A Closer Look at Christmas: The Annunciation

It wouldn’t be Christmas without Ave Maria – and I don’t just mean Franz Schubert’s classic holiday song.  It wouldn’t be Christmas without “Ave, Maria,” the words of the Angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, the Mother of Jesus: “Greetings, Mary, full of grace.  The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28)

One week from today, we’ll read joyfully about the birth of Jesus in Luke chapter 2; but the story of Jesus’ birth begins months earlier in Luke chapter 1 with Mary’s encounter with Gabriel. The Annunciation, as the encounter is traditionally called, is a March feast day in the Catholic and Anglican traditions.  It’s also one of the more commonly depicted biblical scenes in the cannon of western art.

European Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation are highly symbolic, and tend toward creative variation on a set template.  More modern renditions are freer in their expression and depiction, yet often pay tribute to their stylised predecessors in some way.  In the hands (and imagination) of a skilled artist, both approaches speak volumes.

As we enter the last week of Advent, I wanted to try something new here on the blog by sharing two renditions of the Annunciation to encourage your reflection and preparation for Christ’s birth.  I find each of these paintings to be powerful and insightful in differing ways.  Painted more than 400 years apart, they each help me to explore and more greatly appreciate the miracle and meaning of Christmas.

The first is Sandro Botticelli’s Annunciazione di Cestello from 1489.  It follows a well established pattern of motifs and symbols that silently tell the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary.

Source: Wikipedia

The second is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation, painted in 1898 shortly after Tanner returned to England from the Holy Land.

Source: Wikipedia

As you study and ponder each painting, here are seven questions to guide your reflections.  Luke’s account of Gabriel’s visit to Mary can be found here.


1. What feature or features of the painting first grab your attention?  What might that tell you about what the artist wants to emphasize?

2. How would you describe the colours the artist uses?

3. What moment in the encounter do you think each artist is capturing?

4. How does each artist depict Mary?

5. Look at the lines in each painting.  How are they dividing up the scene?  How are they both separating and uniting different elements of the painting?  How do they guide your eyes around the painting?

6. Consider the setting of the encounter in each painting.  How would you describe the setting in a few words?  Is the setting historical (i.e., Jesus’ place/time) or contemporary (i.e., the artist’s place/time)?  What significance might that have for what the artist is trying to convey?

7.  How does each painting change, challenge, or affirm your impressions of Mary?


Check back here on Christmas Day and I’ll share my reflections on each painting.  If you’d like to share yours, post them in the comments.  I’d love to see your insights.


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