The angel was a messenger of God, without human form or body, which meant that artists sometimes used symbolism when they portrayed an angel – see the Tanner painting below
Lilies were a symbol of perpetual virginity – see for example the Hitchcock and Waterhouse paintings below
Mary was a very young girl at the time of the Annunciation, not a mature woman; the Collier painting captures this well
Painters, particularly in the medieval period, often showed Mary in rich clothes and surroundings even though they knew that in reality she was poor. They did this to honour Mary; see the Van Eyck painting
Modern painters try to show her in something resembling historical reality; medieval painters did not
Mary and the child Jesus, St. Mark’s Venice, Hodegetria
This ancient statue of Mary, now in St Mark’s, Venice, is called the Hodegetria, meaning ‘she who shows the way’ . Mary, Jesus’ first teacher, seems to point the way to the Infant Jesus. You will see this same pose in many icons from the Eastern Christian Churches.
Annunciation, 1914, John William Waterhouse
Annunciation, George Hitchcock This could be any beautiful woman walking in a garden, were it not for the halo that circles her head. Mary is transfixed by the lilies, symbols of her virginity, and ponders what that will mean in the future that stretches ahead.
Annunciation, 1898, Henry Ossawa Tanner
Annunciation, 1434, Jan Van Eyck
Annunciation, John Collier
Annunciation, 1855, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Annunciation, 1879, Edward Burne-Jones
Annunciation, Fra Angelico, circa 1433
Annunciation, 1452, Petrus Christus
The Birth of Jesus Christ
Things to know about paintings of the Nativity
The buildings are often ruined or roofless because they symbolise the older religions which failed to shelter and protect us
They also signal the fact that Jesus came not as a earthly ruler born in a palace, but as a normal man who was not too proud to live among the poor
Angels signal the presence of God
Shepherds, very ordinary people, were the first to recognise who Jesus was
The animals in the stable represent Nature and all creation
The infant Jesus is often shown naked; this was to counter arguments that Jesus was not fully human, but a god pretending to be human
Mary was usually shown fresh and beautiful with no sign that she had just given birth; this was done to show the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth, which was achieved without Mary losing her virginity
Joseph is often shown as an older man, someone who would respect and preserve Mary’s virginity
Nativity, Arthur Hughes, 1858 Hughes’ painting is beautiful, truly lovely, but it lacks the vigour and theological confidence of earlier paintings of the Nativity. Mary is a sweet-faced, submissive innocent – the ideal of Victorian womanhood; the angels do not demand our attention as, for example, the angels of Petrus Christus do. The trampled straw on the stable floor hints at the real world into which this innocent babe has been born.
Nativity: Conrad von Soest, 1403 This is not Mary Queen of Heaven with the Infant Saviour, but a happy woman savouring the sight and smell of her new baby as it snuggles up to her. It is the prototype of a happy family: a contented baby, a smiling well-cared for mother, and a father rising to the occasion by sensibly heating up some food for everyone. The colors used by von Soest emphasise their simplicity and confidence.
The Nativity with Sts Francis and Lawrence, Caravaggio, 1609 This painting by Caravaggio caused a scandal when it was first seen, because Caravaggio showed a very human woman slumped on the floor, exhausted after giving birth. To viewers in the early 1600’s, this was confronting, even blasphemous. They believed the birth process had been both painless and miraculous for Mary, in that Jesus was born without breaking her hymen: she remained a virgo intacta. No wonder it was controversial.
Nativity, Antonio da Correggio At the center of the painting is the Infant Jesus, enclosed in his mother’s arms; she in turn is enclosed by the maidservants and the shepherd. Every figure in the painting has been effected by the light coming from the new-born Christ – even the animals. Mary, the new mother, is completely engrossed in her tiny son, and seems not to be aware of anything else. A question: why is the shepherdess with upraised arm grimacing against the light coming from Jesus? What was Correggio’s message in showing her thus?
The Nativity, Piero della Francesca Mary kneels in ethereal simplicity before her newborn baby, while a chorus of angels sing enthusiastically. Joseph is at the right, with two rather uncouth-looking shepherds – a nice touch of realism. The ox to Mary’s right leans forward to smell and see the newborn baby – just as real animals do. The landscape in the background shows the foothills of the Apennines, and the town on the right is Borgo San Sepolcro, where the painter was born in 1416. Strange to think that this painting was done a full thirty years before Columbus sailed on his epic voyage to America.
Luke 1:26-38: the Angel Gabriel speaks to Mary
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He 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, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” 35 And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. 36 And 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. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.” 38 And 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.
Matthew 1:18-25: the Birth of Jesus
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.
Caravaggio’s sumptuous and controversial painting of the death of Mary
Bible Study Resource for Women in the Bible: Paintings of Mary, Mother of Jesus