The following is the second paper I wrote for my Art History 100 class. We were tasked with finding two art pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and then writing a paper that compares and contrasts them based on form and content. Our choices were restricted to certain art periods from specific locations, like French Gothic or Italian Renaissance. I chose the following two pieces because I found them particularly interesting on a personal level, as well as being easy to write about.
I think I might have been a bit off the mark on fitting The Angel Gabriel to the Renaissance standard, but I won’t know for sure until September, when I can get in touch with the professor and see the paper. It was due on the day of the final, so there’s no way for me to get it back and check it out. I’ll update the grade received and any notes from the professor at some point, on the Essays page.
(Note: The images were not included in the paper that was turned in. I added them here so readers that aren’t as familiar with art as my professor can get a better idea of what I’m talking about.)
Introduction and Location
The paper will be discussing the differences and similarities between two works: The Angel Gabriel and Qur’an Manuscript. The Angel Gabriel was created in approximately 1493, is attributed to Masseo Civitali and is believed to have originally been located in the oratory of Santa Maria dell’ Anunnziata in Lucca, Italy. The work is now located in gallery 500 on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the “European Sculpture and Decorative Arts” section. The Qur’an Manuscript was created in the early 14th century, by an anonymous artist in Iran or Iraq. The work is now located in a display case in gallery 203, on the Great Hall Balcony on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Formal Aspect & Genre Descriptions
The Angel Gabriel is a Renaissance sculpture that is roughly life-sized. The sculpture is a painted and partially gilt terracotta statue. It appears to have been free standing on its original base, which is now broken. The statue is now anchored to a display base. The sculpture leans at an almost unnatural angle, covered in a draped garment that is smooth and flowing. The figure is naturalistically proportioned and detailed, though the face is idealized. On the back of the statue, there are two vertical slots where terracotta wings were probably inserted. Renaissance art was largely religious (Aston 105). Compared to the earlier Gothic style, Renaissance art focused more on the human aspect of the art subject. Where Gothic art was solemn and dignified, Renaissance works like The Angel Gabriel attempted to introduce tenderness and beauty into art without sacrificing the aura of divinity associated with religious figures (Aston 133). The introduction of a human element into the sculpture is apparent in the joyous expression on the face and in how the arms are crossed over the chest, as though the angel can barely contain the good news he is about to share. Rather than standing vertical, the angel is leaning forward towards the recipient of his news. Despite these included aspects of human emotion, the aura of the divine is still maintained through the idealized, androgynous face (angels have no gender), and the original presence of wings on its back.
The Qur’an Manuscript is a non-illustrated manuscript folio and an example of Islamic art. The page on display is 34.9 x 27.3 centimeters and was made with ink, opaque watercolor and gold on paper. The page is primarily covered with naskh cursive text, but also contains decorative calligraphy and hand drawn vegetal and geometric images that are painted with gold. Islamic art as a whole is defined by a prohibition against making representations of living things, since it might create a temptation to commit idolatry (Evans 151). The resulting typical expression of Islamic art is mostly abstract, containing geometric patterns, references to vegetation and calligraphy. These elements were reflections of religious beliefs. The geometric patterns represent the perfection of Allah and the vegetation is a reference to paradise in the afterlife. Calligraphy also became a popular form of art, taking the place of images and being used to represent Allah. The main purpose of calligraphy was to appreciate the visual quality, rather than to read it. These elements are present in both secular and religious art, though secular art would not contain calligraphic quotations from the Qur’an.
Both The Angel Gabriel and the Qu’ran Manuscript have a similar theme. Both works are the products of religious devotion. Gabriel is a prominent figure that is present in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Stories about Gabriel appear in each religion’s holy texts. The Qur’an Manuscript is a handwritten and decorated page of the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. The difference between the two works is that while The Angel Gabriel represents a religious idea, it was mostly meant to be decorative, appearing in an oratory. The Qu’ran Manuscript, on the other hand, while being decorative was also meant to be functional, a holy book to read and learn from.
The Angel Gabriel specifically depicts Gabriel, an angel, leaning forward, as if appearing to someone. The name Gabriel means “God is my strength” or “the strength of God” and he is known as The Great Communicator (Aquilina 69). Throughout the Bible, Gabriel appears to people to bring them news from God. In Daniel 8:15-17 he appears to Daniel to explain a vision to him. In Luke 1:16-17 he appears to Zechariah to tell him that he and his wife shall have a child and that his child, John the Baptist, will prepare the way for the Messiah. Later, in Luke 1:26-38, Gabriel appears to Mary, to tell her that she will be the mother of Jesus Christ, the son of God. According to the information placard on the sculpture’s display base, it is believed that The Angel Gabriel was originally part of a pair of statues which included the Virgin Mary. Together, they would have formed an Annunciation Group, which represents the moment when Gabriel shared the news of her divine pregnancy with her.
The Qu’ran Manuscript is a page from the holy book of Islam, the Qu’ran. The top of the page contains a geometric, gold painted rectangular frame that contains decorative calligraphy which reads, “Surat Saud, Eighty Six Verses (Ayats), Mekka surat” (Hany), though Mr. Hany also noted that the surat actually has 88 verses. Just to the right of the rectangular frame is a drawing containing concentric circles around a vegetal image, probably of a flower, also in gold with a blue center. Additional matching representations of flowers, rosettes, are drawn throughout the text as markers between ayas, or verses. In the right margin are two decorative seals, one circular, one teardrop shaped, both in gold and surrounded by a blue outline. These seals contain kufic script in the center. The main text of the page is a cursive form of Arabic known as naskh, with recitation marks added in red ink. The text on the page on display is the last part of the 37th surah and the first 11 ayas of the 38th surah of the 23rd juz (part) of the Qu’ran, The Letter Saud, which was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad at Mecca. Preceding the beginning of the 1st aya in the 38th surah is the phrase, “In the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful,” which is not part of the surah itself and precedes all of the surahs in the Qu’ran (Hany).
The original purpose of The Angel Gabriel would have been to inspire believers and deepen their faith. Many people at the time the statue was created were illiterate, and learning about Christianity, outside of sermons given by clergy, was through observation of religious art. When looking at the sculpture of Gabriel, believers would have been reminded of the good news he shared with people in the Bible, and particularly with Mary. If The Angel Gabriel was originally paired with a statue of the Virgin Mary, then viewing them together would have reminded viewers of their hope of salvation through God’s grace and Jesus’ Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross. The Angel Gabriel was originally designed to be a decorative piece for casual observation and reflection and, though it is now located in a museum rather than a religious building, the effect is essentially the same. It causes the viewer to contemplate the meaning of Christianity and Gabriel’s role in the Bible.
The Qu’ran Manuscript was meant to be a functional copy of the Qu’ran, to be used by believers for study and recitation, as well as to inspire through the decorative artwork it contains. The Arabic text of the page, together with the rest of the text in the Qu’ran, is the physical representation of Allah through language (the written word) in the Islamic faith. The Qu’ran praises Allah and His creation, defines the relationship between Allah and the worshipper, explains the afterlife through eschatological texts and teaches Muslims how to practice their faith in everyday life. While the particular copy of the Qu’ran the page came from is no longer serving that purpose, the text of the Qu’ran has been copied, translated and distributed all over the world and continues to serve the function it was originally created for.
The Angel Gabriel is presented in a small room with other Italian Renaissance pieces. The room is well lit, and Gabriel is the first work you notice as you walk into the room. The lighting brings out the remaining color from the original paint and gilding on the statue, giving the viewer an idea of what it might have originally looked like. Appreciation of how the piece was originally displayed would be helped by having a similar work of the Virgin Mary opposite Gabriel, though that is probably not possible due to limitations in the museum’s inventory. An alternative would be to have a digital rendering of what it might have looked like in place at the oratory displayed next to it, or on the display base. As it’s now displayed, Gabriel appears almost out of place in the room and it requires a lot of imagination to picture how it would have originally appeared.
The Qu’ran Manuscript is set in a glass display case along the wall of the Great Hall Balcony. The display case contains other Islamic works that represent highlights from the Department of Islamic Art. The works range in date from the seventh to the eighteenth century and include textiles, jewelry, pottery and other manuscript pages. Since the case shows a cross-section of art, the overall effect is a bit jarring, especially combined with the noise coming from the entry hall below the balcony and the strong smells coming from the balcony dining area. The benefit of being placed in that location is that it catches the eye of people walking by and the skylights and windows help to keep it well illuminated. It would be easier to appreciate this work in a smaller room with other Islamic manuscript pages from the same time period.
Aquilina, Mike. Angels of God: The Bible, The Church, And The Heavenly Hosts. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009.
Aston, Margaret. The Renaissance Complete. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1996.
Civitali, Masseo. The Angel Gabriel. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Evans, Gillian Rosemary. The Church in the Early Middle Ages: The I.B. Tauris History of the Christian Church. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2007.
Hany, Islam. Translations and discussion of Qu’ran Manuscript and Qu’ran. Bradley J. Farless. 15 May 2011.
Unknown. Qu’ran Manuscript. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.