Was this His coming! I had hoped to see A scene of wondrous glory, as was told Of some great God who in a rain of gold Broke open bars and fell on Danaë: Or a dread vision as when Semele, Sickening for love and unappeased desire, Prayed to see God’s clear body, and the fire Caught her brown limbs and slew her utterly. With such glad dreams I sought this holy place, And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand Before this supreme mystery of Love: Some kneeling girl with passionless pale face, An angel with a lily in his hand, And over both the white wings of a Dove.
Frightened by the appearance of the angel Gabriel in her chamber, the adolescent Mary cowers on her bed, in this 1850 painting of the Annunciation by Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Gabriel bears a lily, a symbol of the virgin’s purity, as he informs Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus—a story recounted only in the Gospel of Luke (1:26–38). Three more lilies are depicted on the embroidered cloth hanging at the foot of Mary’s bed. A white dove, representing the Holy Spirit that “will come upon” Mary, flies in the window toward the Virgin.
Irishman Oscar Wilde used Gabriel’s greeting—traditionally translated “Hail, Mary, full of grace” (Luke 1:28)—as the title of his poem (c. 1875). Wilde contrasts the incarnation of Jesus with the theophany of the Greek god Zeus to mortal women. When the Theban princess Semele tricked Zeus into coming to her in his true shape, she was consumed by the fire of his thunderbolts; their son, Dionysus, however, gained immortality. Zeus assumed the less perilous—yet no less spectacular—form of a golden shower when he poured through the roof of a subterranean bronze chamber to visit Danaë, princess of Argos, who had been imprisoned by her father.
Both Rossetti’s painting and Wilde’s poem seem to express wonder at the relative simplicity of this decisive event in Christianity—the coming of the messiah. Or is Wilde expressing disappointment in not finding a more awesome and violent spectacle?
Ave Maria Gratia Plena
You have already read your free article for this month. Please join the BAS Library or become an All Access member of BAS to gain full access to this article and so much more.