The Annunciation

The Annunciation is a very common subject in classical art.

Almost every Medieval and Renaissance master painted their own version of this scene, and its easy to understand why. It centers around one of the most fascinating and mysterious aspects of our faith: the virgin conception of our Lord. It depicts a moment which not only signals the advent of our hope and salvation, but also one which is rich with potential for creative exploration.

Many Annunciation paintings are staged similarly.

Fra. Angelico, The Annunciation. 1435-45.
Tempera on board, The Prado, Madrid.

The angel Gabriel arrives from the left side of the painting, he has interrupted the devout and humble Mary who sits or kneels, reading Scripture. Her reaction to his appearance ranges from serene to startled to knowing and wise. It was assumed that viewers at the time would recognize the scene on sight; the words exchanged between Mary and the angel are often left implied, though some artists painted dialogue flowing from their mouths. White lilies can be found in the background, or being offered by Gabriel, symbolizing Mary’s purity. The Holy Spirit descends upon her: this scene represents the moment of conception as well. In Fra. Angelico’s Annunciation, we are reminded of exactly what is at stake when we view the far left section and spy Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Eden.

These pieces are full of symbolism and meaning: the perfect example of a painting meant to be “read” like a story.

The Annunciation, Paolo de Matteis, 1712, 
Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis.

I think one of the reasons why this scene fascinates painters and viewers alike is the intensity and gravity of what Mary is hearing and accepting in faith: the drama of the moment, the pure humanity of it. I think its why this subject has been painted over and over again throughout history. I read the passage and I want to go back in time, to be a fly on the wall, just to see Mary’s face, hear the shock in her voice, watch as she experiences the joy and pain of realizing who she is going to give birth to, witness the faith she exhibits as she humbly submits as God’s servant.

I think we have an innate desire to draw closer to these deeply intimate and human moments that surround our Lord’s life here on earth.

Annunciation, unknown, 1420,
 Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

These moments show us who Christ is to us: heralded by angles, conceived by a virgin, born of a human woman. He is God. He is Man. He made himself one of us so that we might one day be one in him, and we cling to these snapshots of his life as we cling to the hope we have in him.

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