The Annunciation is one of the Gospels fantastic images: the Angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, God, a Dove, beams of light. Byzantine icons flatten everyone into Cubist style archetypes grounded in gold. Early Renaissance paintings draw out attention to the angel with colorful wings. Later images bring human qualities to both Mary and the angel. This painting of the Annunciation by Raphael in the Vatican, sets Mary on the right and Gabriel dashing in on the left within formal columned and arched portico. God hovers in the sky of the left arch, and the dove of the Holy Spirit descends toward Mary in the right arch. Intense reds and blues drap each element from the tile floor, to their robes, to the landscape. The intimacy of conception is within view of the world that this event will later shape.
One observation I made in reading the Gospel accounts of this period before Jesus’ birth, is that the angel Gabriel communicated with Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father), but only paintings of Mary show this communication. I guess Guys and Angels does have the same appeal. So, instead of those, here are some additional presentations of the Annunciation from the Vatican collection:
In Cavalier d’Arpino’s Annunciation, the background setting is constricted, focusing more on the interaction between Gabriel and Mary. While set in a Renaissance building with colors and fabrics of that time, d’Aprino brings out the implications of the event in the facial expressions and hand gestures of each subject. God is implied by the golden light and dove above, but not presented in human form.
In contrast to d’Aprino’s painting is Pinturicchio’s golden highlighted Annunciation in the Vatican’s Borgia Apartments. There is so much sparkling foil in the architecture, clothing, and halos that when we view this room (each archway has a similarly gilded image from Jesus’ life), I’m likely to trip over my feet from distraction. There is one way to get the apostate prostrate.
Upon receiving the news from Gabriel, Mary traveled to visit her relative Elizabeth. Both were pregnant. Upon greeting each other, the children in their wombs moved, bringing them joy at their shared divine destinies.
Images of The Visitation are usually intimate gatherings emphasizing Mary and Elizabeth at the moment of their greeting. Joseph and Zechariah are present in a supportive role. These paintings lack the dazzle and grandeur of Annunciation. Rather than colonnaded villas, a few steps and entry set the stage. Rather than flowing gowns of royalty, common dress of the time are worn.
In this painting at the Borghese Gallery, Martin Mandekens depicts the moment that they greet each other at the door as told in Luke, chapter 1: “… Mary got ready and hurried into town… where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed in the child you will bear!” Mandekens shows the older Elizabeth reaching out to touch Mary’s obviously full abdomen. Zachariah and Joseph greet each other in the shadows, seeming oblivious of the illumination of the women. Telling of the domestic nature of this scene, and foreshadowing of the barnyard nature of Jesus’ birth, several chickens scratch grain under the steps.