Icon of the Annunciation
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
In studying the liturgical art for the important feasts of the Church year, one of the most impressive is the Icon of the Annunciation. This icon is seen in the catacomb of Pricilla, already in the 2nd century. The icon of the Annunciation is one that presents the joy of the announcement of the coming of Christ. It is an icon of bright colors, depicting the Archangel Gabriel, who has descended from heaven, and the Virgin Mary, who has been chosen to be the Theotokos (God-bearer).
The icon always shows St. Gabriel the Archangel with his feet spread. He is running to share the good news with Mary. He is bringing the first words of the Gospel of Life – Ave gratia plena – “Hail, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you.” In his left hand is a pole, the symbol of a messenger. The Greek word “Kontakion” literally means “from a pole”. In ancient times, a scroll was rolled up and placed inside a pole and sent by messenger. The word “angel” means, “messenger” and in this Icon the Archangel carries the pole, which carries a joyful message from God. St Gabriel extends his right hand toward Mary as he delivers the message and announces the blessing bestowed upon her by God.
On the right side of the icon the Virgin sits on an elevated seat, indicating that as the Mother of God – the God-bearer - she is “greater in honor than the cherubim, and more glorious than the seraphim.” In her left hand she holds a spindle of scarlet yarn which depicts the task she was assigned of preparing the purple and scarlet material to be used in making the veil for the Temple in Jerusalem. As Gabriel announces her new mission as Mother of God, she drops the spool of yarn, for having been faithful to God in small matters, she is now entrusted with greater, even the mysteries of salvation.
Her right hand is raised in a gesture of acceptance in response to Gabriel’s message. Her posture expresses her willing cooperation with God’s plan of salvation. The three stars on her garments represent that she was a Virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ. At the top of the icon the segment of a circle represents the divine realm, from which three rays emerge. This demonstrates the action of the Holy Spirit coming upon her. Traditionally the icon stresses these three moments:
the pious fear of the Virgin which is shown in the dropping of the spool of purple yarn Mary is spinning;
her prudence in the encounter with the Archangel Gabriel which is contrasted with the imprudence of Eve who accepts the temptation of the evil angel Satan without questioning;
and finally, the humble submission to God's will shown in the bowing of her head as the Holy Spirit overshadows her and she becomes the Mother of God.
Just as the first Eve was stripped of grace in the garden of Eden because of her pride, so Mary, the new Eve, is “full of grace,” because of her humility. If we are to be sons and daughters of the New Eve – children of Mary – then let us imitate her holy fear, her prudence and her humility. Our Lady of the Annunciation, pray for us.