by Lauren Whitnah
December 22, Tuesday – Psalms 66, 67, 116, 117; 1 Samuel 2:1b–10; Titus 2:1–10; Luke 1:26–38
(ESV Daily Office Readings Online)
When I was twenty I got a passport, packed my bags, said goodbye to my family, and moved abroad. Shortly before Christmas that year, I found myself in Florence with a friend, wandering through streets festooned with garlands in the shadow of Brunelleschi’s impossible dome, dodging Vespas, and strolling through frosty open air markets, and doing the requisite touristy things, which included a visit to the monastery of San Marco to look at frescos painted by Fra Angelico (d. 1455).
After the noise and bustle of Christmas in Florence, San Marco was unspeakably peaceful. The warm light caught the dust as we climbed a flight of shallow stairs to the monks’ cells. One flight, landing, turn, another flight, and there it was: an enormous fresco directly at the top of the stairs: nearly life-sized, as if one were standing in the scene. In that space, in that stillness, it was an extraordinary sight, and I was transfixed. Fresco (that is, painting in plaster) somehow looks softer than other kinds of painting, and this Annunciation had all that softness: the slow, heavy sweep of the angel’s robes and the careful tilt of Mary’s head; the earnest gentle faces and the elegantly folded arms; the graceful springing arches and the lush trees. It is an intensely private scene, masterfully and precisely executed, and imbued with peace. The image has stayed with me—quite literally, in fact, as I have a reproduction in my dining room, a present from the friend in Florence—and so has the memory of first seeing it and the deep stillness in that place.
More than ten years later, I saw another Annunciation that has stayed with me for entirely different reasons. If Fra Angelico’s Annunciation depicts Mary’s acceptance of the angel’s message and the deep peace that comes with acceptance, Edward Knippers’ Annunciation shows us the greatly troubled Mary, overwhelmed by a power she does not understand. In his monotype, we can see both that she is troubled and that she has good reason to be. Mary is not subdued, gently leaning toward the angel: here, she is bracing herself, brow furrowed. She is turning toward the angel even as she leans back. And there is no demure drapery elegantly folded across her lap: Mary is (characteristically, for Knippers), totally human in her physical body. Here is a woman who is being overshadowed by the power of the Most High, swooping down towards her and enveloping her.
Fra Angelico’s Annunciation shows us peace; Edward Knippers’ Annunciation shows us power. It’s easy to lose sight of both. We so easily get swept up in the commercialization and frenetic energy of Christmas and miss the deep peace that Christ’s arrival both produces in the moment and promises for the future. Just as easily, we sentimentalize the story, thinking of cute donkeys in hay-strewn stables and innocuous chubby angels instead of the disruptive reality of incarnation. These two images of Annunciation can bring us back to the Word (both scripture and logos), can challenge our imagination and can perhaps help us understand the mystery of Incarnation just a bit more.