Academic journal article Magistra

Site and Insight: Picturing the Annunciation as a Means of Imitatio Mariae in Medieval Devotional Praxis

Academic journal article Magistra

Site and Insight: Picturing the Annunciation as a Means of Imitatio Mariae in Medieval Devotional Praxis

Article excerpt

A passionate devotion to the Virgin Mary in the annunciation informs the late medieval religious imagination. If art reminds of what has been forgotten, then the plethora of fourteenth and fifteenth century annunciation paintings and images in other media register the significance of the Annunciation as incarnation as a central Christian mystery for medieval and late-medieval devout. Barbara Lane writes, "In early Netherlandish painting, more Annunciations occur than any other subject from Christ's Infancy."1 Furthermore, Lane conjectures that while it may be possible that other cycles are lost, "it can be no coincidence that the most commonly preserved Infancy themes are precisely the ones that are related most closely to the daily Mass and to liturgical ceremonies of the Christmas season."2 Given the contemporary lack of visual literacy regarding the annunciation, this essay gathers material evidence of the devotional praxis to retrieve the centrality of the feminine figure of Mary's body as the site of salvation. Mary's fiat in being willing to conceive and bear and nurture the Logos Incarnate relocates the temple of divinity from a physical structure to the human body.

Moreover, for the late-medieval devout, the Virgin Mary, and the angel's greeting to her of "Ave" redeems, literally reverses, "Eve's" destructive choice in losing paradise, so that heaven can come to earth in the form of Jesus, in the womb of Mary. The devout were formed to see the figures of Gabriel and Mary and "repeat the greeting," praying the Ave Maria. They did so to imitate Mary and be formed in her virtues. The annunciation figures of Gabriel and the Virgin kept the site of the annunciation as incarnation front and center in both visual and material culture. The feast of the Annunciation was a joyous festivity, one that inspired a spirituality whose devotional praxis shaped time and structured embodied responses of love. The devotional praxis reinforced Mary's fiat and cooperation with grace in the incarnation as the turning point for humankind.

Devotion to Mary in the annunciation united both seeing and hearing. The story of the event at the heart of this praxis occurs in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Luke sets the stage for Gabriel's annunciation to Mary by Gabriel's annunciation to Zacharias. The first chapter of Luke records Gabriel's two annunciations. Matthew records a third annunciation, this time with an angel instructing Joseph in a dream, Matthew 1:18-25. All three annunciations taken together alter time and space, creation and indeed salvation history. Gabriel the archangel brings news to a young woman that God has chosen her to bear Christ's body within her own body. Before divinity can enter human flesh, though, the one who has sent the messenger seeks to convey love and court her accord. Gabriel does so with the greeting, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women."3

Mary is troubled by the words and ponders the manner of the messenger's greeting.4 Gabriel greets the Virgin Mary as one "full of grace." The heavenly messenger reassures her not to be afraid, for she has found favor with God. "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus" (Like 1:31). When Mary asks how this can happen when she is still a virgin, the angel responds with what constitutes a new naming of the Trinity. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God." (Luke 1:35).

Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid, "for she has found favor with God. And Behold you will conceive in your womb" (Luke 1:30-1). "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" and "Behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived, for with God nothing shall be impossible" (1:36-37). The Virgin Mary responds by delivering her assent, her flat, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your Word" (Luke 1:38). …

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