The Pre-Raphaelites frequently depicted the Annunciation, often dense with symbols, but of the traditional symbols Dante Gabriel Rossetti has chosen to eschew all but two—lilies and a white dove. Gabriel carries a simple stem of lilies, referring to the purity of the Virgin, and lilies decorate a red hanging, identical to the one the Virgin embroiders in Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary (Tate Gallery, N04872), painted around the same time. The dove of the Holy Ghost has flown in through the open window as if by chance and has the merest suggestion of the ring of a halo around its head.
Rossetti has dispensed with all finery. Behind the Virgin is a plain blue hanging, rather than the traditional cloth of honour. Gabriel, dressed in a simple white shift, has no wings: the only indication that he is an angel is the faint glow around his head (according to Rossetti himself ‘a gilt saucer’ (Fredeman 2002: 228–29) and the small flames flickering above a pool of light which support his airborne feet. He casts a shadow over the bed, presumably the ‘power of the most High’ (Luke 1:35) overshadowing the Virgin. She too is dressed in a simple white shift. A young girl with loose hair, rather than a young woman, she seems to cower troubled in the corner of her bed, her eyes fixed almost trance-like, not on Gabriel, but on the stem of lilies pointing at her womb.
Only the minimal symbols—the word ‘March’ written in the bottom left-hand corner referring to the month of the Annunciation, and the title itself—clarify the subject of the painting. It was originally designed as a pendant to the Death of the Virgin which was never painted, and in fact death, rather than birth, is what the Virgin seems to be contemplating.
Rossetti’s brother was the model for Gabriel and his sister for Mary, but he would no doubt have been mindful of the fact that Gabriel was his own name saint.
Fredeman, William E. (ed.). 2002. The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Formative Years, 1835–1862, Vol. I (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer), pp. 228–29
Surtees, Virginia. 1971. The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882): A Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. I [Text] (Oxford: Clarendon), pp. 12–14
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.