Advent in Art 07: Virgin Annunciate

Sandra Atkins
Sunday, 2 December 2007

Virgin Annunciate

Antonello da Messina

Virgin Annunciate

click for larger image

c,1475  (period of Italian Renaissance)
Oil on Wood

The Annunciation is the story of Mary’s visitation with an angel. It is not an artistic topic that has ever drawn me very much, despite its popularity during the renaissance era. I think this is mostly because I have never related to the somewhat cultic view of Mary that such art often represents. The symbolic idea of Mary as a heavenly model for women to aspire to has always been well beyond my own ability to attain!
There are some iconic elements operating in this painting. The dark background is one, as is the triad shape formed by Mary’s cloak, that represents perfection.

The unexpected though, captures my interest much more. The most obvious, is the absence of the angel. I liked this about it from the very first. It’s absence, removes the conjecture for me of what an angel might look like – a question asked recently of me by one of my children, which I had no further framework then their own to answer. It leaves me free to contemplate God’s approach without confinement, to consider the enormity of what was spoken to Mary and then, to reflect on her response.

Mary’s appearance is also unusual. Consistent with the development of Renaissance painting at this time, the virgin is painted here in a more human light. As I have read about the way this developed, I came to understand why this particular artwork appeals to me. Antonello’s Mary is one I can relate to. I find Mary’s beauty draws me... even captivates me… not just her physical beauty, but her inner presence which seems to reach out to me through the intensity of her gaze and her outstretched hand.

It is these elements in fact, that Messina’s virgin is most renowned for. The use of oil at this time was extremely new, allowing both luminescence and the ability to create a much more 3D image. Remarkably, Mary’s hand appears to reach out toward you – or the angel – with a sense of beseeching. What was her response to the proclamation of the angel? Is she accepting or resistant of what is spoken to her?

Herein lies the paradox for me.

The story of the Annunciation is told only in Luke, and begins with the angel’s pronouncement of God’s favour toward Mary.
Luke’s story continues as a historical record of events which provides a framework but no sentiment or emotion to give light to the process of her acceptance.

Did she really accept the pronouncement of God’s favour so quickly?

Did she understand what God’s favour would entail for her life? And how did she step outside her cultural expectations to accept it?

Clearly Mary had some cultural expectations to overcome – both regarding the messiah and her own position. My own culture also builds expectations for what God’s favour might look like. I would say that these are associated exclusively with goodness, “blessing”, some would even say prosperity. And yet my reality is much more like Mary’s than I first considered. For her, God’s favour bestowed –

        Unseen honour… and public shame
        Acceptance and safety… alongside fear & isolation
        Awe & wonder… and enormous pain
        The joy of awakening… and the sorrow of grief
Was there a process of acceptance that included some feelings of resentment or anger alongside the wonder of being drawn into the line of David?

The dual messages of her hands reaching & defending, the other protecting, allow me to consider that it could have been so. She reflects an awakening, an understanding that encourages me to contemplate her spirit… and my own. I love Antonello’s Mary because she is human.

You may wonder why that is significant. God’s favour has long been a testament to Mary’s purity – her meekness and moral goodness. As a model to aspire to, my own life falls far short of such credentials! Despite understanding this is why Jesus came, I continue to ask - Is God’s favour equally out of my reach? I think I have lived much of my life (sometimes more consciously than others) believing this to be true… unable to accept God’s favour even if I imagine that it is offered.

Somehow, the humanness portrayed in this image make Mary’s beauty, her inner beauty and contemplative spirit, much more tangible to me. It gives me some identification with her. And leads me to a place where I can consider that maybe, just maybe, she would be a woman I could emulate after all.


What stops you from accepting God’s favour toward you?

How might our culture limit your view of what God might bestow?

Does this affect your response to Christ?

How might your process of response be changed?

What might accepting God’s favour change in your life?

Story told only in the gospel of Luke

  • the story of the conception of Jesus, the incarnation of Christ
  • contains the ideal of womanhood; chastity & submissiveness, revealed in Mary’s humble acquiescence to the divine commandment
  • Mary hovers (during this period) between two traditional images of womanhood; the spotless female elevated in the Virgin Birth and the enchanted beauty, descendant of Eve

Mary is traditionally shown to be apprehensive, even frightened at the presence of the angel Gabriel,
reflecting her meekness and modesty.
For she is characterized as a woman chosen from among us on earth, but also in her matchless beauty of body and soul as the heavenly model for women's aspiration.

Scholars suggest that Mary became adored to the point of ??? in the Middle Ages as a reflection of her roots in the female deities of the Ancient Middle East. These female deities captured the awe and mystery surrounding procreation worshipped in the virgin birth. When the goddess was dislodged by the masculine god and culture in Hebrew and early Christian times, there was a need for a sympathetic female identity in the deity; a need supplied by the Virgin Mary. This picture extends to the myth of Mary’s perpetual virginity, and the resulting equation of abstinence with moral goodness.

There is a tension between the sensuality of a woman and purity of heart/body.

All Annunciation art was appropriated by men, reflecting an ideal of man’s desire   

Late in the 15th century, Mary is shown in a more human light, both in gesture and response. Often she appears, as here, half accepting & half resisting.

Mary is portrayed reading a book, understood to be a prayer book or the Bible, conjecturally the prophetic Book of Isaiah.

Other aspects of this painting, not so traditional. There is no angel! Removes conjecture of how she was approached – intimately, regally etc – and even what an angel is actually like.

Artist one of the first to show realism in his paintings, not just symbolism. Oils were unusual.

The cloak creates a triad shape of perfection, but is also light and flowing, showing movement in many directions, creating space and depth. Dark background also supports iconic presentation.

One hand draws her shawl around her, suggesting shyness and reserve.
Where Mary’s hand reaches forward – to the viewer or the angel? Ambiguous in acceptance or defense.
Mary presents at once a mere girl in a moment of awakening, a character in a familiar narrative, and a subject for lasting contemplation

He sustains the contemplative spirit

Leaves us only with the questions of response… a question that Christ still offers us today.


Did Mary have choice or was the Annunciation story one of commandment and obligation?
Was Mary apprehensive? Did she experience resistance or doubt?
Did she offer glad acceptance or meek compliance? Was this acceptance as quick as the story describes?

Mary had all the cultural expectations of her time for what a messiah would look like. A king that would liberate politically and triumphantly.

She would have known the lineage for the messiah and been aware that she was marrying into the house of David.

What was it in Mary’s heart that she could understand beyond her cultural view?
What in Mary’s character drew God’s choice of her – was it purely the timing of generations or did Mary’s response influence the outcome? Does prophetic fulfillment only have one time and place?

How would Christ challenge my own cultural view this Christmas?
Would I recognise him if he presented himself in a new way? What would my response be?
Will the return of Christ look different than I expect it to? How might his kingship be new in my life?

During the Rennaisance period, many homes contained special images designed to aid prayer. Just as monks might have a painting that would enhance their ability to contemplate, so too, laymen and women were encouraged to create a mental imagination where their world and that of Heaven emerged. Images such as this one becoming popular, where the person seems to directly address the viewer, has been associated with this practice.