This is one of Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest paintings, The Annunciation. It shows the angel Gabriel arriving before the Virgin Mary with a message from God that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and bear a son to be named Jesus.
What isn’t commonly known about this painting is that Leonardo embedded references to the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Not only that, he also made comparisons with Mary and Gabriel to two figures from Greek mythology, Athena Parthenos and her servant Nike.
Historians date the panel circa 1442-46, which would put Leonardo between the age of 20 to 24 when he completed the work. This would likely mean he was still serving as an apprentice in Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop in Florence at the time.
However, for reasons which I shall explain in a future post, I believe the painting to have been produced at a later date than even 1446 and not within the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio.
Some critics hold an opinion that parts of the composition are flawed, notably the length of Virgin’s right arm, and the angel’s wings have been extended at a later date. That may appear to be so, but was intentional on Leonardo’s part as the two items are linked in this way for a reason.
In a similar way it can be said that the width of the painting has been extended beyond a standard 2:1 format. The scene is clearly separated into two parts, the angel Gabriel on the left, the Virgin Mary on the right–both figures placed in their own squared domain. However, it is where the two areas butt to each other, a coming together, that Leonardo embedded a principal biblical message. The ‘extended’ end sections–the tail end of Gabriel’s red garment and the entrance to the building also present religious messages.
The centre line acts in part as a hinge so that the two areas are mirrored is some ways, serving or reflecting each other in parts.
A clue to this process is the column of quoins rising above the Virgin’s right hand. Like the two square sections of the painting the stones butt together, the small square stones representing half the size of the stones above and below. Coming together in this way they reinforce the structure and strength of the building. Placing stone upon stone (covering) is a clue to other narratives of overlap presented in the painting.
One narrative associated with cornerstones is that they point to a passage from the Old Testament. Those on the left column above Mary’s right hand are shaped and mirrored to represent the letter E and the numeral 33. Those on the the right represent the numeral 2. Together they point to Exodus 33:2 and the words the Lord said to Moses: “I will send an angel in front of you” – the angel in the painting, Gabriel.
The Virgin Mary is shown seated in the corner between the two columns. This placing is a reference to the popular book on Christian meditation by Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.
One of the quotes attributed to Thomas is: “I have sought everywhere for peace, but I have found it not, save in nooks and in books.” – often adapted to a shorter version: “In a little corner with a little book”. Hence why Mary, an imitation of Christ, is portrayed sat in a corner reading Holy Scripture.
Notice the window above the Virgin’s head. It’s a reference to the Ark of the Covenant which, according to the Book of Exodus, contained two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. The scroll (the window sill/seal) represents the written aspect. The two tablets are depicted within the window frame. It’s an open window designed to let the light shine on God’s word written in stone. Notice, too, the number of straight lines featured in the composition, a reference to the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:3), repeated by John the Baptist in John’s gospel (1:23), “Make a straight way for the Lord”.
Only sections of the two tablets are shown, cut off by the edge of the picture frame. This is a pointer to the time when Moses, in anger, broke the original tablets by throwing them to the ground at the foot of the mountain. He later went up Mount Sinai again where he was given a replacement set of the the Ten Commandments.
So Leonardo packed much into this section of his painting, but there’s more, a lot more, and in a future post I shall reveal more meanings to the window above the woman’s head and how it is key to uncovering a narrative in the Annunciation painting personal to Leonardo.
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