How to Read Paintings: The Annunciation by Botticelli

Enter a small but perfectly formed world

This is a small painting, just over 30cm wide. Yet if you let your eyes move beyond the bare wood of the outer margins and enter the scene, it gradually takes on a much grander dimension.

In The Annunciation, Mary is visited by an angel in her private quarters. In the Christian tradition, the Annunciation describes the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ.

In the painting, a linen curtain has been drawn to one side, allowing us to see into Mary’s chamber whilst also telling us that this is a private space. A row of pillars divides the space occupied by the angel from the intimate chamber of the Virgin. Before her there is a book resting on a stand; in Annunciation paintings, Mary is often shown studying scripture.

The first interesting thing to notice is the architecture. Whilst the scene depicts an event from the Bible, Botticelli has shown it taking place in a 15th century Italian setting. The image shows Mary within a loggia — a room with open sides. It is a way of including contemporary, and therefore familiar, architectural detail into the work whilst also suggesting a modest, enclosed setting. The secluded space, or sometimes a walled garden or a tower, indicates Mary’s purity.

When painting the setting, Botticelli has used the rule of single-point perspective to create a realistic sense of space, so that all the lines of the columns and walls converge towards a single ‘vanishing point’ in the very centre of the image — around where Gabriel’s head sits. Perspective was a new innovation in Italian art after the architect Filippo Brunelleschi systematised the principles in the early decades of the 15th century.

The sense of depth in Botticelli’s painting is made all the more compelling by the use of foreshortening and diminishing size. For instance, the floor beneath the feet of the angel is broken into bands. As the room recedes, so the bands narrow and get closer together. If you imagine the floor without these bands, the effect of receding space would not be as great.

The Annunciation is an important moment in the story of the New Testament, since it marked the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ — the moment that Jesus was conceived and that the Son of God became Mary’s child. Botticelli’s painting depicts this very moment.

In the Bible, the Annunciation is narrated in Luke 1:26–38

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

The Annunciation became a favourite subject of artists across Europe as the veneration of the Virgin Mary grew within the Church. As the artistic tradition developed, certain symbolic conventions became established.

From the top-left corner, a ray of light shines down into the room, indicating the ineffable nature of the Holy Spirit and also a sense of movement or passage in the moment of Incarnation.

The Incarnation of Christ is considered to have taken place at the moment of the Annunciation; that is, nine months before the Nativity. Hence, in the western liturgical calendar, the Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25th. For this reason, many artists show the scene in a springtime setting. Some artists chose to emphasise the season by laying out a plethora of flowers growing in a garden. An alternative to a garden is the motif of a flower in a vase, a tradition that developed into a lily, which became the symbol of the Virgin’s purity. In this painting, the lily is held in Gabriel’s hand.

The posture of Mary is a detail that many artists took great care to depict, because it gave them an opportunity to explore Mary’s psychological reaction to the presence of Gabriel.

Mary’s psychological state at the moment of Incarnation was no small matter. Italian preachers, such as the famous Fra Roberto Caracciolo of Lecce, made detailed analyses of the Biblical account given by St Luke, going so far as to lay out a series of five spiritual and mental conditions that Mary must have gone through when encountering Gabriel’s message. According to Fra Roberto, these were said to be, in order: Disquiet, Reflection, Inquiry, Humility and Merit.

Following from these categories, it’s possible to interpret different depictions of Mary as falling into one of these five mental states. As the art historian Michael Baxandall explains, “The preachers coached the public in the painters’ repertory, and the painters responded within the current emotional categorization of the event.”

So, in Botticelli’s version, Mary’s response may be seen as the fourth stage in her reaction, Humiliatio or Humility, submitting to Gabriel’s message by bringing up her hands to her chest and bowing her head.

The Annunciation was widely represented in art from the medieval period onwards. During the 13th century, the hugely influential Golden Legend appeared. This was a compendium of traditional stories about the saints and miracle tales, which was widely drawn upon as a sourcebook by artists of the following centuries. The story of Mary’s annunciation was retold and cemented in this book, after which its representation in European art was established beyond question.

The panel painted by Botticelli was almost certainly commissioned as a private devotional image. Such images were treated as important aids to devotion and prayer, designed to awaken private feelings of piety and provide a visual narrative for those unable to read. Botticelli’s elegant depiction of the scene maybe small, but as an object of private contemplation, it would undoubtedly have been very powerful.

If you liked this, you may also be interested in my book How to Read Paintings, an examination of fifteen of art’s most enthralling images. Read it on various platforms here.

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