Medieval Painting

Types of Painting


Life of Christ – The Annunciation


Annunciation – Simone Martini(1333)

The Annunciation was a popular topic for Medieval and later paintings and shows the archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary bearing the message that God has chosen her as the mother of his son. The story appears in the New Testament book of  Luke, Chapter 1, verses 26-38.

Now in the sixth month, the archangel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. Having come in, the angel said to her, "Rejoice, you highly favored one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women!" But when she saw him, she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered what kind of salutation this might be. The angel said to her, "Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and will call his name ‘Jesus.’ He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father, David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. There will be no end to his Kingdom." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?" The angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God. Behold, Elizabeth, your relative, also has conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For everything spoken by God is possible." Mary said, "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it to me according to your word." The angel departed from her.

Several parts of this story are depicted in art. For example,  Mary’s amazement at the angel appearing before her, Mary’s confusion – she is a virgin and doesn’t understand how she can become pregnant,  and Mary’s acceptance “Behold the handmaid of the lord.”

Mary’s virginity is generally emphasised. She is usually shown either indoors or in a high-walled garden thus protected from the danger and temptations of the outside world. She holds, or is close to, a lily - a symbol of her purity. She is usually shown as being disturbed while in the process of reading.

The painting above is by the Sienese painter Simone Martini and was painted with egg tempera on a wooden panel around 1333. Although the background is gilded it is clear that we are in a room, or possibly under a portico, by the tiled floor, the chair on which Mary sits and the vase of lilies.

Mary’s posture and gesture indicate that this image shows the start of the story where, marking her page in the book with one finger, she has turned to see what has disturbed her.  This is confirmed by the fluttering of the angel’s cloak, he has landed and kneels before Mary, yet his cloak has not yet fallen to the floor and by the words shown coming from his mouth  "Ave gratia plena dominus tecum" ("Greetings most favored one! The Lord is with thee.")

While this work is a triptych, the Annunciation is flanked by the figures of Saint Anselo, the patron saint of Siena and Saint Giulitta, painted by another hand (probably Martini’s brother-in-law  and collaborator Lippo Memmi), the frame (a modern replacement that follows the  shape of the original)  seems more suited for a five frame polyptych and leaves its unused central bays for us to view as architectural features of a Gothic ceiling. In the central bay can be seen a dove, frequently used to represent the Holy Spirit, surrounded by angels indicating the position of heaven.