocence; rigidity is dissolved by whimsy. There is no tragedy here, no sin, nothing to atone for. Guilt and intimidation fade to the periphery of the arena of imaginative play.

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