To a fifteenth-century audience Leonardo's Annunciation would have looked familiar (fig. 1). While no absolute formula existed for the narrative, one of the most popular in Italian art, certain general characteristics tended to remain consistent across its representation: the angel Gabriel arrived from the left, announcing to the unsuspecting Virgin at the right that she would bear the son of God. Variables in the narrative allowed artists to play with the poses of the figures and their psychological interaction, but a domestic setting (inside or just outside Mary's house) and an ideal depiction of the Virgin —pale, blonde and delicate—were standard elements of the scene.
Alongside conventional elements in the Annunciation, however, Leonardo introduces a number of uncommon characteristics that would have offered contemporary viewers new ways to experience the story. Typically, early Renaissance versions of the Annunciation include a depiction of the dove of the Holy Spirit and often a representation of God the Father (or just his hand) to clarify that the Incarnation occurs at this moment (fig. 2). Leonardo's painting offers no obvious supernatural elements beyond the angel who is necessary to the narrative.
Leonardo’s depiction of the figures is notable for its lifelike appearance: drawings survive that demonstrate the artist carefully studied poses and draperies; the angel's wings are the first to function like real wings; and both the setting and the figures are shaped to suggest a three-dimensional space. Such observation of nature is one of Leonardo's chief preoccupations. But not every aspect of the scene is motivated by an effort to create the illusion of the three-dimensional world.
For Renaissance audiences Mary is a model woman whose ideal character is constantly reiterated in texts and images. One of the most popular religious instructional texts of the period, the Meditations on the Life of Christ, directs readers how to respond to the Annunciation:
See how the lady remains timorous and humble, with modest face, as she is accosted by the angel, not becoming proud and boastful after his unforeseen words […] Thus you may learn by her example to be modest and humble (Meditations 19).
In hundreds of early Renaissance images the Virgin's timorous humility is portrayed by her pose. She receives the angel with bowed head and lowered eyes, and there is often a shrinking quality to her stance. Although Leonardo himself noted that females should be represented demurely, with “their heads lowered and inclined to one side” (Leonardo, Manuscript A, fol. 17v, Richter no. 583), the Virgin in his Annunciation shows none of these characteristics.
Mary's back is straight, her head is up, and she looks right at Gabriel. Her raised gaze, in particular, would have been striking to quattrocento viewers, for women were constantly admonished to avoid improper boldness by keeping their gazes on the ground, not looking directly at strangers and what could be stranger than this heavenly messenger invading her private space?
Moreover, Mary does not passively receive Gabriel's message. Her left hand is raised to acknowledge his presence, while her right hand thumbs through the pages of her bible, perhaps to find the prophecy of a virgin conceiving the Son of God prophesied by Isaiah. Leonardo’s representation of an active Virgin expresses his interest in the dynamism of figures, but it also conveys to the audience that Mary is no ordinary fearful and docile woman: she is a woman with agency.
For Leonardo “lights and darks, together with foreshortening, comprise the excellence of the science of painting” (Kemp, 1982, 88). In this painting the light source is low on the left, and it warmly bathes the figure of the Virgin. Light falling across her face and arms is painstakingly delineated. A reflection from her chest bounces up under her chin and along her left jaw; the underside of her left arm is strongly highlighted and a shimmering line defines the contour of the shaded side of that wrist and hand; radiant spots mark the tips of each finger on her left hand. While these effects are typical of the artist's interest in optics, especially the exploration of chiaroscuro, they are strikingly different from the way the angel is portrayed (figs. 3 and 4). Gabriel faces away from the light, so the modeling on his face is very subtle, but in a naturalistic world the audience might expect his raised right hand to have some of the same brilliance as Mary's body, yet it is as subdued as his face. The result of the discrepancy in the illumination of the two figures is that the Virgin appears suffused with light.
In his studies of light Leonardo writes a great deal about incandescence, at one point declaring, "The greatest beauty is in the luminous, great splendor" (Leonardo, Manuscript E, fol. 18r). Leonardo originally ended this sentence with the word chiarezza (clarity) but crossed it out and replaced it with splendore. Optical theorists of the early Renaissance used splendor to refer to highlights and reflection and it is exactly Leonardo’s attention to reflection and highlights that makes his Virgin glow. But in the fifteenth century splendore also conveys a metaphysical meaning that defines radiance as evidence of transcendent light. In this context, then, Mary’s luminosity not only gives her great beauty but also suggests that she has been infused with the otherworldly.
Leonardo has no need of a dove, golden rays of light, or the hand of God to suggest to beholders of his Annunciation that the Incarnation occurs in this moment. Through the artist’s shaping of Mary as an exceptional woman, who not only commands her environment but also glows with a supernatural light, the audience gains a novel understanding of the advent of the divine into the earthly world: the sacred is experienced through the real.
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 Fra Filippo Lippi, The Annunciation, c. 1450-3, egg tempera on wood, 68.6 x 152.7 cm. National Gallery, London. (© National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY).
Fig. 3 Details of Leonardo’s Annunciation (left) and Lippi’s (right).
Fig. 4 Details of Leonardo’s Annunciation.