Fra Angelico, fresco for the Convent of San Marco, Florence, early 1440s.
I wonder how many of us pause to notice that today, the 25th March, is the Feast of the Annunciation. At least in north Europe, popular awareness of the cycle of feast days in the Christian calendar has been much diluted (that’s an observation rather than a lament). So here are some representations of the event in art and music.
The Annunciation is one of the most popular themes in Christian art, notably frescos and paintings. Wiki introduces variations over time and region:
The composition of depictions is very consistent, with Gabriel, normally standing on the left, facing the Virgin, who is generally seated or kneeling, at least in later depictions. Typically, Gabriel is shown in near-profile, while the Virgin faces more to the front. She is usually shown indoors, or in a porch of some kind, in which case Gabriel may be outside the building entirely, in the Renaissance often in a garden, which refers to the hortus conclusus, sometimes an explicit setting for Annunciations. The building is sometimes clearly the Virgin’s home, but is also often intended to represent the Jerusalem Temple, as some legendary accounts placed the scene there.
The Virgin may be shown reading, as medieval legend represented her as a considerable scholar, or engaged in a domestic task, often reflecting another legend that she was one of a number of virgins asked to weave a new Veil of the Temple.
Late medieval commentators distinguished several phases of the Virgin’s reaction to the appearance of Gabriel and the news, from initial alarm at the sudden vision, followed by reluctance to fulfill the role, to a final acceptance. These are reflected in art by the Virgin’s posture and expression.
In Late Medieval and Early Renaissance, the impregnation of the Virgin by God may be indicated by rays falling on her, typically through a window, as light passing through a window was a frequent metaphor in devotional writing for her virginal conception of Jesus. Sometimes a small figure of God the Father or the Holy Spirit as a dove is seen in the air, as the source of the rays.
Less common examples feature other biblical figures in the scene. Gabriel, especially in northern Europe, is often shown wearing the vestments of a deacon on a grand feast day, with a cope fastened at the centre with a large morse (brooch).
Especially in Early Netherlandish painting, images may contain very complex programmes of visual references, with a number of domestic objects having significance in reinforcing the theology of the event.
Among Byzantine representations:
Armenia: Toros Taronetsi, 1323.
Russia, 14th century.
Annunciation to Zechariah, from an Ethiopian Bible, c1700.
Here’s a 1637 woodcut by Giulio Aleni—from Jinjiang, Fujian:
Much later in England, the theme was revived by the Pre-Raphaelites:
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850.
John William Waterhouse, 1914.
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In A question of attribution Alan Bennett introduced his drôle and perceptive views on the lost symbolism of art, fancifully attributing his comments on Annunciation paintings to the Queen (see On visual culture).
Fra Angelico, altarpiece for Santo Domenico in Fiesole, c1426.
And recalling her Catholic upbringing in Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood reflects on her youthful quest for enlightenment:
While we were growing up there was another painting in our house: Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. It was one of those paintings that seem to continue outside their own borders and reach into real life; this, I thought, must be what “good art” must mean. Two hands stretched out of the sun and shot a streaming gilt tassel into Mary, who bent over the place where she was struck. The angel, with feathers like a fractal quail, delivered his message directly into her eyes. Mary’s face was an unripe peach, not ready, not ready; a little book slid off her right thigh like a pat of butter. Stars in the ceiling pierced down. Far to the left, those two green grinches of sin, Adam and Eve, began their grumbling nude walk offstage.
When I left home, I hardly ever saw pictures of the Annunciation anymore. I was not expecting this somehow—I thought I would still encounter the messenger angel everywhere. It was the messenger angel who captured my attention, and not the angel with the flaming sword and not the dark-headed angel of death and certainly not the angel with the regrettable name of Phanuel. By instinct I understood that the most interesting one is the information angel, who carries the newspaper that is meant for you over the doorstep and into your life.
And how does the good news arrive? It does not arrive in your ears, exactly; it arrives in your face as a great gush of light. It is carried to you, not like a rose but like the symbol of a rose, straight into your understanding. There is no sound. It happens in your bedroom, or in your cave in the middle of the desert, with a lion’s head spreading on your lap, or on top of the pillar where you’ve sat for a hot century. It happens in your study, wherever that happens to be.
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Lest we forget musical inspirations, the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated in Byzantine and Gregorian chant cultures—as in Eritrea:
By the baroque era, German composers commonly provided cantatas to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation—notably Bach (much detail here, with links to discussions of individual works).
Talheim altarpiece, 1518.
His two surviving cantatas for the Annunciation on 25th March coincided with Palm Sunday. He composed Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182) for Weimar in 1714, depicting the entry into Jerusalem:
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern: left, the hymn, Nikolai 1599; right, violin part.
and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 1!!!) for Leipzig in 1725:
For more Bach cantatas, see under A Bach retrospective.
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In German, rather than Verkündigung, the Annunciation is commonly known as Englischgruss—which one realises means “Angelic greeting” (cf. the finale of Mahler 4), rather than a stiff handshake and lugubrious “How do you do”.
So here’s Brahms‘s a cappella setting Der englische gruß, simple and affecting:
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