Advent in Art 08: Botticelli's Annunciation

Sarah Watt
Sunday, 30 November 2008



Botticelli’s Annunciation – my favourite painting ever. Not just my favourite annunciation, or my favourite Renaissance painting – but any painting. So what a treat it is to get to show it to all of you, and talk a bit about how it’s designed and what it represents.

This painting hangs in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy, and I am lucky enough to have seen it about 3 times (though the first time I was 10 and didn’t know the painting or anything about art, so perhaps that doesn’t really count). But I’m so glad I’ve seen it in real life. At first instance I love this painting purely because of its beauty, the rich colours, the aesthetics of it. It conveys so perfectly the purity and grace embodied in the figures in it. This is from the Renaissance period, and I like the literal interpretation of the subjects; you can tell what’s what and who’s who, there’s no ambiguity, and it’s not just a few dashes of paint on a plain background, purporting to be an Annunciation like others I’ve seen by contemporary artists (nice – but no).


But also, the back story to our painting can’t be ignored – it’s a magical moment (literally and emotionally) where a woman is told she is going to have a baby. Most of the time, though not always, this is a cause for great joy in people’s lives, and personally I look forward to the day when someone – probably a doctor rather than an angel, but you never know – tells me I am with child.

But of course, this isn’t just any woman or any old announcement. This is the one on which our whole Christian faith is based – without this moment, we’d all be Buddhists.


The annunciation is the story of the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, a young teenager (though she doesn’t look it here) when she was still just engaged to a young man called Joseph, and Gabriel telling her that she is to have a child, conceived of the Holy Spirit and not her husband-to-be, and that this child will be the Son of God, to be named Jesus. Quite a big deal!


The passage appears in the gospel of St Luke. You may be interested to know that this story also appears in the Koran, almost word for word as we read is in the bible, though it doesn’t specify that Jesus is the Son of God – but it does call Gabriel “Jibral”, and Mary is “Miryam”, and so on, and it’s very definitely the same story.


Anyway, first of all let’s take a brief look at the painter himself.


Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi – he became better known as Sandro Botticelli or Il Botticello ("The Little Barrel") – a nickname given him as a young apprentice.


He is probably more famous for the Birth of Venus (the beautiful naked woman with long red hair hovering above a clam shell), and Primavera, which I wouldn’t give you tuppence for, personally. There are more famous annunciations than his too, like my 2nd favourite annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci, which is in the National Gallery in London. It’s beautiful, a similar configuration but set outside, and it’s a lovely rendition of the angel and Mary. But enough about Leonardo.


Sandro was born March 1, 1445 and died May 17, 1510 – 65 yrs old, not bad going for those days.


His father was a tanner; he trained as a goldsmith at about age 14; was apprentice to Fra Filippo Lippi. He had opened own workshop by 1480.


I quite like that Botticelli was a “committee” person, which I identify with. Of course, he got to decide things like: in 1491 he served on a committee to decide upon a facade for the Florence Duomo. Imagine that. In 1504 he was a member of the committee appointed to decide where Michelangelo's statue of David would be placed. Not exactly Cityside Church Council issues, but close…


By 1502 Botticelli was no longer employed very much, and after his death his reputation was eclipsed longer and more thoroughly than that of any other major European artist. His paintings remained in the churches and villas for which they had been created, and his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were upstaged by Michelangelo's.


The painting

The “annunciazione” – try that for a mouthful - aka the Cestello Annunciation (which means “heavenly”) was commissioned in 1489, and painted for the church of the Florentine convent of Cestello.


Annunciations are, by and large, pretty faithful by using the same elements in most of them (obviously with some exceptions – but generally) -

The angel holds a Madonna lily, a symbol of Mary's virginity and of the city of Florence. Mary is almost always in a walled garden or closed room, to symbolise her purity. You’ll often see a dove, too, which represents the Holy Spirit – (there is a beautiful and very ornate gold-leafed annunciation by Crivelli which has a stream of gold light and a dove “zooming” down from a cloud in heaven straight into Mary’s stomach/womb at the point when Gabriel makes his statement) – though there is no dove in this picture.


In this painting in particular I’m struck by the vivid, unabashed colours; the luxurious and well-depicted folds of material; up close you can see the filmy transparency of the angels wings; the detail of the lily flower; Mary’s halo and the detail on the hem of her cloak – truly remarkable and incredibly beautiful – the colours in real life are more spectacular that the rendition you see in most books.


In many Annunciations, Mary is reading a book, which is by turns dropped to the ground in shock, or laid calmly on her lap. Here we can just see it on a stand to Mary’s left.

You can feel the incredibly graceful movement of the angel, just landed down from the sky, and therefore kneeling partly on landing, partly in respect, and Mary coiled away from him, yet strangely leaning into him (rather than huddled in a corner as you might be). Various interpretations of Annunciations have her recoiling in horror or shock, but in this picture her face is one of grace, acceptance (though not resignation it must be noted) and utter peace.


Gabriel is speaking the words of St. Luke's Gospel, which are written underneath him in Latin on the painting's original frame: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee”. (You may be interested to know that Luke is the only gospel which describes the annunciation. Matthew tells the story of Gabriel going to tell Joseph – very thoughtful of him, when you consider how shocked he would otherwise be – but no mention of Mary’s instruction.)


Note the separation of the divine (Gabriel) and the Pure (Mary) whose hands don’t actually touch or overlap – the door/window frame helps to separate them visually. Some theories say that this is Florence in the background. Studying the composition of the picture, what is considered to be the amazing perspective of the floor leads our eye up to the window at the back, and out to that scene. Perspective was very new at this time, “discovered” less than 100 years earlier, so Botticelli is one of the first and most significant artists to depict it so successfully. Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths hold that the Annunciation took place in the desert of Nazareth – but it’s nice that Renaissance artists didn’t let little facts like that get in the way of setting it in Florence…


While there is a dividing line of sorts between the 2 subjects, there is also a visual guiding line from Gabriel’s arm up to Mary’s arm, connecting them. Note how she is turned away but also towards him – and how much this resembles a dance of sorts: Gabriel bowing to take her hand, Mary bent towards him with head slightly bowed as if accepting his invitation. I like how she is arched in a very graceful pose, which even though this painting is a still, is full of inherent movement, and her hands remind me of Thai, Cambodian or Indian dancers.


Let’s look at the two subjects themselves.

Gabriel generally:

It will come as no surprise that Gabriel is the Patron saint of messengers, those who work for broadcasting and telecommunications such as radio and television, remote sensing, and postal workers. His feast day was originally 24th March (being 9 months prior to the birth of Christ) but in various religious calendars has been changed. The Feast of the Annunciation, in the Catholic calendar, is celebrated on 25th March, to this day.

Muslims believe Gabriel to have been the angel who revealed the Qur'an to the prophet Muhammad. So he clearly did lots of jobs for God, though I wager the Annunciation was probably his most important.


Mary’s response: (according to Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown of Durham Cathedral, England, in a recent sermon on the Annunciation)

“From this day on both heaven and earth were changed, because Mary said yes to God's astonishing proposition that God the Son should be born into this world, and that she should risk stoning to become his mother. Sometimes God's ways of doing things are way beyond anything that any sensible human could think up, and perhaps we need to keep that in mind when we wonder what on earth God is up to.


Mary had all the facts and her response is really quite staggering: we are not told that she asks for time to think it all over, or talk to her parents or fiancé about it, as would be the cultural norm; instead this 12 or 13 year old girl from a backwater village in a small part of the Roman empire quite simply says ‘yes' to God and risks all the consequences.”


Can you imagine anything bigger, for God to drop in and ask of you? Sure, there are stories in the Bible of God asking fathers to sacrifice their sons (though it turns out it’s a test, and he stops it at the last minute – whereas this pregnancy goes all the way). The Reverend makes the point that Mary, being for all intents and purposes an adulterer to be pregnant out of wedlock, would be risking stoning by agreeing to this. We’re not told much at all about Mary’s response, or Joseph’s. Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary queried how she would have a child when she hadn’t been with a man (to which Gabriel explained the Holy Spirit would take care of that) – and then Mary is said to have accepted it, saying “whatever is God’s will”. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Gabriel appears to Joseph in a dream, and presumably that was all that was necessary to keep the husband-to-be in line.


But getting back to Mary. I like the Catholics’ Hail Mary where they say “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed in the fruit of thy womb” de da, de da, de da. “Full of grace”. I find those very words, and that sentiment, to be almost overpowering when I let the words sink in. Mary is all about GRACE. Rather than complaining, querying, putting her own feelings first, arguing, doubting – she just says “whatever is God’s will”. And Botticelli, more than some more recent artists who throw a more modern interpretation into their paintings by making Mary recoil in horror, hide behind her hands, turn her back on Gabriel, and so on – captures this grace in Mary’s face. She looks peaceful – almost asleep – and utterly unshocked by the news. Luke’s gospel does say that initially, when Gabriel appears to Mary and says “Hey! You’re special, and God’s got a message for you!” that she is, understandably, “greatly troubled” and wonders what message this might be. But what our picture shows, and this is confirmed by the wording on the frame which accompanies the original, is the part when Gabriel actually tells Mary the essence of the message. She then asks one, fairly logical logistical question – and, once answered, she accepts it.


If we spend time in this painting, soaking it up, we’ll get many things – pleasure from the richly coloured robes, the finely detailed halos, Gabriel’s wings, the detailing on Mary’s gown. We can lose ourselves in the garden out the window, taking in the trees, bridge and buildings that indicate a life peopled by Florentines, while this blessed miracle, one that will utterly transform the course of history, and the hearts of billions, takes place in a quiet room somewhere.


But also, by taking in the grace and beauty of the figures in the picture, we can get a sense of what true Grace is all about. And I think Grace is something we could all do with more of in our lives – from the people we encounter day after day who fail to say thank you when you hold a door open for them, or let them off the bus first – but also, more importantly, within ourselves. Whether you’re in a position where God asks things of you that you want to resist, or whether it’s other people in your life to whom you need to show grace, it’s difficult to stop and think before we act instinctively, selfishly, with annoyance. If we take a leaf out of Mary’s book, we will feel so much better about everything that happens to us, and our interactions with those in the world, and in turn, like a smile begets a smile, grace begets grace.


I think the whole “What Would Jesus Do?” movement is very cute, but I also think there’s room for a sister cause – “What Would Mary Say?”. I’m going to give that some more thought.