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Chapter 1 From a Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation

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     I start (and will conclude) this introductory chapter in conessional mode. Part,though not the only part, o the stimulus or this study – which, it should bestressed, is a cultural and not a theological analysis, although many theologicaland biblical commentaries, ancient and modern, have contributed to it – hasbeen the Christian New estament’s story o the Annunciation, Gabriel’sappearance to Mary, in the Gospel o Luke (Luke 1:26–38). Once established

     within the Christian canon, the Annunciation story became a standard Chris-tian  pericope.1  In the Christian calendar, probably starting in seventh centuryRome, it was celebrated on 25 March; in medieval England that east becameknown as Lady Day (marking the start o the New Year as late as 1752 whenEngland nally adopted the Gregorian Calendar). In the Catholic tradition(including the Church o England), Luke’s account provides a liturgical readingor both the Feast o the Annunciation itsel and leading up to the celebrationo the Nativity nine months later (25 December). It also became the basis oone o Christendom’s most popular prayers, the Hail Mary, and the associateddevotion o the rosary, still a binding icon or many traditional Catholics. Evenin the twenty-rst century, in the secular multi-cultural West, the Annuncia-tion scene is amiliar as the initial tableau o the extended Christmas story and,

     within the renzy o seasonal consumerism, appears on greeting cards, postagestamps, and posters; it also remains passionately affi rmed by Christian believers

    and (not always the same thing) churchgoers, as a central historical or at leastsymbolic event. As Marina Warner comments on the conception and nativitynarratives, ‘it requires a herculean effort o will to read Luke’s inancy Gospeland blot rom the imagination all the paintings and sculptures, carols and hymnsand stories that add to Luke’s spare meditation’.2 It is, I will argue, an extraordi-narily rich story, some might say ‘archetypal’, that has become deeply embeddedin our cultural history.

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    2  A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment 

     However, an even more powerul stimulus than its New estament originsor my ascination with the Annunciation and what I present as its gradual ‘dis-enchantment’ within the turbulent and contradictory period we have come toterm ‘early modern’, are the many years I have spent contemplating paintings,sculptures, and other visual representations o the scene. As Chapter Five willdiscuss, pictorial representations o the Annunciation date back perhaps to thethird century . Tey prolierated in the late medieval and early modern peri-ods: many drafs o this book were written in Florence, surrounded by seeminglyinnumerable rescos, paintings, sculptures and tabernacles o the scene. Like itsrival Siena, Florence saw (and still sees) itsel as under the special protection othe Virgin along with the city’s offi cial patron saint, John the Baptist. ‘Florentia’implies the city o the ower, the Annunciation lily which became central toFlorentine civic and religious symbolism, rom the medieval coinage, the orin,to the contemporary ootball team, Fiorentina. Te New Year estival is stillcelebrated on Annunciation Day and the basilica o the Annunziata containsboth Vasari’s rendition o Luke the painter being instructed by the Virgin, and amiraculous Annunciation resco, reputedly completed by an angel at the Virgin’srequest.3 Ghiberti’s celebrated designs or the doors o the Baptistery next to theDuomo in Florence include a heightened Annunciation, a masterpiece o dra-matic tension, stressing the perturbation o the Virgin, who is raising her arm asi to protect hersel. Ghiberti’s work, undertaken to complement Brunelleschi’sDuomo, provided, Michael Levey argues, a special challenge to Florentine art-

    ists to rival the psychological realism o his portrayal.4

     Indeed, as I show, it is theartistic renditions that over the centuries made the Annunciation ‘real’, despiteincreasing scepticism about its historicity, even among Christian believers andcertainly among many modern New estament scholars.

     However, one painting in particular has played a powerul ormative inu-ence upon this study, although it was not painted by a medieval or Renaissanceartist. But it does capture what I hope is the spirit and the intellectual substanceo my argument. In the mid 1970s the German painter Gerhard Richter, accord-ing to his own account, ‘imitated’ a postcard o an Annunciation painting by thesixteenth-century Venetian artist itian.5 He produced a series o works whichhe entitled Verkündigung nach Tizian (the Annunciation afer itian) in whichthe amiliar traditional gures o Mary and Gabriel were, over the course o ve

    canvases, gradually dissolved and smeared into bursts o colour and texturedswipes o paint (see Figure 1.1). Representations o the Annunciation have inevi-tably wrestled with the challenge o giving artistic expression to transcendenttruths and with the mystery o representation itsel; Richter’s gradual dissolvingo the possibility o depicting the scene marks what he saw as the end o paint-ing in post-modernity and (more to my purposes) the ading and blurring o theAnnunciation story itsel over the course o what Max Weber, amously, seduc-tively but over-simply, termed the ‘disenchantment’ o the post-medieval world.6

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    Figure 1.1: Gerhard Richter, Verkündigung nach Tizian (1973). Reproduced with permis-sion o Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C.

     I extend the implications o Richter’s reworking o itian into broader culturalanalysis, taking up but modiying Weber’sclassic observation, as I illustrate theslow and still incomplete ading o the Annunciation rom event to story, his-

    tory to historia, that occurs in early modern Europe. Te causes o the blurringthat Richter illustrates is a complex process that does not happen overnight, butit starts to emerge some 1400 years afer it appeared in the Gospel account, and

     provides a window into the complexity and contradictions o the early modern period. Disenchantment is a key concept in this study. Enchantments o vari-ous kinds appear and disappear (and reappear) throughout human history, andthe Annunciation story is, in many proound senses, a story o enchantment.

     With two o the three Abrahamic religions – not only Christianity but, perhapssurprisingly to many Christians, Islam – giving the Annunciation to Mary a cen-tral place, the Lukan story has generated countless re-tellings, imitations andtransormations. Almost certainly a late addition to the text o what became thecanonical Gospel o Luke, it developed into a centrepiece o the cult o the Vir-

    gin, which took shape slowly and owered substantially afer the fh century.Te Christian doctrine o the Incarnation became closely involved with (even iit is not, as many recent commentators make clear, identical with) the Annuncia-tion story. Te leading modern Catholic commentator on the Conception andNativity narratives, Raymond E. Brown, comments that in Christian theologyand devotion ‘there has been more Marian reection (and literature) based onthis story than on any other in the New estament’.7 

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    4  A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment 

     Te goal o my study is not simply to parade examples, however varied, mag-nicent, or bizarre, o this long ascination; nor is it to decide which interpretationor representation o the scene is ‘authentic’ or ‘correct’. In pursuing my subject, Ihave read, as exhaustively as possible, hundreds o commentaries on Luke, romthe patristic athers to modern historical/critical studies and today’s on-line blogs.All contribute to what I present as the scene’s many ‘invented traditions’. I am hereadapting Hobsbawm’s and Ranger’s celebrated term ‘the invention o tradition’,

     which they dene as ‘a set o practices’ or accounts o ‘values and norms o behav-iour’, created or ideological purposes and thereafer assumed to ‘have continuity

     with’ and the ‘authority o ’ the past.8  Te particular traditions they discussed were mainly concerned with the construction o national cultures or ethnic iden-tity, predominantly in the nineteenth century, but the term has received much

     wider application, including within religious and cultural history.9  We cannot, however, re-construct invented traditions as complex as the

    Annunciation by simply ollowing authorized statements o belie or even workso religion or philosophy. Tey are constituted and enriched by a variety o cul-tural orms, and so we need as well to examine art, literature, popular culture,and also emergent and incipient discourses, thereby ocusing on the gaps andsilences, the ‘saids’ and ‘not-saids’ as well as what is apparently ‘there’. It is alsoofen on the apparent margins o society that cultural changes can ofen be rstsensed and where eventual ideological transitions may start to take visible inot yet denable shape. Troughout thereore I use Raymond Williams’s clas-

    sic argument that a society’s changing ‘structures o eeling’ may best be seen as‘social experiences in solution’ as opposed to those that ‘have been precipitatedand are more evidently and more immediately available’. Signs may be ound notonly in established cultural practices, but also in ‘new orms or adaptations oorms’, and they may well appear within, without directly conronting, existingsocial orms. Williams adds that ‘no analysis is more diffi cult than that which,aced by new orms, has to try to determine whether these are new orms o thedominant or are genuinely emergent’. 10 Te central questions I ask are thereorenot only or even primarily theological ones but incorporate literary, historical,cultural and psychoanalytical issues. My task as a cultural analyst is to speculate

     why the Annunciation story had acquired such a central place in European his-tory and why in the early modern period that place came under pressure (or

    under ‘duress’, as a recent conerence at which I rst articulated some o my argu-ments, put it). I ask most particularly why this story had (and to some extentcontinues to have) such a powerul hold over the Western imagination.

     Tere are two seemingly easy answers to that question. Te rst is the expla-nation that would have seemed natural to virtually all Christians around 1500and which, or some, continues without embarrassment into the present. Itis simply that God – a God ‘up’ or ‘out’ there, even the illichian God as the

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      History and Historia 5

    ‘ground’ or ‘depth’ o being – chose the Annunciation and all that ollowed aferas His way o bringing salvation to the world, and there is no need to explain thematter by speculative reerence to any urther human cause or motivation. Virtu-ally no scepticism about such an explanation suraced among Christians beorethe late feenth century and even then or a century or more it was questionedlargely only in elitist scholarly circles.

     Te second, closely related but not identical, explanation is that the author-ity o the Church and what it decreed to be the revelation ound in the canonicalGospels, along with authorized traditions, became so powerul that any availableor discussable alternatives would not have been given minimal i any credibility.It is only in the past two or three centuries that widespread (and even, in some

     places, legally permissible) challenges to the authority o Christian belie and practice have seemed plausible, except perhaps (and then ofen precariously)among the intellectual elite. By the nineteenth century, David Friedrich Strausscould speak, though not without causing scandal, o the Annunciation story’sraising questions that made a ‘supranaturalist’ interpretation implausible; heboldly asserted that the two opening chapters o Luke were a later and inau-thentic addition to the words o Jesus, echoing a view that, as my nal chapters

     will show, had gathered only slow momentum through the early modern andEnlightenment periods, but which became a distinctive early modern contribu-tion to the ‘duress’ under which the Annunciation came.11 Arguments that Jesus

     was an unusually charismatic but hardly unique religious gure, and that many

    o the revered details o the Holy Land were legends, elaborated or invented bycenturies o pilgrims and polemicists, today no longer seems scandalous exceptin the most theologically undamentalist o circles. But the tolerant scepticismthat many educated Western men and women today take or granted is a rela-tively recent phenomenon. As recently as the 1960s, the shock o Bishop JohnRobinson’s Honest to God  and the writings o ‘radical’ and ‘death o God’ theo-logians brought about demands or censorship or persecution rom conservativeChurch (and even some civil) authorities. Attacks on ‘godless’ intellectuals (acategory that requently includes liberal academic biblical scholars such as thedistinguished New estament scholar Bart A. Ehrman , to whose work I re-quently reer) can still be heard in parts o the United States.

     Tis second explanation contains, I think, some truth but it is also not the

    complete explanation. Studies o popular religion like Michael Carroll’s haverepeatedly stressed that the long-lasting appeal o religious belies and practicesdepends on a combination o the power o ecclesiastical and civic authoritiesacting in accord with and reinorced by underlying psychological and social ac-tors.12 It is those underlying actors that I wish, even in a small way, to investigate.

     When we consider how the Annunciation story was overwhelmingly under-stood around 1500, why or a millennium and a hal (and indeed beyond) has

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    6  A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment 

    it retained such power? What needs and desires below the level o intellectualassent, does it, as Lacan would put it, open up a relationship to the psychological‘real’? What ‘knowledge that is not known’ or even diffi cult to admit, might itconvey? 13  What are, as I phrase it throughout, some o the stories behind (and

     projected upon) the Annunciation story that made it so taken-or-granted in thebelies and practices o late medieval and early modern men and women?

     Te main historical ocus o my study is thereore what leads up to and culmi-nates in that rich and contradictory period we have come to term ‘early modern’,roughly rom the mid feenth century – in parts o Europe such as Florence per-haps as early as the 1420s – to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth. Beore,

     virtually all Christians were in agreement that the Annunciation story was anactual historical event recorded by Luke, an educated Greek Christian believer andsometime companion to St Paul who was later accorded sainthood, and that it hadbeen written with the inspiration o the Holy Spirit or even, according to some,

     with the help o Mary hersel. Since the Enlightenment, however, while thoseaffi rmations have remained the pious, i perhaps unexamined, belies o many, thehistoricity o the scene and the identity o its authorship have been increasinglycalled into question, most signicantly by many modern New estament scholars.

     In the early chapters, I reach back to the history o the ‘traditional’ Annun-ciation story’s origins and to the speculations, squabbles, and battles through

     which what came to be ‘orthodox’ (via what Ehrman terms ‘proto-orthodox’)14 Christian belies about the Annunciation triumphed over ‘heretical’ views in the

    rst our Christian centuries. Chapter wo examines the alternative versions o what became the canonical Gospel o Luke, both with and without the initialConception and Nativity stories, and their circulation within what DiarmaidMacCulloch terms the ‘cacophony o opinions and assertions’ o early Chris-tian communities, beore the more powerul o those voices tried to bring abouta unity o belie and devotion.15  In Chapter Tree and Chapter Four I surveysome o the intellectual and underlying psychological structures by which theAnnunciation story was constructed, especially to exclude certain explanations,and to privilege one in particular, the association o the Annunciation scene witha ‘virgin birth’. I also glance at Muslim and Jewish stories o the Annunciation ,most notably the version in the Qur’an.

    In the second hal o the book I ocus on the transition between the late Middle

    Ages, when Marian devotion was at the centre o most European societies, and theearly modern period, when a multiplicity o emerging cultural shifs – the impacto humanist learning, the accelerating effects o the Reormation, the slowly andspasmodically emerging Enlightenment, and anticipations o our own ragmen-tarily secularized post-modern culture – start to be elt. Chapter Five investigateshow the Annunciation was represented by literary and especially visual artists, thusoverwhelmingly reinorcing what had become its orthodox interpretation, and

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      History and Historia 7

    how that consensus was challenged by the emergence o a new aesthetic, especiallyseen in late feenth century representations o the scene. Chapter Six combinestheological with such artistic and architectural evidence, providing a comparisonbetween two late medieval/early modern ‘place relics’, two special sites dedicatedto the historical ‘reality’ o the Annunciation, the shrines o Loreto and Walsin-gham ,  both charismatic maniestations o the supposed Annunciation site oNazareth and its own shifing and ambiguous invented traditions. Chapter Seven,Chapter Eight and Chapter Nine move urther into the early modern period andlook at the different Catholic and Protestant re-positionings o the Annunciationstory. In the last chapter, I take the emerging divisions and ‘duress’ to the brink(and a little beyond) o the Enlightenment, returning to my overriding metaphoro disenchantment, at which point Richter’s ‘afer itian’ thereore becomes, I willargue, an apt symbol o gradual cultural disenchantment.

     Like most humanistic disciplines, New estament scholarship has under-gone seismic changes in the past fy years. Yet much has gone unnoticed even(or especially) by those or whose benet it has been undertaken: most academ-ics in the eld, as Burton L. Mack, among many others, comments, are rustratedby ‘the rightul lack o basic knowledge about the ormation o the New es-tament’, especially among ‘average Christians’.16  Jane Schaberg, writing in the1990s, spoke o what she saw as the enormous gap between the ‘desk’ and the‘pew’.17 Te scholars in the prestigious Jesus Seminar are also very direct on therustration o New estament scholars towards popular misconceptions about

    the Conception and Nativity narratives.18

    It is thereore useul here to summarizerelevant aspects o the majority scholarly view o the place occupied by the LukanAnnunciation story within the texts that have come down rom early Christian-ity. For more than ten years now, as a literary scholar and critic peering into themysteries o a neighbouring discipline, rst with curiosity and then with admir-ing astonishment, I have read hundreds o commentators on the Annunciationscene, and then gingerly and with even more astonishment, worked my way intobroader scholarship on the transmission o the texts, canonical and otherwise, othe New estament. I tentatively summarize here, largely or readers as ignorantas I was and to a large extent remain, something o what I have learnt to be a‘general scholarly consensus’19 (though certainly by no means unanimous) o themajority o modern academic scholars on how the New estament text emerged

    rom its obscure origins in what MacCulloch terms ‘an eccentric little sect on theringes o the Jewish synagogue’.20 While many details are still hotly debated, andthereore qualiers like probably, possibly, perhaps, need to be inserted requently,it is largely shared by contemporary New estament academic scholars, exceptor those at the undamentalist ends o the religious spectrum.

     Challenging what or nearly two millennia was taken, at least by Christianbelievers, as the historical veracity o the Gospels, in the past century (and antici-

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    8  A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment 

     pated, as Chapter Eight and Chapter Nine will show, by isolated early modernand Enlightenment voices) a series o scholarly discoveries about the construc-tion o the New estament text and related early Christian documents showedthat the Gospels (in likely order o composition, Mark, the closely related ‘say-ings’ Gospel o Tomas, Matthew, Luke, and quite separately and later, John)

     were attempts to create what Mack terms a Christian ‘myth o origin’. Tey setout their stories o Jesus which – as Lee McDonald comments (pointing outthe parallel with the early history o the Qur’an) – were initially primarily com-municated orally.21 Not yet able to be labeled as ‘Christians’, these groups werelikely ragmented or wiped out in the Roman army’s sack o the area and thedestruction o the emple in the year 70. Part o their memories and records,ofen reerred to by modern scholars as the ‘sayings o Jesus’s, primarily transmit-ted orally, were probably collected in a conjectural document reerred to as  Q  [rom the German  Quelle, meaning ‘source’], and later incorporated into whatbecame the Gospels, narratives designed both to consolidate Jewish ‘Christian’communities and seek out Gentile converts.Some scholars designate the mate-rial unique to Luke, including the Annunciation narrative, as ‘L’ to distinguish itrom material rom Mark and Q  itsel..

     Te earliest o the eventually authorized three ‘synoptic’ Gospels, Mark(originating no earlier than 70) incorporated much o Q ; mention o Jesus’sbackground is cursory, with no conception or nativity stories; the only reerenceto his amily is that they believed him to be out o his mind (Mark 3:19–21),

    and that not even his brothers believed in him (Mark 7:5). Te so-called ourthGospel, attributed to John (around the year 90) along with the earlier Pauline writings, rom around 50–55, construct a different, semi-divine gure, born, asPaul puts it, ‘o a [unnamed] woman’. All these accounts were written well aferthe ‘events’ by believers who had never witnessed them or (as is evident rominaccurate or contradictory geographical details) had even visited the areas in

     which they occurred. Te members o these communities were, in effect, try-ing to interpret their origins through the traditional Jewish process o midrash,expanding and elaborating texts and prophecies to explain the signicance o

     what they or others in previous generations, had lived through and reported,eventually devising what Ehrman terms ‘strategies o containment’ in order toimpose limits on the interpretation o their belies.22 Te competitive heteroglos-

     sia, the multiplicity o dialogues and debates o these early communities, whichClement o Rome was speaking o as an ‘odious rivalry’ as early as around 100,23 culminated in the controversies o the ourth and fh centuries, in which theormulations o belie associated with communities under the inuence o Romeand Constantinople won out, and those o other communities, notably in Syria,Mesopotamia, Egypt or Ethiopia, were condemned or marginalized. Insoar asthe writings accepted into the New estament canon were selected and codi-

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      History and Historia 9

    ed by the patristic Church, the canon is a record o the ‘historical winners’. AsSchaberg notes, ‘much o the literature o the Christian “losers” has not been pre-served’, though some has been indirectly revealed as recent scholars have poredover the archeological ndings at Qumran and Nag Hammadi.24

     As the controversies and anxieties concerning the Annunciation that eventu-ally surace in the early modern period will show, historical veracity is both thecentral claim and the central problem o Christianity. Te claim that the ‘events’

     within its stories actually happened, ofen despite any other corroborating evi-dence, is especially problematic with the Conception and Nativity stories. oday,even the sincerest Christian believers might ask (or perhaps preer not to ask)

     why the stuff o legend and olk story – dreams, angelic visitations, a miracu-lous star with no known historical record, a miraculous conception and birth– characterize the story. Tere are also many historical puzzles regarding whatbecame the canonical writings. Why does the narrator o Luke or, or that matter,Matthew in its very different account o ‘events’, get dates and places, rulers andcustoms, so radically wrong? 25  Te most notorious (repeatedly noticed as theearly modern period merges into the Enlightenment) is that Matthew and Lukestate that Jesus’s birth occurred under Herod the Great’s rule; yet Herod died in4 , making it likely that Jesus was born around the years 5–7 . Jesus’s placeo birth is ambiguous, with a signicant number o modern Christian scholarsnow acknowledging it probably occurred in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem –

     without, it might be added, such knowledge having any impact on Christmas

     pageants, carols, or the sale o Christmas cards or stamps. Historical records showno identiable ‘census’ such as Luke mentions.26 No ‘slaughter o the innocents’by Herod is recorded elsewhere; modern biographies o Herod nd no evidenceor it, however evocative the ‘event’ became in later drama, music, and art.27 othe many such historical anomalies in the Gospels can be added many internalcontradictions. Tere are incompatible genealogies or Jesus in Matthew andLuke, an observation pointed out not only by modern scholars but by the early

     Jewish Christian community, the Ebionites, likely the descendants o the original Jerusalem community associated with Jesus’s brother James.28

      With different traditions and emphases, ofen acquired or modied throughcontacts with other religions, all these early accounts nevertheless were cen-tered on the charismatic gure whose attributed title eventually provided the

    seemingly uniying label o ‘Christians’ to disparate belies and practices. Teearliest ollowers o Jesus seem to have recalled him variously: some as a messianic

     prophet with charismatic preaching and proselytizing gifs, a not uncommon phenomenon in the inammable religious and political atmosphere o the rebel-lious outskirts o the Roman empire; others more akin to what Mack categorizesas a ‘Cynic-like sage’; others, especially afer his death, as having some uniquelyintimate relationship with the God o the Hebrew scriptures, whether by crea-

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    10  A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment 

    tion or adoption or exaltation.29  It is the latter view that comes to be part oChristian ‘orthodoxy’. Initially, the Jesus people saw themselves as aithul Jews,and only gradually become describable as ‘Christians’, as they elt the need, withsome reluctance, to distance themselves rom their parental Jewish world, andlater to differentiate themselves rom rival Christian groups.30

     By the last quarter o the rst century, around these various memories –recalled, handed on, reinterpreted, ‘invented’ – a number o alternative, evenrival, cults had been built. One was in Jerusalem, headed by Jesus’s brother James

     which was probably wiped out in the sack o Jerusalem in the year 70, whichthereafer never became the ulcrum o Christian lie until some centuries later

     when what became known as the ‘Holy Land’ became a site o inter-religiousconict; others, the remnants o the original ‘Jesus people’ or ‘the people o  Q ’,continued in Galilee, nearby Syria and, at least according to the Coptic tradi-tion, in Egypt; while, still others are reerred to in a number o letters, datingin their earliest extant copies rom around 300 but many undoubtedly orig-inally written some twenty or thirty years afer the prophet’s death by a maneventually known to the Christian world as Paul or by ollowers writing on hisbehal or in imitation o him. Tis alternative ounding ather o Christianity

     probably had no contact with the original communities in Galilee or Jerusalembut was convinced that he had encountered the prophet in a vision; his proselyt-izing and supervisory letters (and others attributed to him) nurtured a numbero differently ocused groups in other parts o the Mediterranean.

     Neither any o the Pauline letters, nor the material in Q  , nor the rst-writtenGospels o Mark and Tomas mention an Annunciation event regarding theconception o the prophet. As L. Michael White comments, the matter o Jesus’sbirth, amily, and childhood was simply not ‘a topic o interest’ or these earlycommunities.31  Lincoln points out that the eventual doctrine o the virginalconception plays a minimal role outside the two inancy narratives in Luke orMatthew – and its presence within them is beset with ambiguities and alterna-tive explanations derived rom later interpretations.32

     o understand the Annunciation story as it was culturally inscribed or menand women living in Western Europe between, say, 1500 and 1700 requires usnot just to understand something o the texts’ origins and early history; but as

     well, I believe, we must attempt to set up a dialogue (or rather a polylogue since

    there are many voices) that looks back rom our own time and takes into accountopinions rom both within and outside the communities o believers. Trough-out, thereore, I ask whether there are insights not just rom New estamentscholarship but rom modern studies o the psychology or sociology o religionthat might help explain the power and indeed the distinctive narrative shape othe Annunciation story. It is an approach that might prove to be controversial –not least to any who see the Annunciation as an historical ‘event’ – but I think

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      History and Historia 11

    it offers some helpul, admittedly speculative, answers to the question o why,apart rom the certainly not inconsiderable residual power o the Church, thestory has had such a proound and lasting impact in Western cultural history andin particular why its power was only gradually challenged within the turbulenttransitional world o late medieval and early modern Europe.

     For the past century many anthropologists have drawn attention to common pat-terns and motis among religions. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, or instance, notes thatan essential pattern o religious narratives is the recurring interconnected themes oamily, parenting and kinship. Freud offered the Oedipal moti as a universal story,

     with the elimination o the ather a decisive ‘Oedipal triumph’. Te anthropologistLord Raglan described the recurring Hero myth, in which the mother is a virgin,the ather a king, the circumstances o the conception surprising and with a mira-cle birth narrative an ‘assertion o uniqueness and superiority’. Stephen Benko andmany others have pointed to the absorption in Christian mythology o rival reli-gions patterns o belie and practice.33 Annunciation scenes abound in the HebrewBible itsel, such as those to the wie o Manoah (Judges 21) to Sarah, the wie oAbraham (Genesis 21), or to Hagar, mother o Ishmael (Genesis 16).

     But the contemporary scholarship most directly relevant to my study o theAnnunciation story comes rom perspectives offered by eminist philosophersand theologians. Feminist theory and criticism has become so taken or grantedin the contemporary intellectual scene that we may orget how relatively recenta phenomenon it is. Major eminist revaluations o the Virgin Mary as a cultural

     phenomenon dates only rom the 1970s.34

     A key to understanding at least someo the stories behind the Annunciation story, I have come to believe, lies predomi-nantly where many contemporary eminist theologians locate it, that it has beennot just male theologians but underlying patriarchal ideologies that have estab-lished the dynamics o veneration o the Virgin, and that the patterns o antasyand wish-ulllment generated by the traditional understanding o the Annun-ciation story are primarily male-dominated ones. For 2000 years, the Catholictheologian Jane Schaberg observes, ‘only hal o the Christian population has beenrepresented’ in ‘serious Christian interpretation’ o the Annunciation story since

     women have had ‘little or nothing to do with the construction and developmento the belie ’, and historically women have been trained to read in accordance

     with male-authored orthodoxy. For two millennia, this argument goes, women

    have been positioned, with the help o the image o the humble and obedient Virgin, to accept phallocentric values that encourage them (not, ortunately,always successully) to regress into a primitive world o subordination. For someeminists, the Annunciation story in Luke is, in the title o Sandra Schneider’sstudy, ‘beyond patching’.35  For others, a more optimistic re-mythologization is

     possible: by conronting the ‘male-stream’ interests o traditional exegesis, KilianMcDonnell argues, we need to ‘overrule this misogyny in creative and liberating

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    12  A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment 

     ways’. For such optimistic readings, the aloneness o Mary with the angel is not,as many see it, the encoding o subordination and oppression but the moment

     when ‘a complex new awareness o hersel emerges into the woman’s existence’, with Mary’s response in the Annunciation seen as an act beyond the control othe male.36 Beattie comments on the ‘urgent need or western culture in generaland Christianity in particular to rediscover their lost connections to birth, ecun-dity, sexuality, and incarnation’, all o which emerge rom ‘positive’ re-readingso the Annunciation. For these eminist interpretations, the Annunciation thusbecomes an affi rmation o women’s bodies and emale autonomy outside thehegemonic power o male authority and male antasies.37

     Looking at the many sides o this debate, the special claim o eminist schol-arship and specically eminist theology is that, in all its multiple versions, theAnnunciation story has reverberated with mystery and controversy in partbecause it is centred on the body o a woman, with powerul implications orthe bodies o all women. As Kristeva puts it, it is around the meeting o rep-resentation and biology in women’s bodily experiences that the issues o theAnnunciation revolve. Te story places its readers between the ‘sensible and thenameable’: Woman, a being ‘on the borderline, biology  and  meaning, is likely’,she argues, to participate in ‘both sides o the sacred, in calm appeasement [and]in spasm or delirium’.38 Yet however central to the story, rom the beginningMary’s actual physical body has been curiously selectively acknowledged, ofenseemingly reduced to a ace, two hands, two breasts (sometimes only one), and

    a hymen. As Beattie comments, with some orce, the male-authored theologicaltradition has ‘regarded the emale sexual body as the greatest threat’ to men’s‘spiritual well-being’, and will continue to distort what it is to be human until‘women began to bring the seepage o bodiliness, desire, and matter into thelinguistic domain o the academic world in the late twentieth century.’39 Despite

     protests that the deity or deities involved are beyond gender, the Christian God(his, her, or its Jewish and Islamic counterparts likewise) was likewise tradi-tionally imagined (and imaged) as male, and the human response, especially asidealized in the Annunciation, generally coded as emale. Beattie speaks or manycontemporary Christian eminists when she asserts that ‘all present constructs osexual difference’ within traditional Christian theology have been ‘products omasculinity’, and that ‘what poses as the eminine in western culture is in act the

    masculine imaginary’; male Church authorities have ‘created’ the Virgin in waysthat involve the ‘erasure o the body and especially o the sexed emale body’, andMary has been ‘an object that can be lled with all kinds o antasies, which thenbecome the normative way o seeing her’.40

     Feminist exegesis ocuses less on the ‘intent’ o the text and more on theunderlying experiential patterns and wish-ulllments the text enacts – thegendered stories behind the stories. Another area o contemporary thought

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      History and Historia 13

    on which I draw thereore is psychoanalysis, making what Kristeva calls the‘psychoanalytic leap’ into understanding our pasts as well as our presents. 41Beit-Hallahmi, surveying the analysis o religious experience by various schools omodern psychology, acknowledges that psychoanalysis ‘has been called specula-tive, untested, or untestable’, but also that it has nevertheless been enormouslyinuential on the ways we understand and explain the origins and persistenceo religious belies and practices. Like most religions, psychoanalysis assumes alevel o universal experience, mainly ocused on such matters as ‘the basic mech-anism o projection, the universal experience o helplessness, the tendency orcompensation through antasy, and the impact o early relations with protec-tive gures’.42 Beattie comments that both Christianity and psychoanalysis claimhumanity is ‘marked by originating experience o catastrophic loss that gives riseto an insatiable yearning or restoration and wholeness’.43  ‘Reality’ – the ‘Real’ – comments Jacques Lacan, is ‘phantasmatic … playedout on “the level o antasy”’, and ‘who knows what is happening in his/herunconscious?’44 I thereore draw on an eclectic combination o psychoanalyticapproaches, ‘sidling up’ to a variety o speculations, probing the shadows o ourcultural unconscious with what help I can nd.45 I have no set ‘school’ or modeo interrogation to ollow. I draw on the pioneering work on the history o popu-lar Catholicism, especially on the cult o the Virgin, by Michael P. Carroll whosemany studies have grown rom the Freudian tradition. From a different psycho-analytic perspective, Carl Jung, discussing therapeutic techniques in an age when

    so many traditional symbols no longer speak to us, wrote thatanalysis should release an experience that grips us or alls upon us as rom above, anexperience that has substance and body, such as those things occurred to the ancients.I I were going to symbolize it, I would choose the Annunciation.46

     I have thereore ound not just theoretical but clinically based observations onrecurring desires and antasies extremely helpul, especially the work o Stoller,Louise Kaplan, Jessica Benjamin and the classic studies o ‘male antasies’ byKlaus Teweleit.47 Clinical psychoanalysts, especially those working with issueso gender, have or a century and more helped us ocus on the ways as adults wedevelop antasy scripts in order to undo, even i temporarily, childhood conictsand rustrations – not only traumatic instances but the universal experiences o

    separation and individuation – by converting those early painul deeats andlosses into acceptable scripts and narratives. Te Annunciation is one o thestories that may help us, even temporarily, the psychoanalytical theorist and prac-titioner Robert Stoller comments, to ashion ‘a new, better reality’.48Studying thehistory o the Annunciation’s interpretations, we nd multiple stories that havebeen attached to the ‘original’ very much in the way that our unconscious desiresare projected into dream stories and inner landscapes. Some o those ‘claims’ we

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    14  A Cultural Study of Mary and the Annunciation: From Luke to the Enlightenment 

    might recognize as being close to our own deepest belies; others, with surpriseor even horror, as oisted upon us by deep-rooted psychological or broader cul-tural pressures. Like all o us working in this eld, I am especially indebted to theextensive work,blendng psychoanalysis and history, theory and clinical practice,

     philosophy and ction, o Julia Kristeva. Kristeva has written extensively on theAnnunciation and the cult o the Virgin. In addition to simply being an extraor-dinarily ‘clever construction’, one reason the Annunciation story has such powerin our history, she asserts, is that it is a ‘beore the beginning’, or ‘beore-the-

     word’ experience, drawing into itsel multiple contradictory but deep-rooteddesires and antasies that inhabit us, even beore we attempt to ormulate ourbelies, let alone construct dogmatic statements. She speaks movingly o theexperience o the ‘the eruption o a new pre-object: an emergence, a ash, or animmediate perception’ or, to urther quote her extraordinary re-creation o thelie o eresa o Avila, ‘that nameless threshold’ o the sel ‘where the erotic drivebecomes meaning’ in moment o ‘innite possession: that o you by your ownsel ’.49 Tat invasive surprise and the multiple interpretive possibilities seem tobe at the heart o the Annunciatory experience.

     Kristeva urther comments with some irony about ‘her’ Virgin Mary who,she suspects, it ‘is not in complete conormity with the canon o the Church’,50 and I conclude my introduction with a similar conession. An objection to myapproach, especially rom traditional Christians, might well be that in settingthe Annunciation story within modern speculations about the complexity o

    human desires and antasies, and drawing on cultural or psychoanalytical modelso exegesis, I am ignoring what the story itsel claims and what believers wouldsee as its appropriate religious roots. Te Bible, imothy George rmly states,‘is ‘the church’s book’; he protests that even the historical-critical approach tothe biblical text – the basis o what I have termed contemporary academic Newestament scholarship – needs to asert its independence rom ‘the context o anincreasingly secularized academy divorced rom the lie and aith o the peopleo God’.51 Such an exclusivist condemnation unortunately seems a version o

     what Kristeva describes as a destructive undamentalism that is dangerous in theractured world o the twenty-rst century. It is also an approach that wouldexclude not only scholarship like mine but also a large proportion o contempo-rary New estament scholars!52 Clearly it is not a perspective I share. I look at

    the Annunciation not as a believer – or whom the answer to the question ‘whyhas the Annunciation been important in our cultural history?’ might simplybe ‘because that is the way God chose to reveal himsel ’ – but rom a positioncloser to that o MacCulloch, who speaks o being only at best a ‘candid riend’o Christianity, while appreciating ‘the seriousness which a religious mentalitybrings to the mystery and misery o human existence’.53 Although not a ‘believer’,I have been absorbed or many years on this topic as intensely as many who are

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      History and Historia 15

    – and I hope with not dissimilar reverence since I have become convinced thatthe Annunciation story belongs not to one or two religious traditions but is

     polyphonous, reaching deeply into multiple collective and individual psycho-logical histories. My position thereore, at root, is one o reverent ascinationtowards this ascinating story and its multiple ‘invented traditions’. Althoughit may lack historical veriability, right rom its beginning, this short, cryptic,understated story o an encounter between Mary and an angel – a tableau o justover 200 words, and with only two or three characters – has been a discursivemachine o multiple stories. For those who today are (or attempt to be) outsidethe cultural anxiety o the continuing Christian traditions, we may regard thestory with ascination or curiosity – but perhaps with nostalgia or a world wehave (regrettably) lost, complex eelings which – to come back rom the personalto the scholarly – we can trace as suracing tentatively and then more strongly inthe early modern period. I move now to analyse something o this process.

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