I recently read a thoughtful post about the Annunciation in art and poetry from the folks over at Women in Theology (“WIT”). While I share none of their reservations about Marian devotion – literally, none – I greatly appreciated a chance to read some modern Marian poetry (mainly W.H. Auden) and modern artistic depictions of the Annunciation. I usually try not to respond to posts, as I have a rather pugnacious temperament. They have, however, encouraged me to reply. I respond now with a brief layman’s review of the Annunciation in art.

The post from WIT focuses its attention on a few modern examples of Marian art, and makes some careful reflections on the Annunciation from a broadly feminist perspective. Let us take some time to look at the longer stretch of history. First, we will find that the Annunciation is not the focus in early Marian art. For the most part, creative attention rests on Mary’s motherhood: this is her primary identity, and certainly the primary interest of early devotion. She is depicted in these works holding her child, Jesus. Who is Mary? The Mother of God – and this affirmation gains special force after the controversies with Nestorius in the 5th century. The Theotokos of Vladimir (12 century) is an excellent example of this very early tradition, which became a major trope in the vocabulary of icons. Note the intimacy of the relationship expressed:

The artistic tradition in Eastern Christianity revolves around icons, so the various depictions of Mary develop around specific established attitudes. There are icons of the Annunciation, but the Scriptural scene receives much more attention in Western art. As far as poetry goes, however, no one with an ear for Marian poetry should go without reading the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian (4th century). Hymn XI, “The Virgin Mother to her Child,” is perhaps his most popular Marian hymn, and a stunning reflection on Mary’s motherhood:

I shall not be jealous, my Son, that Thou art with me, and also with all men. Be Thou God to him that confesses Thee, and be thou Lord to him that serves Thee, and be Brother to him that loves Thee, that Thou mayest gain all!

When Thou didst dwell in me, Thou didst also dwell out of me, and when I brought Thee forth openly, Thy hidden might was not removed from me. Thou art within me, and Thou art without me, O Thou that makest Thy Mother amazed.

The accent in the poem rests on Mary’s amazement at the fact that Christ is brought forth in her, and for all. Hers is a motherhood for all, and it is no mistake that the hymn spends some time with Eucharistic imagery. Christ is “brought forth” by Mother Church in the Eucharist, and Ephrem’s early 4th century parallels between the life of the Church and the life of Mary help to indicate what would become a very rich tradition in both the East and West. Again, Mary’s motherhood is the key to devotion and the emphasis in art. She is contrasted with Eve, the mother who brought death to humanity, and lauded instead as the mother of the living in Christ. Her portrayals, particularly the ways in which she is always presented as holding her Son, stresses her status more and more as the Seat of Wisdom.

In the West during the Middle Ages, artists expand their depictions to include what we would recognize as “scenes.” Frozen moments drawn especially from Scriptural stories. Though not necessarily unknown in art before this, this mode of depiction receives much greater emphasis in the West as art develops. We still have rather static figures regarding one another, as in this little moment held in the R of a gradual from 1300:

Even here we can see a more lively depiction, with Mary gesturing toward the angel Gabriel who greets her. She bows her head in acquiescence. The Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, hovers by her ear, depicting the moment of conception. These are sensibilities rather familiar by this time in depictions both East and West. Mary’s physical attitude, particularly her bowed head, become essential in the artistic “language” of the Annunciation – almost a shorthand for her response to the angel, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” This broken statue from a little earlier (perhaps 1250) displays the artistic shorthand with great clarity:

Mary has her head bowed, and her hand rests along her abdomen, as if to indicate the significance of the scene. She elsewhere holds her hand to her heart, following, as it were, St. Augustine’s dictum: Mary first conceived Christ in her mind before conceiving him in her womb. (That is, she conceived by faith. This excerpt from a homily is a great one from Augustine.)

Nor is her status as the Seat of Wisdom forgotten. She is the “tabernacle” in which Christ dwelled, and scenes depicting the Annunciation increasingly intersect with Eucharistic devotion. Mary is a royal figure, crowned with the full dignity of redeemed humanity and with an utterly unique place in salvation history as the Mother of God. This page from a Book of Hours (French, 1465), depicting the Annunciation across more than one page (not pictured) has royal and Eucharistic overtones:

See the priest in the back? She is not a priestly figure – it would be a mistake and an anachronism to make that leap – but she certainly abides alongside Eucharistic devotion, which by this time had developed into adoration in the West. The believer hopes to bear and adore Christ as the Virgin did, humbly receiving him in the Spirit. Note, too, that Mary holds a book in her hand. By this time, it had become standard to depict Mary as a reader of Scripture, especially in the Annunciation. She is the one who, as Augustine himself says in the homily noted above, hears the Word of God and keeps it in her heart.

We would be remiss if we did not note one of the most famous depictions of the Annunciation, Leonardo da Vinci’s version (ca. 1472):

The Virgin sits literally with her finger to the page of Scripture, and regards the angel almost as if she had only just been reading about what the prophets foretold. Gabriel bows before Mary, who is seated, and in this early Renaissance work we get a more “natural” and “filled out” scene – Mary is near a house, and an outdoor vista stretches out behind both figures.

My favorite Annunciation depiction is Botticelli’s “Cestella Annunciation,” also a Renaissance work, as I find it gracefully draws together major themes in Marian art up to this time.

Gabriel’s bow to Mary is even more pronounced here – she is the Seat of Wisdom, after all – and he holds a lily, a sign of virginal purity. We can see to the right that the Virgin has been regarding the words of Scripture. She, too, bows her head, depicting the handmaid’s agreement to God’s plan. The focal point of the work is the meeting-place between Gabriel and Mary’s outstretched hands, an elegant greeting between God’s holy messenger and the lowly-exalted Virgin.

Botticelli, with remarkable efficiency, manages to combine and contrast the major tropes of the Annunciation: Mary’s unique and exalted status as the God-Bearer and her lowly humility. That the angel kneels is a startling moment, one to be considered with no small amount of amazement. After all, the art itself both lifts up and humbles Mary, who herself bows deeply. These are themes to be detected not only in the Scriptural account of the Annunciation – the angel greets Mary with astounding reverence, and she references herself only as nothing but a handmaid – but also in Mary’s self-description in her Magnificat. The grandeur of God greets a simple young woman; the Divine Son partakes of lowly flesh. John Donne, an Englishman writing in the late 16th and early 17th century, would combine these opposing themes into a single poem, “Annunciation”:

Salvation to all that will is nigh ;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo ! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb ; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He’ll wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother ;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived ; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.

So I close my little review of major artistic themes in Marian art. By now we have managed to observe some of the most pronounced tropes, and later art will reflect or deliberately deflect these conventions. Thomas Merton, for example, acknowledges them; Rainer Maria Rilke toys with them (and really seems more interested in the angel – sorry, no easy online version to be found). G.K. Chesterton renders an more vast series of themes, together with these, into one of the most sublime litanies in English in “A Little Litany.” With his puzzles, I leave you:

When God turned back eternity and was young,
Ancient of Days, grown little for your mirth
(As under the low arch the land is bright)
Peered through you, gate of heaven–and saw the earth.

Or shutting out his shining skies awhile
Built you about him for a house of gold
To see in pictured walls his storied world
Return upon him as a tale is told.

Or found his mirror there; the only glass
That would not break with that unbearable light
Till in a corner of the high dark house
God looked on God, as ghosts meet in the night.

Star of his morning; that unfallen star
In that strange starry overturn of space
When earth and sky changed places for an hour
And heaven looked upwards in a human face.

Or young on your strong knees and lifted up
Wisdom cried out, whose voice is in the street,
And more than twilight of twiformed cherubim
Made of his throne indeed a mercy-seat.

Or risen from play at your pale raiment’s hem
God, grown adventurous from all time’s repose,
Or your tall body climed the ivory tower
And kissed upon your mouth the mystic rose.