At right is a 3rd-century wall painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, thought to be the earliest surviving image of the Annunciation.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. The angel 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 13th century onward most Annunciations in the Latin West dispense with the purple thread, and more and more will also omit the throne. These changes focus more clearly on the the letter of Luke 1:26-38, which is among the most frequently illustrated subjects in the West.
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,3 but it has negative connotations in other contexts and certainly in visual art.
Almost all Annuncations are set indoors, though sometimes one or two trees will be incongruously added (example).
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."4
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.5 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.6 After Molanus's time the only baby in an Annunciation that I know of is in an archaizing sculpture from 1895. 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,7 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. It also appears, with the same significance, in this 15th-century painting of St. Benedict exorcising a grateful monk.
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.
As 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. 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 rare instances when Mary expresses her humility by crossing her arms over her chest, he may echo that gesture (example).
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 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).
MARY AT PRAYERInspired by a remark in The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew that Mary "was always engaged in prayer and in searching the law" (chapter 6), western images come to picture her 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 SYMBOLSFollowing the tradition that the Annunciation occurred in Nazareth on March 25,8 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 sceptre for the angel, a distaff (but not after the 13th century in the west), 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 scenes will include small quotidian details with symbolic significance, such as the hourglass in the first 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.8
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. Revised 2016-09-02, 2016-10-25, 2017-10-26, 2018-01-20, 2019-02-10, 2010-07-18.
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Annunciation mosaic from the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, ("the Martorana"), Palermo, Sicily. See the description page for details.
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.
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.OTHER IMAGES
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.
4 Schiller, I, 10.
5 Paradise Lost, III, 131, 236. "The Wakefield Annunciation" 1-76, in Bevington, 356-57. Schiller, I, 9-12 and figs. 10-16.
6 Molanus, 275.
7 Kitzinger, plates XIII, 90-93.
8 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.
9 Many of the images referenced on this page place Mary just outside the Temple doors or actually within the Temple itself. Urbinelli's Annunciation places her at the door of the Temple tabernacle. A pax In medieval times, a metal tablet with an image of Christ or a saint that was kissed by the celebrant and others during the Mass in the treasury of Zadar Cathedral pictures a tent-like cloth tabernacle on a table behind her. The cloth tenting recalls the tabernacle that held the Ark in the Old Testament, and its position on the table refers to its function as a type of the Eucharist. These two significations are explained in the Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Ark of the Covenant": "St. Bonaventure has…seen in the Ark a mystical representation of the Holy Eucharist. In like manner the Ark might be very well regarded as a mystical figure of the Blessed Virgin, called by the Church the 'Ark of the Covenant'". Also see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶2676. For citations from the many early and medieval commentators who drew a typological relationship between the Ark and Mary, see this web page.
10 Luria, 181. The lines can be translated "…came as quietly to his mother's bower as dew in April that falls on the flower."