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March Article for The RI Catholic

Sr. Patricia McCarthy, CND

Religious themes are common in the great art works of the masters, primarily because the artists were supported and commissioned by the Church. In the midst of prolific paintings and sculptures, some scenes are depicted more than others. The Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary remains one of the most popular of topics of art through the ages.

Fra Angelico, a monk who painted frescos on his monastery walls in Florence, has left behind some of the most popular annunciations. In modern religious art the draw toward imaging this scene is still strong. Our only source of the annunciation is the gospel account according to St. Luke. Just as every other gospel story, the words give the essence not the details of the environment.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel. No one knows where or how the visit happened. Gabriel delivered God’s request. Would Mary allow the Spirit of God to conceive a child in her who would be the Messiah, the Son of God. It was an absolutely unimaginable, improbable, impossible, inconceivable reality. Out of sheer trust in Yahweh, Mary acquiesced. Courage unparalleled responded. The strength of the ages arose from a young girl, thereby transforming the ages. She said “yes”. God became one of us. We became one with God.

It is no wonder that artists have tried to capture the moment. Many, like Fra Angelico, dress Mary and Gabriel in lovely medieval gowns. Wings and lilies decorate the angel and the room. Often there is a prie dieu, a kneeler where Mary gazes into the Angel’s face. Sometimes she is seated. Mary always wears blue. Realism is not the intent of most artists. Yet, there is something else from the medieval times to the present. Fra Angelico places Mary in his own monastery. The background is the high arches of the cloister walk. A more contemporary painting in a Church in Dallas has Mary in a school uniform standing startled in the presence of great-winged Gabriel.

The Annunciation by John Collier
St Gabriel the Archangel Parish, Dallas, Texas

Mary was a first century Jewish young woman. Blue was not the color of clothes for peasants in those times. Angels don’t have wings. Lilies and prie dieus weren’t present in Palestinian homes. The dialogue recorded in the scriptures may have been entirely internal and happened in an instant. We simply don’t know the details, only the essence of trust of God and of Mary, of surrender of Mary to God and God to humanity.

However, whether intentional or not, the theology of some of these paintings is as clear as the colors. Once and once only did God ask a human person to be the womb of the eternal Son of God. Mary brought the Christ into the world. Yet each baptized Christian is asked to do the same thing. Each Christian is asked to bear the Christ to others, to bring Christ to birth in the places and times of each day and place. Fra Angelico was responsible for bringing Christ to his monastery by the way he lived more than by his wall frescoes. A uniformed high school girl is given the same opportunity as Mary – to surrender to her God so his love and presence can permeate our world.

March 25th is the Feast of the Annunciation, nine months before Christmas Day. It is about Mary and her son Jesus. It is about what happened two thousand years ago. It is about what is still occurring in our hearts and homes, our cities and states, our countries and universe. God still sends angels (no wings), still asks for surrender and still promises new birth to a war-weary world and a violence-ridden society. Gratitude fills us with love for Mary and her response; courage fills us with hope for our own.

The Christ will be born again.

Article first published by the Rhode Island Catholic



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