The Iconography of the Virgin Mary
PART TWO: THE ANNUNCIATION
The picture above is from a 12th-century Orthodox church, but it is typical of images of the Annunciation in the medieval west and later. Following Luke 1:26-38, the Angel Gabriel is always shown on the left, Mary on the right making a gesture of humility or reserve. The Holy Spirit flies toward Mary as a dove on a beam of light. In the upper margin of Assumption images God may be represented by either a hand (as above) or a face (as
here). The dove and face/hand refer to Gabriel's words, "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee." Molanus (275) observes that some artists have also posed a "little human body" on the light beam, which they point at the Virgin's uterus. This practice he condemns as heretical because it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary's.
In most early images, through the Romanesque era and then trailing off in the 14th century, Mary gestures to the angel with her palms held out (example). One exception is this 6th-century mosaic, where she holds her right index finger to her chin. She holds one hand to her breast in this 13th-century image and from the 14th century onward in the West. (example). According to Tradigo (101) the latter gesture expresses humility; the former, reserve and detachment.
Traditionally the angel is posed at a respectful distance from Mary, separated by an architectural detail such as a column (example). The two may even be placed in separate wings of a polyptych (example) or on opposite sides of a physical arch (example). This device seems to be abandoned only in small-scale images (example).
Another nearly universal tradition starting in the medieval period is keeping the dramatis personae to just the two figures of Mary and Gabriel. The rare exceptions to this rule include images in which secondary angels attend (example), saints or donors contemplate the event (example), and this Rococo piece in which the figures of God and the Heavenly Host nearly overwhelm the scene below. Émile Mâle also notes an added girl in a 12th-century stained glass in Angers. He ascribes her presence to the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, where Mary is said to have had five Temple virgins with her in Nazareth at the time (Religous Art, 244).
WHAT MARY WAS DOING
According to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 9, Mary and the other virgins are assigned the job of spinning thread to be woven into a new veil for the Temple. In the midst of working on the purple thread Mary takes a pitcher out to a fountain and an angel says to her, "Blessed art thou, Mary; for in thy womb thou hast prepared an habitation for the Lord." The next day he appears to her again inside the Temple while she is spinning the thread, and the narrative continues through to the Incarnation as in Luke. A 13th-century fresco in Croatia seems to represent the fountain incident on the day before the actual Incarnation. In Sicily there is also a 4th-century sarcophagus with a panel that some scholars have taken to be the scene at the fountain. (If they are right, the panel would be the earliest example of an Annunciation image of any kind.)
But all the other Annuncations I have seen from the first millenium have the indoor scene, with Mary on a throne-like chair either "working at the purple with her fingers" (Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 9) or with the thread in a basket. One example is in a 5th-century mosaic in Rome; another is a textile fragment from the 8th or 9th century. Some images use trees to suggest an outdoor setting even though Mary is clearly seated at her weaving (example). The thread continued in the iconography of the Orthodox images such as the mosaic shown above. In the medieval West, it is still seen on rare occasions, such as a silk from Siena now in the Metropolitan Museum and a 13th-century stained glass in Lyon that Mâle says marks the end of this feature in the west (Religous Art, 243).
In Gothic and later art in the West, Annunciation images drew inspiration from another remark in Pseudo-Matthew: "She was always engaged in prayer and in searching the law" (chapter 6). We now see Mary either praying at a prie-dieu or reading a book (example). Sometimes the book is open to Isaiah's prophecy (7:14): "Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (example).
SIGNS AND SYMBOLS
Following the tradition that the Annunciation occurred in Nazareth on March 25, the Golden Legend explains that "Nazareth means 'flower'; hence Bernard [of Clairvaux] says that the Flower willed to be born of a flower in 'Flower,' in the season of flowers." Accordingly, flowers appear in western Annunciations from the 13th century onward. Often a vase of flowers on the floor replaces the pitcher of the early images (example). Sometimes a bough of flowers replaces the sceptre in Gabriel's hand (example). Often the flowers are lilies, and by the 16th century the "season of flowers" idea yields to the notion that the lilies represent Mary's purity (Molanus, 274).
Other symbols one may see in the images include a sceptre for the angel, a distaff (but not after the 13th century in the west), and scrolls serving as speech bubbles with the Latin for "Hail Mary full of grace" and "I am the handmaid of the Lord" (example).
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-02, 2016-10-25.
Annunciation mosaic from the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, ("the Martorana"), Palermo, Sicily. See the description page for details.