Art Stories: Botticelli’s The Annunciation – When Angels Visit

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What are we supposed to think about angelic visits?

In the Bible, we read that on occasion, angels would appear to people. Either these events really happened, or Scripture is deliberately trying to deceive us. How should a sensible person respond to a Biblical tale of an angelic visit? There are three ways a person could go, but only two are reasonable, and those two are mutually exclusive, meaning only one of them can be true.

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), an Italian painter from the early Renaissance period, painted his interpretation of one such visit. His paintings typically featured minimal architectural details while relying on flat colors and linear design to create a graceful, two-dimensional look. Perhaps his best-known work is The Birth of Venus.

Botticelli’s The Annunciation was created for the funeral chapel in the church of Cestello in Florence. On its gilded frame are these words in Latin from Luke’s Gospel, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee” (Luke 1:35).

The Annunciation is the subject of countless paintings down through the ages because it represents that mysterious moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to tell an ordinary virgin that she was favored by God and would conceive of a Son who would be the Savior of the world, and that because of him the world would never be the same.

As I said, when we think about encounters between humans and heavenly beings, there are only three ways to view them, and only two are credible. The first is to conclude that these meetings are so implausible that they could not happen. This view would take one of two possible positions concerning the heavenly realm—it does not exist, or it does, but the separation between that world and ours is so vast and definite that it cannot be traversed.

The second and only other reasonable view is that for these celestial encounters to have transpired, they would have had to have been anything but normal—fantastic affairs you would have to see to believe. The laws of physics ignored by the presence of the non-physical. We would not expect these heavenly visitors to be constrained by natural laws as we, the earthbound, know them.

The third and only other remaining option, which is completely unreasonable, is that when earthbound creatures encountered heavenly beings it was no big deal—a regular collegial chat. This seems about as implausible as a man casually embracing a grizzly bear in the wild.

Botticelli took the second view. This meeting between the angel and the woman was a strange, sacred matter. Botticelli used visual cues to convey the idea that while a heavenly being drew near to the earthbound Mary, there remained a separation between them. Mary is rendered as a solid figure while portions of the angel are translucent. Also, a series of red tiles on the floor and the window create a visual barrier between them, as outside the window a river runs off past the horizon line, separating them even further.

Heaven drew near, but the two remained distinct. Perhaps Botticelli intended this separation to highlight the Biblical teaching that Mary conceived the Messiah without being touched. The woman and the angel regard each other as almost unsafe. The angel creeps toward the woman in a posture of submission as Mary, demure yet crowned with a halo, turns away from reading a book on a stand (presumably Scripture) to genuflect before her herald.

The Annunciation was painted over five hundred years ago. Consider how Botticelli used his composition elements to not only show us the encounter, but also to tell us about it. This painting offers more dissonance than harmony, more distance than familiarity, and more mystery than certainty. The artist who painted this scene came to his easel with more questions than answers, and that is why it helps us.

Botticelli was asking the same questions we still have five hundred years later, which are also the same questions people had been asking for fifteen hundred years before Botticelli picked up his brush. What was that encounter like—the angel Gabriel’s visit to tell Mary she would give birth to the Son of God?

Botticelli’s answer is strangely satisfying to me: he doesn’t really know, but it happened.

 

 

Boticelli The Annunciation Full

About the Art: Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation, 1489, tempera on panel, 150 x 156 cm, Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


10 Comments

  1. Chris Whitler

    @cwhitler

    This is a great series. Hope they continue. I don’t really know about this kind of art all that much (I know what I like). When I was a kid, on vacation with my family, I got to see St. George and the Dragon (maybe in DC?).  I couldn’t get that painting out of my head. I would try to draw it over and over again. Would love to read a post on that one!

    My son is participating in a film school right now and I got to sit in on a few classes. In a few short talks on screenwriting, I now watch movies in a totally new way. These posts are helping me do the same thing with fine art. Thanks.

  2. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    And yeah, Pete. I agree. I don’t “like” the painting– meaning I’m not scouring the internet trying to buy a print for my living room. But I am fascinated by what different eras and cultures regarded as master works. Some of it is just plain weird. One thing I find fascinating about artists who painted 500 years ago is that they were not at all inundated with images. We google a thought, and there are a thousand related pictures we could look through instantly. For these artists, so much of what they did came either from a very small sample of other works, or from their own imaginations. I know I take for granted the wealth of existing resources I have at my fingertips– and how much I rely on it to create.

  3. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Hey Chris, which version of St. George and the Dragon did you see? There are several, but the Vittore Carpaccio one is wild.

  4. Dawn Waters Baker

    @dwbaker

    Thank you Russ for showing us into some insight with this painting. Makoto Fujimura says we can actually see into works of art through: “Visual Exegisis.” I like that thought. And I like that you pointed out the mystery of the painting. The Artist doesn’t have to have all the answers and we are better for it.

    I would like to see, someday, a painting where the idea of “Don’t be afraid” was conveyed. It seems in every Biblical encounter with Angels there is always this statement, “Don’t be afraid…” particularly when they are in Angelic form. Something that the sublime painters (the mixture of awe and fear) could have done well I think. (JMW Turner comes to mind).

  5. Carrie Givens

    @carrieg

    I love these, @russramsey. Thanks for continuing to write them.

    Bruce Herman talks about “understanding” art vs. “comprehending” art. He says our goal as we approach art should not be to comprehend–to get our arms all the way around it and wrestle it into submission–but rather to stand under it and listen to it and see what it can shower us with. I think about that idea as you’ve posted these–you’re opening up to us ideas that come from the work itself, and we can stand under it with you and see what rains down.

  6. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    That’s another reason I’m writing these, @carrieg . Thanks for jumping in, and for your kind words over in the forum. I have always felt that Annie Dillard’s “An Expedition to the Pole” was a baptism of sorts for me. Everything else I read from her stands under that essay’s shadow. It is hard to imagine another essay overtaking it as my personal favorite.

     

  7. Lisa Eldred

    @firstcrusader

    @russramsey Can we put in requests for works of art? Jules Bastien Lepage’s Joan of Arc is quite possibly the only work of art I’ve ever fallen in love with, and I’d love to hear your take.

    As for this particular painting, the inherent Marian theology (Mary-ology?) is fascinating. My previous paster always describes angels as the Navy Seals of the Universe; everyone is terrified of them, but here the angel is the one terrified of Mary. This made me dive into Luke’s account, in which Mary is, in fact, troubled…but by what the angel tells her, not by his appearance (Zechariah, on the other hand, is troubled by the angel’s appearance but laughs at what he says). So Mary really is an exception in that she’s not sore afraid at the angel’s appearance, which to me indicates that while Mary is not worthy of veneration like the Catholics believe, she also wasn’t quite the ordinary girl we Protestants preach. Maybe it’s just that her faith was extraordinary.

    At any rate, because of this painting and this post, I dove a little deeper into Scripture. So, thanks for that. 🙂

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