The Sienese painter Simone Martini, has painted the moment when the Archangel Gabriel has just alighted on earth with soaring peacock wings. His golden cloak knotted around his neck still swirls in flight, the laces fastening his jewelled coronet still fly through the air. He is crowned with olive leaves and holds a fruit-bearing olive branch, symbolizing peace. With an elegant forefinger he indicates the dove of the Holy Ghost borne in a golden sphere by cherubim and seraphim. Before him the vase of white lilies refers to the purity of the Virgin.
‘Troubled’ (v.29), she shrinks from him, drawing her cloak around her, inclining her head so that the words from his mouth AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM rendered in raised letters of gilded gesso go directly to her ear. Mary is careful to keep her place in the book she has been reading, traditionally the book of Isaiah: immediately above her in the roundel contained within the nineteenth-century frame is the prophet Isaiah with the text from his prophecy Ecce Virgo Concipiet, while the texts of three other prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel (all interpreted in Christian tradition as referring to the virgin birth) are also included. Further texts from Luke 1:30, 31, and 35 are inscribed on Gabriel’s stole, and his name is inscribed on his sleeve.
The texts would have resonated with the clergy of Siena Cathedral for which this altarpiece was painted, and lay worshippers would have enjoyed the sheer beauty of the surface textures. The eye is invited to linger over the chequered Tartar silk, the multi-coloured marble floor, Gabriel’s cloth-of-gold dalmatic with its pattern of flowers and leaves, the radiant tooled haloes, the throne of intarsia (a speciality of Sienese woodworkers), the cloth-of-gold hanging over the throne, the realistically painted lilies (nowadays also known as Madonna lilies).
Cecchi, Alessandro et al. (ed.). 2001. Simone Martini e l’Annunciazione degli Uffizi (Milan: Silvana)
Martindale, Andrew. 1988. Simone Martini: Complete Edition (Oxford: Phaidon), pp. 187–190
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. 30And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.
32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;
and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,
33and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever;
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” 35And the angel said to her,
36And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37For with God nothing will be impossible.” 38And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.