Whenever I see Arthur Hacker’s 1892 painting, The Annunciation, I feel like I’m intruding on an intimate conversation. It’s a beautiful picture, private and evocative.
The Virgin Mary is swathed in layers of soft, floating, light fabric, which has the effect of lending her multiple identities. She is a classical Greek statue, a priestess, and a bride, all at once. She appears authoritative and ethereal, yet at the same time somehow filled with trepidation.
The viewer approaches the painting, which hangs in London’s Tate Modern, appearing to have interrupted Mary conversing with a heavenly messenger. Hacker has painted the angel so translucently that he almost disappears into the background like an apparition. As Mary turns to face us, the angel remains suspended above her, a lily in one hand, symbolizing Mary’s purity or fecundity or alluding to Hosea 14:5—“The just shall blossom like the lily.”
The brown jug and pool of water at her feet were inserted by Hacker to help narrate the scene. We imagine her having come to the well to fill her pitcher only to encounter the angelic being.
But the most prominent feature of the image is Mary’s stare. She gazes at us. Embarrassed, her penetrating stare tempts us to look away. Her eyes are dark and disconcerting in contrast with her small, white, veiled face. She seems to be aware that something dramatic is taking place, something which will affect her life. She clasps at her chest as if to protect her heart.
I find the whole scene so tender, so intimate, it’s as if I don’t belong there. A cosmic transaction has just taken place. Heaven and earth will be moved because of what has just happened by this pool in this olive grove. What right do I have to stumble in upon this moment so pregnant with meaning? Mary’s gaze shames me in some ways.
And then I realize, in fact, I don’t belong here on this sacred ground. Mary has been commissioned to undertake a monumental task, one from which I will ultimately benefit. Her son will break the chains of sin and death. Her son will set me free from fear and sin and death and the devil. But right now, this is between Mary and God. Being here seems too… personal!
Shhhh. Be quiet. We have strayed too far. Step back and allow this astonishing moment to unfold.
“Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”