The Annunciation,
Painted by Joos van Cleve (1485–1540/41),
Painted circa 1525
Oil on Panel
© Metropolitan Museum, New York

The Annunciation,
Painted by Joos van Cleve (1485–1540/41),
Painted circa 1525
Oil on Panel
© Metropolitan Museum, New York

Gospel of 20 December 2021

The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth

Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, ‘Rejoice, so highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, ‘Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?’ ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’ the angel answered ‘and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. Know this too: your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.’ ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord,’ said Mary ‘let what you have said be done to me.’ And the angel left her.

Reflection on the Painting

Our painting beautifully depicts the Annunciation. The Angel Gabriel has come at God’s behest to announce to Mary that she will conceive and give birth to a son, whom she is to call Jesus. The dove of the Holy Spirit, in a burst of golden light, descends upon the Virgin at the same moment that the Angel Gabriel raises his right hand in blessing. Whilst the room is flooded with natural light coming through the open window, the purpose of the lit candle in the top left corner is not to provide illumination, but instead signals the presence of God at the Annunciation. 

The domestic setting of the scene is charming and highly detailed. Look for example at the Book of Hours that Our Lady is reading. The partially-visible illuminated left page therein appears to show a thin tree trunk encircled by a snake next to a naked figure. It thus refers to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But redemption is close, by Christ’s Incarnation and sacrifice on the cross. An image of Moses holding the Tablets of the Law is on the wall next to an unlit chandelier. The placement of the dove between the Moses print and Mary suggests a transition from the Old Law to the New Law. Mary’s purity is symbolised by the lilies in the vase and by the basin and ewer with the white folded towel. 

There is plenty to look at in this painting. The gentle, subtle references to Scripture are charming. Above all, it is a beautiful depiction of today’s Gospel reading, where we are told how Mary was listening to God. With tenderness and openness she heard the message of the angel and responded with an unconditional ‘yes’. We too can be filled with grace and let grace be poured into our hearts, if like her, we listen and respond to God’s message of love. Our unconditional ‘yes’ to all that God wants from us will make us fulfil our mission and make us blossom.

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