Annunciation by Filippo Lippi, National Gallery, London

2. Enlisting Human Cooperation with the Divine Plan:
The Italian Renaissance

The Annunciation may take place in a wide variety of settings: against a gold background, as in the icon tradition; in a garden or portico beside a home or cloister; or in a domestic interior, ranging in size from fairly ordinary to quite palatial.

Mary is depicted as a young and beautiful woman. She may or may not wear a veil, but in either case, her hair, often blond, is generally visible. She may be shown seated, standing, or kneeling. She is holding her prayer book.

Annunciation by Duccio di Buoninsegna, National Gallery, London, originally in the Maesta (Siena), 1308-1311.

Sometimes Gabriel is shown as he enters, either walking or flying. Alternatively, he may be already in place, standing, bowing, or kneeling. He may be carrying a staff or, alternatively, a branch or stalk of a plant. This is often a lily, but it can also be an olive branch or a palm frond.

Annunciation by Fra Angelico, Cortona, Diocesan Museum

Italian artists of this period generally chose to focus on one of several possible moments within the Annunciation narrative. Sometimes Mary is shown shrinking away in fear at the sudden appearance of the angel. The angel’s initial greeting, “Ave, gratia plena” (“Hail, full of grace”) may be highlighted by inserting the actual text. Sometimes the back-and-forth of the dialogue is emphasized; again, gold letters may provide the high points of the verbal exchange, from the angel’s greeting (“Ave”) to Mary’s final consent (“ecce ancilla domini; fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,” “behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”). Or, the moment of Mary’s agreement may be signaled simply by the bowing of her head and the crossing of her hands across her breast. In either case, there is a heightened interest in Mary’s reaction and response to the angel’s request.


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