The Annunciation is one of a handful of Bible stories where humans and angels come face to face. Like most of us, artists love a good supernatural story and they have been trying to capture the duality of this story for centuries. Renaissance artists found ways to mix Biblical knowledge and symbols, with body language in an effort to paint the tale.
What is the Annunciation?
The word annunciation has gone out of style, but historically it could mean a formal announcement. In the Christian tradition the Annunciation refers to the passage found in Luke 1:26-36. Here, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she will become pregnant with the Son of God. Mary questions how that can happen because she’s been saving herself for her fiancé Joseph. Gabriel tells her the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will be with child. She ultimately says, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled.”
Where the scene happens can tell us bit about the artist. In France, artists would frequently set the scene in an interior room, like a bedchamber. Italian artists liked to use outdoor settings like peristyles, or colonnades. Jan Van Eyck was one of the first Low Country artists to put his meeting inside a Cathedral. He even turned the church’s architecture into complex lesson on the Bible. El Greco painted the Annunciation multiple times, almost all his works take place in a tight, dark space that highlights the figures.
Who was Gabriel?
In the Bible, there are only a few angels mentioned by name, one is Gabriel. He states his name when he comes to announce the birth of John the Baptist, six months prior to this story. While Luke doesn’t give a lot of details about what Gabriel looks like, there are passages in the Old and New Testament that describe angels. Artists have taken their cues from from these descriptions: they can fly, they can appear in human form, some angels have wings, and they inspire fear, and awe.
A Bit About Mary
How does an artist paint attributes like purity, piety, and humility? It’s all in the hands, the eyes, and the symbols. Mary’s eyes rarely make direct contact with the Angel. They are frequently downcast. Her hands, and arms build a gentle barrier between herself and Gabriel. Many artists show Mary’s hands folded in prayer, or crossed and held to her chest. Artists often add a white lily to their paintings, frequently Gabriel will offer one to Mary. This is a symbol of purity.
What’s with the bird?
In the Bible story, Gabriel tells Mary the Spirit of the Lord will descend on her. The dove was a commonly known symbol for the Holy Spirit. This comes from the story of the baptism of Jesus. Immediately after Jesus was baptized, the Spirit of God descended on him, like a dove. (Matthew 3:16)
The Annunciation was a common story to find in cathedrals. So common, that if you pick a Renaissance artist, they have probably painted this scene. I think the popularity has something to do with the challenge, and variety of trying to capture an angelic being talking to a teenage girl.