The Annunciation by Unknown Byzantine artist

Unknown Byzantine artist

The Annunciation, c.1151, Mosaic, La Martorana, Palermo, © Vanni Archive/ Art Resource, NY

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The Virgin Prays ‘Thy Will Be Done’

Commentary by

When Gabriel came to Mary with the promise that she would conceive and bear a son who would sit on David’s throne and rule forever, Mary gave her whole self in assent: ‘Behold the servant of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy Word’ (Luke 1:38).

The bema mosaics in this Byzantine church from Norman Sicily depict the moment when the Holy Spirit entered the Virgin, sent by the hand of God from the heavenly hemisphere. The gesture of the divine hand signifies speech, as God’s Word is made flesh (John 1:14).

In this ecclesial setting, the scene is positioned over the entrance to the sanctuary, so that it frames the liturgical mystery of Transubstantiation in light of the historical mystery of the Incarnation. The motif of Mary spinning the scarlet threads of the Temple veil (Prot. Jac. 11) hints at the Passion, for at Jesus’s death the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two (Mark 15:38); it was by the veil of his flesh that he opened a ‘new and living path’ to God (Hebrews 10:20).

This scene can be contemplated as a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, since the Annunciation reflects its petitions. This is how the Son of God came into the world, that ordinary people could discover a relationship to God as ‘Our Father’. The angel’s promise of a royal Son is how God’s ‘kingdom comes’; Mary’s response echoes ‘Thy will be done’. By yielding her body for the Word to be enfleshed, she allows God’s will to be done ‘on earth as in heaven’.

The location of the scene over the sanctuary recalls that God nourishes his people with the ‘daily bread’ of the Eucharist, while the motifs that allude to the passion underscore both the personal costliness of Mary’s fiat, and the grounds for believers’ confidence that the Father through the Son could indeed ‘forgive us our trespasses’ and ‘deliver us from the Evil One’.

 

References

Kitzinger, Ernst. 1990. The Mosaics of St. Mary’s of the Admiral in Palermo, with a Chapter on the Architecture of the Church by Slobodan Ćurčić (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oakes)