This is one of my favourite paintings, The Annunciation by Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci. Today, March 25, Christians celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, as recorded in Luke’s Gospel, when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to the Virgin Mary to convey the message that she would conceive and bear a son who was to be named Jesus.
Sandro Botticelli, a contemporary of Leonardo, also records the event in his Primavera painting. The woman with the central role in the scene is generally assumed to be the figure of Venus, goddess of love. Although there are other mythological identities applied to her by Botticelli, he also makes clear the woman’s foremost identity is that of the Virgin Mary,
Botticelli does this by referencing a biblical description applied to Luke the Evangelist and a patron saint of artists, that of a winged Ox, and also to a verse from his account of the Annunciation – “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with his shadow” (1:35).
The swelling of the Virgin’s belly represents her pregnancy as well the muzzle of an ox. The eyes are formed by the shape of the strapping across her bosom, and the neckline of her dress is shaped to represent the horns. The straps outlining her bosom also form the wings of the Holy Spirit descending upon her (and refer to the winged ox), while the dark area beneath her left breast depicts the shadow of the Most High.
The reference to verse 35 is indicated by the number of fingers shown on both hands, three and five. While it appears that the numbers are reversed, reading from right to left, this is a pointer to Leonardo’s presence in the Primavera. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote in a mirror style from the right side of the page. Leonardo’s model for the Virgin in his Annunciation painting is a younger version of the same woman depicted as the Virgin in Botticelli’s Primavera.
There are other pointers to Leonardo connected to this figure which I shall explain in a future post as they relate to a separate narrative Botticelli has included in the Primavera.
When the time came for Mary and her new-born child to be purified, as laid down by the Law, she presented him in the Temple at Jerusalem. There, an old man named Simeon announced to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul, “so that the secrets of many may be laid bare”. This is represented by the pointed blade symbols forming a cross over the Virgin’s heart, and the suspended circular medallion depicting the deposition of Jesus in his tomb.
Simeon’s words is another verse 35, but from chapter two of Luke’s Gospel.
More on the Primavera figure of Mary and her Florentine connection in a future post.