Advent in Art 06: Annunciation

Isa Rive
Sunday, 3 December 2006

Advent in Art 2006. Week One: Presentation by Isa Rive.

Hi my name is Isa and I want to introduce you to a painting of the annunciation by the Artist, Alphonso Doss

Alphonso is a south indian artist born in Bangalore in 1939. He graduated from the Govt College of Arts and Crafts in 1962, and gained a doctorate from the World University, in Arizona. He has contributed to numerous exhibitions in India and abroad. In the nineties, he was principle of the college where he first studied, in Chennai, where he still lives.

Though deeply steeped in traditional Hindu religion, he was encouraged by missionaries to paint for the church, and began to explore the life of Christ in depth.

He says of Jesus- "No other religious master has been so personal, so communicative and so loveable as Christ, ready to lay down his entire life in fulfilling the needs of society. I have always thought of Christ as a person of Eastern origin. He was a Jew, an Asian."

A prolific painter, operating primarily through the medium of oils on canvas, his interest in light has lead him to develop a technique called the gemstone effect on the figures in his work. This technique he learnt after careful study of the graded passage of light through a diamond. He leaves calculated white space on the pristine canvas, which is a significant aspect to his signature style. His interest in light’s refractive properties begun during his intense study of Rembrant, who deployed this element for spiritual end. Alphonso explains ""I leave these patches of the white canvas without touching them up with white paint so that the canvas can speak, unhindered and unmasked, for itself"

Common subjects include faith, peace, strife, nature, women, Hindu deities and Jesus. His images are full of veiled meanings, implicated in symbols and signs common to Christianity and Hinduism. He has depth of knowledge of Christianity and the philosophies of Hinduism and Buddhism, and he traverses freely across these spheres with symbols to contextualise his works within a cultural milieu. This gives the art a postmodernist sense.

This Painting was presented when the Asian Christian Art Association held a conference on the theme of the Magnificat. Alphonso reflected on the experiences of the young Mary, and produced a series of paintings showing her at her visitation. He saw Mary listening to the message with her body slightly twisted, as if in an Indian dance. In the paintings, the spirit comes to her as an egg, or a flower or a dove. In this painting, it appears a burning ball, decorated with a white flower,is about to collide with her head. At the time, Mary is looking downward towards a lamp whose light is extinguished.

From my understanding of this painting, the angel who is not shown, delivers the message via the Holy Spirit. But, it could also be interpreted as the moment before the spirit enters Mary, causing conception. Although depicted in her act of worship dance, Mary projects stillness, calm, expectation. Mary, inside the eye of the tornado, the holy spirit’s energy swirling round.

Christianity is an ancient Religion - even in Asia, its history can be traced back almost two thousand years when St Thomas went to Kerala, India and convered Brahmins to Christianity. But the strength of indigenous religions meant that the growth of the Christian faith in Asia was negligible for centuries. Asia remains the heart of the world’s great religions- Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, all exert powerful influence on societies. Hinduism encompasses many religious beliefs and practices. Most Hindus believe in a supreme cosmic spirit called Brahman that is worshipped in many forms, represented by individual deities such as Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti. Hinduism centers around a variety of practices that aim to help one experience the divinity that is everywhere and realize the true nature of the Self. Gods and goddesses take an avatar (earthly incarnation) and descend to earth to appear among humans.

Why did I choose this painting? The bible speaks universal words of life. But the context in which those words are read, imagined and interpreted differs from one culture to another. Our situation determines our perception; the cultural habitat of our lives gives us a unique way of seeing the world. Asian minds have different ways of viewing reality, which may help others to see familiar things in a new perspective.

Dr Masao Takenaka says: "Traditional oriental painting stresses the importance of listening in visual art. It has colour and shape, which we see. But if we ‘see’ only what we have seen, then we would be aware only of the external technique and surface reality.

Listening, I hear the wind of the spirit extinguishing the lamp. Mary’s silence. Crackle and hiss of fire and woosh as the fireball of the spirit enters Mary.

Psalm104:4 He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.

Heb1:7 In speaking of angels he says, He makes angels winds, his servants flames of fire.

The contemporary context in which Asians paint, is markedly different from artists in the West. Asia is still, for the most part, suffering economic hardship. The largest number of absolutely poor people in the world, are still to be found in Asia. Mary is much loved in this setting. Her great liberation song provides hope for people struggling in the clutches of poverty. She is sensitive to social injustices and was ready to take moral risks for the sake of needed social change. She didn’t come from wealth or priviledge or power. In fact as a pregnant unmarried woman, her social position would be pretty near rock bottom. Yet she contains such dignity, which I see in this painting.

Art has not yet been fully commercialised in Asia. It is still seen as an integral part of daily life and in many communities, there is no specific word for ‘art’. In this context, the visual expression of Christianity, may be a more significant communication to other asian’s, than the verbal expression.

The painting challenges the viewer to see with ‘other’ eyes, hopefully allowing us to gain new understanding of Christ as the person who speaks all languages in all cultures.

Now some reflections on the content of the painting.

Colour has great significance in every day life in India. Those who have travelled there would agree, India is a land of colour. Each colour having significance and a religious meaning. The painting contains just four hues, green, red, black/brown and white.

In Hinduism, gunas represent the qualities and states of exisitence. Each guna has a colour. Sattva, represented by white, is about peace, calm and brightness. Rajas, described by red, indicate passion heat, spirit, energy. And tamas the least desirable state is black, standing for anger, darkness, negativity and lack of energy. Apart from what these three colours represent in gunas, each colour has a finer significance.

Red which is primarily seen on Mary’s skin suggests sensuality, but it also symbolises purity (and I like that combination when it comes to Mary, the first reminding me she was just a young woman). Red is worn at weddings. It is about energy and passion. The goddess Lakshmi wears red.

Green, colours her clothes and the background. It represents fertility and is an earthy colour and a colour of vitality. Green is sacred in both Muslim and Parsi religions. The green background symbolises life and hope.

Red and green are a common combination in traditional clothing and are Hindi festival colours.

White represents tranquitiy and purity, common attributes associated with Mary. It is also associated with death and rebirth. For the Hindi, the Brahmin, the highest social caste is associated with white. It is also the colour of mourning, and Mary is at a point of loss of carefree childhood and transition to motherhood.

Black is not a happy colour. Mary seems to have some shadow over her and black is present in some of the background. It almost seems as if there is a silhouette of a tipped cross behind, as if the future suffering lurks in the background.

I noticed that she doesn’t wear any obvious Ornament. In India, some gold jewellery is usually worn against the skin at all times. They are popular because the metal is believed to have the power to purify anything it touches. Indian ornaments have economic significance. Perhaps the lack of any relates to Mary’s social standing, among the poorer class.

The double eyebrows stand out on her Indian featured face (big almond eyes), and can be seen on statues of the goddess Lakshmi, who I mentioned before wore red. Lakshmi is associated with purity, wisdom, fertility, beauty and prosperity. She is almost always pictured with the lotus flower. She is the mother of the universe and Vishnu’s Shakti (term applied to divine feminine). Vishnu being the peace- loving deity of the Hindu trinity. He is the sustainer of life, with his principles of order, righteousness and truth. Lakshmi is also called Dharidradvamishini, meaning the one who opposes poverty, which reminded me of Mary’s song.

Indian Dance is not just movements of the hands and legs. It is a form of physical art with the body and mind, as well as a form of worship to the Divine. Mary is worshiping God with her all. Mary’s hands appear in front of her heart as if clasped in prayer. In Buddhist sculpture and painting of India, Mudras are sacred ritual gestures or hand positions. When used in religious dance they are sign language, describing an idea or emotion. I didn’t find any mudras in this position however it brought to mind the anjali or namaste, but with the fingers bowed.

Namaste is a simple act made by bringing together both palms of the hands before the heart and lightly bowing the head. It signifies submitting oneself to another, with complete humility, as Mary is. Na ma meaning not mine, the import being that the individual soul belongs entirely to the supreme one. Thus namaste is the rejection of I and the phenomena of egotism. Another identification of namaste is with marriage representing union of male and female princples necessary to create and protect new life. And I wonder what the curled fingers could represent- anticipation, fear, longing, expectation?

Above Mary, what looks like a fireball containing a white Flower seems to be bearing down. The flower is perhaps a little difficult to make out but it’s many petals and long stem appear to me like the national flower of India the lotus, which is grown in ponds for its elegant and sweet smelling flowers. The lotus is sometimes used as a symbol of the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, but I think it represents Jesus quite well. The pure white lotus is the only plant to fruit and flower simultaneously (which reminded me of the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 27:6 In the days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill the world with fruit). Lotus seeds are the oldest demonstrably viable and directly dated seed ever. 1300 year old seeds were successfully germinated into plants. Lotus flowers feature prominantly in Buddhist and Hindu art, architecture and literature. The flowers became symbolic of immortality and resurrection because people observed that they would grow from the bottom of dried up pools after the monsoon rains. One of the more remarkable aspects of the lotus plant is that no fewer than seven different parts of the plant can be used medicinally. (Jesus the healer) The lotus is a symbol of purity (like the western lily), eternity, plenty, and untarnished enlightenment amid ignorance. Almost all the gods of the Hindu pantheon are seated on the lotus or carry the flower, and the flowers are associated with Buddha. Lotus stalks make wicks for temple lamps, while the seeds are strung to make prayer rosaries. (Rom 8:26…We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the spirit himself interseeds for us… and Rom 8:34 …Christ who died and was raised to life, is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us).

The Lamp plays an important role in Hindu life. It is an essential form of worship believed to carry man’s prayer to God. It is a sacred token of devotion, supplication and benediction (as was Mary’s discourse with the angel) . Psalm 132:11-17 says "The Lord swore an oath to David…One of your own descendants I will place on your throne ….Here I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for my annointed one…".

Indian bronze lamps with a protruding central portion is supposed to project the man and woman ‘coming together’’ with light representing the origin of life. I imagine in the next scene, the lamp becoming lit as Jesus the light of the world, enters human exisitance.

There is an ancient theory in Indian aesthetics, that gives reasoning to subjectivity in art appreciation. It is called the rasa theory. Rasa is the ‘taste’ one recieves from a work of art. To experience rasa, is to feel a deep enjoyment that is due to and because of a work of art. Rasa is a vibration that comes from within; that enables a person to communicate with an artwork, regardless of any formal knowledge about the work. Simply, the experience of rasa is as natural as the act of breathing. Utsaha, or emotive energy plays a key role in the experience of rasa. Energy is inherent in the work of art, as much as it is in the viewer. The viewer has to be able to exude his/her own utsaha, towards a work of art. When this communication is successful, the rasa experience is born. And the rasa experience of every individual viewer is different.

(Art researcher Vidhya Gnana Gouresan)

So, I just want to finish by giving you a minute to contemplate the painting and pause for your own experience of rasa.