Today 25th of March is the feast of The Annunciation, also referred to as the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son through a virgin birth and become the mother of Jesus Christ.
It’s easy to remember this date, as it’s a full nine months of pregnancy before Christmas, the birthday of Jesus. And it’s approximately the start of spring and the moment of the northern equinox when day and night are equally long. In medieval terms, start of spring is identified as the date of an unusual number of Biblical events: Adam’s and Eve’s fall into sin; Cain’s murder of Abel; Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac; the martyrdom of John the Baptist; and the Crucifixion. Still more strongly associated with this date is the Annunciation, at which, according to the Gospel of Luke, the archangel Gabriel brought word to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive the Son of God: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”
The Annunciation has been one of the most frequent subjects of Christian art. Its composition and details vary in accordance with its setting: the Virgin might appear on a throne, in a loggia, in a bedroom, or outdoors, and she often is shown sewing or reading. A variant of particular interest is the depiction of the Annunciation at the Spring, also known as the Annunciation at the Well. Inspired by accounts preserved in early apocryphal (non-Bible) texts such as the Gospel of James, this variant of the Annunciation depicts the Virgin Mary greeted by the angel Gabriel as she is fetching water at a well.
There are two basic sources that describe the Annunciation. The Gospel of Luke (1:26-38) and the Gospel of James (v.11). Luke’s Gospel is part of the traditional Bible books and mostly the story that is depicted in Western art from the 14th Century onwards. The other source is the 2nd Century Gospel of James, which is an “apocryphal” book, meaning it’s not included in the traditional Bible collection of books. James’s Gospel is mostly the source in Eastern art up to the 15th Century and – remarkably – again by British painters in the 19th Century. The Gospel of James describes how one day Mary took the pitcher and went forth to draw water at a well when she heard an angelic voice: “Hail, you are highly favored, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.” And Mary looked around on the right and on the left to see from where this voice could have come.” During this first encounter, at a well or spring, the angel was heard but not seen. Mary appeared to be alone. Mary then went inside and it’s there that the angel appeared to her in person, while Mary is sitting on a throne-like chair.
From the 14th Century onward most Annunciations in Western art focus more on the story as written in the Gospel of Luke rather than the apocryphal Gospel of James. They dispense with the pitcher and the well and more and more they will also omit Mary sitting on a the throne-like seat. Many more images placed the event in a specific and unified space such as a portico (Fra Angelico), a private home (Rubens), or a church (Van Eyck).
When Cosimo de’ Medici rebuilt the convent of San Marco, he commissioned Fra Angelico to decorate the walls with frescos. This included the inside of the monk’s cells and inside the corridors; around fifty pieces in total. Out of all of the frescos at the convent, the Annunciation is the most well known. This fresco was not intended just for aesthetic purposes. Running across the loggia at the bottom of the fresco there is an inscription that instructs the viewer: “Virginis Intacte Cvm Veneris Ante Figvram Preterevndo Cave Ne Sileatvr Ave.” It means “When you come before the image of the Ever-Virgin take care that you do not neglect to say an Ave”. This was a daily reminder for the monks to pray.
March 25 was used as New Year’s Day in many pre-modern Christian countries. The holiday was moved to January 1 in France by Charles IX in 1564. In England, the feast of the Annunciation came to be known as Lady Day, and Lady Day marked the beginning of the English new year until 1752.
Here are the two stories, written by Luke and by James, both accounts of the Annunciation and written down in the first few centuries after the birth of Jesus.The story as told by Luke in his Gospel (1:26-38) is focusing on the discussion between the Angel and Mary. It’s as follows:
Luke 1: 26-38
God sent the angel Gabriel, to a virgin named Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “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 Highest.”
“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.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her
The story as told by James in his Gospel (v.11) gives also details about the setting. It happens at the well and inside Mary’s house, and it mentions that Mary is doing some sewing and needlework. It’s as follows:
And she took the pitcher and went out to fill it with water. And suddenly a voice could be heard, saying: “Hail, you who has received grace; the Lord is with you; blessed are yiou among women!” And Mary looked round to the right hand and to the left, to see from where this voice came. And she went away, trembling, to her house, and put down the pitcher; and she took her sewing basket with needlework, and she sat down on her seat. And then, look, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying: “Fear not, Mary; for you have found grace before the Lord, and you shall conceive, according to His word.” And she is hearing, reasoned with herself, saying: “Shall I conceive by the Lord, the living God? and shall I give birth as every woman gives birth?” And the angel of the Lord said: “Not so, Mary; for the power of the Lord shall overshadow you: wherefore also that holy thing which shall be born with you shall be called the Son of the Highest. And you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” And Mary said: “See, I am the servant of the Lord before His face: let it be upon me according to your word.”