Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Holy Spirit Will Come Upon You

I first saw this painting of the Annunciation by Filippo Lippi on the front of Prepare the Way, a book of Advent meditations by Ronald Thomas. I was looking at it as Bill and I prayed the Angelus one morning and noticed for the first time the Holy Spirit moving toward Mary not, as is usually pictured, from above, but flying towards her womb. Mary, instead of looking at Gabriel, or gazing up to Heaven as she is often depicted, is intently watching the Holy Spirit as He comes to her. She appears peaceful, but you can see the tension of expectation in the way she holds her arm and in her alert stillness. Her anticipation may be that of a virgin contemplating her wedding night. As I look at this picture, I get much less the sense of a universal event than that of a private consummation. And this may be at the very heart of Christian mystery, not only that mysterious things might happen out there in the universe but that they may, they will, happen to us--in us--in the most secret recesses of our bodies and souls.

I can remember the way that I felt when I was first pregnant. I knew that millions of women had been pregnant and that this would be a perfectly natural thing to happen, but I just could not believe that it could ever happen to me, and when it did, it was awesome in the true sense of the word. And if this overwhelming sense of mystery is what an ordinary sinful woman who has conceived a child in the ordinary way feels, what must this pure young woman have felt?

The cover of Prepare the Way shows Mary's side of Lippi's painting, and I was originally only going to write about this half of the picture, but then I saw the other side.

Here we have, not the powerful Gabriel with raised hand pointing heavenward, but a messenger wholly engaged in the miracle that he is announcing. His face is full of wonder, intent upon the moment of incarnation. His attitude is that of humility; his hand almost weighted down by astonishing reality that it declares--two natures in this one infant that will soon reside in Mary's womb.

In many depictions of the Annunciation, Gabriel are separated by some physical object: a short dividing wall like we see here, a pillar, a window, or even something like a tapestry behind Mary. This arrangement of Gabriel in the garden and Mary in a man-made space seemingly indicates a separation between heaven and earth. I found it in a few other paintings.

This one by Leonardo da Vinci bears many similarities with the Lippi, but the attitudes of Mary and Gabriel a completely different. It's more formal; less intimate.

The San Domenico Annunciation by Benozzo Gozzoli. You can see a made-up bed in the background on the far right, a symbol of Mary's virginity which is fairly common in pictures of the Annunciation, as is the unopened chest on the far right of the Lippi painting.

A 20th century Pre-Raphaelite Annunciation by John William Waterhouse. Pre-Raphaelite angels seem to always be excessively feminine.

It occurs to me as I write this that there have been quite a few pictures of the Annunciation on this blog over the years. It is one of the mysteries of the rosary that I find easiest to meditate on and I try to remember to say the Angelus morning, noon, and evening, so it's always on my mind. More than that I think, is that unceasing call, issued to all of us, to let Jesus be born in us--to inhabit us, body and soul--to let whatever comes to us that day be done according to His Word.

Click once on the pictures to see them enlarged.



  1. Very good commentary. You really have an eye for the nuances of paintings. And I had never seen any of these before. So, thanks. I really like Mary's face in the Leonardo one. But the first one is great.

  2. You're welcome.

    I have really only begun to look at works of art in this way in the last six or seven years. I always loved the pictures, but the noticing of details is fairly recent.


  3. Really helpful insights, Janet.

    I'm sure I've seen the Leonardo painting before, but looking at it now, I realize Mary looks younger than I've ever seen her depicted. Mostly due to the early-teen softness of her face, I think.