In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Annunciation, we see the angel Gabriel visiting Mary in her bedroom. He stands tall while she shrinks back on her bed. Her face is difficult to read. Is she deep in thought? Or is she paralyzed by fear? The image is deeply unsettling and it’s hard to ignore the fact that it looks like we are witnessing an assault on a young girl.
This is problematic on so many levels, not least of which that it’s a misrepresentation of what Christians believe about the Annunciation. So let’s take a look at the traditional iconography. What’s different?
Here’s Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation. Notice how Mary isn’t vulnerably startled awake by an intruder in her bedroom. She sits confidently in an open space to receive God’s messenger who kneels before her and barely meets her regal gaze. While in Rossetti’s painting Gabriel towers over her, in da Vinci’s portrayal she sits above the angel looking down on him.
And here in Benevuto di Giovanni’s Annunciation, the mighty Archangel looks tiny next to the Blessed Virgin. While in this image, Mary’s bedroom is visible, the encounter seems intimate without being intrusive.
And in this Annunciation by Federico Barocci, the visit takes place in Our Lady’s bedroom and yet, the postures of the figures highlight the angel’s awe and supplication, not Mary’s vulnerability.
The iconographic tradition of the Annunciation has plenty of variety. The Blessed Virgin might looked composed, surprised, or thoughtful. Gabriel might be in flight, kneeling, or standing. The meeting might take place in the open air, in a courtyard, or in Mary’s bedroom. But it’s a departure from the tradition to portray Mary as being bullied or coerced.
But why get so worked up about minor artistic variations? Because removing Mary’s free will from the Annunciation is a misrepresentation of what the Church has always taught about this crucial moment in salvation history. And this moment MATTERS. It affects foundational truths including what we believe about free will, our relationship with God, and the character of God.
I recently witnessed a Facebook rant asking why Christians aren’t disturbed by the fact that their God impregnated a teenage girl against her will. Indeed, that would be a distressing concept. We should be appalled–IF Christianity believed that Mary was coerced into bearing the Son of God. But it teaches nothing of the sort and never has. This is why we should find the idea of an Annunciation without free will highly disturbing. Because we do not serve a God that impregnates unsuspecting young victims. We do not serve a God that assaults his creatures.
Mary’s freedom to give an answer to Gabriel’s proposal of God’s plan is crucial. It’s abundantly clear in the scriptural account that the Holy Spirit does not make Mary the Mother of God and then inform her of the fact. The Archangel Gabriel comes to tell her what will happen if she consents. He explains the plan then it is her turn to ask questions. After he answers them, she declares her consent in her famous fiat: “let it be.” The perfect “yes” of faith that overturns Eve’s “no.”
But before she answers, there is a moment where Gabriel must wait for her answer. It is one of those moments on which the whole cosmos spins, as if all of creation is holding it’s breath. And this hesitation–this waiting for her answer is often the moment captured in artistic renderings of the Annunciation. It is as if Gabriel has whispered his message and kneels trembling in anticipation of this young maiden’s answer, knowing how much hinges on her answer. She holds the cards.
And then she gives her answer, crossing her hands over her chest declaring herself the handmaid of the Lord–giving her yes. She is the second Eve that brings redemption just as Christ is the second Adam.
How simple, beautiful, and unexpected that the glorious entrance of God on the soil of the earth is made possible through the amazing female body and the beauty of a mother’s heart. And to carry out this plan–a human woman’s body becoming the Temple of the Most High–the choice would be placed at this humble woman’s feet. This honor would be offered her, not assumed as a right of her Creator, but contingent upon her courageous acceptance.
But Mary’s consent in the Annunciation also matters because every day we are asked the same question Gabriel asked Mary: Will you participate in the redemption of the world? And we also have the free will to choose yes or no. What will be your answer today?
“After the error of our first parents, the whole world was shrouded in darkness, under the dominion of death. Now God seeks to enter the world anew. He knocks at Mary’s door. He needs human freedom. The only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will. In creating freedom, he made himself in a certain sense dependent upon man. His power is tied to the unenforceable ‘yes’ of a human being. So…heaven and earth…[held] its breath at this moment of the question addressed to Mary. Will she say yes? She hesitates…will her humility hold her back? Just this once…do not be humble but daring! Give us your ‘yes’! This is the crucial moment when, from her lips, from her heart, the answer comes: ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ It is the moment of free, humble yet magnanimous obedience in which the loftiest choice of human freedom is made.” –Benedict XVI, commenting on an Advent homily of St. Bernard of Clairvaux