Today marks the Feast of the Annunciation. Ordinarily this Feast Day falls on March 25th, but because of Holy Week the Feast Day is transferred to the Monday after the First Sunday after Easter, also known as Low Monday.
Annunciation. Fra Filippo Lippi, 1440. Tempera on panel, Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence
The Annunciation in the moment of Incarnation, but more specifically it refers to the conversation between the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, as outlined in Luke's Gospel. (Luke 1:26 -38 NRSV)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no husband?”
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. 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. For with God nothing will be impossible.”
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.
Michael Baxandall in his book, Painting & Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, outlines five different moments present in this interaction and subsequently in Italian Renaissance Art. He points us to the explanation by fifteenth century preacher, Fra Roberto Caracciola da Lecce, who refers to the five moments as Laudable Conditions.
Conturbatio (Disquiet) – When the angel approached Mary, St. Luke tells us that she was greatly troubled. In our own lives, sometimes we are troubled, or awakened from complacency by the presence of the Divine.
Cogitatio (Reflection)– Mary listens closely to the message that the Angel Gabriel brings to her. She considers, it, but has further questions.
Interrogatio (Inquiry) – Mary responds to the angel with a question. What he tells her is impossible to her human understanding.
Humiliatio (Submission) – Mary accepts the words of the angel and believes that God will do great things. She refers to herself as the handmaid of the Lord. She accepts the thing that the Divine brought to her life.
Meritatio (Merit) – After her conversation with the angel, at the moment of her "YES!" God comes into the world as one of us. He exists as flesh and blood inside of Mary's womb at that very moment. She humbly accepts her role in the Divine plan. This Laudable Condition is often called the Virgin Annunciate and shows the Virgin alone.
The Five Laudable Conditions can be seen in specific works of art during the Italian Renaissance. And as an artist particularly interested in the Annunciation, I find myself diving deep into hand gestures and moments each time I visit a museum or chapel.
The Virgin Annunciate at Our Lady of Mercy
When I depicted the Virgin Annunciate for Our Lady of Mercy, I chose to depict Meritatio, even though I was not aware of the Laudable Conditions at the time. I was commissioned to do a solitary figure of the Virgin and chose to depict the moment of Incarnation. Here, the angel has gone and Mary is left alone in her room after saying "Yes" to the Divine, who now dwells within her womb. The Firstborn of All Creation made Himself small and would grow inside of a woman to be born in a stable. This story says so much about who God is. He is large and everywhere, yet at the same time, He is small and particular. He was born a baby to a human woman in an ordinary town on the planet Earth. He chose to be with us, Emmanuel, God with Us. The great paradoxes of God are why I tend to be so both/and about so many things. God is both Great and Small. God is both out there and in here. God is both great and humble. I think that we find the greatest truths in paradox.
Blessed Feast of the Annunciation!
by Michael Baxandall
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