Behold the handmaid of the Lord

08 December 2017

Chris Bissell ponders the obedience of Mary, whose conception is celebrated today


Be it unto me: Fr Angelico’s Annunciation fresco, displayed at the top of the stairs leading to the cells in the monastery of San Marco, Florence

Be it unto me: Fr Angelico’s Annunciation fresco, displayed at the top of the stairs leading to the cells in the monastery of San Marco, Florenc...

ALMOST four decades ago, my wife and I undertook our first big Euro­pean trip: by Renault 4 (and a great number of campsites) to Tuscany. The most striking work in Florence for us then was not in the Uffizi, or the Accademia, but in the quiet monastery of San Marco, to this day still not visited by droves of tourists — more likely, by groups of students learning about Renaissance art.

San Marco rejoices in a great number of unspoiled monastic cells, each still containing a modest fresco by Fra Angelico and his school, for devotion and contemplation. The highlight of the monastery for us — and one of the glories of all Florence’s art works — is Angelico’s renowned larger Annunciation fresco, still displayed at the top of the stairs leading to the individual cells, just where it was when we visited in 1978. It seems to us even more wonderful now that we know a bit more about art.

As an image, it is plainer, more austere, and more intimate than many contemporary treatments, and clearly shows Angelico’s debt to the early Renaissance artist Giotto. Mary is looking very young, demure, and accepting (and, if a little reluctant, then completely determined), while the angel appears to have called in for a simple conversation rather than to bear tidings of the great event to come.

The colour of their clothing is nicely complementary, and the gar­den, with its simple flowers, could have come from a William Morris design. Despite Mary’s demeanour, there are none of the usual symbols of chastity in the picture: lilies, or water in a basin or carafe, for ex­­ample.

J. M. Carvalho (in Contemporary Aesthetics, July 2015) asks why so little recent attention has been paid to images of the annunciation. He points out that “no full-length study has been devoted to these images in the past 50 years” — or, indeed, ever published in English. Reflecting on Fra Angelico, who, with the assist­ance of artists in his school, pro­duced several Annunciations in hardly more than a decade, Carvalho suggests that these are especially worth considering because Angelico and his assistants were monks, and the settings for their Annunciations included the cloistered quarters of monastic men.

Carvalho observes: “The premium of preserving her inviolate body is represented in Mary’s reluctant submission to God’s plan [which] connects Mary with the tradition of the virile woman who is man’s equal by virtue of rejecting the concup­iscence of the flesh. She wears her virginity as the proof that her sexual difference has not won her privileged audiences with God. 

“Unlike the Cortona Madonna [another Angelico Annunciation, now in Cortona, Spain] who, framed by a radiant halo, submits with inter­est to the power of the Most High, the Madonna at San Marco, whose halo is an eclipsed sphere, guards her womb from the violation of her sexual indifference.”

In addition to the Cortona paint­ing and the San Marco masterpiece, another, much plainer Fra Angelico Annunciation is just a few metres away from the latter, in one of the monk’s cells. In its simplicity, this picture invites the occupant of the cell to ponder, in moments of con­templation, the meaning of the event. There is nothing elaborate — not even by comparison with its restrained companion at the end of the corridor. No ornate pillars, garden, or views towards a land­scape.


David Collingwood/AlamyContemplation: Fra Angelico’s second Annunciation, in a monk’s cell in the monastery of San Marco, FlorenceFOR ME, the annunciation is of the greatest iconic significance in the Christian tradition — greater, even, than crucifixions or pietàs.


I find it no accident that the Magnificat forms the central part of Anglican evening prayer, and intrigu­ing that Mary’s response, as described by Luke, includes not only her accept­ance, but also her deep understand­ing of her enduring and vital part — even, perhaps, a little justified pride.

In this interpretation, she is cert­ainly no simple, passive girl, and her passionate call for social justice is more relevant now than ever:


He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away. (BCP)


Current feminist critique of the annun­ciation (and of the part played by Mary more generally) is mixed. In a discussion on a BBC webpage, some feminist theologians are des­cribed as finding the depiction of women in the story of the annunci­ation unacceptably submissive, and interpreting Mary’s behaviour as “passive subordination to male power”.

Others, far from seeing Mary as powerless before God, view her as a woman who freely chooses to accept God’s task for her — a task that she could have refused. And her accept­ance of the part of “servant” is not degrading: Jesus also regarded himself as a servant.

Like the disciples later, Mary chooses to align herself with God’s plan of salvation — a plan that is dependent on her active participa­tion. Some feminists argue that the story of the Annunciation actually emphasises the status of women: God gives men no part to play in the saving work of the Incarnation.

It is worth remembering also that Mary plays a vital part in Islam. Not only is she the only woman men­tioned by name in the Qur’an (as Maryam, or Miriam), but she appears there a total of 15 times, compared with 11 in the Gospels.

In the Magnificat, Mary “becomes the herald of Salvation, and takes Christianity into the spheres of pol­itics and justice as the first spokes­person for the marginalised people who were the focus of Jesus, and are now the focus of Christians and the Church”.

Certainly, for me, the Angelico Annunciation to me is no portrayal of women as “unacceptably submissive”: it reflects, rather, the power that can come through will­ingly acting as a servant, and underlines the central part played by Mary in “emphasising the status of wo­­men”.


Chris Bissell is Professor of Telematics at the Open University.

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