The story of the Incarnation opens not with the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, but with his appearance to an old temple priest. Zechariah reacted with all-too-human skepticism to the idea that his post-menopausal wife would give birth to a son who “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah.”
Virgin of the Annunciation, 1512, by Matthias Grünewald, also shows Mary at her studies, but clothed in the most exuberant pleats, which reinforce the ecstatic nature of the moment.
A few months later, Gabriel returned to Israel, this time to Nazareth in Galilee, to talk to a young woman who was engaged to be married.
In contrast, Antonello da Messina’s Virgin Annunciate, 1476, is taking the news with remarkable composure.
“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
The angel Gabriel in Sondro Botticelli’s 1481 fresco seems to be leaning over an imaginary wall for a friendly chat.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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 unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (from Luke 1:26-38)
In Hendrick Terbrugghen’s 1624 Annunciation, Gabriel has dirty feet.
Mary understood that being pregnant by someone other than her betrothed threatened her engagement, her reputation, and even her life (as she could be stoned for adultery). The early Renaissance painters would have understood her predicament better than we, for whom illegitimacy is no big deal. If the Baby Jesus were conceived today, sadly, nobody would much notice.
Albrecht Durer’s Annunciation from The Life of the Virgin, 1502, sets the scene in an amazing series of arches that suggest the very heavens themselves.
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