Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Three views of the Annunciation.

Today many Christians celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the Archangel Gabriel's revelation to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear the Son of God in her womb. Though it often falls in the midst of the penitential season of Lent, the Feast of the Annunciation offers an anticipation of the joy that we celebrate at Christmas. Though exactly nine months separate the Feasts of the Annunciation and the Nativity, both invite us to reflect upon the wondrous event of the Incarnation. From a Christian perspective, there could be no more compelling proof of God's love for humanity than that He would choose to become a human being and take upon Himself the burdens and limitations of the human condition. This is a point that we would do well to contemplate at all points of the year, not simply on feast days like this one that draw particular attention to the Incarnation.

Among the very many artistic representations of the Annunciation, I thought I would share three images for your prayerful consideration. The first image is a 14th century icon of the Annunciation from the Church of St. Bogoridica Perivlepta in Ohrid, Macedonia. What strikes me the most about this icon is the Virgin's right hand, which could be raised either in response to the Archangel Gabriel's greeting, or in a protestation of unworthiness ("How can this be, for I am a virgin?"), or perhaps in surrender to God's will ("Be it done to me according to thy word"). The ambiguity of the raised hand is appropriate, I believe, as it offers us an opportunity to reflect upon Mary's movement from confusion to acceptance. When I showed this image to one of my Jesuit confreres earlier today, he suggested another interpretation: the relative position of Mary's hands - her right hand lifted upward, her left hand resting on the arm of her chair - could also be taken to anticipate the union of divine and human natures in Christ, as the Theotokos seems to point upward and downward at the same time.

Attributed to Fra Angelico, the 15th century Virgin Annunciate (second image) is part of a diptych that also includes an image of the Archangel Gabriel at the moment of the Annunciation. Both paintings are part of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, where I saw them as a novice. Aside from the loveliness of the Virgin's face and the graceful crossing of her arms, what I like about this painting is the somewhat awkward placement of the book in Mary's left hand. The idea that the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary as she was reading a book is a recurring element in Western iconography of the Incarnation. In Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate, Mary seems to have responded so readily to Gabriel's summons that she hasn't even taken the time to put down the book that she was reading. Crossing her arms in a gesture of submission, she retains her book in her left hand - she even seems to be marking her page with her forefinger. Mary may be eager to return to whatever she was reading, but at the same time she recognizes that her life has been changed forever. We may be able to recall similar moments in our own experience - moments when God reached into our lives to invite us to something new and different. As much as we may have wished to say 'yes' at such moments, we may have also been conscious of other commitments that already bound us. Like Mary holding on to her book, we may have felt the desire to embrace a new vocation while clinging to elements of our prior life. This is one of the basic challenges of the Christian life, and it is one that Mary confronted herself at the moment she accepted her call.

The third and final image is a painting by the late-19th and early-20th century African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, simply titled The Annunciation. The son of a minister, Tanner had a strong interest in religious subjects and visited the Holy Land in 1897 in search of artistic as well as spiritual inspiration. First exhibited in Paris in 1898, Tanner's painting The Annunciation quickly found a home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it remains to this day. Influenced by the realism of his teacher Thomas Eakins, Tanner depicts Mary as the teenage girl that she would have been when she became the mother of Jesus. Mary's garments and the contents of her bedroom faithfully represent an Eastern Mediterranean cultural milieu, with details like the fold in the rug offering even greater verisimilitude. Careful to present Mary and her environment as accurately as possible, Tanner is also inventive enough to depict Gabriel not as a winged human figure but as pure light. By presenting Gabriel in a new way, Tanner forces us to think more carefully about Mary's experience of the Annunciation. Imagine how you would react if a beam of light suddenly appeared in your bedroom and began to communicate with you; perhaps you would find yourself transfixed, but you would probably also be confused and perhaps even terrified. I suspect that Mary felt many different emotions when she learned that she was to be the Theotokos. I believe that we would do well to reflect on what some of these emotions may have been.

I hope that the above images are of some help to you as you reflect and pray on the significance of this Feast of the Annunciation. As we celebrate God's coming among us in the flesh, I pray that we may take strength and inspiration from the Virgin Mary's confident acceptance of her unique vocation. May this strength and inspiration remain with us as we continue our Lenten pilgrimage. AMDG.


At 8/27/2010 2:11 PM, Blogger janet cooke said...

I appreciate your comments, Joe. I am interested in the ways that artists have portrayed the moment of the Annunciation and, in particular, the gestures of Mary.

I am creating a work of art which will feature Marys from 96 different paintings of the Annunciation as painted by many artists from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and some even from the 20th century.

I have 88 of the Marys ready to go, and hope to finish the entire 96 by October. I'll be happy to let you know when The Mary Project is finished and where you can see it. I live in PHiladelphia so that should work for you!

Janet Cooke

At 8/28/2010 8:11 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for the comment - yes, please let me know when the Mary Project is finished, as I look forward to seeing the results.

Prayers and best wishes for the success of the project!

Joe K sj


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