In the annunciation the angel Gabriel announces to the virgin Mary the coming birth and rule of the Christ whom she will conceive and deliver. It is a scene that artists have returned to again and again over the centuries. More than just showing the angel's announcement to Mary of the things to come, the annunciation depicts the significant actual moment of the incarnation when Mary conceived the Word made flesh and God became man. It shows the beginning of the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of the coming of Emmanuel, “God with us.” The first known image of the annunciation is a painting found in the Priscilla Catacombs in Rome and dates back to the 4th century. Becoming more common in the 12th through 14th centuries, the image became one of the most frequently represented subjects throughout art history to the present day. As culture, church doctrine, and artistic periods developed and changed, depictions of the annunciation changed. Compare the stately, enthroned Queen of Heaven in the 12th century icon, to Andrea del Sarto's demure and modest maiden, to Henry Tanner's fearful teenage peasant girl. By putting these variations on a common theme in conversation with each other, we see how different artistic periods have influenced interpretations of the annunciation and how artists haven chosen to emphasize different aspects of Mary.
Unknown, The Annunciation, early 12th century
tempera on wood, Gallery of Icons, Ohrid.
This icon of the annunciation from the Church of St. Clement in Ohrid, Macedonia depicts Mary as the stately Queen of Heaven, a title which was given to Mary as the mother of Christ the King. Mary sits on an elaborate marble throne in a heavenly golden atmosphere characteristic of Byzantine mosaics. The flatness of the figures also resembles the Byzantine style, emphasizing the spiritual rather than the physical here and now. Forms are depicted primarily through line, although some modeling in the drapery and dimensionality in the throne and architecture point away from the Byzantine style toward the more naturalistic style of the Renaissance. Placing Mary in her later exalted position in a heavenly space, this annunciation seeks to glorify Mary rather than to depict the actual circumstances of the annunciation.
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, c. 1438-47
fresco, Convent of San Marco, Florence
This fresco is painted at the top of the stairs leading to the monks' sells in the San Marco Convent. Compared to Fra Angelico's other works, this depiction of the annunciation is simple and spare. The arches and Corinthian columns in the architecture echo the architecture of the monastery itself, placing the scene in the monks' own environment. This image does not contain the typical symbols of the dove, lilies, book, etc., but leaves much up to the imagination of the viewers (the monks). Characteristic of the early Renaissance is the attention to perspective, yet it is not quite convincing compared to the size of the figures. Fra Angelico depicts a mutual reverence between the angel and Mary, who is humble and receptive. In this setting, Mary is shown as someone with whom the monks can identify even as they honor her.
Robert Campin, Annunciation Altarpiece (Merode Altarpiece), c.1427-32
oil on oak, Metropolitan Museum of Art 56.70a–c
This Northern Renaissance triptych, rather than being a public image, is a personal altarpiece that folds into a portable nearly two-foot square. Characteristic of the Northern Renaissance, the Merode Alterpiece depicts the annunciation in the setting of the artist's own day and culture and so connects the divine with everyday life. The scene takes place in an ordinary house filled with household objects. While these objects link the scene to the everyday, they also contain hidden symbolism: the pot hanging in the background is a metaphor for Mary being a vessel for God's work, the snuffed out candle shows that God's presence has now come, the lily represents Mary's purity, etc. Mary's piety is also emphasized by showing her study of Scripture. Campin depicts Mary as a contemporary woman and so relates the spiritual with the familiar.
Andrea del Sarto, The Annunciation, c. 1528
tempera on panel, Galleria delgi Uffizi, Florence
This beautiful annunciation by Andrea del Sarto presents a refined, noble, and elegant depiction of Mary and the angel with simplicity and attention to naturalism. In del Sarto's annunciation we see the influence of Savonarola, the Dominican friar who vigorously preached again the decadence and corruption in the Renaissance. Rather than depicting elaborate landscape or architecture, del Sarto paints a simple background with a few discrete symbolic objects, the lily and the book symbolizing Mary's purity and piety. Mary's graceful gesture shows humility in accepting God's will in her life.
Luca Giordano, The Annunciation, 1672
oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1973.311.2
The drama and elaborate decoration in this interpretation of the annunciation are typical of the Baroque period. Giordano depicts Mary as humble yet regal and radiant. Again the symbols of her purity and piety in the lily and open book appear as well as the dove signifying the Holy Spirit descending on her. Dramatic light pouring from heaven along with the clouds and putti transform the domestic space into a heavenly spiritual one. Billowing drapery adds to the drama of the scene.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898
oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art W1899-1-1
Henry Ossawa Tanner presents a very different interpretation of the scene. This is partly due to his background in the African Methodist Episcopal church rather than the Roman Catholic church. The AME church (in which his father was a bishop) influenced Tanner in his emphasis on enhancing spiritual understanding through the visual experience of the individual. Tanner attempts to depict the annunciation in its original 1st century setting. He paints the angel as a supernatural being who provokes fear into his audience as angels did in Biblical narratives. Rather than showing Mary as a stately elegant model of virtue, Tanner paints the fearful yet receptive teenage peasant girl that Mary would likely have been.
Beatrice Emma Parsons, British Annunciation, 1897-9
oil on canvas, unknown private collection
A Romantic emphasis on nature is evident in Beatrice Emma Parson's annunciation. As in the Merode altarpiece, Mary is placed in the artist's own time and setting, here a British cottage garden. In this garden Mary is surrounded with the traditional symbolic lilies, but while doves also appear, they are not associated with the Holy Spirit and are only part of the natural setting. By putting Mary in a garden, perhaps Parsons suggests an identification of Mary as the second Eve.