The Annunciation in Art throughout the Ages

For the last day of religious art week, I want to focus on one of the most common subjects in Christian artistic tradition: The Annunciation. This term refers to a passage from the Gospel of Luke that describes the angel Gabriel coming to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she will give birth to the son of God and his name will be Jesus:

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
Luke 1:26–31

In art, the Annunciation always contains two major figures: the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel. In addition to these two primary figures, there are numerous other symbols and figures that often fill out the scene. These symbols often include a dove, which represents the Holy Spirit; white lilies, which represent Mary’s purity; and a shaft of golden light. It’s also common to see Mary reading or sitting near a sewing basket when the angel arrives. The exact details of the scene change over time, but the Annunciation is usually easily recognizable. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at how depictions of the Annunciation have evolved throughout the centuries.

The Annunciation by Robert Campin (1420–1425)

This Annunciation is absolutely exquisite. As an artist working in the Northern Renaissance style, Campin had a penchant for extremely detailed, intricate painting. In this version of the Annunciation, we see the Virgin Mary sitting in an elaborate building that resembles a church. To the left, the angel Gabriel approaches, dressed in rich, ecclesiastical robes. Many Annunciations from this time place Mary in opulent-though anachronistic-settings. It seems that the consensus among artists in the Early Modern Period was that the Virgin should be portrayed as half wealthy, European lady and half saint in a glittering reliquary. As I noted above, the painting is wildly anachronistic, serving more as an image of contemporary Christianity than the early history of the Church. However, it is certainly a beautiful piece of art; take a minute to study the details in this piece. You’ll be blown away.

The Annunciation by Jan van Eyck (1434–1436)

If you ask me, the best part of this Annunciation is Gabriel’s rainbow wings. I definitely prefer them to the modern idea that angels have fluffy, white feathers! Like Robert Campin’s Annunciation, this is an exquisite piece of art that displays the best of the Northern Renaissance style. The detail in this piece is out of this world. Everything from the drawings on the floor tiles to Gabriel’s jewel-encrusted robe is rendered with faultless attention to detail and extraordinary skill. In this slightly later Annunciation, we again see Mary in a Church-like space. However, here she is portrayed like a young noblewoman with a jeweled coronet and an ermine trimmed gown. White lilies in the lower right corner symbolize her virginity and purity. Gabriel seems to have interrupted her at her prayers; she draws back in surprise as Gabriel begins to tell her that she will carry the Son of God. The words “Hail, full of grace…” emerge from his mouth in golden letters.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico (1440–1445)

Of all the Annunciations I’m going to talk about today, I think Fra Angelico’s is the most beautiful. The rich, lapis blue and gold leaf make the painting look like a glittering jewel. Once again, we see the Virgin Mary in a church-like setting. She sits in a throne-like chair and draws back in surprise as the angel Gabriel approaches. A golden ray of light slices diagonally through the painting, representing the Holy Spirit. To the left, outside of the church, we see a vignette of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, symbolizing the theological connection between the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Christ’s birth and death. Like the other Annunciations we’ve looked at so far, it’s more of a symbolic painting; this piece is more about illustrating the theology of the contemporary Church than portraying a realistic image of Mary.

The Annunciation by El Greco (1590–1603)

As we move past the Renaissance period, a shift begins to appear in depictions of the Annunciation. While Renaissance art is characterized by a more serious, staid aura and attention to proportions and aesthetic considerations, later artists tended to prioritize the emotion and spiritual drama of the Annunciation. This is certainly evident in El Greco’s Annunciation. While El Greco painted this subject several times, this version is my personal favorite. Here, we see the Virgin Mary looking up at the angel Gabriel, whose arrival is framed by the gold-rimmed clouds of a turbulent sky. Overall, the composition of the piece is much simpler than the older Annunciations we’ve looked at; however, it also delivers more emotion than earlier Annunciations. This painting captures the spiritual exaltation and excitement of the Annunciation.

The Annunciation by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1660)

The art of the Baroque period is all about drama and emotion. In terms of religious art, this often meant creating scenes that inspired strong spiritual feelings in the faithful. Murillo’s Annunciation exists against this backdrop. This piece portrays the Virgin Mary in a darkened room surrounded by clouds of cherubic angels and the white dove that represents the Holy Spirit. The angel Gabriel kneels in a dramatic pose as he speaks to Mary. Unlike older Annunciations, Murillo’s Mary is simply dressed with a sewing basket in front of her. It is a far more affecting (and less queenly) image of the mother of God that reflects changing religious and social sensibilities. It’s important to remember that Murillo was working in the midst of the Catholic Counter-Reformation (the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation). Counter Reformation art tends to be more explicitly religious than the works of previous centuries, which put aesthetic considerations over theology. In the mid-sixteenth century The Council of Trent decreed that Catholic artists should focus on the differences between Protestant and Catholic theology in their religious art. As a result, artists like Murillo began to focus on the mysteries of the faith, including The Annunciation. As a subject, the Annunciation lends itself well to both Counter Reformation and Baroque sensibilities. Murillo’s Annunciation is both theologically correct and affecting, capturing the spiritual drama and energy of the Annunciation.

The Annunciation by Arthur Hacker (1892)

By the late nineteenth century, religious art in Europe existed in a spectrum of different styles and contexts. Despite the increasing divergence, there tended to be an overall trend towards realism in Christian art. More and more, artists were trying to capture what the Biblical world actually looked like. English painter Arthur Hacker traveled extensively in Spain and Northern Africa, and the influence of his journeys can certainly be seen in this painting. In his Annunciation, we see the Virgin Mary dressed in flowing white robes that were probably inspired by the Islamic clothing Hacker encountered in Northern Africa. The ethereal form of an angel hovers by her head, draped in filmy blue robes. Gabriel has interrupted her in the midst of gathering water; she stands barefoot next to a well, gazing out at the viewer with a transfixed expression. To me, this feels more like an academic painting than a spiritual piece. The artist has clearly focused more on the details of the setting and costumery than the spiritual energy of the Annunciation.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898)

I must admit that Henry Ossawa Tanner’s version of the Annunciation is one of my personal favorites. Like Hacker, Tanner brings realism and a commitment to historical accuracy to his Annunciation. Tanner travelled extensively in the Middle East with the goal of becoming a better painter of Biblical subjects, and the influence of his journeys can certainly be seen in his Annunciation. Here, we see the Virgin Mary sitting in a simple chamber dressed in Middle Eastern peasant clothing. She looks toward the angel Gabriel-who appears here as a column of light-with trepidation and awe. It’s an unconventional, yet highly effective Annunciation. While Tanner’s Annunciation is realistic, it also offers an aura of spirituality and mysticism (unlike Hacker’s version). To me, Tanner’s Annunciation offers the best of both worlds: it combines realism with genuine religious sentiment; the result is a unique and moving vision of the Annunciation.

Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The Annunciation by Maurice Denis (1913)

This colorful Annunciation was created by Maurice Denis, a painter associated with Les Nabis, a group of artists who sought to connect to a higher spiritual reality through their art. Les Nabis believed that color and line contained a special power of expression. In this painting, Denis uses a pastel color palette to explore the spiritual energy of the Annunciation. Here, we see Mary standing in a beam of light. Her prayerful posture and exultant face show her joyous acceptance of the angel’s proclamation. Meanwhile, Gabriel kneels in the open doorway, paying homage to the mother of God. The work of Les Nabis tended to be very particular and personal to the individual artist. For Denis, part of this personal artistic journey involved exploring religious art, making his image of the Annunciation unique in the story of art.

Annunciation by Gottfried Helnwein (1993)

Of all the Annunciations we have examined today, this one is certainly the most modern. Here, the artist translates the theme of the Annunciation into a setting that a contemporary audience can relate to. In this piece, we see the Virgin Mary sitting in a darkened room and staring at a TV set. A white angel emerges from the television, illuminated by the bluish glow of the screen. Her expression is rapt as (I suppose it’s natural that in the 1990s Mary is watching television when Gabriel arrives, as opposed to sewing or reading.) The color scheme of the painting gives it a strange, slightly unsettling aura (you could even call it a little creepy). However, the black and bluish glow of this Annunciation also conveys the intensity and spiritual energy of the moment. It’s a disconcerting, yet powerful piece of art.

Annunciation by John Collier (2000)

In this painting, we see another image of the Annunciation translated for a modern audience. Here, we see Mary as a modern school girl reading a book outside her home. She looks up in surprise as the angel Gabriel approaches. A bird in the upper right hand corner represents the Holy Spirit while a potted lily in the foreground represents Mary’s purity and virginity. Perhaps the most surprising part of the painting is Mary’s youth. Traditionally, Biblical scholars assume that Mary was a teenager at the time of the Annunciation. In a twenty-first century context, this would make her very young indeed, which is exemplified in this painting. This painting seeks to make the Annunciation relevant and relatable to modern Christians. In this goal, the painting is highly successful. The background of the piece suggests a suburban American neighborhood, placing it in an approachable and understandable context for modern audiences. It’s an unconventional and refreshing vision of the Annunciation that presents the significance and the intensity of the moment while also making the piece accessible to contemporary viewers.

Originally published at https://artisthesolution.blogspot.com on March 20, 2022.

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