Icons of Incarnation: Reading the Annunciation in Art

Because March 25 fell on a Sunday this year, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Annunciation today. In England, March 25–Lady Day–was also New Year’s Day, right up until 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. How appropriate to celebrate both the beginning of our salvation and the new beginning of the wheel of the year as spring seedlings were bursting into bloom!

I love the iconography of the Annunciation, which is one of the most frequently pictured scriptural events outside of the Nativity and the Crucifixion. I’ve given workshops tracing the history of Marian devotion simply through the progression of Annunciation images. Some of my favorites are as rich in symbolic detail as an encyclopedia. Others reflect the artist’s own struggle to plumb the mystery of the moment when the Word becomes Flesh through the fiat of a young woman. We don’t always have the ability to read iconographic language these days, and so many of us miss the theological and devotional nuances of these images, even if we are privileged to spend time before them in person.

Here are just a few of my favorite Annunciations, with notes on the nuances:

Fra Angelico (above) and Leonardo (below), like many southern artists, depict the Annunciation occurring in a cloister or walled garden–the hortus conclusus, a symbol of Mary’s virginity. Angelico adds, in the upper left, the other garden, Eden, with the angel driving out Adam and Eve. In this way he visualizes Paul’s teaching that the Incarnation reverses the Fall, a reversal also reflected in the medieval Latin palindrome EVA AVE (Eve’s No being redeemed by Mary’s Yes to Gabriel’s greeting, Ave, Maria! Hail, Mary!). Angelico also visualizes the  Word’s becoming Flesh through the power of the angel’s words entering Mary’s ear. The dove of the Spirit hovers over her head, and she is reading the words of the prophet Isaiah (pictured holding a scroll in the cloister’s decorative roundel) predicting that a virgin will conceive and bear a son. Leonardo’s Annunciation also occurs in a garden, but the wall is low enough for the artist to include, in startling new perspective, the world beyond that will be redeemed. Leonardo’s Gabriel bows low, and holds the Madonna lily–symbol of Mary’s purity–in his left hand as he blesses her with his right.

Botticelli, in the High Renaissance, moves Mary indoors but leaves the window open onto the walled garden (with its central tree evoking both the tree of Paradise and the wood of the cross) and the world beyond. Reflecting the rise of Marian devotion, the angel is much more a humble supplicant, though Mary–who has the same features as the goddess of love in the artist’s Birth of Venus–gracefully curves toward him from the high bookstand where she has been reading. Their hands, nearly touching at the center of the picture, recall Michelangelo’s creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel: This is the moment of humanity’s new creation.

Northern European artists like Rogier van der Weyden (above) and the painter of the Merode altarpiece (below) replace the walled garden with the inner chamber, the holy of holies. Their Annunciations are jammed with symbolic objects, which both added spiritual significance and allowed the artists to demonstrate their skills at depicting the material wealth of their Flemish merchant patrons. Here there are more lilies, but also clear glass vessels symbolizing virginity, and cold grates and recently snuffed candles to indicate Mary’s freedom from the heat of passion. Gabriel, in these northern paintings, wears the vestments of a deacon, because these originally were the robes of Byzantine court officials and royal messengers, and Gabriel is the herald of the heavenly court. The light in these rooms streams through window glass, visualizing the virginal conception and birth of Jesus as passing through Mary’s womb like light through glass. At the upper left of the Merode altarpiece, you can just see a small infant Jesus streaming down a wave of light toward Mary, bearing a tiny cross.

Of more contemporary Annunciations, I have two particular favorites. African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner depicts Mary as waking from sleep in her simple room, its arches reminiscent of the cloister walls. Mary’s body is bowed with the weight of the message brought by Gabriel, who is depicted as a simple column of light. Tanner’s Annunciation recalls Israel’s being led out of captivity by a pillar of fire, as Mary’s yes will lead humanity out of captivity to sin and death.

Contemporary both in date of execution (2000) and in setting, John Collier’s Annunciation brings some of the ancient conventions of iconography to a street in American suburbia, with Mary as a schoolgirl lost in her book until greeted by a winged messenger. Painted for St Gabriel’s parish in McKinney, Texas, Collier’s Annunciation took some getting used to by parishioners. Fr Dwight Longenecker appreciates the ways that the biblical and the ordinary are woven together in this work:

I like the natural symbols in the picture. The door that only she can open, the window, the classical design of the architecture hinting that she who is the temple stands by a temple. The lilies and see how she stands on a welcome mat?

What are your favorite depictions of the Annunciation? Though the feast day is coming to a close, we can meditate on these icons of a joyful mystery all year long. Happy New Year!


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