Leonardo's Annunciation in perspective

Matt Ancell

Brigham Young University

Leonardo’s Annunciation exemplifies the power of linear perspective to achieve naturalism in painting (fig. 1). By using a system in which lines in the picture plane that represent parallel lines in real space converge on a vanishing point, the technique is able to simulate depth and establish coherent relationships between figures in pictorial space. The Annunciation, while rigorously constructed according to these rules, still displays some visible distortions in the stonework of the building behind Mary. In addition, the Virgin is not in a correct relationship to the lectern: her right arm is oddly twisted. Viewing the painting from about a forty-five degree angle to the right, however, corrects for these anomalies.

The orthogonal lines of Mary’s palace converge in a vanishing point in the tallest mountain in the background. In Renaissance painting, the vanishing point --a point that represents infinity-- is often associated with the divine and frequently superimposed on the figure of Christ, the Virgin or even the cross. Leonardo superimposed it on the mountain, perhaps in reference to Christ as petros, the rock, as mentioned in the Bible. Here the infinite combines with the finite earth to signal the Incarnation, which is precisely the purpose of the Annunciation. The mountain serves as a figure for the earthly and bodily existence of incarnated Deity.

It is possible that Leonardo invented anamorphosis, a technique derived from linear perspective that presents a distorted image from a perpendicular angle but comes into proportion from an oblique vantage point. The first extant anamorphic drawing is found among his writings, in the Codex Atlanticus, fol. 98r (fig. 2). Anamorphosis calls attention to the positional and corporeal nature of our perception, since moving to the side of painting brings to attention our embodied state. We are not supernatural viewers with absolute understanding of the scene but incarnate spectators privy to a sacred mystery.

Taking perspective to its logical extreme, anamorphosis demonstrates the distorting effects inherent in perspective. The same technique used to simulate nature can also be used to create a distorted image that is reconstructable from another angle, revealing the artificial nature of representation. Moreover, with two irreconcilable viewpoints, anamorphosis exposes the vantage point as contingent on the body. As Lyle Massey notes, “In effect, anamorphosis shows that there is a conflict between being and appearing, between phenomenal space and geometric space.” That is, natural incarnate vision is quite different from linear or artificial perspective: it is subjective and subject to the distorting effects of the body.

Leonardo's Annunciation is not really an anamorphosis, since the viewing angle is moved only about forty-five degrees to the side and the distortions are rather subtle (Martin Kemp disregards them entirely). What matters here is the relation between the viewer and the painting, which changes in a manner analogous to anamorphosis. Leonardo seems, in part, to be exploiting the conventions of linear perspective to reinforce the theological message of the work. In having to move to the right, closer to Mary's point of view, we change from being impartial viewers with a centric ray perpendicular to the picture plane, to occupying an embodied position. In effect, we share the force of her revelation.

In terms of the doctrine of the Incarnation at work in the painting, Leonardo's composition invites us to contemplate the Annunciation. Theologically speaking, however, it is not an invitation at all. It is not for Mary and it is not for us. Our relationship to the unborn Christ is already a given. The truth of the Annunciation is already embodied, in a sense, at the moment of its utterance, as the Christ child will surely be born and accomplish his soteriological mission. For the Incarnation implies salvation for the fallen. Such a state requires deity to condescend and take a form comprehensible to human beings, as a tangible, perceptible, and relational being.

One problem in optics (or natural perspective) is that lines must converge on a point in the eye, as dictated by geometry, but a point is not a place. There must be a surface before the convergence: the flesh of the eye. Similarly, the vanishing point is, precisely, a symbolic point, and cannot be perceived. In the Annunciation, by falling on the rock, on the incarnate Christ, the vanishing point becomes the infinite projected into our bodily realm. The vanishing point and the vantage point cannot occupy the same space. One must be in the picture plane and the other diametrically opposite it in real space. The distance between them, then, is always infinite, but the Incarnation mediates that distance when the Word becomes flesh, or the geometric becomes incarnated, and the divine enters history.

Fig. 1 Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation, c.1472, tempera with oil on wood, 98 x 217 cm., Uffizi Gallery, Florence. (Scala / Art Resource, NY).

Fig. 2 Leonardo da Vinci, Anamorphosis, study of eye, with juvenile face, Codex Atlanticus, folio 98r, Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana.

Suggested reading

Jurgis Baltrušaitis, Anamorphic Art, translated by W.J. Strachan (Cambridge, 1977).

Roberto Bellucci, Maurizio Cetica, Enrico Pampaloni, Luca Pezzati & Pasquale Poggi,”La prospettiva è briglia e timone della pittura: Analisi agli infrarossi e riconstruzione geometrica" in L'Annunciazione di Leonardo: La montagna sul mare, eds. Antonio Natali, Daniel Arasse & Roberto Bellucci (Milano, 2000), 113-20.

The Uffizi: Guide to the Collections and Catalogue of All Paintings, eds. Caterina Caneva, Alessandro Cecchi & Antonio Natali (Boston, 1992).

Lyle Massey, Picturing Space, Displacing Bodies: Anamorphosis in Early Modern Theories of Perspective (University Park, PA, 2007).

Art and Phenomenology, ed. Joseph D. Parry (London & New York, 2011).