Annunciation – 25th March

The Feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25. The Annunciation is narrated in the Bible in the Book of Luke Chapter 1, from verses 26 to 38. According to the Bible, the angel Gabriel was sent to meet Mary, a virgin in Nazareth, Galilee. Mary was betrothed at the time to a man named Joseph.

Angel Gabriel hailed Mary and told her not to fear because she had found grace with God. He told her she would give birth to the Son of God. When she replied that she was a virgin, he reassured her that the Holy Ghost would come upon her. He also informed her that her barren cousin, Elizabeth, would conceive a son as well, even in her old age. Mary responded, “be it done to me according to thy word.” Joseph also received an annunciation later, as detailed in Matthew 1:18.

The Feast of the Annunciation celebrates God’s entrance into the human world through Jesus and Mary’s willingness to accept God’s command.

by Gwyneth Lewis

When first he painted the Virgin the friar filled
the apce around her with angels’ bright wings,
scalloped and plated, with skies of gold,

heavy with matter. He thought that he knew
that heaven was everywhere. He grew
older, wiser and found that he drew

more homely rooms with pots and beds,
but lavished his art on soft furnishings
and the turn of the waiting angel’s wings

(still gorgeous with colour and precious dust).
Much later, he sensed that his God had withdrawn,
was spacious. On smaller frescoes he painted less,

let wall be wall, but drew in each lawn
the finer detail of sorrel and weeds.
Still later, he found his devotion drawn

to nothing – shadows hinted at hidden rooms,
at improbable arches, while angel’s news
shattered the Virgin, who became a view

As open as virtue, her collapsing planes
easy and vacant as the evening breeze
that had brought a plain angel to his grateful knees

In her poem, “Annunciation”, Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis  (b. 1959), combines poetry and art to invite us to consider our response to the annunciation. 

The poem describes the portrayal of the annunciation by one painter, the Dominican friar, Fra Angelico (1400-1455), and his changing focus as he depicted the subject throughout his life. 

I have selected three of his paintings to accompany the poem. 

The poem starts with the young friar’s focus on the splendour of heaven and ends with a later work which is simpler and more austere.  Let’s make the journey with the friar. 

The first verse describes a luxurious painting, heavy with gold leaf, heaven around the Virgin. Take a look at the first painting, from 1434, which can serve to illustrate this. 

Later (verses 2 – 4) Fra Angelico places Mary in her home but the emphasis is still on luxury and on the glory of the angel (“… he drew/more homely rooms with pots and beds,/but lavished his art on…/…the waiting angel’s wings/(still gorgeous with colour and precious dust).”).  In painting two, note the furnishings of the “more homely room” in which the friar has placed Mary.

Then as Fra Angelico gets older and reflects further on the meaning of the annunciation, verses 4 – 7 take us through the simpler scenes of the “smaller frescoes”, still with the focus on the angel’s side, with their lawns containing sorrel and weeds to a final spartan scene where our attention shifts to the Virgin and her response to the angel’s news.  The arresting word to describe her initial response,  “shattered” is placed at the start of the final line of verse 6 for emphasis and then the poem ends with the calm of her consent and a grateful kneeling angel.  To accompany this scene,  look at the final picture, which comes from 1452, towards the end of the friar’s life.  It is certainly a much plainer scene than the early pictures, with arches, a kneeling angel and a Virgin who no longer recoils at the news but now calmly bends forward, with her consent.

Studying the poem in this way may suggest a series of separate steps for Fra Angelico as he developed his understanding of the annunciation.  However, the poem’s narrative flows over line ends and between the seven verses, perhaps indicative of the smooth and steady progress of his meditation.

Carolyn Steppler

The poem, ‘Annunciation’ by Gwyneth Lewis, is published in “Chaotic Angels – Poems in English”, Bloodaxe Books 2005.

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