‘In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.’
I love finding new artistic representations of the annunciation: the moment that God announces to Mary that she will bear his Son. She responds with fear, confusion, trust and grace, all mingled up together. It’s an incredible moment, and artists across centuries have captured this moment in many different ways.
Fra Angelico’s painting (above) has been around for a long time (since 1434!), and there are many different versions, both by the same artist and by others who were influenced by him, that look very similar. There are obvious visual symbols everywhere: flowers, the Spirit as a dove, the scriptures on Mary’s knee and actual words escaping from Gabriel’s mouth. The visual perspective is a little strange – I’m no art critic or historian but I think the weird perspective makes sense given the age of the piece. The historical and theological perspective, on the other hand, is rich, clear and powerful. In the top left corner of the painting, like a time machine, we see Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Fra Angelico reminds us that here, finally, with this young woman and God’s work in her, we have the answer to the curse of sin. Finally, after all this time, the child of Eve will come to crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15).
As art changes, Mary becomes less serene and much more normal looking in the moment of the announcement. I especially love the paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (right) and Henry Ossawa Tanner (below) from the 1800s. Both artists capture Mary as a young girl, encountering Gabriel in a moment of confusion and surprise. She is woken from sleep, dazed and still entangled in her bedclothes. Rossetti sets Gabriel’s feet on fire; Tanner portrays Gabriel as fire! However they both hold onto some traditions. Rossetti has retained the lillies and both artists, while dressing Mary in white instead of blue, have blue cloth draped near her bed for traditional consistency.
Fun fact: Rossetti used his sister Christina as a model for Mary!
The 20th and 21st centuries have seen even more experiments with the portrayal of the annunciation, and also (for Westerners) greater accessibility to non-Western artists. I really like Kim Ki Chang‘s Annunciation (left), the first in a series of many paintings depicting the life of Jesus in a Korean setting. All the traditional visual symbols carried through the ages by Western artists are replaced by traditional Korean elements, although interestingly, Mary’s hanbok is still blue.
Many 20th and 21st century artists have brought the moment of the annunciation into a contemporary setting, to show just how profoundly challenging this story actually is. I have seen Mary listening to an ipod, Marys in slips and singlets, Cubist Marys, all kinds of contemporary Marys. My favourite contemporary annunciation painting is by John Collier (below). Mary is a young school girl, barely a teenager, her nose in a book on the front porch of her home. She looks disturbingly similar to every young girl I know, and her life is about to be turned upside down. Argh! And in among the familiart suburban setting Collier hids many of the symbols of old. Like almost every other Mary, she is dressed in blue, book at hand, lillies nearby. She is even tucked away in a portico, just like Fra Angelico’s painting from over half a century ago.
One of the nice things about celebrating Advent in Australia is that lillies, the beautiful flowers associated with the annunciation, are in bloom during late November. My grandmother grows white lillies just like those in everyone’s paintings; she grows them because they represent Mary’s purity. A recently developed advent tradition for me is to talk a walk where lots of lillies grow, to give thanks for Mary’s trust in God and to dwell on the crazy mystery of the incarnation.