Figure 1 (above) Detail from Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus, Simone Martini, c. 1333, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

It’s perhaps one of the most depicted scenes in the history of art. You know the one. Young, beautiful woman sits reading or staring into space to the right. Entering from our left is an angel. Sometimes we see the woman’s reaction, which can encompass a range of emotions. The demure: “Oh, a heavenly being has just materialized in my bedroom, how interesting” (Figure 2). The coy: “Don’t touch me, you’ve got cooties” (Figure 1). The friendly wave and a “Hi there, I’m the Virgin Mary, who are you?!” (Figure 3). Or the confused “Say what?” (Figure 4). The angel Gabriel’s momentous annunciation of the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary appears ubiquitously in Western art, and the images resurface and circulate around this time of year.  

Most annunciations subscribe to a predetermined set of symbols and traditions, and even those that deviate from the expected are often in dialogue with annunciations from the past. So a little bit of art history can go a long way. Thus, I present to you a quick and dirty Art History 101—the yuletide edition. If nothing else, this stuff could come in handy at trivia or prove useful as anecdotes for impressing your relatives, if you take them to an art museum over the holiday season.

  1. So, why is the angel always on the left?

Well, actually, the angel is on Mary’s right. The tradition goes, that Virgin Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit penetrating—wait for it—her right ear. The “Word” of God literally becomes flesh through Mary. Sometimes this “word” is a little speech bubble going straight from the angel to Mary, as seen in Simone Martini’s Annunciation (Figure 1). This queenly Virgin is not thrilled and cringes away from the angel. The words about to pierce her appear backward to us in order for her to read them clearly.

Figure 2. Workshop of Robert Campin, Annunciation Triptych (Mérode Altarpiece), c. 1427-32, The Cloisters Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Or, in the case of the Mérode Altarpiece below, a little superhero Holy Spirit zooms on a ray of light toward the Virgin’s ear with a raised cross in hand. Generally speaking, all good things must come from the right side for medieval and early modern art viewers. The right side was considered your “holy, righteous, or “dexter” side. This is in sharp contrast with the left side (or your “sinister” side), from whence come and go all things hellish and perverted—including left-handed people (don’t kill the messenger!).

The Mérode Altarpiece is jam-packed with other symbols, but I’ll just touch on a couple of my favorites. The firescreen behind the Virgin Mary, not only protects the Virgin from the flames of her hearth, but from the symbolic flames of earthly passion, because God forbid she get, ahem, excited by anything else except for the Holy Spirit. Likewise, Joseph (in the right panel) is depicted as a decrepit old man; it’s a visual reassurance that his baby-making days are way over.

  1. Why the book, lilies, and garden?

Often Mary gets her big news mid-devotions. The book, sometimes propped up on a little stand called a prie-dieu or prayer stand, communicates several things. Not only does this show us the Virgin’s piety (and encourage us to follow her example), often the page will be turned toward a pertinent passage in the Old Testament foretelling the Virgin birth. The words Mary reads become the flesh of her present reality.

Figure 3. Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Verrocchio, Andrea Solari, Annunciation, 1472, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Lilies are symbols of the Virgin and her purity. It’s also a prop associated with the angel Gabriel. Sometimes Gabriel holds the lilies, or they are in a vase between the angel and the Virgin (Figure 1). In Gabriel Rossetti’s Annunciation lilies and a dove act as the instrument of conception, like a speech bubble or rays of light that aim the angel’s message (and the viewer’s eye) at Mary.

Sometimes Mary is shown in walled garden—yet another symbol of, can you guess, virginity. A walled garden also appropriately alludes to the lovers in the Song of Solomon or the Garden of Eden; Mary, the second Eve, will redeem the first Eve’s failure in a holy garden.

Figure 4. Dante Gabriel Rossetti,  Ecce Ancilla Domini! or The Annunciation, 1849-1950, Tate Modern, London.

  1. Why the colors red and blue?

Red implies the eventual shedding of Christ’s blood, and blue symbolizes spirituality and holiness; they were also expensive pigments (only the best for the Queen of Heaven). These color choices even appear in some annunciations that divert dramatically from the traditional formulas. Rossetti’s Annunciation was dubbed a controversial reimagining of the annunciation because the scantily clad Virgin looks as if she has just been aroused from sleep, rather than interrupted at her prayers (Figure 4).

American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner opted for a more life-like depiction of the Virgin, drawing on his observations from a recent trip to the Middle East (Figure 5). But he stays within the prescripted composition, placing Mary on the right side of the image and framing her with a well-staged red screen. The light of an amorphous angel also illuminates vibrant blue drapery, which we expect to see the Virgin wear.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Annunciation, 1498, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

  1. And finally, why this image? Why this part of the story? Why is this heavenly exchange, from a narrative full of divine meetings, such a favorite in western Christian art?

The answer I find the most meaningful at this time of year is that the annunciation offers a perennial image of hope. With the word “Hail,” all the prophecies and promises came to an end. In this image, we see the inception of the incarnation. Finally the divine could be captured with the earthly pigment, panel, and fibers of an artist, because the mysterious, invisible God would become human, visible flesh.

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