For centuries artists have been inspired to paint ‘The Annunciation.’ It is a hallowed scene depicting the angel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she would soon conceive a child born to be the son of God.
Artists and viewers alike recognize that this beautiful story from antiquity tells us something about the creative process itself. But what insights might the Annunciation paintings offer?
The Annunciation works focus on the more elevated spiritual aspects of Jesus’ existence, not his gory death, crucified as a common criminal, or the many dramas and toils of his life. This may be the reason for the deeply calming and uplifting feelings these paintings elicit.
From Leonardo da Vinci in the fourteen hundreds to Waterhouse in 1914, whether realized in frescos, mosaics, sculptures or painted in oils, each version differed, reflecting the stylistic ethos of the times they were made, and the artists’ predilections. Some are presented with Mary standing and Gabriel bowing. In others, this is reversed. Some are set in a highly decorated interior space, while others are set outside in a courtyard. But, the basic composition, and many of the symbols and motifs, remain constant.
So, beyond the incentive of a commission, why? What was the fascination and the lure for artists to create such works?
As artists inevitably imbue their work with their own unique vision, with their own experience and understanding, each can offer a particular perspective, truth, or interpretation of scripture. Given religion was certainly one of our earliest attempts at philosophy, our interest must surely go far beyond the mere understanding of any particular deity.
For instance, Mary, the quintessential icon of receptivity, is consistently depicted as personifying the virtue of purity.
This is clearly demonstrated by Leonardo da Vinci’s The Annunciation, in which Mary is depicted greeting Gabriel in the hortus conclusus, or ‘enclosed’ garden.
She is often painted in other secluded spaces, courtyards, and lofty towers, which allude to her chastity, with the commonly used lily, either held by Gabriel, or in the frame in a vase, used as another symbol of her pristine nature.
But Mary is an active agent in bringing visions to fruition. As sculptor and NMA instructor Johanna Schwaiger points out, “The significance of this story is Mary’s response to Gabriel, her acceptance. Without it, there would be no story.”
Mary agrees to/with Gabriel’s prophetic telling, and in doing so, she is no longer passive, but an active participant, with free will and volition, exhibiting faith and the acceptance of her destiny.
This reveals something about the state of the receiver, not merely to hear messages, but also, to be given the seed of creation, impregnated within, that we must be a pure vessel; pure of intention, answering the call, as in the classical structure of the ‘hero’s journey.’
These stories most often begin with a call to action, and then the hero’s acceptance. But, there is often hesitancy and doubt. This is clearly represented in Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi’s Annunciation painted in 1333, in which the Virgin clearly shrinks back in fear of Gabriel.
And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done.
Additionally, the Annunciation narrative is one in which ‘creation’ is elevated by a sacred relationship or symbiotic partnership. Thus, any creative endeavor, be it artistic, scientific, or biological, requires such a synergetic dynamic.
And like conception, immaculate or otherwise, there is a gestation time, hours, weeks, months, or even years of developing the idea towards a physical realization, a creation.
Perhaps the allure of this genre lies in the fact that we can feel the sacredness of art being translated. All artists experience this to some degree, a ‘little voice’ guiding, hinting, or offering us inspiration. We all recognize this enigmatic process at play.
Unlike the stereotype notions of artists today as eccentric, indulgent, or moral relativists, artists of the past, and the act of making art, were understood as a spiritual vocation, as attested by the sheer volume of devotional religious works that paid homage to the divine. Perhaps it is related to the times in which they lived, but most artists had deep religious and spiritual convictions and the beauty of their work illuminates their dedication.
Fra Angelico, who completed several renditions of the Annunciation, stands out as such an example, a man of both deep spiritual conviction and consummate artistic skill.
Circa 1418, Fra Angelico took vows to become a monk in Frisole, Italy. Most of his works, including Annunciation, painted around 1430, were undertaken at the Monastery of San Domenico. Georgio Vasari, famed painter and historian wrote: “It is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.” Indeed, Pope John Paul II proclaimed his Beatification in 1982.
Among the various interpretations, we find that Fra Angelico’s rendition of the Annunciation shows beams of light extended toward Mary’s heart, while his contemporary, Carlo Crivelli’s version, directs the light toward Mary’s head.
Given the consensus view that the light beams depict Mary’s actual impregnation by the Holy Spirit, one might wonder why the beams were not directed toward her womb? This, perhaps, might prompt questions about the relationship between the words ‘concept’ and ‘conception.’ Does conception follow on from ‘concept?’ Do they occur simultaneously?
Does this convey something about the esoteric cosmology of the nature of manifestation, of mind and matter? If so, then what other esoteric or mystical truths might be revealed in these works?
What other messages might be ‘announced’ or inferred through the layered and suggestive visual language of these sacrosanct and beautifully rendered images?
What truths are still waiting to be received?