Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

“The Annunciation” by Leonardo

March 24th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie


The Church celebrates the great feast of The Annunciation Friday, March 25.

Click on the pictures for sharper images.

"The Annunciation" by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1473-78

Luke records in his Gospel (1:26-38) that the angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin whose name was Mary and announced to her that she was to be the mother of the Son of the Most High who would sit upon the throne of his ancestor King David, and reign forever.

Mary quizzed Gabriel as to how that was going to happen as she had not had relations with a man. The angel explained that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the Most High would overshadow her and she would conceive. He then offers Mary a sign. A relative, Elizabeth, in her old age, had conceived a son and was already in her sixth month.

Finally, then, Mary humbly submits to the will of God.

The story of The Annunciation is one of the most frequently depicted scenes in the Bible and Leonardo da Vinci, the great high-Renaissance artist, made a contribution with his painting of the subject completed sometime between 1473 and 1478. The painting may actually have been worked on by several people as it was probably created in the ‘workshop’ studio of the artist Verrocchio. The Annunciation was owned by the monks of St. Bartolomeo at Monte Oliveto, outside Florence, but there are no records as to who actually commissioned the painting. It has hung in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence since 1867.

We will not concern ourselves in this post with Leonard’s style but rather will dwell on the iconography of the image and Leonard’s adherence and deviation from the traditional representation of the story.

“Altarpiece of the Annunciation” by Fra Angelico, ca. 1430-1432

Traditionally, icon artists assigned discrete spaces to Gabriel and Mary in the picture spaces that made use of what look like stage props for a play. The angel and Virgin were sometimes separated by a wall or column or some other architectural device. The early Renaissance painter Giotto depicted the story in a more natural setting, an open portico, with each figure occupying its own bay.  A column stands between them.

Giotto’s innovation influenced subsequent artists (Like Fra Angelico) who chose to place Gabriel and Mary in more natural interior or exterior spaces. But, an architectural device placed between them often continued the tradition of a noticable visual separation.

detail from "The Annunciation" by Leonardo

Leonardo placed his figures in a natural outdoor setting like Giotto but eliminated a portico altogether. Mary and Gabriel still occupy equal spaces in an approximately symmetrical arrangement. Gabriel is framed by the three vertical –and equally spaced- cypress trees; Mary by the single dark cypress and the quoins of the building. The two parts are separated not by a material architectural device but by an open vista to a far distant harbor -and beyond.  In contrast, however, the two parts are pulled together by the horizontal parallel lines of the parapet and ground behind the figures.  The composition adds to the mystery of the scene by introducing  a design arrangement that would have appeared different from what 15th century viewers would have been used to and yet, strangely familiar.

The most common pose artists assigned to depicting the figure of Gabriel in Annunciation scenes was kneeling. Some artists used a flying or floating Gabriel but Leonardo stayed with the more popular kneeling pose. The kneeling pose usually suggests that the encounter has already begun. Gabriel holds a long-stemmed lily which replaces the tall messenger staff of earlier icons. Here, the long stem mimics the messenger staff and symbolizes the delivery of a message but, now, in addition, a lily symbolizes the purity of the Virgin.

detail from "The Annunciation" by Leonardo

In the painting Mary has been sitting at a lectern, reading from the book of Isaiah, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (cf. Is 7:14, KJV, and Matt 1:25). Mary’s right hand marks the page but the other pages have flipped over apparently due to a gust of wind caused by the alighting of the angel.

Lecterns had not always been part of Annunciation icons. Some place Mary by a well, a detail mentioned in Pseudo-Matthew 9 from the 8th or 9th century. Others have Mary holding a spindle and spinning tread for the Temple veil. But, by the 14th century, the book and lectern became the prop of choice. This lectern in Leonardo’s painting has been likened to a sepulchral urn, a sarcophagus, or a Roman altar. Those in favor of the ordination of women see an altar. The idea of Mary as priestess was first expressed by the Archbishop of Florence, Antonino Pierozzi (1389-459). Some see the lectern as too small for a tomb, yet tomb imagery is so central to the Christian story that it would be hard to by-pass that interpretation, in this painting, in favor of an altar inference. It’s especially difficult to interpret the lectern as anything other than a sarcophagus in light of a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds (1483-85). Although painted perhaps ten years after Leonardo’s The Annunciation, the food trough for the animals in Ghirlandaio’s painting looks very much like a sarcophagus and has the same garland of pears found on Leonardo’s lectern.  The tomb symbolism is, of course, obvious in a nativity scene (birth and death theme). Ghirlandaio was a younger contemporary of Leonardo and was probably in Verrocchio’s studio workshop during the same period, 1473-75, when Leonardo’s The Annunciation was created.

The feet of the lectern are depicted as lion hocks and were frequently found in images of the Annunciation and were, interestingly, used as supports in small altars. The lion, of course, has long been a symbol of royalty and majesty and here may refer to the Incarnation. Icanthus leaves, sprouting from the lion hocks, are also attributes of Mary. The garland of pears symbolizes Mary’s sweetness in the eyes of God. The scallop shell symbolizes heaven in an architectural setting and so probably does here as well.

Well, there is much more we could discuss here along more reflective, scriptural, and spiritual lines but perhaps this provides you with some, I hope, interesting tidbits about a famous painting by a famous painter that celebrates a great Mystery of our Faith, the Annunciation.


Reference and Book suggestion:

Illuminating Luke: The Infancy Narrative in Italian Renaissance Painting, by Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons

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