The Annunciation is the ‘title’ given to the story told in Luke’s gospel of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to the virgin Mary to deliver the words of God that were to change the course of history. Words, full of divine intent, bridging the gap between heaven and earth, God and humanity, making visible the invisible presence of God through the incarnation of Christ.
In the western world, medieval representations of the Annunciation form a visual frame for meditations on Christ’s life and the pivotal event of his death and resurrection. The divine encounter of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary was often carved across doorways in gothic churches (a literal frame) or the opening pages of prayer books (Book of Hours). It was also depicted on the outer panels of altarpieces (large free-standing painted panels that sat on the altar) that when opened or turned (at Christmas) revealed an image of Christ’s nativity; God with us. On the altar, Christ’s body is visibly aligned with the mass (or eucharist) prefiguring his death and sacrifice.
Medieval and early renaissance religious images were not merely depictions of historical or sacred events, figured by the whimsy or inspiration of the artist. They were theological texts, imagined within a frame of tightly controlled conventions, that conveyed the central narrative: “Greetings, you who are highly favoured, the Lord is with you” and Mary’s response “How can this be?” And “I am the Lord’s servant, let it be to me as you have said.” With our modern eyes, they appear as illustration, albeit ones that have come to dominate our visual imagining of that event. For viewers at the time, these images provided an entry point into a meditation on the mystery of the incarnation. The visual form reverberates through time and space as an echo or reflection (prefiguration) of ‘God with us’ scattered across all of sacred history and reaching right into the present space of the viewer.
Mary’s role in medieval images served a narrative function and as a mirror for the ideal believer. In Annunciation scenes, Mary is often depicted within an enclosed space, sometimes an architectural division, sometimes a walled garden. This recalls the medieval trope of the enclosed garden, as the inner sanctum or space of the heart. Gabriel’s speech, God’s incarnate word (sometimes literally weaving its way across the painted canvas) is made flesh through Mary’s acceptance (indicated through gestures of supplication and acquiescence) within her heart. How can this moment of incarnation, this fusion of spirit and flesh, be represented resonantly for the space of the here and now?
I imagine (as I can in this time and place) the annunciation differently – less winged angel, dramatic entrance, unfurling speech - and more like a trace; God encountered in the whisper and the gentle wind.
God speaks truth and invitation as a softly falling feather – perhaps - imperceptible to anyone else, and especially in the aftermath, except as insistent memory of an encounter with the divine. Acceptance of God’s word, as it comes to us, is no abstract concept, a belief of the mind. It yields nothing less than the indwelling presence of God with us; a visceral knitting together of flesh and spirit – an incarnation of hope, peace, joy and love worked into being in the material, messy and often painful experience of our lives.
“See I am doing a new thing…”
By Maggie Milne, Artist in Residence