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L’art imitait si bien la nature qu’on eut cru que l’ange disait: je vous salue

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CAT 93. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. L’art imitait si bien la nature qu’on eut cru que l’ange disait: je vous salue. Plate 14 (from canto 10) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

As Dante and Virgil attain the first cornice of Purgatory, they see, carved in bas relief of white marble, two figures whose interaction represents the height of Christian humility, the Virgin Mary kneeling before the Angel of Annunciation in visible embodiment of “That word, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord.’” Flaxman’s outline style is ideally suited for rendering this figure whose sculpted image “sensibly imprest, / as figures seal’d on wax” (10.37-41). The posture of the keeling Virgin is the very type of human submission. Flaxman gives motion to her passive aspect by contrasting the delicate horizontal of her face set against the plunging vertical of the cloak behind the shoulder.

Flaxman captures, too, Dante’s sense of an Angel

                            . . . so sculptured to the life,
He look’d no silent image. One had sworn
He had said, ‘Hail!’ for she was imaged there,
By whom the key did open to God’s love. (10.31-38)

In the 1807 English edition engraved by Piroli, this plate is simply called The Salutation, but in the 1833 French title Réveil incorporates the entire phrase in which Dante declared that art imitates nature so well that one could believe the angel is saying, “I salute you,” a challenge Flaxman meets with his own imitative mediating artistry.

For Flaxman’s quiet virtuosity in depicting women in varieties of emotional transport, compare the kneeling Mary here with the mourning Persian widow in CAT 5.