Arriving at university to study English Literature, I was informed by a distinguished professor of Anglo-Saxon — tweeds, pipe, fondness for sherry — that a working knowledge of the Bible was vital if I was to understand the most important poems. The same is true of visual art, whose greatest debt in terms of subject, particularly before the Renaissance, will always be to the Old and New Testaments. So we should begin with a religious painting.
The question is: which one? I’ve chosen a version of the annunciation, a story that overflows with oddness and drama, but also deeply domestic. Imagine it: You’re in your kitchen when, in a blaze of light, an angel arrives. He tells you that you will conceive a baby, and that this child will be the son of God. The moment is queasy with confusion and meaning.
Duccio was active in Siena, the city of his birth, and with whose government he was often in conflict. In 1308, he was commissioned to paint a monumental Maestà for the cathedral, and it was finally carried there amid great rejoicing in 1311 (it was then the richest altarpiece in Christendom). On one of its 44 panels was this annunciation scene.
Painted in tempura and finished with gold leaf, it shows the Virgin surprised in the act of reading Isaiah: the prophecy — ‘his name shall be called Emmanuel’ — is just legible in the book she clasps. The white lilies allude to Mary’s virginity, though to 21st century eyes they perhaps speak also to the idea of home, a place whose quotidian rhythms have in this instance been shockingly interrupted.