Feast of the Annunciation

Antonello da Massina, Virgin Annunciate, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily, 1476

Antonello da Massina, Virgin Annunciate, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily, 1476

The 25th March is one of those dates when we are reminded of the rhythm of the church year, a ceaseless song that spans some two thousand years. Today is the Feast of the Annunciation (it’s exactly nine months before Christmas!).

On this day we call to mind the encounter between the Virgin Mary and God’s messenger, who comes with startling news. This news comes down to us in Luke’s Gospel (1:26-38). His beautiful phrasing is reflected in the great paintings of the Renaissance, each offering a carefully choreographed scene, with a perfectly poised young woman accepting, demurely and faithfully, this biology-confounding news. The setting of such scenes, usually an enclosed garden (an allusion to her chaste status) with prominent lilies (her purity) can make the depictions seem staged and formulaic. Not so The Annunciation by Antonello da Messina.

The art history text books concentrate of Antonello’s place in the development of oil painting, as opposed to tempera or fresco painting – the go-to methods in Fifteenth Century Italy, but for me it’s this painting that marks him out.

It is a small painting, probably intended for private reflection. The Virgin is sat at a table, she is young, beautiful even, but not other-worldly. Her eyes are averted, her mouth, which is slightly twisted in apprehension, is tightly closed, her left hand draws her veil together. She is hearing words she can scarcely believe and her right hand hovers, for in this moment she is irresolute: does she accept this momentous news; or does she push it away?

It takes a few minutes for us to make sense of this painting, until we grasp that we face her just as the angel does, and the small gestures of confusion and doubt are for us to behold. So, look and see before you a young woman troubled, fearful. In this moment her world changes. And so, does ours.

Michael Mays