The cover of the month

The Annunciation of the Lord by Pierre-Marie Dumont

This Annunciation illustrates a prestigious illuminated manuscript commissioned around the year 1530 from Simon Bening (c. 1483–1561) by the powerful Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg (1490–1545), Archbishop of Mainz, a prince-elector and Archchancellor of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. The cardinal was a friend and lavish patron of artists (notably of Cranach and Grünewald) and at first favored the reform of the Church demanded by the “Evangelicals” (so the Protestants were called in Germany), but ultimately he remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church and took a stance as one of the most brilliant adversaries of Martin Luther (1483–1546). 

Born at the time of the irresistible rise of printing (the Gutenberg Bible dates back to 1450) and the art of the woodcut that accompanied it, Simon Bening, a star of the school of Bruges (Belgium), performed the swan song of the miniature (a painting with lead-based pigments, “minium,” used to decorate manuscripts), taking this art to its highest artistic level before it disappeared. Note that three of his six daughters had successful careers as painters or art dealers. One of them, Levina, even became the official miniaturist of the court of England and succeeded Hans Holbein the Younger as portraitist of King Henry VIII. 

The moment when the Word was made flesh

Mary is in her room, allegorically depicted as a grandiose structure to signify that this is the Temple that from now on will shelter the new Holy of Holies, the dwelling place where God makes himself really present to the world in a way surpassing all that the human mind could hope. Indeed, seated on a low stool, with her hands crossed over her heart, Mary has just answered the angel: Be it done to me according to your word. Here she is, captured by the painter at the ineffable moment when the Word was made flesh in her virginal womb. 

The Angel Gabriel is depicted hovering motionless. In his left hand he holds something resembling a scepter, which in reality is reminiscent of the wand or staff that heralds in Byzantium used to carry when they went through the streets announcing the solemn proclamations of the emperor. Embroidered along the border of his mantle are the words that he has just addressed to the Virgin Mary. On his head he wears a golden crown: a ring of fleurs-de-lis—in honor of the Immaculata—with a cross at the front. Since the salvation of the world is at stake, the announcement of Mary’s motherhood already takes place under the sign of the cross. Mary’s consent to her divine motherhood is also her consent to the sword that will pierce her heart. 

The inauguration of the new and eternal covenant

On the floor in the foreground, a Delft vase displays a bouquet of flowers that symbolize the eminent qualities of the Virgin Mary, above all the lily of purity and the humility of the meadow flowers. Beside it the viewer discovers a seemingly abandoned velvet bag, the kind which in those days was used to protect a precious manuscript, a Book of the Hours, or a Bible. This one held the book of the Old Testament, which is set on the little side table next to the Virgin Mary. This bag is empty and on the ground to indicate that the old covenant becomes obsolete precisely because it is inexpressibly fulfilled by the Incarnation of God’s Son in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Yet a phylactery has slipped out of the bag; on it is written this prophecy from the Book of Isaiah: Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son (Is 7:14). Instead of looking at the angel, or even reading the prophecy, Mary contemplates the book on her knees in which is written—live coverage, you might say—the beginning of the Gospel and the inauguration of the new and eternal covenant. 

Behind the Blessed Virgin, a sewing basket alludes to the old depictions that appeared as early as the Romanesque period, especially in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, showing the Blessed Virgin with a distaff, spinning flax. At the moment when she was surprised by the angel’s visit, Mary was weaving a white cloth that would become Christ’s shroud. We see here the start of that cloth hanging over the edge of the basket. 

In a corner, behind the angel at the back of the room, the artist represented an alcove containing an unused nuptial bed. The purpose of this symbol is to make it clear to everyone that there was indeed a conception of a son of man, but without the marital relations that naturally produce that result. 

Finally, through the window, the viewer sees the enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus of the Song of Songs (4:12), which prefigures the Virgin Mother of God: 

  Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa;
  hortus conclusus, fons signatus
. (Vulgate)

            My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed;
            A garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up. (Douay-Rheims)

The Annunciation, Simon Bening (c. 1483–1561), The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.