“Fear not!” says the Angel (more than once, perhaps with a hint of desperation) in this exquisitely hushed, tender portrait of a defining, even horrifying, exchange for the young Mary.
Lippi’s vision is simple, but full of detail, human and divine. Mary’s head is bowed in humility, but also, we might imagine, in shock. See how her setting is muted, domestic: the simple symbolism of the bed not slept in (she seems to prefer scripture to shenanigans); the gorgeous texture of the drapery around her chair. Her hands draw the viewer towards her stomach and the reality of her newly revealed state, where we also see the dove sent by God’s hand above.
By contrast, Gabriel is set in a fertile garden, reminding us that, amongst many epithets, Mary is the “rose without thorns”. He watches her with compassionate concern and infinite vigilance: his generous sympathy for her raw trauma is the beating heart of the painting. The symmetry between the two figures simultaneously separates and unites them, and emphasises the breathtaking contract that is being made here: this is a life-altering, world-changing conversation.
In this one moment, then, many of the themes of Advent collide. This is an episode about starting afresh: not only the universal miracle of new life, but also the beginning of an entire faith. Just like the music of the season, the picture reminds us to prepare ourselves, to make ourselves new, to be awake to the possibilities we hold within, often unknowingly. More than anything, though, the picture compels us to optimism, to rejoice in the transformative potential of the new, of embracing change, and of rejecting fear and saying yes.