Peter Paul Rubens, Annunciation, c. 1628 Oil on canvas, Rubens House, Antwerp.
It is the same astonishing moment as a thousand times before and after – the same winged and muscular messenger, with the same soft feminine face, the same long golden hair, wearing a yellow tunic, accompanied by a dove and flying babies, interrupting a girl reading while a cat sleeps in the corner – but in a different place, light years away.
This is no baby shower, like the time before. This time the stranger does not bring the pure white flowers of virginity to present to the girl from a deferential distance. There are already flowers in a bulbous glass vase on a round table; red and pink roses unfurling petals the colour of flesh, a red tulip protruding a licking tongue. The dive-bombing cherubs are about to pelt garlands of more roses, a lover’s gift, on the girl’s head.
It’s not the same girl, or she has changed. She reads the same book, but she is not self-composed like the girl kneeling in a room in Urbino, over twenty years earlier. There is no view of a white castle, the room is dark and the floor is made of wooden nailed planks.
There is no sign of the patriarchal puppeteer in the sky. There is no formality, no inhibition, only the visitor’s knowing smile as he alights, his left hand almost close enough to touch her, and her gasp of expectation. Even the watching cherubs are louche.
This time she is aroused by the visitor’s physical presence and does not attempt to hide her feelings. Illuminated by a beam of light, she rises to meet his passion with her own, her lips parted and her uplifted eyes rolling in ecstasy. She is almost drifting into a trance. Her longing for him is mixed with reproach. She is worried about consequences.
She is Psyche in love with Eros, who has flown in through her open window at night. He is beautiful and persuasive. His power will change her life.
She is not sure she wants him yet.
(Keats, Ode to Psyche, 1819)
It’s not the same cat, either. This one is a tabby, coiled tight in its own sensual world, indifferent to human desires, lying on the hard wooden floor beside a work basket because the girl has forgotten for the first time in their lives to make a cushioned bed for its sleep.