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The Cestello Annunciation

The Annunciation has to be one of the most frequently recurring subjects in European art, which made it horribly difficult to settle on one for this post. I went with Botticelli’s Cestello Annunciation (1489), one of three he completed on the story. And of course now I’m wondering about the ones I didn’t choose. I guess there’s always next year.

I assume that most people have at least a passing familiarity with the story of Mary and the virgin birth. Mary is on our right. She’s a young girl living in a small corner of the Roman world who is about to get the shock of her life. Botticelli employed some fairly standard techniques for portraying her. The halo, for example, and the lectern from which she’s reading, which typified her piety. He also stuck to traditional form by painting her in blue. As a rare and expensive pigment, it was the color of choice to symbolize her unique and high status in Christian thought. On our left is Gabriel the Archangel, sent to Mary to tell her that she’s been chosen to carry God’s son. Botticelli having the archangel crouch is interesting. It’s not at all unconventional for Annunciation pieces but it’s also not how I picture a messenger directly from God. You’d think someone with that job title would come as a more commanding figure. But I think in very many cases Gabriel is rendered this way to elevate Mary’s holiness. That’s unsurprising given how widespread and influential the veneration of Mary became over time.

And as for her staging, Botticelli was likely telling Mary’s spiritual biography. The Gospel of Luke says that she was at first afraid and uncertain at the angel’s message but ultimately accepting of her appointed path. Her twisting motion looks like she’s recoiling away from the angel, which may indicate that initial hesitation. But her overall bearing looks to me like a bow, which implies her submission to the Divine. She’s a quintessential reluctant hero. But to me the most powerful aspect of the painting are those outstretched hands. If he meant for that door frame to separate the mortal Mary from her immortal visitor, their hands begin to cross that divide. His reaches out in benediction and hers in faith. Mary the peasant girl becomes Mary the mother of God.

It’s a transformative experience that forms the soul of Christmas season for me. It’s a call to all of us to climb higher and become greater.

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