BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008






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The Annunciation; c. 1420; tempera on wood; private collection, Haut Rhin, France


The Annunciation





WHAT YOU CAN SEE IN THIS PICTURE...  and in other pictures


A scene with two characters, Mary, a maiden girl, and Gabriel, an angel; the latter says or reads a few words to the maiden who looks surprised; a dove is often above the scene.

The dove of God’s Spirit often takes an importance place. To show that it is really God, the figure of God the Father is sometimes added above the bird. Sometimes in order to make it understood that Jesus is conceived by God’s Spirit, the artist draws a ray of light that starts from the dove and reaches a part of the Virgin’s body. This can be her side, her eyes or often her ear, hence the famous phrase “to be get children through the ear” taken up by Molière in The School for Wives.

The composition expresses the fundamental difference between God and mankind either by the angel’s downward movement or by the clear-cut separation between Gabriel and Mary marked by an empty space, a column or a simple vertical line…

The meeting between God and mankind and their new relationship are suggested by words, gestures, or by the face-to-face of the angel and Mary. This relationship is rendered by the horizontal line whereas the vertical corresponds to God’s transcendence

The scenery

The Annunciation takes place in Mary’s house in Nazareth in Galilee. What can be expected is a “historical” representation of the context; this is what film directors do but painters often prefer contemporary sceneries as if the coming of Christ were always present. Hence Virgins in Flemish, Florentine or Castilian clothes, the Gabriel’s becoming beautiful youths in fashionable clothes or wearing ecclesiastical vestments.

The scene takes place inside the house in Mary’s bedroom or outside, in a garden, or even better between garden and bedroom to show the two worlds. But a few painters take her into a palace, a church or a park. In the 17th century, angels multiply, the scene stretches between sky and earth.

The characters

Gabriel bursting into the scene is generally placed on the left according to the direction of reading but the reverse can also be found.

Gabriel delivers his message, a sentence is sometimes written on a scroll. He makes a gesture to the Virgin or holds out to her either a sort of sceptre or, more often, a branch of lily flowers. These white flowers symbolize Mary’s virginity but they are also the emblems of the Republic of Florence and of the kingdom of France, hence their success.

 The maiden manifests her surprise by interrupting her occupation, either needlework or, more often, the reading of a book that is, of course, the Bible in which she reads God’s promise. She can also answer the angel.


It should not be confused with


The Dream of Saint Joseph; Philippe de CHAMPAIGNE; 1642; oil on canvas; National Gallery, London.

National gallery


There are other annunciations inspired from the one to Mary.

The Announcement to Joseph.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Joseph, in a vision, sees an angel who tells him not to worry about Mary’s pregnancy, which is God’s work.

The representation adapts the Annunciation to Mary but the latter, contrary to this picture, is not always present.


The Annunciation to St Anne and St Joachim; Bernhard STRIGEL, 1505-1510; oil on panel; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

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The Announcement to Anne and Joachim.

Already in the early centuries, the cult of Mary made all the acts of her life miraculous. Her parents Anne and Joachim could not have children and each of them received the announcement of the conception by an angel.

This German painting transposes the annunciation to Mary for her mother and that to Joseph for her father.



Hagar and the Angel; Giuseppe BOTTANI; c. 1776; oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris.



Hagar and the Angel in the Desert; Jacques TISSOT; 1896-1900; watercolour on paper; the Jewish Museum, New York.

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Another scene from the Old Testament can lead to some confusion: Hagar in the desert or Hagar with the angel.

Hagar is the maid-servant of Abraham and his wife Sarah. As the latter could not have any child, she allowed her husband to have one with Hagar; the child was called Ishmael. But after the birth of her son Isaac, Sarah asked Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. The mother and her son were rescued in the desert through the intervention of an angel (Genesis, chapter 21).

The difference with the Annunciation is fairly easy to see since Ishmael, as a child or an adolescent, is present at his mother’s side.


The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception; El GRECO; 1607-1613; oil on canvas; Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, Spain

Web Gallery of Art


Another scene, the Immaculate Conception, can sometimes bring confusions.

The sizes of the angels and the presence of the dove of the Holy Spirit can lead to some confusion but there is no dialogue between Mary and the angel.




The Annunciation; c. 1420; tempera on wood; private collection, Haut Rhin, France



The Annunciation

The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 1

The angel Gabriel announces to Mary, a maiden, that she will soon be a mother :

 " Hail, you that are highly favoured, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women…
And the angel said to her, Fear not, Mary: for you have found favour with God.
And, behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name JESUS.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest…

Then Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I do not know a man ?"

  And the angel answered and said to her,"The Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you: therefore also that holy one which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God"…

 And Mary said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1:28-38)



 God sends His messenger to announce to a Jewish maiden that she is about to give birth to Jesus the Messiah through the power of the Spirit of God. 

Messiah is the Hebrew word meaning “the anointed one”, that is to say "chosen by God" and marked by the unction. Messiah is translated by “Christ” in Greek. For Christians, it is God who incarnates Himself into the world. The Virgin Mary plays an essential part in the Incarnation; she accepts God’s will. The Latin translation « fiat », from which “faith” and “confidence” derive, conveys very well Mary’s attitude of absolute and total faith in God.






The Annunciation



The Annunciation; c. 1420; tempera on wood; private collection, Haut Rhin, France



Two annunciations in which the angel and Mary are quite separate.


The Annunciation; Fra ANGELICO; 1430; fresco; Convento di San Marco, Florence, Italy.

Web Gallery of Art



The Annunciation; Sandro BOTTICELLI; 1485; tempera and gold on wood; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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With their numerous angels and the heaven opening onto God the Father and the Holy Spirit, these annunciations are typical of the Catholic Reformation.




The Annunciation; Francesco ALBANI; circa 1645; oil on copper; the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Web Gallery of Art



The Annunciation; Frederico BAROCCI; 1592-1596; oil on canvas; Santa Maria degli Angeli, Perugia, Italy.

Web Gallery of Art


Is God’s angel visible to Mary? Is it some interior light? Are they echoing words?


The Annunciation; William BOUGUEREAU; 1888; oil on canvas; private collection.

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The Annunciation; Henri TANNER; 1898; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art.




An annunciation projected into the sky or a meeting face to face with seraphs.

Between Mary and the angel, El Greco paints a burning bush which recalls God’s revelation to Moses but is also a sign of virginity

(See Moses and the burning bush).



The Annunciation; El GRECO; 1590; oil on canvas; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Web Gallery of Art



The Annunciation; Jacques TISSOT; 1886; gouache; Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Brooklyn museum


More intimate annunciations in Mary’s bedroom.


The Annunciation; Petrus CHRISTUS; 1452; oil on wood; left hand panel of a triptych with a Nativity; Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

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The Annunciation; Edward Burne-Jones; 1862; gouache; private collection

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum


or more public in a church or in a garden  

The Annunciation; The Master of Aix; central panel of a triptych; church of the Magdalene, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Web Gallery of Art



The Annunciation; Leonardo da VINCI; 1472-75; oil and tempera on wood; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

 In secula


The action of the Holy Spirit is materialised by a divine ray; in Crivelli, it must really go through the walls.


The Annunciation with Saint Emidius; Carlo CRIVELLI; 1486; oil and tempera on panel transferred to canvas; National Gallery, London.

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The Annunciation; Gerhard RICHTER after Titian; 1973: oil on linen; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington.



Mary’s attitude does not always reveal an easy consent.


The Annunciation; Jan JANSSENS; circa 1630; oil on canvas; Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent.

Web Gallery of Art



Ecce Ancilla Domini; Dante Gabriel ROSSETTI; 1850; oil on canvas; Tate Gallery, London.

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The date of the Annunciation

The Annunciation to Mary, which announces the conception of Jesus by the Spirit of God, is celebrated nine months before the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day on December 25th. Like Christmas or Easter, this date could be taken as the first day of the new year; for example in England, each year began on March 25th until the 18th century.


Ave Maria

In the Middle-Ages, the veneration of the Virgin Mary created a prayer which has become very famous: the Hail Mary, or Ave Maria in Latin. It repeats the angel’s salutation and adds the title of Mother of God. The Ave Maria has been set in music by the greatest composers and a popular version written by Francis Jammes was sung by Georges Brassens.


The rosary

The rosary is a collar of five times ten beads, each bead corresponding to the recitation of one “Hail Mary”, each decade a (series of ten) is separated by one “Our Father”. The name “rosary” comes from the custom to crown the statue of the Virgin with small roses, each flower symbolising a prayer. The chaplet (or string of beads) has the same origin; it is a small “chapel” hat, originally a crown of roses.

“to tell one’s beads” is “to count” the beads, the balls of glass or stone strung together in the chaplet and “to keep a tally of the prayers when saying them.

The word “bead” probably derives from the Old English verb biddan = to pray.

The recitation of the rosary is a means to meditate on the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and glorious moments of the lives of Mary and Jesus.


The Angelus

In the old days, the bells of the villages rang three times a day, in the morning, at midday and in the evening and each time three “Hail Mary” were said. That was the angelus or the Annunciation angel’s prayer, which marked the hours of work and rest. Jean-François Millet’s painting bearing this title was the most reproduced picture in the 19th century.

The Angelus;
Jean-François MILLET;
1859; oil on canvas; Musée d’Orsay, Paris





BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008