Giovan Battista Urbinelli
The Annunciation (Madonna of the Sewing)

17th century
Albani Diocesan Museum, Urbino, Italy

This painting presents not the actual Annunciation but the moments before it, when God is giving the angel his charge (in the gray-tinted background). In changing the moment of the image, Urbinelli is able to combine different iconographical traditions into a remarkably fresh composition. Here Mary is reading from scripture when the angel arrives, a feature that entered the iconographic tradition at the end of the 14th century. Much earlier, she had been pictured spinning thread for the Temple veil, a detail in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew from the first millennium. For the modern age, the artist has her at work on her sewing.

And instead of the symbolic dove flying in on a light beam, the artist puts two naturalistic doves in the lower left corner. Because they register as doves and not simply as "the Holy Spirit," the whole panoply of dove-symbolism can come into play: the Spirit, yes, but also the dove with the message of peace for Noah, the dove metaphors in the Song of Solomon, the two doves that Mary and Joseph will take to the Temple for the rite of Purification, and of course the reputation of natural doves as examples of "simplicity and gentle affection" (Sill, 20).

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Photographed at the museum by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.