And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city in Galilee, named Nazareth. To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And the angel came in unto her, and said,
Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.Luke 1: 26-28 King James Version
Mary would give birth to a son whom she named Jesus. At Christmas time, Christians all over the world celebrate this tale. Biblical passages recounting the Annunciation and birth of Christ are read at home and in churches. In the 21st century, high literacy rates compiled with mass distribution of Bibles make reading this story quite easy.
For much of human history though, many people couldn’t read and, even if they could, Bibles may not have been in distribution, and even if there was mass publication, books were expensive. Artworks recounting Biblical stories therefore were exceedingly important so for centuries artists dedicated many of their pieces to depicting religious stories.
To celebrate Christmas, history, and art, I want to share my three favorite paintings of the Annunciation. They are all by masters of the Italian Renaissance: Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli.
This version of the Annunciation (Botticelli did more than one) is a large fresco (about 8 by 18 feet) made in 1481. It was originally on the wall under a loggia in front of the church of San Martino. The depiction provides insight into fashion of the times both in clothing and home & garden. I love the blue of Mary’s gown and the detail of the bedroom, as well as the garden outside from where Gabriel is coming from.
This depiction of the Annunciation is vivid and crisp compared to the muted hues and soft scenes by Renaissance contemporary, Sandro Botticelli. The painting is a large (approx. 3×7 feet) oil on wood. The work is considered by the Uffizi Gallery to be a work of Leonardo when he was still working in the studio of Andrea del Verrochio. I love the sharp portrayal of Gabriel and the detailed feathers of his wings.
Fra Angelico, an Italian painter born Guido di Pietro, was a Dominican monk whose paintings grace many walls in the church and convent of San Marco (also in Florence). Although the monk’s paintings are found in many areas of the first floor of the religious complex, to see his masterful depiction of the Annunciation (1440-45), you need to climb the stairs to where the monks lived. At the top of the staircase, you will find yourself in front of one of the most arresting portrayals of the Annunciation story ever painted. The angel who is giving Mary the news of her pregnancy has technicolor wings; the whole scene is soft with varying shades of pink. It is a strangely feminine fresco for such a masculine space.
Art and the holidays go together nicely as I’m reminded by the decorative cards delivered to my door, many of them showing religious scenes from Biblical stories I grew up hearing this time of year. I’m looking forward to a happy holiday season surrounded by pictures of pretty art, good books, and fine food with cherished conversations.
Jon and I wish you peace, comfort, good health, and happiness! We hope whichever holidays you celebrate are filled with joy. Happy holidays! Amy
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