The Annunciation—Imaging the Beginning of Christian Salvation

The Annunciata, by Antonello da Messina, Palermo

Once there was a woman to whom God sent an angel. The angel asked her to bear a child, a child who would be called “the son of God.” The woman answered, “Let it be so,” and so it was.

This, in essence, is the story of the Annunciation, as told in the gospel of Luke (2:26-38). The gospel writer provides very little detail—the names of Gabriel and Mary and the place name of Nazareth in Galilee. This has left ample space for the artistic, literary, and spiritual imagination.

Did the angel come with great power, reflecting the majesty of the Almighty who sent him? Or did he approach with reverence for the woman chosen to receive such a life-changing request?

Where was Mary when the angel arrived, and what was she doing? How did the artist or poet or preacher imagine her daily life at the moment when it was interrupted by Gabriel’s coming?

Nearly twenty centuries of art, music, poetry, theatre, preaching, and liturgy have produced a number of traditional models of interpretation, but they have not exhausted humanity’s fascination with this story.

1. Opening the Door into Eternity: The Icon Tradition

Click here for enlargementThe scene often takes place against a gold background with a crescent of blue or gold at the top edge representing the heavens. Rays, or perhaps the right hand of God, descend from it toward Mary. A dove, representing the Holy Spirit, may also be present. Behind the figures of Mary and Gabriel there are often deliberately unrealistic architectural elements to remind the viewer that what is depicted is not an earthly, natural reality, but a spiritual one.

The Virgin is typically seated on a throne, her feet resting on a footstool. She is dressed in purple garments that cover her entire body except for her hands and face. The veil covering her head and upper body is adorned with three golden stars, one over her forehead and one to each shoulder; these represent her three-fold virginity, before, during, and after giving birth to Jesus. Her face is neither young nor old, but timeless. She has a skein of red yarn in one hand and her spindle may be visible in the other, for she is spinning scarlet yarn for the temple curtain.

The angel Gabriel strides in towards Mary, carrying a slender staff in his left hand. His right hand is extended towards her in the usual Eastern blessing gesture, with the ring finger bent in towards the palm and the index, middle, and little fingers pointing outwards.

While this scene is often found as a separate, moveable icon or depicted on church walls, one very typical placement is on the central, or “royal,” doors of the icon screen in an Orthodox church. These doors open from the main body of the church into the sanctuary, which is understood to represent heaven. Here, the depiction of the Annunciation represents the believers’ access to the dwelling place of God, which was made possible through the incarnation of Christ in Mary’s womb.


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