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image icon 'Ancilla Domini', c1896

'Ancilla Domini', c1896
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an oil painting on canvas made in Paris, around 1896, by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947). Measuring 100.3 cm x 110.4 cm, it shows an angel standing in front of a kneeling woman in a boldly coloured room. The angel is reaching out towards the woman with one hand, and holding a long stem of white lilies in the other. The woman is looking down and away from the angel. She holds a single white rose. On the wall immediately behind the woman is a large picture featuring two naked figures, a man and a woman, being pursued by an angel carrying a sword.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work of art by Rupert Bunny - Bunny was one of the generation of Australian artists who went abroad in the later 19th century to extend their training and establish their reputations; Bunny travelled to Europe in 1884, and studied in Paris at the studio of Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), a French artist who specialised in historical and religious subjects; in 1888, Bunny exhibited with the Société des Artistes Français and in 1890 he became the first Australian to gain a 'mention honorable'; he painted many subjects during his long career, including portraits, landscapes, and mythological and religious themes, but is best known for his paintings of women, either languidly reclining single figures or a group in intimate conversation, evoking a luxurious and leisurely world
  • is characteristic of Bunny's work early in his career - in the 1890s his subjects were drawn from classical literature and the Bible, and there was also evidence of a Pre-Raphaelite influence (a return to the detailed, brightly coloured and symbolically rich art of the early Italian Renaissance); this influence is evident in the way that Bunny has used the bright, flat surface of the red drape to frame the action and turn the angel into a monumental silhouette; other Pre-Raphaelite touches include the black-and-white tiled floor and the compressed space of the room with its low platform or dais
  • reflects then-current trends in Symbolist art - Symbolism was a late-19th-century art movement, originating in France and Belgium, which rejected naturalism and realism in favour of art expression derived from a sense of spirituality, and the imagination and dreams; angels were a popular motif for Symbolist artists, who believed they were symbols of the soul
  • shows that Bunny was one of Australia's most original and daring colourists - this is illustrated by his use of the red drape to cast the room in shadow, while at the same time infusing almost everything in the room with a red glow; the artist made a regular practice of using alternating cool (blues and greens) and warm (reds and yellows) colour schemes
  • is one of the few successful 19th-century religious paintings by an Australian artist and a rare religious subject for an Australian artist - another religious painting by Bunny was 'Descending angels' (c1897), also in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, which shows a massed group of female angels in brightly coloured dresses
  • refers to a specific New Testament narrative - the title 'Ancilla Domini' means 'Handmaid (or maid servant) of the Lord', and the painting shows an event known as the Annunciation; the archangel Gabriel is telling the Virgin Mary that she has been chosen by God to bear his son Jesus; after some hesitation, Mary accepts with the words, 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word' (Gospel of Luke 1:26)
  • contains specific symbolism - the angel is holding a stem of white lilies, the lily being a Christian symbol for the Virgin Mary; the rose held by Mary is particularly associated with the Virgin, who was known as 'the rose without thorns'; the book on the lectern near Mary's head refers to Mary being in the act of reading when the angel appeared, the passage in question being from the celebrated prophecy of Isaiah (7:14), 'A young woman is with child and she will bear a son'; the figurative images in the artwork on the wall are of Adam and Eve being pursued out of Eden by an angel wielding a sword; traditional Christian belief held that the original sin carried by Adam and Eve's descendants (humanity) would be cleared through Christ coming into the world and dying for the world's sins.