The Iconography of the Virgin Mary

PART TWO: THE ANNUNCIATION

In Luke's gospel the angel tells Mary she is to conceive a child even while a virgin: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee." This is among the most frequently illustrated subjects in Christian art. Luke provides visual details, but it is the theology that makes the event so important. The images present not just any announcement but the precise moment of the Incarnation, when "the Word was made flesh" and in T. S. Eliot's words,
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
driven by dæmonic, chthonic
Powers…
In their fullest and most common form Annunciation images depict Mary on the right, the angel on the left, and the Holy Spirit arriving as a dove on a light beam. The "power of the Most High" is pictured in early versions as a hand reaching from Heaven (as above), in later ones as the face or torso of God the Father (as here). Molanus (275) observes that some artists have also posed a "little human body" on the light beam, as in this example and the second picture at right. This practice he condemns as heretical because it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary's. After Molanus's time the only baby in an Annunciation that I know of is in an archaizing sculpture from 1895.

In most early images, through the Romanesque era and then trailing off in the 14th century, Mary gestures to the angel with her palms held out (example). One exception is this 6th-century mosaic, where she holds her right index finger to her chin. She holds one hand to her breast in this 13th-century image and from the 14th century onward in the West (example). According to Tradigo (101) the latter gesture expresses humility; the former, reserve and detachment. In late- and post-medieval images Mary's hands may be clasped in prayer (example) or crossed over her breast, as in the first picture at right.

THE FIGURES

Very often the angel 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).

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).

WHAT MARY WAS DOING

According to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 9, Mary and the other virgins are assigned the job of spinning thread to be woven into a new veil for the Temple. In the midst of working on the purple thread Mary takes a pitcher out to a fountain and an angel says to her, "Blessed art thou, Mary; for in thy womb thou hast prepared an habitation for the Lord." The next day he appears to her again inside the Temple while she is spinning the thread, and the narrative continues through to the Incarnation as in Luke. A 13th-century fresco in Croatia seems to represent the fountain incident on the day before the actual Incarnation. In Sicily there is also a 4th-century sarcophagus with a panel that some scholars have taken to be the scene at the fountain. (If they are right, the panel would be the earliest example of an Annunciation image of any kind.)

But all the other Annuncations I have seen from the first millenium have the indoor scene, with Mary on a throne-like chair either "working at the purple with her fingers" (Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 9) or with the thread in a basket. One example is in a 5th-century mosaic in Rome; another is a textile fragment from the 8th or 9th century. Some images use trees to suggest an outdoor setting even though Mary is clearly seated at her weaving (example). The thread continued in the iconography of the Orthodox images such as the mosaic shown above. In the medieval West, it is still seen on rare occasions, such as a silk from Siena now in the Metropolitan Museum and a 13th-century stained glass in Lyon that Mâle says marks the end of this feature in the west (Religous Art, 243).

In Gothic and later art in the West, Annunciation images drew inspiration from another remark in Pseudo-Matthew: "She was always engaged in prayer and in searching the law" (chapter 6). We now see Mary 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's prophecy (7:14): "Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (example).

SIGNS AND SYMBOLS

Following the tradition that the Annunciation occurred in Nazareth on March 25, 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 replaces the pitcher of the early images (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 scrolls 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 effects. 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 candle in the second.

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.

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SHOWN ABOVE

Annunciation mosaic from the Church of Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, ("the Martorana"), Palermo, Sicily. See the description page for details.

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.

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.

OTHER IMAGES

Detail from the main altarpiece, Mariapfarr, Austria. Note the hourglass on the right and Mary's crossed-arms gesture. – For more details, see the de­scrip­tion page

Robert Campin's renowned Annunciation uses a wealth of symbols to comment on the event. It also replaces the dove with a small child holding a cross – a detail later condemned as contrary to Incarnation theology. See the de­scrip­tion page for a large photo and further details.

This unique fresco pictures the moment after the Incarnation. See the description page for further details and a larger photo.

MORE IMAGES

  • 12th century: Flank­ing sta­tues, left por­tal, Za­dar Ca­the­dral, Croatia.
  • 12th century: A capital on a column in Oviedo pairs the Annunciation with the Woman Taken in Adultery.
  • 13th century: De­tail from the apse mo­sa­ic in San­ta Ma­ria Mag­giore, Rome.
  • 1265-95, Florence: Triptych of the Madonna Enthroned.
  • 1315-20: Even this small panel in a large medieval window manages to include the dove, the hand-to-breast gesture, and an AVE MARIA scroll that also functions as a separator between the figures.
  • 14th century or later: Reliquary Plaque with the Virgin Annunciate, from Poreč, Croatia.
  • 1475: Antonello da Messina's Virgin Annunciate dispenses with the angel and most of the other iconography, picturing just the Virgin with the palm-out gesture.
  • 17th century: Urbinelli's Annunciation presents the moments before the actual visit of the angel and imaginatively refreshes the iconography.
  • First half of 18th century: Sculpture group with Mary at a bookstand and angel on the right holding a lily stalk instead of a sceptre.
  • 1750: Filippo della Valle's overwrought Annunciation replaces the traditional iconographic details with a basket of bread.
  • 1950s: This modern stained glass revives some medieval traditions.
  • Igor Mitoraj, The An­nun­ci­a­tion Doors, 2002.

ALSO SEE

HAGIOGRAPHY