Today is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the day the Church celebrates the conception of God Incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The union between the power of God and the fragility of mankind is made manifest in Our Lady. God does not overpower us: he is at once gentle and great. The artist Simone Martini, who collaborated with his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi, depicts this reality in the above painting. Very typical of the Sienese style, it is full of elegance and delicate lines in precise detail, yet portrays the power of the Holy Spirit.
As our eyes rest upon this painting, we realize that we have walked in on a conversation. Normally we would try to awkwardly tip-toe past, while trying not to appear to be eavesdropping, but instead we find ourselves drawn in by the magnificent figure of the angel Gabriel and his flowing robes. We are caught up in his movement as he rushes in like the wind to announce to Our Lady those most famous of words: “Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). These eternal words link the present moment and the growing sense of eternity that is portrayed by the gold expanse that covers every corner of the painting.
The words themselves start at the angel’s mouth and are aimed straight for Our Lady, who is still in shock at the entrance of the celestial being. She grasps her cloak over her shoulder in surprise at the messenger from heaven and is just able to mark the spot where she was reading with her finger.
The words spoken by the angel reveal God’s plan for her to accept the Holy Spirit, by whose power a great gift will be given her. This is confirmed by the dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, which is encircled by seraphim at the top of the painting. The mouth of the dove is open and it appears that it is speaking directly to Mary, thus echoing what Gabriel is saying to Mary. To receive this gift of God requires the utmost humility, well portrayed in the action of her pulling back from the angel. Mary’s thin, elongated, and delicate form reinforces this humble acceptance of such a great gift.
Her delicate form also helps us to focus less on her and more on the open space that is between Gabriel and Mary. In the open space we find two sets of flowers. One contains lilies, which are the classic symbol of Mary’s perpetual virginity, her complete openness to the will of God. The other is the olive branch brought by Gabriel and presented to Mary. This is at once a reminder of the sign given to Noah of the beginning of new life and a new covenant with God and, therefore, also of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who has just now come to make a new covenant with man that will last for all ages. This is the great gift that Mary accepts on our behalf.
We sense that even with the magnificent power of the Holy Spirit that accomplishes such a great mystery the grace that is bestowed on Mary will not destroy her. The elegant fragility of this painting reminds us of how delicate humanity really is and how God’s grace does not destroy but builds on nature. We, like Mary, must also trust that God is working great miracles deep within our souls, delicately and gently.
Image: Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, The Annunciation and Two Saints