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Annunciation to Mary

angel century shown art

Annunciation scenes in medieval art are required in those instances where special news conveyed from *God to humans needs to be depicted. Usually, an *angel (Greek: angelos , “messenger”)

is the news bearer. The most important and frequently represented scene of this type is the announcement, by *Gabriel to the Virgin *Mary, that she will miraculously conceive without human assistance and give birth to Jesus. Other annunciation scenes include: the *Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Annunciation Page 16  to *Zacharias , and the Annunciation of the *death of the Virgin.

The Annunciation to Mary of the conception and birth of Jesus is described in *Luke 1:26-38 and in the apocryphal Protevangelium of James . The earliest representations of the scene appear in fourth-century catacomb paintings; Mary is seated, and a man stands speaking to her. Some early Christian and Byzantine representations include details unique to the apocryphal account, e.g., Mary is depicted spinning wool when the angel appears for the second time; the angel first appeared when she was drawing water from a well. The annunciation at the well is rarely depicted in western medieval art, although Mary may be shown with a basket of wool or a spindle or engaged in spinning when the angel appears. She may be seated or standing and may raise her hand in a gesture of response to the angel, who may be shown standing or walking toward her. Frequently, the angel carries a staff and gestures in greeting and *benediction toward her.

By the eleventh century, Mary is more often shown with a book, a motif which first appears in the ninth and tenth century and symbolizes her *wisdom, as discussed by medieval commentators. In the late thirteenth century, the book more specifically becomes the text of *Isaiah, open to the prophecy of 7:14 (“Behold, a virgin shall conceive …”). By the late twelfth century, artists will often include scrolls inscribed with the conversation, recorded in Luke, between Mary and the angel. The angel may hold a lily, symbolic of Mary’s virginity.

Although the dove of the *Holy Spirit is included in a few early representations, it becomes more common from the eleventh century onward as a critical symbol of God’s presence at the moment of the conception of Jesus. The hand of God emanating rays of light toward Mary reinforces this theme. In Byzantine art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb may be shown by the image of the child inside her or held in a medallion before her . In western art after 1300, under influence from Franciscan theologians, the baby Jesus with the *cross, as well as the dove, may be shown traveling down a light ray from *heaven or God, directed to Mary.

Settings for the Annunciation to Mary vary from the nonspecific to indications of exterior or interior architecture. Landscape elements, such as a tree, may make reference to the *Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil from the *Garden of Eden, a typological connection to the fall of humankind through *Adam and Eve and the redemption of humankind through Christ as the “new Adam” and Mary as the “new Eve.”

Found in all art media through the Middle Ages, the compositionally simple image of the Annunciation to Mary is one of the most powerful and frequently represented symbolic images in Christ

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