Religious Art: Annunciation after Titian

Gerhard Richter, Annunciation after Titian, oil on linen, 1973.

Gerhard Richter has recently been the subject of a massive retrospective at the Tate Modern.  His work is both bafflingly diverse and unnervingly intimate.  Even if you dislike, or struggle, with his later squeegee abstractions you might relish his photo-realism.  In particular his paintings of various family members are quite affecting.  However, in this post I want to consider ‘The Annunciation after Titian’ (1973); a series of works inspired by the great Venetian artist.  Originally, according to Richter, he replicated the painting simply because he wanted to have a copy in his house.  The image above is the first of five versions of the painting that Richter reworked, each becoming something in itself.  The painting below is one of the later compositions.[1]

Titian’s Annunciation (circa 1559-64) is both brightly coloured and clearly formed.  Richter’s imitation, despite using a similar palette, seems more muted and dull, and the characters are less coherent.  Richter’s piece is a failed effort: he seems to lose some of the force of the original and does not capture the immediacy of Titian’s scene.  Yet, Richter exploits this initial ‘failure’ by producing other iterations which work to capture the essential beauty of the original.  With these other compositions Richter is pushing the boundaries of Titian’s work; he is exploring the limits of faithful reproduction. Can Richter’s other abstracted versions be considered reproductions or copies in any formal sense, or are they something wholly other to the original?  Can these other iterations of the Annunciation recontextualise that first expression?

At times I see the Annunciation less like Titian and more like Richter.  The event possesses a particular beauty even if I am less certain about the details of the encounter.  Yet, within this ambiguity there is a sense in which we (Titian, Richter and I) are still speaking about the same creation, the same moment and the same experience.  Richter, rather than separating out those who favour Titian, is trying to explore the similarities between these various paradigms.  Through his eyes I am able to visualise what another might see and I can even appreciate some of the aesthetic pleasure they might gain from their vantage point.  Perhaps my own sensibilities and dispositions prefer a different piece but Richter invites me to engage, rather than ignore, this other perspective.

My own religious response to Richter’s work is neither intellectually profound or original; instead this series has reinforced visually something that it all too easy for me to forget.  Richter reminds me that there is, experientially and religiously, great diversity within Mormonism and that there is value in see through the eyes of another; that there is value in drawing on our different ‘ways of seeing’ in order to forge a form of fellowship around the shared beauty of our religion.


1. This post would have been too large if I included every iteration of Richter’s work but the others are available online. Click through to see each version.  I have attached one of the later versions below.


  1. Thanks Aaron. I was scanning through some old posts yesterday and fondly looking at your art series. I am happy to see you have added another one to the collection. I always enjoy them.

  2. Thanks, mmiles. I know these posts do not lend themselves to comments really but I appreciate your thoughts.

  3. Aaron, I love these too. They help me see the world in new ways and draw attention to things I would otherwise miss. I’ve loved everyone of these art posts, but I think this one captured me more than any. I went to the site and clicked through the series. Wonderful. Thanks for doing these. Thank you indeed.

  4. I actually think the original image in the post is successful. Thanks for the interesting thoughts.

  5. Appreciate the thoughts, esp. on Superbowl Sunday.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Wow, that’s great!

  7. “Yet, within this ambiguity there is a sense in which we (Titian, Richter and I) are still speaking about the same creation, the same moment and the same experience. ”

    Yes. Sometimes I feel suspicious of people who perceive a shared event in a way that diverges so widely from my own perception; it feels like deception. Lately I’ve been able to appreciate that other people have honest beliefs that reflect their realities and they don’t need to jive with mine in order to be true. Thanks for the post.

  8. cwc, I share that same tendency. I treat with scepticism those who are not convinced by the evidence which convinces me and, worse, I have a tendency to ascribe to those who see these things differently from me other unkind failings as well (idiocy etc.).

  9. I agree that his first reproduction was not faithful to the original – it might just be my laptop screen but the black wash on the right seems to throw the whole thing off-balance. However, I looked through his whole series and the one you posted at the end of this post is absolutely stunning, and certainly (in my mind) the best of the series. It’s gorgeous. I wish I had a print to display in my home.

  10. Richter’s riffs on Titian. Titian had depiction in mind. Richter did not. He is playing with the colors and forms within a Richteresque impressionist, post-modern frame. The first image evokes a sense of mysticism not visible in the original. He subdues Mary. At least Titian has bright beam from heaven pointing to Mary to offset the flamboyance of the angel who is looking fixedly at Mary. (Do we get to look like Gabriel in the next life?) Where, in the original, Mary was a focus, Richter has denied her any but a minor role, the beam from heaven turned into a foggy dust cloud. He has turned the Titian into a chiaroscuro. Interesting touch, which deepens the red of the angel. Richter’s Mary is seems deemphasized, rather than emphasized, by the enveloping blackness and her darker shade into which she seems to be sinking.

    The further paintings are riffs on the colors and values with some overtones to the meaning. If there were no titles on these later ones we would have little to suggest The Annunciation. Titles make a difference.

    The second image is all feathers, the first image has almost no feathers. Nice progression. But Mary is virtually gone. All angel wings. The chiaroscuro becomes a distant frame, again, to offset the red and white wings.

    We, Mormons, as a group do not like post-modernism. Likely, we do not like impressionism.

    Anyway, what is with the leg? I do not like this. The eye is drawn to this awful pink appendage which neither fits the palette nor the original. It is very distracting. Did Richter do this on purpose to attract our gaze away from the central scene or is it a bad bit of painting? Do even great artists have bad moments?

    Thanks for these images. (I have to say that we have a fabulous Kershisnik painting “Gabriel which stand in the presence of God,” which we absolutely love. Impressionist but not post-modern.)

  11. “We, Mormons, as a group do not like post-modernism. Likely, we do not like impressionism.”

    Then we, Mormons, as a group have no taste.

  12. Syphax, I enjoyed the one at the top most, but it was also strategic. I thought more people would read the post if it did not start with the most abstract version. Unfortunately, at the exhibition I attended they only had the original of the version at the top of the post. I would have liked to seen the others as well.

    RW, thank you for your more detailed, and insightful, thoughts on this painting. As an amateur I appreciate being shown how to see works of art in new ways.

  13. Richter’s “Annunciation” is an infinitely more interesting painting than Titian’s. As Mormons, we tend to prefer paintings which affirm our belief and don’t question our senses. We like Titian because we defer to authority and tradition and can orient ourselves in that universe. In Richter the Annunciation dissolves in a swirl of visual sensation. His painting exists in an urban universe of brain scans, lie detector tests, quantum physics and credit default swaps. In an easier painting, Richter presents us with the blurred image of a tiger, and if asked, we would respond, “That is a picture of a tiger.” Amusingly, the image is a painting, of a photo of a tiger, that was found in the camera of a tourist, who was killed by a tiger. Welcome to the Post-Modern world, wether we like it or not, we live in it.

    …………….”Richter’s piece is a failed effort: he seems to lose some of the force of the original and does not capture the immediacy of Titian’s scene.”

    – It’s not that Richter has failed, he’s not trying to reproduce the force and immediacy of the original, nor is he concerned with beauty. He’s questioning the act of painting and how it seduces us into believing that we have perceived the truth.

    …………“We, Mormons, as a group, do not like Post-Modernism. Likely, we do not like Impressionism.”
    – This phrase is like hearing french spoken with a southern Utah accent. We understand what the missionary is trying to say, but we just can’t stop laughing.

    – Kershisnik is not an Impressionist, he may be a Post-Impressionist, descended from Gauguin and the Symbolists, but not from Cezanne and the fractured space of Picasso, nor does he descend from Van Gogh and the expressionists.

    – I started thinking about Gerhard Richter’s paintings many years ago at Claremont and a long time before there was a chair of Mormon Studies at the Graduate School. During the fall semester of 86 the LA Times published an article on the Hoffmann forgeries. It was printed in two parts and for two weeks “the Mormons” were a topic of discussion and I was the lone Mormon in the graduate art department and I came to the conclusion that Mormonism fares quite well in a Post-Modern world – an interesting topic …….and Richter’s paintings are as good a place as any to start the discussion.

  14. Rgate,

    Got me. I had not thought about Kershinik and his etiology until I wrote the post. You are right. The painting is a glorious panel of color and symbolism but not impressionist. I am under training by experts. After I posted my wife and I had a long discussion on the subject where I was corrected. A moment of thought would have done me well. Thanks.

    I guess you can consider Mormonism, itself, as postmodern although the practitioners of the religion would not like that. For example, the statement that the glory of God is intelligence comes straight from the modernist, ultra-humanist, mode of thinking. I do not think that Joseph Smith would have considered himself as postmodern in any way nor would any of the present authorities.

    There are those of us who practice Mormonism who do this consciously in a postmodern way, such that no message is complete without context, as in the tiger picture or the soup cans. (When I first saw Worhal as a green 20 something I was horrified that this could be called art since it needed a play sheet to be understood. The Titian needs no play sheet, the image is self explanatory from the common culture.)

    I suppose we could consider that our theology does not rest on absolutes, like good and evil, since everything is in context, like Nephi and Laban. And polygamy, normally abhorrent, but acceptable under conditions. I am trying to fit Mormonism into a postmodern bucket. How do we do that? (Maybe this is why we have an absolute conflict with the evangelicals and Catholics?)

    So, how does Mormonism stand up in the postmodern world? Please explain, I am so curious.

    My comment about “We, Mormons…” We LOVE Church Art, particularly Friberg. How can you not just love the rippling muscles? Maybe a little impressionism if it is not too over the top. Teichert, maybe.

  15. Mommie Dearest says:

    Some of us Mormons love all kinds of art. Friberg, Teichert, Richter, Caravaggio. We probably are few, to be sure, but we’re not all alike in our preferences. Thanks you for the OP and the informative comments. I am on the early learning curve regarding modernists and post-modernists, and I don’t have anything substantial to add to this discussion. Just wanted to note that today is Gerhard Richter’s 80th birthday. He just closed a solo exhibition, “Panorama” at the Tate Modern in London, which also opens 12 Feb at the New National Gallery/Berlin and later opens at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Pretty active career for an 80 year old guy.

  16. Aaron,

    I do love your posts on religious art its nice to have something other then the standard paintings that we see all the time in chapels. I think that I prefer Richter to the Titian anytime. It just speaks to me more then Titian.

    I agree that post-modernism rests very uneasily with the church today, mostly as it deconstructs the idea of a monolithic authority.