Perspectives on the Annunciation

Posted by: Richenda at Friday April 13, 2012 in

What is the Annunciation?
The ‘Annunciation of Mary’ is an extremely important event in the Christian calendar. The day of the Annunciation is the celebration of the day that the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Lady/Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ, to tell her that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and she was going to bear a son, and that this son will be Jesus the Christ, son of God. On that day Mary accepts her pregnancy, and sings a song celebrating the magnificent work of God in that Jesus’s birth is good news for all the lowly and undervalued people of the world. This song is known as the Magnificat.

The Annunciation by Rupert Bunny. Wikipedia Commons.

Christians get two stories of Jesus’s birth from the New Testament. There are four books in the bible that tell of Jesus’s life, and all four are called ‘Gospels.’ Of the four, only two include a story of birth of Jesus: The Book Of Matthew and The Book of Luke. Of these two, it is really only Luke who gives us the full story that has become the traditional celebration Christians known as The Annunciation. If you have ever heard this story, it was likely you heard it near Christmas time as part of a play or teaching about Jesus’s birth.

The Annunciation as Art
That is the basic information. But I want to look even a little more deeply, or critically, perhaps, at how images of the Annunciation of Mary have come to us over the many centuries. Because this is such an important event, there have been many, many paintings made of it. Each of these paintings tells the story in a unique way. Each of these paintings also includes many more aspects and details than the story in Luke ever did. Sometimes, the way the characters are depicted seems to be in direct opposition to Luke’s story. The way Mary is shown, the way the event is depicted, tells us, I think, a lot about who we are and what things of our own (our thoughts, feelings, impressions) we bring to our stories of faith.

In looking at images of the Annunciation, I find it is like entering a “conversation” that includes me, the painter, and the story itself. This conversation is really interesting! I feel like I can get a look at what kinds of attitudes and assumptions are being made about who Mary was and how she lived. I invite you to take a look at a few images and journey through the ‘commentary’ a little with me.

One thing to remember is that all the images I have chosen were painted long after the story itself took place. Not only were they painted hundreds of years after Jesus was born, but they were painted after the Catholic church was well established, and had very specific rules (called doctrines) about who Jesus was and who Mary was. These “rules” make up the basis of the way most people think of Jesus and Mary today.

One final note is that in looking at these paintings, I am looking at them in terms of their ‘face value’ in relationship to the Mary stories. I am not concerned with the artists themselves, or the subjects they have painted in particular. This article is long enough! What I have kept myself to is simply an examination of what the painting or image say in terms of the stories of the Annunciation.

Symbols in the Paintings
A few things to know about what kinds of things usually show up in paintings of the Annunciation:
• The Angel Gabriel as Messenger. In the Christian tradition, Gabriel is a very important angel.
• Mary as a virgin girl or woman being surprised by God and/or the Angel with the information that she is pregnant.
• A white Lily somewhere is a symbol associated with Mary’s divine/special attributes as the Mother of Jesus.
• Light. Light coming in through an open window or door or just in general flooding the scene.
• Heavens intruding in the world in some way, clouds, angels, ethereal aspects.
• A prayer book, which Mary is or was reading, or some other prayerful activity.

The ‘Historical Mary.’
One more thing that might be helpful as we move through these images is to consider what Mary, as a historical person, likely would have been like. We have no particular evidence outside of biblical stories that Mary ever existed. Yet the stories of the Gospels are compelling history in their own right. We know from the Gospels that Mary was very young when she conceived Jesus, perhaps 14 or 15. We know that she was a peasant girl in Galilee who lived at a time when the rich took the good land and left poor land to the villagers. We know there was a lot of debt slavery, villagers who couldn’t pay taxes and tithes and debts could be sold into slavery with their children and families. We also know that military soldiers from Rome were present throughout the countryside, and patrolled the rural roads.

Mary, then, was a poor, young, village girl in an occupied country with little opportunity for economic advancement. She would also have been illiterate. The most difficult thing of all was that Mary, who was an ethnic Judean, would have had to live by particular religious and social “laws.” One of these laws forbid girls to have sexual relations outside of marriage. Unmarried girls who became pregnant were shunned by their families and fiancées and stoned to death. This was simply the reality. Mary, as an unwed mother, if she had been spared stoning, would have been doomed to live as an outcast and likely a prostitute which would also have greatly reduced her life expectancy. She would be thought of as sinful, unclean, and cursed. That Joseph decided to marry her despite her pregnancy is a testament to the loving influence of God and the goodness and honorableness of Joseph. Clearly, he was a very good man.

As we look at the paintings, then, think how different the Mary of the paintings is than the ‘historical Mary’ of Galilee.

Painting by Robert Campin, 1427.

The Annunciation by Robert Campin. Wikipedia Commons.

This first painting is by Robert Campin, 1427, and I think it offers a view of what we traditionally have in our minds when we think of Mary. It is a very rosy painting and Mary seems well protected. This Mary is from a privileged background and clearly has enough social standing that she could have expected to be protected from the slights and transgressions poor people often encounter. This Mary would have had servants to clean and cook and sew and a tutor to teach her to read. (Stories from the middle ages tell us that Mary’s mother Anne taught Mary to read.)

This Mary’s life is one of demure devotion to the task of quiet reading. This demure reading is typical of an idealized understanding of a nun, so I believe we are supposed to associate this Mary in this painting, as if she is like a virgin, sainted nun. This Mary is also squeaky clean and her garment is an expensive color. Even the pot in the hearth is clean with no trace of soil or ash.

In the background of the picture, it looks as if the window has blown open to receive the visiting Holy Spirit/Infant and Angel Gabriel. The form of the Spirit here is a fat, naked cherub carrying a large wooden cross. The wind that blew open the window has also blown out the candle, but Mary is bathed in enough light, and disciplined enough, to keep to her reading. The question here is to ask, Why did she need a candle during daylight in the first place? I think the answer to that is to show us that Mary is so demure, protected, innocent, and removed from the world (so impeccably virginal) that she does not even sit by the window to read (as all people did before electricity) but stayed away from men even to the point of not seeing them through the window or talking to her male neighbors who might pass by on the street.

This ‘keeping away from windows’ is characteristic in some stories of sainted nuns. The stories tell proudly about how these nuns shut themselves away and never let men gaze at them. What is implied in this action is that a gaze of a man who might find them beautiful would ‘penetrate’ them (a penetrating look!) with a lustful spirit and so the nun might be made impure just from this kind of look alone. This Mary’s purity, then, shut away from the window, cannot be questioned. She has not made her person available to the lustful glances of men. (This characterization, of course, is really unfair to men—and women, too!)

Because of this painting’s extreme depiction of Mary’s private-purity, the question can also be asked, does she even know that Gabriel is there? She does not seem to be aware of him. This is yet another comment on Mary’s extreme purity. Mary is not so removed from men that she is not even aware of the presence of a ‘him,’ even an angel ‘him,’ and perhaps especially a ‘him’ who will utter the word ‘pregnant.’ The painter has given us a story point of view that shows us a Mary so utterly pure, sheltered, and virginal—so perfectly whole and intact into herself—that even the word pregnant, and the process of impregnation (even by a cherub or the Holy Spirit), is outside her capacity to engage or recognize.

As for Gabriel, his behavior is respectful and also demure. We know from the bible stories that Gabriel is a ‘he.’ But here in this painting, he doesn’t seem to really have a gender. He is very gender-neutral looking, and this keeps him from appearing as a sexual threat. His hand is raised in priestly blessing. Nothing about his demeanor is sexually charged. If Mary is to be impregnated, it seems that it will be the blessing, then, that will bring the Holy Spirit upon Mary. If so, then this is a very, very safe kind of ‘impregnation.’ Though it is probably still technically going to have to be referred to as ‘penetration’ (as in a penetrating prayer), clearly it will be free of any polluting or threatening aspect. This Mary retains her perfectly virginal state.

(In the old traditions, some of which are still part of the faith today, the Holy Spirit is said to have entered Mary’s womb through her ear. Perhaps, in a few more centuries, and inspired by the stories of Star Trek, others will say that Jesus “beamed in” to Mary’s womb. Both methods equally ensure Mary’s virginity is unquestioned. I might ask, too, whether we can ask why Mary’s virginity was so important to the story of Jesus in the first place. What did historical people believe it meant for a woman to be a virgin? And why did how they felt about female virginity have an impact on who they believed Mary to be? )

But to return to the painting above. This painting, like many others, gives us a very tranquil, non-sexual, pure and devout perspective of a worthy, rich, gentle Mary who could only be penetrated by blessings. This, of all the paintings, best tells the story as I heard it as a girl. But this is just one way to tell the story. There are many ways that painters have depicted the Annunciation. Some of them are quite different.

Painting by Domenico Veneziano c. 1445.
This next painting of the Annunciation is by Domenico Veneziano, and painted c. 1445.

The Annunciation by Domenico Veneziano, c. 1445. Wikipedia Commons.

This painting shows a much more vulnerable Mary. Her social standing is similar, in that she is likely a well-born woman from a good family. But notice this Mary is surrounded by open doors. These open doors imply that this Mary is more vulnerable to penetration. The prominent archway and floral bridal-like arch at the center of the painting also are resonant of ancient images of the female (and the vulva) as a door or opening to fertility (one of the most ancient of which is of the goddess Inanna who was associated with date fruits and the storehouse ). In this image, Mary does not have the power to refuse. Here, she is depicted with her head bowed. She is also a little bent over, as if she has just risen from the bench. It is also a submissive position.

Gabriel is also far more intentional in this image than in the previous one. Though he seems properly respectful (this is the Mother of Jesus, after all), he is clearly more of an aggressor. He has the authority to demand she heed God’s word, and this is demonstrated in the painting by her obeisance to his beckoning. His fingers are also interestingly phallic. Sticking up fingers in many cultures is obscene, and in Europe the extension of the index finger and middle finger (a sort of ‘peace sign’ to us) together has always been a vulgar gesture that symbolizes a woman’s legs and crotch. That Gabriel makes a two fingered sign here (though not the two fingered sign), with a space at the center, is interesting. Again, it is not the vulgar sign, but still it absolutely evokes it. Clearly, though sanitized, this painting is supposed to depict a sexual encounter, one that Mary will experience as a dominated person. While Gabriel’s manner does have some of the aspects of ‘courtship’ (for instance, he is kneeling), yet in the context of the rest of the image, it is clear that he will get his way.

The ‘dominating’ aspect of this painting bothered me a little. But it was not the worst painting I found in terms of sexual dominance. In fact, it is really quaint compared to the next one, below, by Lorenzo Letto, 1527.

Painting by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527.

The Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto. Wikipedia Commons.

In this painting, Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and God looks distinctly like rape. I find this image to be more than a little frightening. God is depicted as an older man with a weapon we can’t see. I have included a close up of his eyes, which look possessed or crazed. As to the Angel, though kneeling he looks muscular and intrusive. The angel’s shadow cast toward Mary even seems a bit demonic, and, with the black cat also in the image, I have to wonder, what does this shadow represent? Mary herself is turned away from God and the Angel. She seems to be fleeing and pleading to whomever is viewing the painting for help. Her open hands show she is vulnerable and unarmed.

I am glad that in my simple and general searches that this painting by Letto was the worst I saw in terms of depicting the Annunciation as an act of violence. But it is still horrifying to me. It is, frankly, the worst I’ve ever seen in terms of savagery against Mary. I wonder, why did the painter depict the story in this way? I want to say, too, that this painting is extremely contrary to the stories we get in the bible.

Painting by Paulo de Matteis, 1712
This next image, by Paulo de Matteis, 1712, also has some sexual content, though it is nothing like the last one. Having grown up with the ‘virginal’ and ‘non sexual’ Mary, I find the paintings that celebrate the sexuality of Mary’s pregnancy very interesting. In this next painting, the Annunciation looks very much like romantic courtship. Here, the sexual content is very idealized, offering an example of innocent joy instead of terror or domination.

The Annunciation by Paolo de Matteis. Wikipedia Commons.

In this painting, Gabriel appears to be a sort of heroic suitor, riding in on his white cloud to sweep Mary off her feet. Mary is reading a book, a very common activity for her in many of the paintings—which is notable as the historical Mary was certainly illiterate. The book, of course, would be a book of psalms or prayers. No romances or novels!

The Mary in the painting has also been surprised—surprise, too, is very typical of these paintings. Perhaps one of the most consistent aspect of depictions of the Annunciation is the element of surprise. This kind of surprise might be called ‘theophany.’ Theophany is a fancy religious word that means, basically, God revealed to man. In other words, it is a ‘in-breaking of God.’ It is a moment where God appears or breaks into your life. It is a moment where the divine has, in some way, been revealed to you.

In this painting, then, we have a Mary who had been surprised by God and Gabriel during a quiet devotional time. Mary as a demure, contemplative and prayerful person seems a little overwhelmed by this sudden attention. Her humility, then, is part of what the artist has depicted here. She is not proud and did not expect such an honor. Unlike the first image of Mary, who does not even look up at the Angel, this Mary gives a tentative and perhaps a little bit of an blushing bow.

This painting is also unapologetically depicts aspects of romance—look at the cherubs sighing and kissing with the ecstasy of the moment. Though there is no touching, Gabriel’s romantic hero presence is active not passive. He hands Mary her flower quite pointedly. Is that supposed to imply a penetrative object? The white Lily has for centuries been associated with Mary as a visual representation of her and her divine aspect. This gift of this flower denotes her new status as Mother of Jesus, and its presence in this painting (and in so many other paintings) will mark her new authority and confirm her pregnancy. The girl without the flower is not yet Mary the mother of Jesus. The flower, as fertility, as divinity, as purity, comes to symbolize the woman who the girl will become.

The Holy Spirit, shown here as a dove, also speeds with deliberation in Mary’s direction. Interestingly to me, the Mary here in this image seems definitely to have a lot more power than in the previous images. Maybe even, does she have the power to refuse? Her arm is raised and perhaps with that gesture those looking at the painting might imagine that she could swat the flower away instead of accepting it. Theologically, this is a big deal. What the painting says, then, is that Mary has enough power, even in the face of God and the Angels, to refuse the pregnancy. This painting invests Mary with power in her own right, invested in her person as not-yet pregnant. The power that comes to Mary, then, according to this painting is not simply with power given to her by her pregnancy or her role as Mother of Jesus. She has, somehow, the power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God.

If, then, she has the power to refuse, she also has the power to act the part of the lover. Lovers are partners in courtship, and this painting, in depicting courtship, includes this ‘lovers’ aspect. Mary’s interaction with Gabriel here has some of the lover’s blush and coquetry of romantic courtship. Her teasing power to refuse, though, is just that—teasing. I am reminded of a line from Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennett refuses Mr. Collins’s proposal of marriage. Mr. Collins is not discouraged, however, telling the reader that well-born women often refuse proposals to extend the courtship game and so heighten the joy of their eventual ‘yes.’ A charge Elizabeth Bennett denies.

And from this painting, we can see Mary’s blushing pleasure. We can recognize her as a willing participant—certainly we know she chooses ‘yes.’ And how could she refuse, the painter seems to ask! When the Spirit has come to her with news reminiscent of a dream-wedding proposal. Mary here is a girl who is suddenly princess and will be Queen. It is a very romantic depiction, indeed.

Painting by Pontormo, 1527
This next painting by Pontormo takes the relationship between Gabriel and Mary even farther. This painting also seems to pair Gabriel and Mary as lovers. Clearly their encounter is pleasurable. Mary’s posture implies sexual availability and desire, while Gabriel looks as if he is filled with desire, and perhaps, even post coital. I have to wonder, Are his hands raising or lowering his gown?

The Annunciation by Jacopo Pontormo. Wikipedia Commons.

In this pair of paintings, Mary and Gabriel gaze adoringly at each other. Whatever is transpiring or has transpired between them is companionate and enjoyable, and Mary is an active participant in the process.

Painting by Tanner, 1889.
This next painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1889, is one of my absolute favorites.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Wikipedia Commons.

Tanner shows us a Mary who feels human and vulnerable. She is not set apart or idealized as she is in many of the other depictions. I like that Gabriel here is depicted as a light…is he entering? Is he leaving? Is this all of himself that is revealed? Is this what he is, just light? The vulva shape of the light is also interesting to me. Gabriel is either erupting from, or depicted as, a fissure. This is a space of crossover, and, as such, this is spectacular in terms of theophany or revelation. What does this depiction of Gabriel say about God and divinity?

Tanner’s Mary is poor. She is not destitute, but she is clearly poor and as such she is a girl who knows a perhaps difficult life. She has probably worked menial jobs and is likely vulnerable to the gaze and comments (and worse) of strangers. Yet Tanner’s depiction of her is loving and generous. He has enfolded her in layers of protective cloth, soft and comforting. Tanner has also bathed her in light. Clearly, she has encountered a loving God who allows her to take in the information gently.

The only hint of penetration, if it can even be read that way, is a suggestive furrow in the carpet that runs under the bed. Has anything burrowed through those layers to get to Mary? Perhaps. But regardless, it is as if whatever mechanism of pregnancy has to occur, it occurred while she was dreaming. She has woken up pregnant, still an innocent and coming to terms with the information that Gabriel has arrived to let her know.

Yet though the painting shows no indignity, the appearance has occurred in Mary’s bedroom and it looks as if it happened just as she was waking—or perhaps was the cause of her waking. Or perhaps it is the middle of the night. This is fairly suggestive in its own right. I cannot imagine the first Mary in this article from the painting by Campin anywhere as vulnerable as her bedroom when Gabriel shows up. Tanner’s Mary, then, though loved and comforted, has still encountered the news of pregnancy in the most private and personal space: in her person, and in her bedroom. This is pregnancy, after all. And Tanner’s treatment of it gives us a very human Mary with an intimately human experience.

Painting without Attribution.
(If you know the author of this painting, please let me know. I was unable to discover the artist and I would like to ask permission to post this image.)

What does it mean to have a Mary who is not sheltered, virginal and perfect? How does a human Mary, like the historical Mary, change the way we think of who she is, what power she may have, and why she is chosen to be the mother of Jesus?

What is the difference between being born for something vs having something happen to you? What is the difference between being destined for something vs being called? Does Mary have the power to refuse? And if she does, what does it say about her as a person that she did not? Is Mary always groomed and tutored and prepared so that she is ready to be the mother of God? Or has God reached out to make an unlikely choice and startled a girl who perhaps is undeserving and uncomprehending? What could it possibly mean when God suddenly shows up? What does is say about Mary that she goes from a young, unwed mother to the mother of the Son of God?

The Annunciation.

In this image of the Annunciation, we see a very different image than what has been depicted before. This Mary seems fearful perhaps even uncomprehending. With the white walls and all the white clothing it is as if she is a patient in a psych ward. If so, what is her history? How have the cruelties of life set her cowering. She looks so vulnerable, a vulnerability perhaps to speak of a history of abuse, neglect, illness, or subjugation. What does it say that this is the Mary to whom Gabriel appears?

As for Gabriel, his left hand is raised, not in blessing but in a soothing gesture, as if to say ‘don’t run, I will not hurt you. I am here to free you.’ The window behind her is open. That openness is the only real promise in the otherwise tightly framed image. Will she jump out the window and flee from the news, from the pregnancy? Or is the window the promise that in her accepting of God she will be freed? Certainly that window seems like a way out. A way out for what, her pain? Her powerlessness? Her hopelessness? Perhaps in accepting the flower and the gift of God’s love, this Mary will find healing.

Another Look at “Mary.”
These next images were not intended to be images of the Annunciation. As we can see from the paintings so far, when it comes to representing Mary and Gabriel in art, very little about the image can be considered ‘historical.’ The paintings do not show Galilee or an unwed, 15(ish) year old ethnic Judean woman. They show very stylized and romanticized European women. As such, they are ‘commentary’ not ‘reality.’ They are part of a conversation about who Mary is to us and to the church, not historic representations about who Mary actually was.

As such, I want to expand the ‘conversation’ even more. In looking through images for this article, I was struck by how many images of young women seem to pick up aspects that are generally associated with paintings of the ‘Annunciation.’ It made me wonder what, exactly, might be the commentary on who Mary is in this time and place. How might we understand, in today’s terms, who a ‘Mary’ might be.

I wondered who ‘Mary’ might be, what she might look like. I wondered what our expectations for her are, and how the Spirit and God’s gift might transform someone who is unexpected as God’s choice. Because, let’s face it, Mary in her own time was radically unexpected. For an unwed Galilean girl to bear the Son of God was absolutely unthinkable in her time.

Painting by Boucher, 1715.
This first image is by Francois Boucher, and who she is a bit of a puzzle. There is the girl herself, and then there is the narrative of the image both to be considered in reflection. As to the girl herself, she might be a servant, courtesan, or mistress, but absolutely she would be someone vulnerable to being painted nude in 1751 and to have their nudity displayed. She would not be high-born. She would have few social protectors and no social standing of her own.

Resting Maiden by Francois Boucher. Wikipedia Commons.

The girl seems young. She is painted with her legs open and a pillow between them. This girl, then, is not a virgin. There is no attempt to hide the implication of sexual penetration. Yet she does not look like a rape victim or as a woman who is destitute. On the contrary, she is lovely, and well fed. She appears well cared for. Whatever the circumstances of her life, her youth and beauty have given her status enough to have caught the eye of a man who wishes to represent her sexuality with paint.

Next is the narrative of the painting itself. Clearly, this is an image painted to depict a girl who has just engaged in intercourse. There are aspects of the painting that imply that this girl just experienced her first sexual encounter. There are two flowers, roses, on the ground by her feet. They have been ‘cast aside’ or ‘cast down.’ Do they represent the deflowering? Has she consented to be someone’s lover? She cannot be a young bride, she has no ring.

In addition, the encounter seems to have taken place illicitly, not in a bedroom, but on parlor furniture. For the story of the painting, then, I wonder, what is the artist trying to say? What is the ‘story’ he is trying to paint? Is he depicting her as a servant who has succumbed to sex (or invited sex) in an act of impulse perhaps? I wonder at her hair, which, despite the implied sexual encounter, is still perfectly in place. Perhaps she is supposed to represent a girl who was seduced, a girl who ‘fell’ to the promises or excitement of her seducer. Clearly, she is shown surrounded by the trappings of wealth. The pillows and blankets as well as the furniture are sumptuous. Her hair is carefully coifed.

Especially interesting to me are the symbols that resonate with other paintings of ‘Mary.’ First, there is the light, which washes over her. Second, there are the flowers. Though they are not lilies, none the less they are prominent in the painting. Third, there is an open book on the footstool next to her. What sort of book? When Mary is depicted, it is a book of psalms and her attitude is prayerful. What is this book? Is it a novel? Or is it, too, a book of prayers? Was she reading it before the sexual encounter?

Finally, though she is splayed out naked with her legs open, there is a sense of surprise and innocence in the painting. First, she is so young, this in and of itself denotes innocence. Second, something has intruded into her world. In the form of a seducer, this is a bad thing. A girl without social power could hope for a protective lover and status as his mistress. But more often she was disposable. If she was also pregnant, her life would become very difficult.

In this painting, despite the gloom of her future circumstance her innocence is preserved and the light that is cast across her makes the painting hopeful. Somehow, all is not lost. The girl peers over the arm of the upholstery, and the light shines on her as if some door has just been opened. Her facial expression is of timidity, questioning, surprise. She is unsure of something, herself maybe? Perhaps she is recognizing the consequences of what just happened. Perhaps she has fear of getting ‘caught.’ Who or what does she ‘see.’ Perhaps she is already ‘caught.’

In her facial expression, there is some inward aspect. Her body position could be the result of rolling over to see the something or someone who has ‘entered’ the room, or someone who has revealed their presence. Though she is naked, in turning to see what or who was in the room, she has drawn part of the sheet up under her chin. It is a futile gesture of covering herself. In this painting, it would serve to further show her innocence, her shame at being exposed. It would also serve as sexual titillation for those who would be aroused to have caught sight of a young girl in a sexually vulnerable state.

Is this girl, whom we can surmise to have been taken advantage of either purposefully or in encouraging her to be impulsive, is this girl now pregnant? And if so, what kind of pregnancy can she expect? Is a pregnancy, even one begun like this, still sacred to God? Still worthy of God’s love and care?

Who does Mary have to be?
It begs the question, how did Mary get pregnant? Do we believe the dogma of the ancient church that the Holy Spirit entered through Mary’s ear and impregnated her? This dogma allows for us to believe that Mary remained a virgin for her whole life, this despite the biblical story telling us she had other children after Jesus. But is it important for Mary to be pure? Is it important for us to be pure for God to love us? For us to be worthy of care and provision?

What does Mary’s purity mean for Jesus? Does Mary have to be ‘pure’ for Jesus to be ‘pure?; Does Jesus need to be ‘pure’ if he is born as a human being? Jesus as a man entered into the same human risks we all do, like bacteria and a human mother. Jesus breastfed. Probably he ate dirt as a baby and at least one bug. Yet, we recognize that Jesus was a man of power and divinity. Does it destroy his divinity that his humanity, his human body, was conceived with sperm like everyone else? Is sperm more powerful than God? Does sperm have the power to evict or block the Holy Spirit? Could God not have entered into or orchestrated a human pregnancy with the Holy Spirit and had just as much power in so doing? What part of the ‘mechanics’ of the pregnancy matter the most, and why? How active is the Divine in conception just in general?

If God is all powerful is it possible that God could use a sexual encounter or indiscretion for purposes of conception and incarnation. If so, would an encounter like this one render the option of conception unworthy to God? Could a young girl who had been foolish in flirtation with an older married man, and as a result is deflowered and impregnated—Could God use such a girl and such an encounter for God’s own purposes? How different is this in essentials to the traditional images of Mary shown previously, where Mary is dominated and even seems to encounter rape as she encounters the circumstances of her pregnancy. What of the depictions of Mary as romantic lover? Could God use a Mary who transgressed socially to be a lover or one who indulged in the excitement of a sexual encounter? Would God perhaps even seek out a woman who had known the loving embrace and sexual play and intimate care of a man she loved. How sexual could Gabriel’s involvement, or the Holy Spirit’s involvement, be? Does a sexual conception diminish Jesus? Is rape stronger than God so as to preclude any good child coming as a result, or does God bless all children fully, recognizing they play no part in their conception. Does it matter if she was impenetrably pure or foolishly wanton? Does it matter if she is vulnerable and was used?

So, what if this is a girl who had been taken advantage of? What if this is one of those girls whose position in the household did not allow a ‘no.’ Would God refuse to use a Mary such as this? God raises up unlikely people. Perhaps God would find such a foolish or disempowered girl to be the right one all the same?

These questions are tantalizing to me as I look at this image. I see the flowers and the book. I see the innocence. And I see the clear evidence that she is not a virgin anymore. The consequences of sex can be pregnancy. What if the light is divine? What if God has seen and knows and decides to use this moment to make a miracle? Even if this picture isn’t Mary, there is for many women who find themselves pregnant a time of reckoning. Many mothers will see an unexpected pregnancy as an unexpected miracle. They recognize the intrusion of the divine in their lives, and are transformed.

I want to take this one step farther. I want us to consider that Jesus’s list of ancestors included Rahab the prostitute. If Rahab could be used by God to provide the living human chain of birth to birth to birth to beget Jesus, what would the qualifications for Mary need to be?

A Sketch by Edgar Degas.
In this next image, a sketch by Edgar Degas, four prostitutes appear startled by an interruption we do not see. This startle at interruption, with a single woman called out as the focus of that interruption, is what reminded me of images that depict the Annunciation.

Sketch by Edgar Degas. Wikipedia Commons.

These women look coarse. They are street prostitutes. Their hair is garish and their bodies are round and fleshy. Their attire is overtly sexual and speaks of the immediate availability of their bodies to any man who wants them. The three women in the foreground serve as a contrast to the woman standing behind. Their manner is much more vulgar and they are more exposed.

Just in the contrast we notice the girl behind to be more covered, more demure. Her hands are folded in front of her body, covering herself. Is this a protective stance? Her face is not softly pretty, but hardened looking. Her features are lines and her mouth set downward. It is as if she has grimly accepted her lot. She has not had the social position, perhaps, to be a mistress instead of a prostitute. She has not been seen as worthy of protection.

In viewing her characteristics, especially as they contrast with the other three women, I wonder: is she someone for whom we might feel sympathy or pity in their life circumstance? She seems to be set apart and awaiting something. Whatever it is, it does not look frightening. The other three women seem to view it as if they are evaluating. One looks doubtful, even cynical, one looks ready to challenge and deride, the third seems to have a quiet, wait-and-see expression. Perhaps they look on something wondrous? What kind of miracle might a girl like this unexpectedly encounter?

Additionally, over her head are three objects of light. Are they celestial? Or a coronet? Are they the Holy Spirit? Could God use the pregnancy of such a girl to bring about the birth of child blessed?

Photograph by Rena Effendi, 2007.
This last image is a little shocking, especially in the context of a discussion of the Annunciation. But there are aspects to the image that—despite its challenges—resonate with aspects of other Annunciation images. It is these resonances that interest me.

I also want to reiterate that in dealing with all these images, it is the image itself that I am engaging and not the historical or actual particulars of the image. This is particularly important to remember here, as the subject of this image is a living person. But in this discussion, I am not speaking about the subject specifically or personally. I am speaking instead about the image as “art,” as that thing that comes together of itself and for itself in representation of itself; I am speaking of the image as it is composed by an artist and then becomes ‘loose in the world’; I am speaking of this image as it is encountered by someone like me, far away, with no knowledge of or attachment to its place of origin; I am speaking to the ability of this artwork, unmoored and loosed into the world, to move others who have no knowledge of or concern about its ‘real’ content; it is to this that I want to speak to here.

Used by permission. Photograph by Rena Effendi. Owner of a shooting Osh park. Kyrgyzstan. From the series House of Happiness, 2007. Courtesy of Grinberg Gallery.

I am including this image because I admit to loving the possibilities and conversation embedded here. I love that this woman has tanner skin than I do. Mary’s skin would have been browner, still. I love the way the light and the wind come into the photograph. Remember in the first image of this discussion, the image by Campin, the windows behind Mary had been blown open. In the Campin image, too, there was smoke wafting from a candle that the incoming wind had blown out. Here too, there is smoke. I find myself wondering, what candle (what spirit, what life?) has been snuffed out by this cigarette? What does it say about what hope exists in this place that the only fire burning is the cigarette ?

There is a crown in this image, too. It is on her shoulder, a tattoo. The crown is usually associated with kingship, divinity, Christendom. Here it is embedded in human skin. What is the significance of this kind of embodiment?

Additionally, there is a clock—what is it time for? What time has come?

This is an image of the type of woman we expect to be surrounded by trouble. Her big round earrings, her hair, the protruding poster of a naked woman behind her all testify that this woman is “no good.” She doesn’t have much and certainly not protection from the world. She is, in fact, in the thickness of the world battling it out day to day to day. If there were Roman soldiers at the time of this photo, this is a woman who would have encountered the threat or actuality of rape, or perhaps been part of the sex industry (unwillingly or with few alternatives) that took care of the soldiers’ ‘needs.’ The position of her hand and cigarette resonates with the vulgarity of two fingers raised and separated. In this case, the two fingers hold the phallic addition of the burning cigarette. Is this passion burning? Perhaps in some broken form?

She is also perhaps nude, and a little sweaty. If she is not nude, whatever she is wearing is very revealing. If she is nude, is the cigarette post-coital? If so, with whom has she just had sex? A lover? A spouse? A customer? Someone she is trying to control or gain advantage from? Someone who is trying to control or gain advantage from her?

Despite all this ‘bleakness’ of social place and sexuality, this is a woman who has retained some strength and has some sense of herself, some ‘intactness.’ The light shines in and the ethereal curtains billow. She, like so many of the Marys from the Annunciation images, peers at something that is outside our visual frame of reference. Something has intruded or interrupted, or appeared, something or someone. She has lifted her chin and held her head back in a gesture of evaluation.

What Makes ‘Mary’ Divine?
This image—as it appeared at the end of my searching—caused within me a sort of revelation. I wondered what it was that creates ‘Mary’ as divine. Obviously the images I have used here are not the actual historical Mary but are instead social and religious constructions of what people through history thought Mary was supposed to be, and I include images that resonate with that discussion.

In thinking, I had a realization that, if we were to imagine Mary as a person of ancient Galilee, it is hard to think of her as divine at all. At what point is her divinity made real? Is it awakened? Is it potential? Did God implant or recognize some essential aspect or capacity in Mary?

On possibility from the earlier depictions in that Mary’s divinity comes when she accepts what God offers her. It is this invitation, then, and even more importantly, Mary’s response to that invitation, that speaks to the degree of Mary’s divinity; she is capable of the ‘yes’ either by her own doing of by God’s.

This capacity to say ‘yes’ may have existed a priori , if we think that ‘in the beginning was the Word’ and Jesus had to be born, then this might suggest that this ‘yes’ must have been in place ‘in the beginning’ as well. She would have had by these theological terms a kind of pre-existent existence if only in destiny or outstretched possibility—she was a predestined choice, by God. Or, is her existence more human and finite than that. With God awaiting the right moment and right woman, offering her then the transformative task of ‘God bearer’ and mother of Jesus. And does it matter, really, if the divinity that ultimately enfolds her is from the beginning or arises in the middle? Because, isn’t it all derived from the font of eternity?

We have to remember, I think, that Mary herself, as well as how she is depicted, has a history. If we look at the doctrines of Christianity, almost all stress the purity of Mary. Based on ancient cosmologies, Mary’s purity becomes important because humans understood her acceptability to God in terms of her suitable ‘cleanness.’ This is problematic from a historical and biblical standpoint, of course, because God uses, saves, and praises many unclean people.

But, in terms of religious dogma, for some reason Mary had to be pure. By the middle ages, the dogma said she was, in fact, so pure in her virginity that her mother Anne was also a lifelong virgin and Mary herself was conceived without sex. The stories of Mary’s purity get dogmatically alarming—she just can’t get pure enough. If there was some cultural standard for purity, Mary couldn’t just meet it, she had to exceed it three hundred fold.

This is ironic, of course, considering the historical Mary—the one supposedly that God chose, was a peasant from Galilee who would have been too poor to follow all the “right rules” and so would not have had an alarming lack of cleanness by priestly standards. It is possible, if we simply look at the biblical story, that God has actually chosen a pregnant-out-of-wedlock poor 15 year old to be Jesus’s mom. It is a striking contrast to the Mary-of-the-church who depicts her as so pure that her purity becomes a kind of athletic feat that puts her above mere human women. If Mary was a super-hero and had a super-power, her super power would be virginity.

So. Why is it so important to the church that Mary be a super powered virgin? The simplest answer may be: Because the social context required Jesus to have impeccable credentials. In the face of the miracle of God to choose a girl like Mary, the church could not abide a savior who was born to an unwed, young mother. In the social contexts of the early church, it was too unthinkable. Anyone born to someone unclean would be tainted by relationship. If he is born to a poor teen-aged Judean woman who had not been able to protect herself (or had others to protect her from) pregnancy, then his origins would have made him “trash” and how on earth could the early church tell that story?

The only way to save Jesus’s honor so that those who read the Gospels could better understand Jesus’s social and divine importance was to make Mary perfectly untouchably virginal, so virginal that—despite her actual circumstances—her pregnancy could have none other than Divine origin. It must be shown with no shadow or doubt that her pregnancy was the work of God.

If that was perhaps the historical solution, why do we persist in stories of Mary’s impeccable virginity today, when we recognize that God works miracles in many different kinds of people? I would say that many of us still condemn unwed teenagers. We demand virginity oaths and declare that unwed mothers are “bad kids” who are sinners. We kick our pregnant daughters out of our homes, and some of us even think that their behavior shows them to be ‘unelect’ and therefore doomed to condemnation for all time. With our teenagers, as with Mary long ago, only absolute purity, super innocence, will allow us to extend our sympathies to her circumstance.

Why do we do this. What is at stake for us, our faith in Jesus? Not mine, my faith can weather pregnant teenagers. I believe God is the power, not 15 year olds. So I put it to you: would your faith in Jesus be dismantled if the historical, pre-pregnancy circumstances of Mary were less than virginal? Collectively as Christians, is our faith in Jesus strong enough that we can consider Mary in her own right, as a girl, terrified, and facing execution for transgressing cultural norms and getting pregnant. Or Mary, a regular kid who knows what is at stake for her if she says ‘yes.’

If we do this, can we recognize that, theoretically anyway, God is ultimately the one who chooses, not us, and God can chose whomever God wants. And if God chooses to bless the womb and bring forth a child of worth from a situation where a girl did what she shouldn’t and got pregnant, isn’t that exactly the kind of thing God is known to do?

We know that even today, in an age we boastfully declare to be free thinking, we still put the blame on the girl when she gets pregnant, it is her moral failing, whether her pregnancy results from foolishness, accident, or rape. If out-of-wedlock pregnancy is a moral failure of the girl, if this is our mindset, if this is the ground of our belief, then we must find some way to absolve Mary or we must find her morally wanting and, in her own day and age, put her to death. Our story in assurance of her purity literally saves her life.

But, can I ask this: does an elaborate story that changes the actual circumstances of conception not, ironically, also put her to death? Is not a ‘Mary’ dead from stoning or a ‘Mary’ disappeared into a lie about virginal superpower just as silencing as to what God has actually done? We read the Magnificat every Christmas, do we listen to what it tells us about God lifting up the lowly? Has our need to ‘explain’ Mary’s pregnancy by human rules served to cloak God’s miracle of Jesus Christ in a myth of purity fully contrary to the actual conditions of Mary’s life?

What happens, then, if we are a culture who does not need to kick unwed teenagers out of our homes or sentence them to death? What if we can consider Mary in her own right? What if we can look to the countless stories of young women who transgressed, got pregnant, and in that pregnancy found the hope, love, and joy that proved the catalyst for them to transform their lives? Can we recognize that baby as a gift from God? For, from this perspective, each child is utterly divine. I have met women who are strong, compassionate women of strength and honor, who you would never guess were pregnant and terrified at 15. Some of these women made the radical life choice to put their whole lives in the hands of God. And it seems to me, in looking at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, that God might well have chosen such a woman to be the mother of our Emmanuel.

To return to the Rena Effrendi image and the images of the Annunciation, what I love most about them is how they represent a moment of chance, of interruption, or opportunity. Something new and unexpected is happening, something accompanied by in-rushing light and wind. What possibility does the moment bring? If the woman in Rena Effrendi’s image were human like our ‘Mary’ is human, what would it speak to regarding who God loves and who God reaches out to and who God heals? How does it speak to the possibilities of transformation that are offered to all of us, the deserving and undeserving alike, who hold within us the capacity to say ‘yes’? What does it say about the real power of God and the real possibilities in relationship to God, a relationship with possibilities we could never conceive of—except that we can.

Luke tells us “…the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” “She was confused by these words and wondered…” (Luke 1:28-29)

And I think, again, who was this Mary whom God chose. Did she need room for doubt, did she need time to trust? Did she need healing? What did it take to reach deep inside herself and say yes, “let it be with me as you have said,” and then raise her voice to the Magnificat?

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s people forever.”

Biblical Quotations from the Common English Bible.
Thank you to Enuma Okoro who came to Drew Theological School and spoke about her work with images. This article was inspired by that presentation.

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