The Vulnerability of Mary: a meditation on the Cestello Annunciation

This is the season of Advent, a time to prepare for the coming of Christ. 
Over the next few posts I plan to share

some of my favorite works of art and poetry from the season

The Cestello Annunciation,
Sandro Boticelli, 1489-90

The Cestello Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli is one of my favorite depictions of the Annunciation. Take a moment to examine the painting. 

Notice first the angel’s posture.  There is a sense of windblown motion to it.  Gabriel looks as though he has just flown into the room. His translucent veil, trailing in his wake, still swirls behind him.  He has landed in a crouch and his forward motion threatens to carry him straight into Mary. 

Notice next Mary’s posture.  Her right knee is bent while her her legs and hips shy away from the divine messenger. However, her head and shoulders lean into his presence.  This is a pas de deux, the beginning of an elegant, graceful dance between Mary and Gabriel.  As in any beautiful dance, there is both fluidity and tension to their movement.

Notice how Mary’s clothes convey both her dignity and vulnerability.  She is covered with a regal blue robe.  However, the robe has slipped open to reveal the intimate space of Mary’s womb which is about to receive the Incarnate Word. 

Notice the architecture in the room. It is all straight lines and sharp angles.  The only fluid things in this space are Gabriel and Mary. The room’s angularity accentuates the life and beauty of the two of them.

Notice the door frame.  In Annunciation scenes of the time there was always a clear demarcation of the angel’s space from that of Mary’s, of heaven from earth.  Mary is usually separated from Gabriel by a low wall or a set of columns.  Often she is depicted in a separate room altogether with Gabriel peering into the room from a garden outside.  Botticelli has maintained and adapted this artistic convention, using the door frame and the lines on the floor to create an invisible boundary, keeping the two of them in their respective realms.

However, notice that both of their hands are beginning to reach across the boundary and penetrate each other’s space.  With her right hand Mary reaches out to the angel, while her left hand seems to push him away.  There is a tension and receptivity flowing between their two hands. In what is to follow, heaven and earth will finally meet.

Finally, notice Mary’s face.  Her head is bowed in humility and her eyes are closed as though her thoughts have already turned inward to the Life that will soon be growing within her. 

What did Mary feel in that moment?  Andrew Hudgins in his poem, “The Cestello Annunciation,” helps us to imagine the inner tension of her faith and uncertainty.

© December 3, 2019 by Rev. Michael A. Weber.
For permission to reprint please contact the author at
msnrweber@verizon.net

The Cestello Annunciation
by Andrew Hudgins

The angel has already said, Be not afraid.
He’s said, The power of the Most High
will darken you.
 Her eyes are downcast and half closed.
And there’s a long pause — a pause here of forever —
as the angel crowds her. She backs away,
her left side pressed against the picture frame.

He kneels. He’s come in all unearthly innocence
to tell her of glory — not knowing, not remembering
how terrible it is. And Botticelli
gives her eternity to turn, look out the doorway, where
on a far hill floats a castle, and halfway across
the river toward it juts a bridge, not completed —

and neither is the touch, angel to virgin,
both her hands held up, both elegant, one raised
as if to say stop, while the other hand, the right one,
reaches toward his; and, as it does, it parts her blue robe
and reveals the concealed red of her inner garment
to the red tiles of the floor and the red folds

of the angel’s robe. But her whole body pulls away.
Only her head, already haloed, bows,
acquiescing. And though she will, she’s not yet said,
Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord,
as Botticelli, in his great pity,

lets her refuse, accept, refuse, and think again.

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