The Iconography of the Virgin Mary

PART TWO: THE ANNUNCIATION

In Luke's gospel the angel Gabriel tells Mary she is to conceive a child even while a virgin: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (1:35). This is among the most frequently illustrated subjects in Christian art, focusing as it does on the all-important theology of the Incarnation, when "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14) and in T. S. Eliot's words, "the impossible union of spheres of existence is actual [and] the past and future are conquered, and reconciled."1

In their fullest and most common form Annunciation images depict Mary on the right and the angel on the left. In two-dimensional works the Holy Spirit often arrives as a dove on rays of light. The "power of the Most High" is pictured in early versions as a hand reaching from Heaven (as above), in later ones as the face or upper body of the Father (as here). The artists almost always ignore the metaphor in the word "overshadow." In scripture the word "shadow" is often a metaphor for protection,2 but it has negative connotations in other contexts and certainly in visual art.

Molanus (275) observes that some artists have posed a "little human body" on the light rays, as in this example and the second picture at right. This practice he condemns as heretical because it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary's. After Molanus's time the only baby in an Annunciation that I know of is in an archaizing sculpture from 1895.

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. In late- and post-medieval images Mary's hands may be clasped in prayer (example). Her mantle is blue in that picture and in many others.

THE FIGURES

Very often Gabriel is posed at a respectful distance from Mary, separated by a real or pictured 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 is less common in small-scale images (example). In one striking exception from the 15th century, Mary has risen from her throne to approach the angel.

Another nearly universal tradition starting in the medieval period is keeping the dramatis personae to just the two figures of Mary and Gabriel. In the rare exceptions, secondary angels may attend (example), or there may be saints or donors contemplating the event (example). 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).

The rays on which the dove arrives are almost always pointed at Mary's head, as in the first picture at right. In some post-medieval examples, there may be a flood of light instead of a dove (example).

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 (Sgarlata, 140-42). If they are right, the panel would be the earliest 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 studying scripture at a book-stand (example) or kneeling with a book at a prie-dieu (example). Sometimes the book is open to Isaiah 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 25,3 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). The sceptre began as part of the Angel Gabriel's military uniform. In the West he became gradually less martial in appearance, although he has a sceptre and Roman military uniform as late as this altarpiece panel in the 16th century.

Starting in the 15th century, some scenes will include small quotidian details with symbolic significance, such as the hourglass in the first picture on the right and the candle in the second.

DISRUPTING THE ICONOGRAPHY
In the painting shown here Jacopo Tintoretto critiques and refocuses the traditional iconography of the Annunciation, aligning it more closely with the text and spirit of Luke 1:
Jacopo Tintoretto, The Annunciation, 1583-87, at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. See the description page for a larger copy.
To begin with, Tintoretto's Mary is radically different. She is not seated on a throne as in the early images, nor does she kneel and study her Bible as in the medieval ones. Instead this painting firmly places her among the common people who have work to do. Her well-muscled arms fill her sleeves. She sits on a chair so small and low we cannot see it. Her work, a spool of purple thread for the Temple veil (Protevangelium, ¶10), lies on the table beside her. Her book is a tiny octavo. There is no blue mantle. This characterization corresponds to the theme of her prayer (Luke 1:53):
  • He has thrown down the mighty from their thrones,
    and has lifted up the lowly.
  • The hungry he has filled with good things;
    the rich he has sent away empty.
The irruption of the angel and the dove into this humble room is another upsetting of the iconographic tradition. Instead of separating Mary and Gabriel with an architectural element, the artist has the angel pass between two stone pillars, literally flying toward the Virgin. He too has the arms of someone familiar with physical labor. Similarly, the Holy Spirit does not float in on light rays but soars powerfully toward Mary, leading a host of angels and himself providing the light that illumines her face.

The girl's reaction to these powerful irruptions is another break with the tradition. Instead of the demure young lady who looks down and holds a hand to her breast, Tintoretto's Mary appears "greatly troubled" just as in Luke 1:29. Her arms and shoulders turn away, and her mouth is agape. It is this genuine fear that helps one appreciate the bravery of her reply, "Be it done unto me according to thy word" (1:38).

When Gabriel tells Mary that "the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you," Tintoretto accordingly has him point to the dove while the shadow of the broken pillar falls on Mary's lap, a rare case of an artist honoring the letter of that verse.

In the next episode in the chapter Zechariah breaks out in a canticle which in later times would be recited in churches and monasteries every morning, and which concludes:
  • In the tender compassion of our God
  • The dawn from on high shall break upon us
  • To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
  • And to guide our feet into the way of peace.
This is precisely what Tintoretto pictures on the left side of the painting, where a bright dawn rises over a dark and broken world.

One medieval poem has it that the Son of God
  • …cam also stille
  • To his modres bowr
  • As dew in Aprylle
  • That falleth on the flowr.4
Tintoretto will have none of that. His disruption of the iconography, his inclusion of the dawn from on high, and his sensitivity to the spirit of the text combine to present the Incarnation as the startling event that it is, an event that changes everything.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-02, 2016-10-25, 2017-10-26, 2018-01-20, 2019-02-10.

NEXT: PART THREE, THE VISITATION

ALSO SEE PARTS:
1   4   5   6   7   8

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SHOWN ABOVE:
Annunciation mosaic from the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, ("the Martorana"), Palermo, Sicily. See the description page for details.

John 1:1-2, 14a In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.

Luke 1:26b-35 The angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.… Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High.… And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the angel answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

OTHER IMAGES

Detail from the main altarpiece, Mariapfarr, Austria. Note the hourglass on the right and Mary's crossed-arms gesture. – For more details, see the description page

Robert Campin's renowned Annunciation uses a wealth of symbols to comment on the event. It also replaces the dove with a small child holding a cross – a detail later condemned as contrary to Incarnation theology. See the de­scrip­tion page for a large photo and further details.

This unique fresco pictures the moment after the Incarnation. See the description page for further details and a larger photo.

MORE IMAGES

  • 12th century: Flanking statues, left portal, Zadar Cathedral, Croatia.
  • 12th century: A capital on a column in Oviedo pairs the Annunciation with the Woman Taken in Adultery.
  • 13th century: De­tail from the apse mo­sa­ic in San­ta Ma­ria Mag­giore, Rome.
  • 1265-95, Florence: Triptych of the Madonna Enthroned.
  • 1315-20: Even this small panel in a large medieval window manages to include the dove, the hand-to-breast gesture, and an AVE MARIA scroll that also functions as a separator between the figures.
  • 1325-70: Top left panel in Regensburg Cathedral's Life of Mary Windows
  • 14th century or later: Reliquary Plaque with the Virgin Annunciate, from Poreč, Croatia.
  • 1475: Antonello da Messina's Virgin Annunciate dispenses with the angel and most of the other iconography, picturing just the Virgin with the palm-out gesture.
  • 16th century: An Annunciation painting at San Vidal, Venice, makes a modest attempt at responding to the word "overshadow" in Luke's text.
  • 2nd half of the 16th century: In the upper register of a retable in Salamanca, the artist replaces the usual dove and light ray with a stream of water flowing from a rock into a large stone vessel.
  • 17th century: Urbinelli's Annunciation presents the moments before the actual visit of the angel and imaginatively refreshes the iconography.
  • 18th, possibly 17th century: An Annunciation that compresses the traditional iconography into a tightly framed space and time.
  • First half of 18th century: Sculpture group with Mary at a bookstand and angel on the right holding a lily stalk instead of a sceptre.
  • 1750: Filippo della Valle's overwrought Annunciation replaces the traditional iconographic details with a basket of bread.
  • Second half on the 18th century: Mary kneels on a raised dais in two nun's badges from Mexico, one by Francisco Martínez and the other by Jóse de Páez.
  • 1950s: This modern stained glass revives some medieval traditions.
  • Igor Mitoraj, The An­nun­ci­a­tion Doors, 2002.

ALSO SEE

HAGIOGRAPHY

NOTES

1 John 1:14. T. S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages," 216-19.

2 "Shadow" functions as a metaphor for protection in Genesis 19:8, "do no evil to these men, because they are come in under the shadow of my roof"; Judges 9:15, "rest under my shadow"; Psalms 16:8, "under the shadow of thy wings" and 56:2, "in the shadow thy wings"; Song of Solomon 2:3, "I sat down under his shadow, whom I desire"; Isaiah 4:6, "there shall be a tabernacle for a shade in the daytime from the heat"; Isaiah 16:3, "[O Lord] make thy shadow as the night in the midday…and betray not them that wander about"; Isaiah 30:2, "trusting in the shadow of Egypt", c.f. 30:3; Isaiah 34:15, the hoot owl "had its hole, and brought up its young ones…and cherished them in the shadow thereof"; Isaiah 49:2, "in the shadow of his hand he hath protected me"; Lamentations 4:20, "under thy shadow we shall live among the Gentiles."
Unsurprisingly, the phrase "shadow of death" appears again and again in Job, but elsewhere in scripture it is somewhat less frequent than the "shadow" that means "protection." One finds it at Psalms 22:4, 43:20, 87:7, 106:10,14; Isaiah 9:2;, Jeremiah 13:16; Matthew 4:16; Luke 1:79.
In the New Testament letters "shadow" can designate a typological relationship: see Colossians 2:17 and Hebrews 8:5, 10:1. It also serves as a metaphor for transience in 1 Chronicles 29:15 and Job 14:2, 8:9.

3 For the locale in Nazareth, see for example Gregory Thaumaturgus, 2nd Discourse on the Annunciation and Nativity of Mary, chapters 8-9. For the March 25 date, see the quotation from Bede in the Catena Aurea, III, i, 23-24 and Senn, 90.

4 Luria, 181. The lines can be translated "…cam as quietly to his mother's bower as dew in April that falls on the flower."