Florence Eccleston explores the rich symbolism used in medieval depictions of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.
The Annunciation is the announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and give birth to Christ. It is important in Christian belief because with Jesus’s Incarnation (being made flesh) comes salvation for all mankind’s sin, with his eventual death on the cross. Therefore, it is a central image in Christian art, found as early as the 4th century AD, in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. It is described by art historian Donal Cooper as a key iconographic type through which we can understand medieval “disguised symbolism and… the very nature and viability of iconographic meaning”. This is because the Annunciation is a subject heavily laden with symbolic convention.
However, the Biblical narrative’s emphasis lay in the Word of God, derived from the Gospel of St Luke (1:26-38), and centring on the angel’s verbal message to Mary and her words of consent. Thus the Annunciation story, originally a “pure speech act” (Didi-Huberman), draws upon the great exegetical tradition for its symbolism and imagery. Much comes from the Apocryphal Gospels and the writings based on them, such as The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine and Pseudo-Bonaventure’s Meditationes Vitae Christi, which hugely expanded the narrative. Great exegetists of the Annunciation in the Middle Ages, such as Albertus Magnus, St Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure, also added to the lexicon of signs and symbols. Nevertheless, a great task lay before artists to envision it in pictorial form, and so a convention of symbolism was developed to make the “mystery” of the Annunciation, to quote Thomas Aquinas, legible to the largely illiterate medieval worshipper.
Originally, the Virgin Mary was shown as working a spindle. The spindle derives from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, part of the New Testament apocrypha, which tells of Mary spinning thread to be woven into a veil for the Temple. Therefore, sometimes a basket of thread will be placed beside Mary in medieval Annunciation scenes, and a veil may appear in the background. The spindle itself was replaced by a book from the 11th century onwards, an iconography that arose from monastic circles and was also derived from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The gospel comments on the Virgin reading: “She was always engaged in prayer and in searching the law” (Chapter 6). The iconography of the book was used to reference, and was sometimes depicted open at, Isaiah’s prophesy: “And the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). This was interpreted from the early medieval period as a prediction of the birth of Jesus.
The image of the book was therefore used to express the Virgin’s devotion and textual authority. To the medieval theologian, her central role in the Incarnation, as the chosen one of God, gave her the ability to interpret and understand her fulfilment of this Old Testament typology with the Incarnation of Christ (typology being biblical symbolism or prefiguration from the Old to the New Testament). Mary is shown praying before a book in an Annunciation from The Black Hours, a very unusual and beautiful Book of Hours from 1480, coloured entirely in black and blue (image: The Morgan Museum and Library).
The lily is also often included in medieval Annunciations to express Marian virginity, as seen in the Black Hours Annunciation. The lily was considered a symbol of purity since ancient times, and as early as the 7th century, the white lily was likened to Mary: Venerable Bede (672/3 – 735) suggested the petals were her virginal soul and the golden anthers her heavenly radiance. Flowers in general were associated with the Annunciation as it was traditionally supposed to have occurred in Nazareth on 25th March. Voragine’s 13th-century Golden Legend states that “Nazareth means ‘flower’; hence Bernard [of Clairvaux] says that the Flower willed to be born of a flower in ‘Flower’, in the season of flowers”. Therefore, flowers appeared in the Annunciation from the 13th century, typically in a vase, then in the 14th century held by the Angel Gabriel, and sometimes simply growing outside in Mary’s Hortus Conclusus (more on which later). The Angel also sometimes holds an olive branch, symbolising the beginning of a new world, as in the story of Noah’s Ark, or a palm frond, a symbol reminding the medieval worshipper of Christ’s fate in martyrdom, as on entering Jerusalem in the week before his death he was hailed with palm branches. The rose often occurs in Annunciations, symbolising Mary, the ‘rose without thorns’. Sometimes lilies were accompanied by a single red carnation, a symbol of the crucifixion of Christ, its Latin name Dianthus meaning ‘God’s flower’.
The dove represents the Holy Spirit on its journey to make God incarnate as Christ, emissus caelitus (“sent from heaven”, and therefore not formed in the uterus). In particular, it symbolises the act of conception taking place in the Virgin Mary’s ear (conceptio per aurem), so that she remains virginal even as she conceives a child. In this 14th-century Annunciation scene, a dove is portrayed flying towards the ear of the Virgin, representing the conception of Christ (Cambridge, St John’s College, MS. K. 26, f. 11):
The iconography was influenced by a Marian reading of the psalm, “Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear, forget your people and your father’s house; and the King shall desire your beauty” (Psalm 45:10). It was also mentioned in early Christian texts, such as that by Athanasius of Alexandria in the 4th century BC: “Come and gaze upon this marvellous feat: the woman conceives through the hearing of her ears!”. The dove was therefore often shown descending towards the Virgin’s ear, generally, but not always, via a beam of light emanating from God the Father.
Rays of Light
Light was considered in the medieval era to be an emission of the Divine and therefore a gateway to the perception of God. According to Didi-Huberman, in iconography of the Incarnation of Christ visible light glorifies and gives form to the “shadow of the flesh” to reveal itself to the human world. Therefore the rays of light portray the pathway of God from heaven, as the Father, to earth, incarnate as Christ, the Holy Spirit halfway along these beams, creating a full Holy Trinity. The intervention of the Holy Trinity in the Annunciation is mentioned in medieval literature, notably in the Meditations by the Pseudo-Bonaventura. In a Netherlandish panel painting dating to the 1380s, rather unusually the baby Jesus takes the place of a dove, following the rays of light emitted from the hands of God towards his mother, the Virgin Mary (image: The Cleveland Museum of Art).
God’s presence in an Annunciation scene is often symbolised simply by rays of light emanating from an unspecified source. However, where he is portrayed, he is often in the upper left part of a painting, encircled or emerging from the clouds as a bearded head, shoulders and torso, as in this English alabaster panel of the Annunciation from the late 15th century (image: V&A):
Scrolls with the key Biblical verses of the Annunciation, held sometimes just by the Angel Gabriel and sometimes by both participants in the story, first appeared in the early Middle Ages. They were written in Latin, the language of the Church. This was to highlight that the conception took place through the Word of God, as told in the Gospel of St Luke. Blank scrolls that would have originally been painted with the verses of the story of the Annunciation can be seen in the alabaster panel above.
The throne of the Virgin sometimes appears in Annunciation images and originated from Byzantine depictions of Mary as the Queen of Heaven, which persisted into the 11th and 12th centuries in western art. The throne signifies the Virgin’s glory, and sometimes forms a baldacchino over her, as in the Netherlandish panel painting above. However, in the later Middle Ages, the Annunciation is often portrayed in a domestic setting, and therefore the throne is transposed into this location, the Virgin seated in majesty before her lectern. Her throne is sometimes made of a simple, unpainted material, such as wood, to express the humble origins of Christianity.
Position of Figures
The figures of the Virgin and archangel tended to be positioned facing one another on separate sides of the pictorial plane, the angel on the left and the Virgin on the right. The archangel is sometimes shown kneeling before the Virgin in the late Middle Ages; this type of iconography derives from courtly feudal custom of kneeling before a lady. It became more popular thanks to the late 13th-century Meditations of Pseudo- Bonaventura, where Mary knelt at the moment of her consent, followed by the kneeling of the archangel, as seen in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation for the monastery of Santo Domenico in Fiesole, completed in 1426 (image: Museo del Prado):
In the 14th century, setting became more important, whereas it had been relatively subordinate beforehand. The Annunciation tended to be portrayed in a domestic, and from about 1400 onwards, courtyard or garden setting, as in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. Sometimes the portrayal straddled both settings, with the Archangel standing outside in a courtyard and the Virgin in her bedroom, almost always complete with a bed and lectern, even in the most compact of iconography. The courtyard was meant to portray the Hortus Conclusus from the nuptial song of King Solomon in the Bible’s Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) 4:12, “Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus” (“A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up”). It was interpreted in the Middle Ages as an allegory of the union of Christ and the Virgin. The allegory was extended to the enclosed garden as the Virgin herself, as the Virgin was immaculately conceived and therefore her body and womb were ‘closed’.
Several items often appear in the hortus conclusus, each expressing facets of the Virgin and the Annunciation story, including a well or small hexagonal fountain (the supposed location of the Annunciation), the olive tree (peace to come), and the rosebush (the Virgin as the ‘rose without thorns’).
The well or fountain of Mary is referred to in the 2nd-century apocryphal gospel, the Protovangelium of James (“And she took the pitcher and went forth to draw water, and behold, a voice said: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, you are blessed among women’”), and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew as the location of the Annunciation. It symbolises Mary as the channel for the ‘fountain’ of life. It is not always included in images of the Annunciation as it is not mentioned in the Gospel of St Luke, but can be seen in the mosaics in the basilica of San Marco in Venice, dating to the 12th or 13th century (image: wiki commons):
Another way in which the mystery of the Incarnation was conveyed was by creating a pictorial distance that had to be crossed by the Holy Spirit. The divide, however, was also symbolic of the thresholds of the Virgin’s body, a barrier for the Holy Spirit to penetrate, in keeping with the mystical and symbolical values invested in medieval historia. It also symbolises Christ’s spiritual rather than physical presence.
The iconographical thread began in Byzantine basilicas where Annunciation scenes were set atop two piers of an arch, such as before the apse at Monreale Cathedral in Sicily (c. 1180), or either side the main entrance doors to a chapter house, church or cathedral, such as at the west portal of Salisbury Cathedral (c.1220). Divided into two, it could be “apprehended only by directing one’s gaze across… other spaces, other moments” (Didi- Huberman), alluding to the unknown and unknowable, and therefore the mystery of the Incarnation. In the Middle Ages, setting and the suggestion of space became more and more important in unifying a representation, partially influenced by the Franciscans, and so the central divide was depicted less and less as the Middle Ages went on.
Suggested Further Reading
Didi-Huberman, G., ‘Part 2: Prophetic Places, The Annunciation Beyond its Story’, Fra Angelico: Dissemblance & Figuration, trans. Jane Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)
Drummond, Sarah, Divine Conception: The Art of the Annunciation (London: Unicorn, 2018)
Robb, D., ’The Iconography of the Annunciation in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’, The Art Bulletin, 18:4 (Dec, 1936), pp. 480-526.
Verdon, Timothy, Mary in Western Art (New York: Hudson Mills Press, 2006)
About the author
Florence Eccleston is a history of art student at the Courtauld Institute. She is especially interested in medieval Christianity, religious practice and pilgrimage, and its relationship with the body, the senses and art.