In his commentary on Luke, the Franciscan theologian Saint Bonaventure (d. 1274) distinguished three phases in the Annunciation.
Simone Martini’s painting shows the first and second: Gabriel’s arrival and greeting, emphasized by the words from Gabriel’s mouth which reach the ear of the troubled Virgin, and the role (ministerio) of Gabriel, unusually carrying an olive branch, symbol of peace, to announce the reconciliation of God the Father with humankind after the First Fall.
Filippo Lippi shows the third phase: the moment of the Incarnation and the response of the Virgin, when she submits to the word of God.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti titled his painting as the Virgin’s response: Ecce Ancilla Domini!. However, he subsequently changed the title to simply The Annunciation, to avoid any suspicion of covert Roman Catholicism.
In order to show the Holy Ghost coming upon Mary, the three versions use the traditional symbol of a white dove (used also by painters of the Trinity and Pentecost), deriving from the descriptions in the Gospels of the Holy Ghost descending in the form of a dove at Christ’s Baptism (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).
Depicting the Incarnation was another challenge for painters. In some versions of the Annunciation a baby was shown sent from Heaven down streaming rays of light. Instead, Lippi symbolises the conception as tiny rays of light emanating from the slit in the Virgin’s dress next to her womb which respond to the rays of light emanating from the dove, while Rossetti shows the stem of lilies pointing towards her womb.
These paintings were painted to serve very different functions.
Simone Martini’s altarpiece was commissioned for a specific altar in Siena Cathedral dedicated to Saint Ansanus, one of Siena’s patron saints, hence Saint Ansanus opposite Saint Massima, his mother, on either side of the central narrative. The altarpiece was the first of four altarpieces depicting scenes from the Life of the Virgin. The others were the Birth of the Virgin by Pietro Lorenzetti, the Purification of the Virgin by his brother Ambrogio, both painted in 1342, and the Nativity by Bartolomeo Bulgarini in 1351. They would have been accessible to both clergy and lay worshippers alike, with Simone’s a highly suitable altarpiece in front of which to say a rosary of ‘Hail Mary’ prayers.
Lippi’s painting on the other hand was commissioned for a private residence. Its precise location in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi is unknown. Nor is it certain which member of the Medici family commissioned it. Whatever the case, the secular patron ensured that his personal devotion was an integral part of the composition through the inclusion of the Medici emblem of a diamond ring and three feathers.
Such differing functions invited different treatment. Simone’s altarpiece would have been seen in the dark cathedral interior, lit by sporadic sources of light, candles in particular. So Simone created a surface most effective in catching the light, with tooled haloes and shimmering textiles. Lippi included a wealth of visual detail in the garden and palace interior to interest a secular patron.
Rossetti’s painting was not an individual commission. When he sold it to Francis McCracken of Belfast, he wrote in January 1853: ‘I have got rid of my white picture to an Irish maniac’, and called it a ‘blessed white eye-sore’ and ‘blessed white daub’ (Fredeman 2002: 224, 228–29). When exhibited in 1850 it had been criticized for ‘ignoring all that has made the art great in the works of the greatest masters’ (Treuherz et al. 2003: 148). However, Rossetti’s treatment of the subject was deliberately reductive, using only primary colours and simple outlines. He described it in April 1874 as having an ‘ideal motive for the whiteness’ (Fredeman 2007: 443), presumably intended to convey the purity of the subject. And although the Pre-Raphaelites admired medieval and Renaissance painters, Rossetti’s approach to a traditional religious subject could not have been more different.
His painting is stark, devoid of decoration. Gabriel has no wings at all, whereas Simone and Lippi gave Gabriel elaborate peacock wings. In Rossetti’s painting the Virgin’s bed is plain wood, the mattress resting on a mat of woven rushes, and the cloth of honour a simple blue hanging. The Virgin’s bed in Lippi’s version of almost exactly 500 years later is a faithful rendering of a Florentine Renaissance bed, complete with bolster and a richly patterned cover, while both Simone and Lippi render the cloth of honour as a beautifully patterned textile. There could not be a greater contrast than between the Virgin’s white shift in Rossetti’s painting and the Virgin’s mantle in Lippi’s, with its leaf-shaped silver-gilt buttons and panel of pseudo-kufic embroidery at the neckline. While Lippi depicts the humility of the Queen of Heaven, Rossetti has emphasised her simplicity and her humanity.
Cecchi, Alessandro et al. (ed.). 2001. Simone Martini e l’Annunciazione degli Uffizi (Milan: Silvana), pp. 16–19, esp. p. 17
Fredeman, William E. (ed.). 2002. The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Formative Years, 1835–1862, Vol. I (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer), nos. 53.1, p. 224; 53.6, pp. 228–229; 53.7, p. 229
———. 2007. The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Last Decade, 1873–1882, Vol. VI (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer), no. 74.85, p. 443
Surtees, Virginia. 1971. The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882): A Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. I [text] (Oxford: Clarendon), pp. 12–14
Treuherz, Julian et al. 2003. Dante Gabriel Rossetti:1828–1882 (London: Thames & Hudson), pp. 19–23, and Cat. No. 13, p. 148
Van Os, Henk. 1984. Sienese Altarpieces 1215–1460, Vol. I (Groningen: Bouma’s Boekhuis), pp. 77–89
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.