3. Conceiving the Savior in Prayer: The Northern Renaissance

The scene is typically set in a private domestic interior—either the main living area of a home, or, more frequently, the bedroom, featuring a prominent marriage bed. Light is streaming in through an open window, and with its rays, a dove, or sometimes the tiny figure of the baby Jesus carrying his cross. (This depiction was later banned as theologically incorrect, on the grounds that Jesus as a human child came into being in Mary’s womb, not beforehand.) Everyday objects carry a wealth of symbolic meanings: vases of flowers, glass carafes of clean water, bronze ewers and basins, all represent Mary’s purity; white linen towels with a blue border may refer to Mary’s Jewish roots; candles alight or newly extinguished, allude to the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new.

Mary, head unveiled in the privacy of her home, is praying, usually at a kneeler, her prayer book open before her. Her face is serene, her eyes often cast down, as if to emphasize the depth of her meditation.

Gabriel, dressed sometimes in white, and sometimes in liturgical garments, approaches her from behind or from the side. Mary’s hand may be raised in quiet surprise as she realizes that she is not alone. The moment is not one of dialogue, but of dawning spiritual awareness. In this prayerful inner sanctum humanity is wed to divinity, and Jesus the savior is conceived in Mary’s womb.

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.

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