A painting that I have loved ever since I first saw it in a book as a child, and that has always brought me a still, deep inwardness, is Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation”. I will never forget the prayerful joy that enveloped me when, as an adult, I found myself face-to-face with it at the Prado.
I write this on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, during a lockdown when we have been confined to our homes, anxious for our loved ones and friends. Ours is a world without guarantees; the world that Fra Angelico evokes is a world underwritten by courtesies, covenants, testaments, and commandments.
Consider this infinitely tender moment, fraught with anticipation. The young woman bends to hear the message that the angel bears. She is pure, conceived immaculately, without the taint of the original sin incurred by Adam and Eve, whose expulsion from Eden is shown on the left-hand side of the panel.
Consider the delicacy with which the angel, celestial diplomat, conveys his master’s message. He knows this moment will propel the young woman onto a path leading irrevocably to Calvary. “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God,” says Gabriel.
In the conception that the angel has come to announce is implicit Mary’s blessedness and suffering, the story of the son she will bear, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” says Mary. “Be it unto me according to thy word.” And her life changes forever.