It possibly started out as an altarpiece at the Monastery of San Bartolomeo in Monte Oliveto and remained there until 1867 when it was brought to The Uffizi.
The picture depicts the familiar scene of the visitation of the Virgin Mary by the Angel Gabriel to announce the impending birth of Christ. It is typical of many depictions of the same subject matter from the Renaissance period, incorporating features that would be instantly recognisable to its audience of the time.
In the Renaissance period, images of the Annunciation were very uniform. On the whole Mary is placed quite literally on the right (as befits the blessed Virgin) whilst Gabriel is painted on the left.
Gabriel, normally in profile, faces towards Mary and she in turn is seen looking out more to the front. In this version the angel in subservient to Mary, bowing before her as he tells her the news that God has caused her to become pregnant. He holds lillies, a signifier of Mary's purity and also of Florence itself where the work was painted.
The setting of these paintings of the annunciation is often in an enclosed garden ('hortus conclusus,') a reference to the Christ and His bride from Song of Songs (cif Song of Songs 4:12) hence its significance.
In Song of Song’s the garden is a symbol of the Bride's body, enclosed and shut up to the outside world and yet fruitful. In turn it also symbolic of Mary herself, pure and protected from the world outside yet also fruitful and bearing the Son of God.
The background to this garden falls away into the mist, giving the picture an ethereal quality. This separates Da Vinci's work from other depictions of the same subject matter from the Renaissance period.
It is reinforces the otherworldly nature of the picture, but also interestingly takes it outside of the realms of reality, potentially placing it amongst myths and legends rather than history.
The garden Da Vinci chose to represent is a Florentine Palace Garden, again something recognisable to its local audience. With the mountains and wider countryside in the background, it could appear that the world of Mary, is a wide one.
In truth though, the focus of the painting is a narrow one. The wider world is grey and misty- all of the light and details are drawing the eye towards Mary and gently suggesting how important she is.
The Virgin Mary
In contrast to the Mary that was 'greatly troubled' in the Bible (cif Luke 1:29 NIV) Da Vinci's Mary is calm and distant, and childlike, with her hand resting across the book set on a lectern in front of her.
In contrast to her immature face, she has a statuesque and mature figure, its positioning suggesting her adulthood and showing her readiness to follow the Lord's will.
There is so much more to Da Vinci's Mary than just as a kind of holy baby carrier though. The painting gives many clues as to her significance and her capabilities. In the first place she is the source of light in the picture, the gold yellows surrounding her dimming even the magnificence of the Angel Gabriel.
Her face, whilst distant, is full of understanding. She understands what is being asked of her and is willing to allow it to happen for the greater good.
Nowadays it easy to see the years before the twentieth century as a time of constraint for women, where they were not respected or schooled. In contrast Da Vinci's Mary is a scholar, reading a book prior to the arrival of Gabriel (medieval legends represented her as being a scholar so this is not unusual amongst depictions of the same subject matter).
This juxtaposes her childish features with a level of understanding and maturity that a modern audience might be surprised by, but which a renaissance audience would view as making her 'highly favoured' (cif Luke 1:28 NIV).
Renaissance Religion and The Annunciation
This image of Mary is very clearly a product of its age and the faith which dominated that time and place. It is important to grasp the significance of Mary to Catholicism to understand what she means within the picture and why the angel makes obsequience to her.
Catholicism and The Role of The Virgin Mary
Whereas in the protestant churches Mary is simply a woman chosen to bear the Son of God, in Catholicism she is raised above the earthly and given a sainted position. In part this is because she was chosen by God for this unique task, but in Catholicism Mary takes on an elevated significance.
She becomes almost Christlike herself, recognised as an interceder between God the Father and humanity and exceeded only by the Trinity (God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ) in importance.
This is clearly seen in Da Vinci's Annunciation. The most significant and important part of the painting is Mary because of this; this is why the light in the painting emanates around her, and why the height, width and depth of the painting all end in her.
The work is a glorification of Mary at the moment when God shows her how favoured and how important she is. Further significant artworks from the Renaissance and Baroque era include Michelangelo's Last Judgement, Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas and Goya's Nude Maja.
Humanism and The Blessed Virgin
There is an alternative reading of this work though, which offers a humanist take on the role of Mary that borrows from this Catholic understanding of her. In this reading, Mary represents humanity, accepting a role in saving mankind from itself. Her calm acceptance here is a rejection of God in the world and an agreement that man no longer needs him.
It is possible to read this as a feminist work, as the painting is all about a cultured and scholarly young woman who has been tasked with responsibility for a part in saving the world. This is to ignore the significance of the Catholic imagery though and to misunderstand the role of Mary.
As stated before, Mary is the centre of the painting because of her role in Catholicism and because she is second in stature only to the godhead. Her role is restricted to being a wife and mother; she has stature but actually her opportunities are limited and as a role model she reinforces the expectations traditionally placed upon women.
As such, whilst she may buck some pre-twentieth century trends she is not a challenge to the gender status quo.
The Annunciation and Controversy
There are two versions of the picture. The first is this one which hangs in The Uffizzi and the second, painted later, hangs in The Louvre. They both have a slightly colourful history. The first version was 'discovered' in 1867 and is now identified as the work of Leonardo da Vinci and his master Andrea del Verrocchio.
Verrocchio used lead paint and heavy brush strokes whilst Da Vinci used light strokes and no lead. The differences between the two styles were highly visible when the painting was x-rayed, with Verrucchio's work still clearly evident whilst Da Vinci's work disappeared.
The second, produced between 1478-1485, has also been attributed to Da Vinci. It is notably different to the first, showing some differences in form and lacking the attention to detail expected of a Da Vinci work. It seems likely that whilst the second painting may have had some input from Da Vinci it is mostly the work of another artist.
The end product of all this, in spite of Da Vinci's youth at the time of its production, is still a masterful work that showcases his talent and secures his reputation.