Last Monday, March 25, was the Feast of the Annunciation for Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. It marks the day when, according to Christian tradition, the angel Gabriel approached a young woman named Mary with an invitation. “Hail, most highly favored one” the angel said, and explained that the Lord had chosen her to bear His son.
The topic is very, very popular in religious art.
One of the things artists, including Hans Memling, did was incorporate amazing amounts of imagery and iconography into the paintings. The theology of the conception of Jesus and the role of Mary had really developed in the Western Church during the High Middle Ages, and you can see it in the painting. You also see some nods back to the Old Testament, notably Ezekiel and Isaiah, if you look at Gabriel’s over-robe and the symbols on the hems.
You see the wheels? Ezekiel’s wheels. The other forms are the six-winged creatures, sometimes assumed to be seraphim, from Isiah and Ezekiel. They also appear in the Revelation of St. John.
You’ll also notice that the angel is barefoot, while Mary wears shoes. This shows that she is, in that moment, superior to him. Also a nod to Moses in Exodus, where the Most High commands that he remove his sandals, because he stands on holy ground.
Behind Mary you see a very nice bed with crimson curtains. The curtains frame Mary and the dove, both providing contrast of white against red, and reinforcing that she is of the upper nobility. In Northern Europe, especially Burgundy and Flanders, when a noble held court, he or she sat under a “cloth of honor,” an ornate tapestry or very expensive cloth canopy and back-drop. The cloth-of-honor reminded everyone who was the royalty. Mary is often depicted as sitting under a cloth-of-honor in Northern Renaissance art. In this case, it doesn’t make theological sense to show that, but by having the bed-curtains be a very expensive crimson and frame the Virgin, the same sense carries over. People seeing the painting would know exactly what Memling intended.
Beside the bed, on a very fancy chest, are a crystal flask of water, a burning candle, and an empty silver candlestick. Again, more symbolism, especially with the open window shining sunlight in on them. The clear water in a clear flask refers to both the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and her purity as a virgin. She is untainted by Original Sin*, and this is a worthy vessel for the Holy Spirit. The unlit candle refers back to Isiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Mary is the “Virgin who shall conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be Emmanuel, that is, G-d with us,” (Isiah 7:4, which is probably the text of the open book). The empty silver candlestick goes with the unlit candle, showing that Mary has not yet said “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be with me as You have said,” (ecce ancilla Domini).
If you look very, very closely at the flask, you will see part of the window reflected, forming a cross. This ties in with Mary fainting and being supported by the angels – it foreshadows her faint at the foot of the Cross, and the line about Mary being “greatly troubled” at Gabriel’s words. The angels are also her servants and attendants, showing her about to become the Queen of Heaven and Bride of Christ. The iris in with the lilies is another foreshadowing of the crucifixion, because of the sword-like leaves. “And a sword shall pierce your heart also,” as Mary is told when she and Joseph take Jesus to the temple the first time.
Not all the theology in the painting was dogma at the time it was painted, but it does reflect the popular beliefs and approved symbolism. There is a lot more in the painting, which is why it is one of the masterpieces of the Northern Renaissance tradition. As well as being a beautiful work of art.
*This is the concept that Adam and Eve’s sin was transmitted into all humans and thus no person was untainted. This would not do, because the Son of G-d could not be born of corrupt flesh, so a miracle occurred and Mary was conceived without sin.