The Virgin's Gestures and the Virgin's Book.


Pietro Cavallini, The Annunciation, c. 1290, mosaic, Santa Maria in Trastevere

The Cavallini mosaic is the earliest image I can  find of the Virgin with a book at the Annunciation. The medieval Italian church scholars transformed Mary from a simple village girl to an aristocratic scholar. Most artist were artisans employed by the church and like carpenters they created as directed. There are rumblings even today that she wrote the book of Luke. Whether the medieval scholars shared this belief or they simply wanted to promote the status of the mother of God, I don't know.

 Almost all Italian paintings after the Cavallini show her with at least one book, at a time when educated women were rare. Moreover, she is always shown with a book, not a scroll. The pagan and Jewish world used scrolls, so Mary was identified as not only as Christian, but Roman Catholic. A sampling of Byzantine Annunciations shows her either holding nothing or a spindle, no scholar here.

In Byzantine art the Virgin is nearly always on the right, either standing or seated on a throne with a building behind her. This style was used in the west until the 13th century.


 The Gestures

Medieval artists distinguished several phases of the Virgin's reaction to the appearance of Gabriel and his astounding news, from initial alarm at the sudden vision to acceptance..well,mostly.

 Some artists show crossed arms indicating acceptance (Fra Angelico), others have her holding up her hands to indicate halt (Botticelli), and even others have her turned away from the angel (Rogier van der Weyden). 


The strangest one to me is the Leonardo. In this section of his painting the right hand is on the book, indicating she is a learned woman, but the hand looks like a spider. The left hand seem to emulate the right hand, but being raised to gesture what I am unsure. The aristocratic face shows no emotion at all, that at least is typical Leonardo.


fra ang (left) Fra Angelico has her meekly accepting the responsibility; no book, no aristocratic countenance, just a simple girl on a stool.  The Fra painted on the walls and monks' cells of the religious complex of San Marco in Florence, so portraying a humble Mary is understable.
Cestello Annunciation (Botticelli) in the Uffizi, Florence. The Virgin's gesture could be taken as a gracious halt; she is even moving her leg away. The book is on the lectern and the beautiful robes indicate her high status.
Note the line of the window edge which  indicated the demarcation between the heavenly realm of Gabriel and the human world of Mary. The lily symbolizes purity.
weyden  Annunciation Triptych (Rogier van der Weyden), Louvre. This gesture seems to indicate she was expecting a visitor from heaven. The scene is of a well appointed bedroom, with a red but unrumpled indicating her purity, as well as the vase of lilies. The medallion hanging above the bed is the Holy Ghost waiting to do his thing.
Danaë with Eros (Titian)1544, National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples

Danaë is locked in a subterranean dungeon and Zeus reaches her by becoming a golden shower. She will later give birth to a hero, the demi divine Theseus. Danaë seems less to gesture than to remove the sheets, while Cupid  seems to have just waved away the ceiling so Zeus can make an entrance.

If we deconstruct the myth back to the original equation, then: The Sun god warms and fertilizes Mother Earth each spring. Mother Earth in human form, her proxy, then gives birth to the hero, king, or new god. (think Theseus, King Arthur, or Jesus).

The date for the Annunciation was set by the church at March 25 to coincide with the arrival of spring and the birth of Jesus was then nine months later at December 25 at the arrival of winter.

A modern version of the myth is found in The Children of Men  a dystopian novel by P. D. James published in 1992. Set in England in 2021, it centers on the results of mass infertility. James describes a United Kingdom that is steadily depopulating and focuses on small groups that vie for control of the single child born in the world.  A truly terrifying  movie of the same title was later released.



Recanati Annunciation (Lorenzo Lotto) 1534, Museo Civico Villa Colloredo Mels, Recanati

Victoria says this is her favorite Annunciation, so I have included it, because it does amuse. First, the heads are under sized - now let me continue. Mary's gesture indicates something like, "Oh, dear."  Gabriel looks like he has just bowled a strike by knocking down the pens of Mary's legs and spinning her around. The ugly cat is frightened by the angel and then there is The Holy Ghost, looking like he is about to take a dive from the high board into the .....
pool? And finally, the figures are reversed: good guys enter  stage left, bad guys enter stage right.