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
I loved the first painting! I had never seen it. You might enjoy this post (in Spanish) on this same topic written by a cousin of mine who is a priest
Love your blog! You’re the best! Making complex matters so simple and relatable!
I SO wish my Spanish was better, Clara! I can get by at restaurants, but that’s about it 🙁
¡Gracias, Clara, por el vínculo al blog de tu primo! Yo sí entiendo el español y me encantó leer su perspectiva. ¡Gracias!
Cheryl Danz says
That first painting is irreverent and ugly. The Blessed Virgin was preserved from original sin from the moment of her conception in her mother’s womb. Mary was perfectly recollected to her Creator and attuned to His will at every moment of her life. She lived in God’s will at every moment….the angels were in awe of her purity and beauty…..She IS the Queen of angels now and forever. An angel would not surprise
this holiest of all women EVER. This painting is insulting to Our Lady if anything.
Good one, Haley! As an art historian, I find this particularly interesting. Love your blog!
Love this: “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.” Thank you for this wonderful reflection.
Mary Ann says
Beautiful imagery and language. Thank you for such a lovely reflection!
JoAnna Wahlund says
“It is one of those moments on which the whole cosmos spins, as if all of creation is holding it’s breath.”
Gorgeous! Thank you for this beautiful reflection.
Ruth Wilkey says
Hi Haley! I’ve been enjoying your posts. This one is especially interesting. I never imagined that people thought God impregnated Mary against her will!! The various artistic renderings were very enlightening, not to the truth of Who God is but the condition of humanity.
I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian and after reading your post I goggled Orthodox icons of the Annunciation. i was delighted with what I found. In most, of them, Archangel Gabriel is extending his hand with the “sign” of blessing and Theotokos (the ever Virgin Mary )is opening her hand humbly to receive the blessing.
This link gives a great explanation that matches yours so beautifully.
May god continue to bless you and your family!
Eastern Orthodox art is so good. With such a strong tradition, you don’t get some of the really bad art that other Christian traditions come up with. Icons are the way to go 😉 Thanks for sharing, Ruth!
Alicia Hunt says
YES! You nailed it! I was trying to finish up a blog post on the Annunciation and discovered what you touched on – that some of the “modern” portrayals of the Annunciation were unsettling, but I couldn’t put my finger on why they were that way. And you’re right, there is a sense in which some of the more modern pictures seem to take away the free will of Mary rather than emphasize the moment when the second Eve chooses to follow God’s desires rather than serve herself. Awesome blog post!
Alison Bates says
I love this feast day…my younger brother reminded me this morning that the Feast of the Annunciation was the day Tolkien chose to have the ring destroyed..intentional? Of course! We have the Fra Angelico hanging in our living room (http://www.artbible.info/images/annun_angelico_grt.jpg), and I really like how it depicts the humility of both the angel and the virgin, but like you were saying, Gabriel’s posture still reflects his reverence for Mary.
I like how in the last one it looks like everyone is eavesdropping waiting with baited breath lol
Carolyn Svellinger says
You are just my fave right now. This post is excellent.
I love the constant presence of the lilies in the paintings!
Miakela D'eIGH says
Although I agree that preserving the belief in free will in general and Mary’s freely given fiat in particular is integral to the Christian faith, I would respectfully disagree that Rosetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini is an “image (that) is deeply unsettling and…hard to ignore the fact that it looks like we are witnessing an assault on a young girl.”
His representation of the Annuciation was in fact influenced by the painting of Simone Martini – “Annunciazione con i Santi Ansano e Margherita nella cuspidi quattro profetti.” If you are familiar with this painting (which originally hung in the Siena Cathedral), you will immediately notice a similarity in the Virgin’s expression, an artistic of Luke 1:29 that in no way implies coercion, but rather, a shrinking back in awe, fear, or confusion.
One must also remember that Rosetti painted “Ecce” as a work of art imbued with spirituality and informed by religion, but not as a work of doctrine per se and should therefore be viewed in that light.
Art is subjective of course, that is part of its beauty ~ the viewer brings their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences to their interpretation. However, the viewer should not discount the artist’s intention or vision. And like most things, one cannot view “Ecce” out of context with its companion painting, “The Girlhood of Mary” of which Dante himself said:
“It belongs to the religious class which has always appeared to me the most adapted and the most worthy to interest the members of a Christian community. The subject is the education of the Blessed Virgin, one which has been treated at various times by Murillo and other painters,—but, as I cannot but think, in a very inadequate manner, since they have invariably represented her as reading from a book under the superintendence of her Mother, St. Anne, an occupation obviously incompatible with these times, and which could only pass muster if treated in a purely symbolical manner.
In order, therefore, to attempt something more probable and at the same time less commonplace, I have represented the future Mother of Our Lord as occupied in embroidering a lily,—always under the direction of St. Anne; the flower she is copying being held by two little angels. At a large window (or rather aperture) in the background, her father, St. Joachim, is seen pruning a vine. There are various symbolic accessories which it is needless to describe” (Fredeman, Correspondence, 48.12).
Having viewed the original painting at the National Gallery during a 2013 exhibit, I can say that the overwhelming feeling is one of awe and peace and empathy. As Catholics, we are presented far too often with saints stripped of their humanity. I love Rosetti’s depiction of the Annunciation because it reminds me that Our Lady was a young girl ~ albeit without Original Sin ~ but with all her humanity intact.
And for many people, that is a comforting thought.
Your insights bring a lot to the conversation, Mikaela! Thanks for chiming in. And I’m just fascinated by Martini’s depiction and the connection to Rossetti’s. That is so interesting and helpful.
But it seems that there are still very problematic departures in the Rossetti painting such as the Gabriel’s proximity to Mary, her blank (almost drugged) expression, the insinuation of Gabriel’s nakedness under his thin garment, and the placement of the lily stem that combined are hard to ignore. There are some other gorgeous depictions of this scene such as Henry Ossawa Tanner’s and John Carrol Collier’s that highlight Mary’s humanity without the unsettling undertones of coercion.
Honora Bartlett says
You are so right about this, Haley–Mary acts out of strength and not out of terror. The Preraphaelites loved to represent trapped, paralyzed, stunned women –even dead ones, like Ophelia, were exciting to them. And it is particularly disturbed and also just a mistake to try to annex Mary to that aspect of the condition of women. Rossetti’s sister Christina’s poem ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ is all about that desire in a particular kind of ambivalent male artist to drain the life and independence out of a woman just by looking at her, which is what he tries to make happen between Mary and Gabriel. Nothing doing! so glad you wrote that.
Haley, Thank you for this article. I can see your point when you compare Rosetti’s to other Annunciations I think it can be interpreted differently. Mary staggers. The angel is enormous; his presence, his message is overwhelming. Could it not be that the Angel Gabriel is bringing her the entire Gospel message and all it’s ramifications ? Perhaps Mary is letting the message, in all it’s depth and width overshadow her.
Liz W. says
Is that you, Mom? 🙂
Brenna G says
Love this post!
My instincts were the same as yours! I first saw the image on Instagram and wondered why you were posting such an unsettling piece of art.
A good modern one that I like depicts a young Mary in modern dress wearing sneakers and reading a book. Have you seen it? I’d try to post it here but I don’t know how lol.
Beautifully expressed, Haley, as always. I’m serving waffles to the teens in my confirmation class this evening (for the Annunciation) and sincerely hoped that you would have something I could share with them and you do! My students always like to see different artistic representations of what we talk about so I’m glad you talked about that too.
One of your best posts yet. So interesting and spot on. Loved it!
One thing I love about Catholicism is the surprising feminism (I don’t mean that to be a controversial word here) I’ve found in it. We give Mary reverence because she was asked to bear unfathomable misunderstanding, responsibility, honor, and ultimately pain, and she accepted the call with humility and grace. The fact that she is a hero within the Catholic Church is testament to the great esteem it has for women. I absolutely adore the idea of her being the “New Eve”. I think women need that, men need that, people need that to be true!
I could blab for days on all of this! ha. But what you alluded to about it having a direct effect on our theology of free will is spot on. I really enjoyed this.
I totally agree with your theology and how Rossetti’s portral is unsettling. But I will say that although I appreciate the traditional iconography, I don’t p
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s interpretaion is my absolute favorite: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/104384.html
This painting is obviously contemporary, but I especially like the portral of Mary and the angel. It appeals to me more then some of the more classic pieces. First of all, she actually looks Jewish, compared to most art of the renaissance art, and she looks young, and she actually looks poor.
In Tanner’s painting, which like Rossetti’s, is also in a bedroom, Mary doesn’t evoke a confidence like in da Vinci’s. But instead, I sense a peaceful awe of “How can this be?” As the Jesus Storybook Bible, paraphrases: “…it’s just too wonderful!” Also, her hands are clasped like in prayer, as if Gabriel has just interrupted her prayer. I’ve even heard a priest suggest that she may have been mediating on the psalms just as Gabriel came to her. Mary does have a submissiveness, but it’s an active submission. I definitely agree with you that art is very important in communicating the faith and we should correct any theological misunderstandings, because we cannot take the free will out of Mary’s very free choice, but just also wish that all popular art–classic or otherwise–wouldn’t take every humanness out of it either.
Sorry in my comment the line got cut off, it should have said: “But I will say that although I appreciate the traditional iconography, I don’t prefer it myself…”
Alison's Wonderland Recipes says
What a great post! I’m debating on printing it off for my CCD class. We had a big talk about Mary’s Yes and the importance of free will in the Annunciation. 🙂
I know very little about art history and all its symbolism, so I can tell you from a not-knowledgeable perspective that the first painting fills me with discomfort and unease. Which I do not think is what the Annunciation was or should be portrayed as! Really enjoyed this post – love the idea of everyone waiting with baited breath to hear her answer!
Here’s the painting I mentioned above! It’s by John Collier. 🙂
Liz W. says
I love how, in most depictions (the last three), she is shown as having been interrupted while reading scripture. She was a devout Jew, and would have known of what the Angel spoke. She probably wasn’t caught off guard by the idea of a savior, and her knowledge of prophesy probably helped her understand her Fiat. Her humility is a daily inspiration.
Thanks for this post, Haley.
In Northern late medieval and renaissance paintings of the Annunciation, Mary is sometimes shown in a church setting, which reflects the traditional legend, based on apocryphal sources, that as a young girl Mary was placed in service in the Temple. A notable example is Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Here’s a blog post that discusses this type of Annunciation scene: http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2015/01/the-joyful-mysteries-annunciation-part.html
I have to say, I prefer the traditional treatments of the Annunciation, which provide realistic and symbolic details and much fruit for meditation, to the modern ones with Mary huddled in her bedroom.
This was well written and thought through. I’ve never seen the painting that way though. I’ve always imagined that it’s the moment Gabriel has just appeared, and Mary is surprised. She looks like she’s in that “whoa!” moment. In the Bible stories the angels usually have to start out by saying something like, “Don’t be afraid”, so I’m assuming there’s something about their presence that takes one off guard.
In the other paintings you posted, Mary looks serene and prepared as if this doesn’t really surprise her. They are beautiful too, but the first shows Mary as a young girl and rather humble looking with the angel holding his hands out to her as a sigh of peace and comfort. It makes me wonder what she might have been thinking and feeling during those first tense moments, but it doesn’t disturb me.
Haley – use that art knowledge more! I’m super not versed in art and art theory and I love hearing your insights on religious art. More posts like this, please! Also – if my child were old enough to be “homeschooled” in a formal sense, this post would be part of her art curriculum!
Thanks so much for the lovely post! Mary’s free will is a very important point. I do not think that her free will was diminished by her immaculate conception and lack of sin. However, it seems much less likely that she would have said no given these things.
I love your blog. It is a light to my faith.
I would sometimes wonder about that as well- that Mary, being full of Grace, would have an easier time of doing the right thing… Until I heard a priest remind us that the angels were sinless too, and Adam and Eve-but they like us, had free will, and chose to sin. Mary was not the only one-but she said YES to God, unlike Eve and before Adam and Eve, Lucifer, and the third of the Angels in heaven who were cast out of Heaven.
Love this! What a great reflection on free will and female agency. You’ve got me thinking about how the Annunciation contradicts the divine impregnations in traditional pagan mythology. God doesn’t try to trick Mary by disguising himself as a cow/swan/shower of gold. Instead, He asks her permission and initiates a conversation about what’s at stake.
Thanks for this wonderful post, I really love meditating on Biblical art, and it was lovely to see all these different images of the annunciation. I hadn’t seen the first image before, it is so shocking, I wonder what the artist was thinking?
Oh, and I love the annunciation image by Vasily Surikov – have you seen it? It’s available on wikiart http://www.wikiart.org/en/vasily-surikov/annunciation-1914
This is both beautiful and encouraging.
Also, when you mentioned Gabriel waiting for Mary’s answer, I was reminded of Abraham’s servant, waiting for Rebekah’s answer when he asked her to come back and be Isaac’s wife.
I love when you break out the bold type Haley. 😉
Great post. It’s fairly heartbreaking to know people don’t know God well enough to know His Character or the story of our salvation — and yet it goes so deep and rich as to be a fulfillment of the old testament — and people are missing all of that. Ugh. Good reminder to be more open to whatever Yes God may require of us as Christians (and for me personally to give better Christian example in online in forums. whoops).
Also, totally completely unrelated, I started watching Death Comes to Pemberley and it is truly excellent. On episode 2 and loving every nuance.
Beautiful reflection. I just discovered your blog yesterday and I’m very moved. I’m a new mother and it’s really fed my soul the last few days. Thank you for that.
The thing is, we don’t need painting created by European artists several hundred years after to have a good idea of what happened in the scene. We have Luke’s narrative, that he presumably got from Mary or more likely from someone who knew her story. Her assertion of agreement is important, yes, but it isn’t what we’d probably call consent in the modern understanding. How does one who is full of grace turn down the God of Israel and his messenger? We are being a little anachronistic in applying the term.
There is something that amuses me here about presenting these images as “real” or factual in a way that they are not. These are grand paintings of European ladies, adorned in silk and surrounded by wealth, created as luxury items for royalty and nobility or for devotion for the grandest altarpieces and churches of their times. Mary would’ve looked, frankly, Middle Eastern to us, she would not have had her own bedroom (bedrooms for individuals did not exist in the homes of working 1st century families), she probably wouldn’t have been able to read, nor would the family have owned books. Women and girls worked constantly and HARD to provide food and clothes for the family. Life for Mary would’ve looked like life for girls in rural Afghanistan today. Minimal education, early marriage to someone the family knows. I say this not to deglamorize the Catholic image of Mary for fun, but because I don’t think it gives her credit. She was a tough girl by today’s standards. She would’ve been carrying water, caring for livestock, cooking for her family, caring for babies, building fires, grinding meal and baking bread, sweating over the laundry…all within two or three small rooms. She was a tribal, not an urban, woman. She didn’t have a closet, much less gorgeous clothes. So I appreciate the rare image of Mary that gets at who she really was. This Mary, not the figure of veneration of church doctors and medieval sentiment, overlaid with doctrine that has to shape her into a figure that is no longer flesh and blood and sweat and dirt, has a lot of hope and meaning to give. Not meek and mild, but strong and believing – like an Israelite hero of old. My two cents, and I say this as someone who quite loves European artistic images of Mary and Orthodox iconography – just wanting to emphasize that these in no way reflect a real interpretation of the Biblical narrative, but symbolic ones.