Icons of Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary date from the third century. One fresco of the subject, in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla, is thought to be second century. The imagery is based partly on Luke (1:26-38) and the apocryphal Protoevangelion Jacobi or Book of James (11:1-3), which dates from the second century. The latter was the source throughout the Middle Ages for much of the imagery associated with Mary, both in the East and West. Today it is little known other than to scholars.
The iconographic tradition denotes three separate events comprising Mary’s reaction to the news. First, her perturbation: she turns away from Gabriel and raises her hand as though to ward him off. Second, her perplexity and prudence: she turns towards the angel but does not yet accept (‘How can this be, seeing I know not a man?’) Third, her consent: here we see her press her palm to her breast in a gesture of acceptance while her head bows in assent (‘So be it’.) It the final stage that is shown here.
The background includes Mary’s house (one thinks of the Philokalia’s ‘house of spiritual architecture’) with its doorways and entrances. The non-realistic, vaguely ‘cubist’ architecture reminds us of the event’s supernatural meaning.
See also: Kazhdan, ed., Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, OUP 1991, vol. I, p. 106. Ouspensky and Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Olten 1952 (reprinted SVSP, 1982) p. 172.
The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple
The feast of the Virgin’s presentation, which falls on 21 November, is one of the five Marian ‘Great Feasts’. Its source is from two apocryphal books, the Protevangelion, also known as the Book of James, and the Gospel of pseudo-Matthew.
The occasion depicted is the ancient Jewish custom of presenting a male or female child to a priest at the temple soon after birth. In Orthodoxy, Mary’s presentation foreshadows the Nativity. The three year old Mary is presented by her parents Joachim and Anna into the temple where she is received by the Zacharias the high priest. She was one of seven virgins each holding a candle and each set to spin skeins of wool of different colour. Mary was given the royal purple that would become the veil of the temple. Mary subsequently ascends a seven-stepped stairway on top of which she is ‘fed by angels’.
See Kazhdan, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Vol. III, OUP 1991