The first picture at right is a 3rd-century wall painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, thought to be the earliest surviving image of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).1 Mary sits on a solium, a high-backed chair with arm-rests that was reserved at the time for authority figures. This accords with the account of the Annunciation in the Protevangelium of James, which has her sitting on a "throne" when the angel Gabriel arrives.2 The angel stands before her with his right arm raised in the gesture that signifies speech. He does not have wings, which in the third century had not yet become the way to distinguish an angel.
To this basic imagery the 5th and 6th centuries added another detail from the Protevangelium: that when the angel came to Mary she had been spinning purple thread for a new veil for the Temple. Typically, she holds a distaff or the end of the thread, which has accumulated in a basket at her feet (example). In the 13th century these details go out of favor in the West, although Tintoretto does use the thread and distaff in a striking revisionist interpretation (see below). In the East, the thread and basket continue in Annunciation images even today. an early example from 4th-century Sicily, Mary kneels before a rock face with a spring near its summit. She fills her pitcher from the cascade of water flowing down from the spring. An angel, apparently the source of the voice, stands close by with his right arm raised in the gesture that signifies speech.
These details recur consistently in other examples, even to the type of pitcher: a footed, hipped vessel with a single handle. Another, better preserved example is this panel on a 5th-century diptych from Ravenna. Lidova (53-57) cites a number of very similar examples from northern Europe, as well as a 6th-century clay medallion from the Holy Land that suggests the image type may have "circulated as an independent visual motif used on pilgrims’ tokens." The dispersion of the tokens could explain why the various exemplars are so similar as to detail.
The motif's wide dispersion could perhaps be explained by the importance of water as a symbol of divine favor in so much early Christian art, particularly in the water miracles of Moses and St. Peter, where the water also flows from a rock face. The Ravenna diptych affirms the importance of the water by making it seem to flow down from the Annunciation panel into another one picturing the baptism of Jesus.
DEVELOPMENT IN THE MEDIEVAL WESTFrom the 14th century onward most Annunciations in the Latin West focus more clearly on Luke 1:26-38 rather than the apocrypha. They dispense with the spring and the purple thread, and more and more they will also omit the throne. The approach to setting also changes. Early images were either set outdoors or had no setting at all (as in the photo at the top of this page). In the former type, Mary sat or stood in front of a structure designed to suggest the Temple (example). This kind of setting did continue into the later Middle Ages, but in the 14th century many more images placed the event in a specific and unified space such as a portico (example), a private home (example), or an ecclesiastical structure (example).3
In their fullest and most common form western 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 in the mosaic at the top of this page. In later versions the "Most High" is 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 is often a metaphor for protection,4 but it has negative connotations in other contexts and certainly in visual art.
What Gabriel was announcing was a plan devised in Heaven for the redemption of mankind. Schiller (I, 10) suggests that literary and visual renditions of the Trinity's decision to undertake that plan trace back to Leo I's sermon on the Transfiguration (440-461), which has the Father saying that the Son "has condescended to take on the form of a servant in order to implement our mutual plan for the restitution of mankind."5
In literature perhaps the best known narrative of this decision is the third book of Paradise Lost, where the Father resolves that "man…shall find grace" despite his disobedience and the Son replies that he will take on humanity and sacrifice himself to obtain man's redemption, "me for him, life for life." The Father's reasoning in Milton is that Adam and Eve can justly be offered redemption because they were deceived into sin, unlike the fallen angels whose choice was entirely their own. He gives this same explanation in the Wakefield "Annunciation."
In art, the decision to redeem mankind through the Son's sacrifice was pictured as having been made by all three persons of the Trinity, envisioned as three separate men on a single throne, and manifested by the Father handing the Son a cross and/or sending Gabriel on his mission.6 In some the Son is pictured as a baby carrying the cross with him as he flies along the light rays to his mother-to-be (example). However, Molanus condemned this imagery because it suggested that Jesus did not take his body from Mary's.7 After Molanus's time the only baby in an Annunciation that I know of is in an archaizing sculpture from 1895.
Mary's Hands and PosturesIn late- and post-medieval images Mary's hands may be clasped in prayer (example), but in most early images she gestures to the angel with her palms held out (example). This appears to be a gesture of acceptance, consistent with her words in Luke 1:38, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word." In the 12th century this mosaic in the older Byzantine style has St. Peter making the same gesture when the angel comes to free him from Herod's prison. Similarly, in Palermo's 12th-century Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio church, St. Anne and St. Joachim make this gesture,8 apparently regarding the message that they should meet at the Golden Gate. However, in that same century in a sarcophagus relief in Verona St. Bacchus holds one palm out to express his refusal to worship the idols. This signification of the gesture is of course still current today.
After the 12th century the images respond to the new negative signification of the palm-out gesture either by modifying it (example) or by replacing it with a crossed-arms gesture bespeaking humble acceptance. We see the crossed arms, for example, in this Annunciation from 1445. They also appear, with the same significance, in this 15th-century painting of St. Benedict exorcising a grateful monk and in the allegorical figure of Humility in the Sant'Alvise Virtues.
In quite a few Annunciations Mary's gesture expresses her initially troubled reaction to the angel's words (Luke 1:29). Usually the gesture involves placing her right hand across her chest, sometimes turning slightly away (example). In one surprising image she makes the "step back" gesture when Gabriel points his finger at her.
Gabriel's Hands and PosturesAs for Gabriel's gestures, in many early and some later images he extends his open hand toward Mary, a gesture that moderns might interpret as his saying "Hail" but that probably simply signified speech. In the 6th through 13th centuries, he may make the same blessing gesture we see in images of Christ from that era: index and middle fingers pointing up, fourth finger held down by the thumb. This would be a translation to the visual of his words, "Blessed art thou among women" (Vulgate Luke 1:28). Examples include the 12th-century mosaic at the top of this page and this one from the 6th century. In later eras he usually points his index finger toward Mary or the sky, another way to signify speech. In the images where Mary expresses humility by crossing her arms over her chest, he may echo that gesture (example).
From the 14th century onward, it is not uncommon for Gabriel to be kneeling before Mary. Some Annunciations from the same period may also include the words Ave Maria gratia plena, "Hail Mary, full of grace," usually on a banderole. Both these developments can be seen in the second picture at right. Van Dijk argues that their purpose was to invite the viewer to join in the angel's prayer by reciting those same words, which opened the increasingly popular "Hail Mary" prayer.
THE FIGURESVery 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 theologians explained the Incarnation as the Word of God entering through Mary's ear, but in the art the rays on which the dove arrives are more decorously pointed at her forehead, sometimes having first passed through a glass window, as in the second picture at right. The window references a common metaphor in medieval poetry and commentary by which the virgin conception is compared to the way light passes through glass without changing it in any way.9
In some post-medieval examples, there may be a flood of light instead of a dove (example).
THE BOOKThe Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (8th/9th century) emphasized Mary's devotion to reading scripture, saying she "was always engaged in prayer and in searching the law" (chapter 6). Similarly, Otfrid von Weissenberg's 9th-century verse harmonization of the gospels said Gabriel found Mary "praising God / With her psalter in her hands." In this same period Annunciation images began to have Mary reading a book. The earliest known example is an ivory panel from 860-70 that served as a model for many that followed. In it Mary sits under a baldachin with her right hand on the edge of a book on a lectern and her left hand spinning thread. This was the model for many more images that followed. At first they were mostly in monastic contexts, intended to encourage monks to emulate Mary's quiet contemplation, but in the 12th century they began to appear in public settings. After the 12th the book was a common element in Annunciations everywhere.10
Sometimes the book would be open to Isaiah 7:14, taken to be a prophecy of the virgin birth (example). In this Annunciation the book is open to the words Ecce ancilla domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38). The earliest examples have it on a sort of lectern, but in the 14th and especially the 15th centuries Mary may be kneeling before it on a prie-dieu (example). Titian's unusual Malchiostro Annunciation puts it in deep shadow on the floor as a symbol of the Law that is superseded with the coming of Christ.
SIGNS AND SYMBOLSFollowing the tradition that the Annunciation occurred in Nazareth on March 25,11 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 serves the compositional function earlier filled by the basket (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 distaff (but not after the 13th century in the west) and a sceptre for the angel,, and banderoles 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 interior settings will include small quotidian details with symbolic significance, such as the hourglass in the second picture on the right and the great number of symbolic elements in Robert Campion's Annunciation.
The Ark of the Covenant figures in Catholic doctrine regarding Mary, which interprets the angel's words, "Hail full of grace, the Lord is with thee" (Luke 1:28) as implying that she "is the daughter of Zion in person, the ark of the covenant." Thus a few images of the Annunciation picture the Ark or some other reference to the Temple.12
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:
One medieval poem has it that the Son of God
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.
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Annunciation mosaic from the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, ("the Martorana"), Palermo, Sicily. See the description page for details.