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Some of the world's greatest painters have applied their brushes to depicting a singular, spectacular event of the Catholic faith — the Annunciation.
These artists have colored on their canvases the sacred moment when the Word became flesh and first dwelled among us. In their paintings, they sought to document the instant when, over 2,000 years ago, the archangel Gabriel, bearing the announcement of all announcements, visited a young Jewish woman in the town of Nazareth.
They each interpreted in their own way what St. Luke — himself a painter — recorded in the first chapter of his Gospel, beginning with Gabriel's famous greeting, "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!" (Luke 1:28) and ending with Mary's history-changing reply, "I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Over the last two millennia, this event, known as the Annunciation, has been one of the most frequently painted subjects.
One of the earliest extant representations of the Annunciation, a painting from the third century, is found in the catacombs of Rome. With striking simplicity, it depicts the figure of a man wearing a tunic, standing facing a woman on a seat. The lack of detail and stark depiction emphasize the essential trinitarian meaning: messenger, message and divine outcome.
Mary, seated on the left and appearing as a person of high rank, is listening attentively. Gabriel, on the right, sans his usual wings, stretches out his right arm, gesticulating his message. Surrounding the two figures are images from the Old and New Testaments, contextualizing the epic event.
The famous, literal Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, may need no introduction. His talents as a painter, engineer, scientist, sculptor and architect are well known. His painting of the Annunciation, dating circa 1472-1475, almost reads like a sentence, from left to right. It reveals an outdoor garden setting where the winged figure of Gabriel kneels at the left side of the painting. His left elbow is balanced on his left knee. His right arm is outstretched, symbolizing his role as messenger.
Mary is seated upright on the right side of the painting. An ornate marble reading stand is positioned in front of her. Her left arm and open left hand are pulled back in a gesture of surprise, but her right hand remains delicately resting on a book on the stand.
Despite the apparent movement of the painting from left to right, Gabriel and Mary are together. An invisible line, it seems, exists between the two figures who are focused intently on one another. The mountains behind them seem to recede infinitely into the background.
The artistic skills of 15th-century Italian friar Fra Angelico earned him the description of "a rare and perfect talent" by the art community of his time. Others may know him from his unforgettable images of angels appearing on Christmas cards or even the hazelnut liqueur named after him. But his several paintings depicting the Annunciation are likewise noteworthy. In one, completed circa 1440–1445, the angel Gabriel and Mary figure within an Italian-style portico.
Gabriel is in profile at the left side of the painting, genuflecting before the Virgin. His wings are patterned with intense, brilliant colors. His arms are crossed over his chest. Mary is seated solidly on a wooden stool with her arms crossing her midsection.
Fra Angelico was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II, who declared him the patron of Catholic artists "because of the perfect integrity of his life and the almost divine beauty of the images he painted, to a superlative extent those of the Blessed Virgin Mary."
The 17th-century Parisian artist, Philippe de Champaigne, created more paintings of the Annunciation than any other subject. Some sources have reported at least 17 examples. In one rendition, painted on oak circa 1644, the figure of Gabriel in flowing robes cuts a diagonal across the right side of the canvas as he appears to fly into Mary's chamber. His mouth is slightly open, as though he is about to say "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!" His right hand is extended, gesturing his world-shaking message while he holds lilies in his left hand.
Mary is kneeling at her reading desk at the left side of the painting, turning toward her unexpected visitor. Her surprised facial expression and right hand humbly pointed toward herself seem to ask, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" (Luke 1:34). Gabriel and Mary dominate the painting, while the Holy Spirit, the impregnator, figures above in the form of a dove. Golden rays radiate from Him toward Mary's haloed head. Tucked away at the bottom right is a little village on a riverside, providing an opening for this momentous event to reach the world.
In the course of his life, EI Greco also painted numerous versions of the Annunciation. In one, painted circa 1597–1600 as part of a five-painting altarpiece, Mary occupies the lower left side of the painting. The angel Gabriel is on the right, standing on a cloud, appearing to have arrived from on high. Once again, Mary is next to a reading desk and is apparently interrupted by the visitor. It is difficult to tell if she is standing or kneeling. Her hands and arms are outstretched, indicating her openness to the message being delivered. Gabriel's arms are crossed over his chest, indicating the seriousness and sincerity of his message.
The space about them is filled with clouds and angel heads. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove and surrounded by a powerfully charged light, is in the center. At the top of the entire scene are angels playing a recorder, a flute, a harp, an oud and a viola. The celestial orchestra gives even more meaningful dimension to the painting. At the bottom of the scene is a burning bush, like that seen by Moses (Exodus 3:1–3), miraculously burning without being consumed by the fire. It is often interpreted as a symbol of the virginity and purity of Mary.
Henry Osawa Tanner, an African American artist who worked in Philadelphia and Paris, painted a less idealized and more realistic depiction of the Annunciation than others. In Tanner's depiction of the Annunciation, circa 1898, Mary sits on the edge of a single bed. The disheveled blankets suggest she has just awakened from sleep or a dream. Her face betrays surprise, even fright, as she beholds a beam of bright, angelic, vertical light (on the left side of the painting). Her hands are in her lap, clasped as though in prayer.
Tanner was known for painting secular themes until he underwent a spiritual change and shifted to painting Christian scenes. In a letter he wrote to his parents on Christmas in 1896, he stated, "I have made up my mind to serve Him [God] more faithfully." The artist was hesitant to participate in demonstrations to protest racial inequities, once saying, "I preach with my brush."
There are, of course, many more depictions of this singular, momentous event. Many find aesthetic pleasure and spiritual meditation in reflecting on such mysteries of the Faith depicted in the paintings of great artists.
The Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25, not accidentally nine months before the Solemnity of the Nativity of Jesus on December 25. The Annunciation was indeed the sine qua non, the spark that set into motion all the key events of salvation history.
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