The Evangelist Luke reports (Luke 1, 26-38) that on the six month after the conception by the righteous Elizabeth of St. John the Baptist, the Archangel Gabriel was sent from God to the city of Nazareth to the Holy Virgin Mary to announce her that she would give birth to the Savior of the world. Coming into the house, Gabriel said: “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” The Archangel’s words confused Mary who started to think about their meaning. The Archangel went on saying: “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest… and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Perplexed, the Virgin Mary asked “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” And the Archangel said she would give birth the Son of God through the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.”
According to the apocryphal gospels (2nd c. CE) – the Protoevangelion of James and the Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior (the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew), the Holy Virgin was announced the good news by the Archangel at the fountain, and later, in the house where she was spinning purple for the veil of the temple by the lot that fell to her. This apocryphal account is represented in the iconographic depictions of the festival.
The depictions of the Announcement feast are very diverse, varying in details and iconographic versions. On some icons the Holy Virgin is shown spinning the veil in Joseph’s house, while others depict her talking to the Archangel Gabriel at the fountain. A 12th century Ustyug icon of the Annunciation of the Holy Virgin represents the Archangel and the Mother of God against a golden background lacking any details. In the 17th – 18th centuries, under the influence of the Western European examples, the Mother of God was shown meeting the Archangel while reading the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (on some icons one can figure the words “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” (Isaiah, 7:14)), with home interior and the background becoming more luxurious and lavishly decorated.
One of the most widespread icons of the Annunciation was a depiction of the Mother of God spinning threads – the scene which, according to theological interpretations, is associated with the conception by the Holy Virgin of the Son of God. Maria is shown seated on the throne with a spindle in her hands; to her right is the figure of a winged Angel with a staff standing nearby or flying down to Her from the top. This iconographic variant was developed by iconographers for centuries and is well known from the later depictions of this scene. The icons vary in the interpretations of an architectural background, details, interior, symbols, poses and gestures of the Holy Virgin and the Archangel. The various gestures of Maria convey various shades of her emotional state: her hands may be humbly folded in prayer or express hesitation, with one hand held against her bosom and the other open towards the Archangel Gabriel.
The canonic depictions of the Annunciation have developed, since the early Christian centuries, in parallel with the ones based on apocryphal accounts of the event such as the Annunciation at the Fountain. N.V.Pokrovsky, in his fundamental work The Gospel in the Monuments of Iconography, calls such depictions “Pre-Annunciation” since they display not so much the Annunciation itself as the event immediately preceding it.
An architectural background in the Annunciation scenes appeared as early as the first Christian centuries. Originally representing the setting and the house of the righteous Joseph, it gradually acquired its symbolical interpretation. The architectural background was later associated with the images of the Old Testament Temple and the New Testament Church, whose triumph is anticipated at the moment of the Annunciation. The Holy Virgin is glorified as the “animated temple” inhabited by the Lord.
It has to be emphasized that the Annunciation scene is traditionally present in the upper part of the Holy Gates of the iconostasis. The Gates represent one of the symbols of the Theotokos, encountered in the Old Testament prophesies of Ezekiel about the locked East gates through which would enter the Lord. The Annunciation scene was represented on the Holy Gates in various iconographic versions.
Though the depictions of the Annunciation are present in the early Christian art, we can assert, with a high degree of certainty, that the Annunciation as a special feast began to be celebrated not earlier than the 4th century CE. The discovery of the holy places associated with the earthly life of Jesus Christ by the Empress Helen in early 4th century and the building of Christian churches in these areas (such as a basilica built in Nazareth where the house of James had been located according to legend), fueled interest in the Nativity of Christ and the mystery of His Incarnation.
The depictions interpreted as the Annunciation are encountered in the catacomb paintings (Priscilla, the second half of the 2nd – first half of the 3rd century, Peter and Marcelline, the second half of the 3rd – first half of the 4th centuries, the New Cemetery at Via Latina, mid-4th century). As the Annunciation can be interpreted the scene portraying a young man with the outstretched hand addressing a woman in the armchair. The earliest depiction of the Annunciation scene in the Russian art is represented in the mosaics of two pillars of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev (circa 1040 CE).
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.