Whenever I take students to Italy, I prepare them to look at all the art, perhaps surprisingly, by giving them permission to focus. I tell them they don’t have to absorb every single picture or feel badly if they begin to let one baby Jesus blur into another (though let me just say there are some very weird ideas of both Jesus and infancy in a whole bunch of pictures). Instead, I invite them to select a Bible character or story (or maybe two) that they’ll be on particular look out for. It could be something popular, like the Magi, or something quite uncommon, like one of my perennial choices, Martha. But whatever they choose, they are asked to be attentive to the variety of ways the subject is represented–and how these representations might help them expand their theological understanding. It’s always fascinating to see what they gravitate towards, what stories captivate them, what stories they can’t find because they don’t get much artistic attention.
My own all-time favorite is the Annunciation–I have collected a camera-full of all of the different versions I’ve gotten to see (and I have a computer file for all the rest as well as postcards and books). There’s so much to love: from Mary’s expression (never the same from picture to picture) to the angel’s. The setting–with the tradition that Mary is often surprised while reading (and usually reading the prophets). Sometimes, the painters include images of the fall (note this in the first example below)–a reminder of why the Annunciation is necessary. And perhaps my favorite detail, only present in some versions: the words found in the picture that move between either the angel and Mary or the heavens and Mary. Of course, these are the words of Gabriel’s announcement, but medieval people also had a clever way of thinking about Mary being both virgin and pregnant: Christ is the word made flesh, so it makes sense that it is the word passing through Mary’s ear that accomplishes her pregnancy. (There’s also a dove that shows up in some versions to emphasis the Holy Spirit). Here are two of my favorite of the “word-based” Annunciations, the first by Fra Angelico and the second, a close-up from Simone Martini:
In case you didn’t know, last week, March 25, was the Feast of the Annunciation, and I was struck by a new fact I came across: it is a major festival in Florence to this day because for centuries, like other parts of Western Europe, that date marked the new year. Only with the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian in the 1580s did January 1 emerge as the preferred date. But Florence held onto March 25 for almost 200 more years to celebrate the changing of their calendar, and it took a Medici decree to make it officially over. Nevertheless, they still mark the day with parades and gatherings.
And why March 25th as New Year’s? Because it is exactly nine months before Christmas. In that calendar choice is a profound theological truth: time fundamentally alters when Gabriel and Mary have their conversation. The occasion of God taking on human form changes everything. Thus, Emmanuel–God with us–isn’t really an Advent/Christmas thing at all. Or not only–no, the timekeeping in God’s new kingdom is begun when the Holy Spirit descends not at Pentecost, but at the Annunciation. It makes sense, of course: such an announcement should re-set our clocks and our calendars. Mary proclaims this truth when she sets the moment in history, “from this day all generations will call me blessed.”
Still, isn’t it interesting to think of New Year celebrations during Lent?
It doesn’t seem to have been a problem for medieval people to balance both in the same season. It’s notable, for example, that Dante scholars have often asserted that March 25 is the day in 1300 that Dante sets out on his journey in the Divine Comedy. But here’s the really cool thing: that day in 1300 was both New Year’s Day and Maundy Thursday. What a perfect encapsulation of paradox of the Christian faith: even lost and at our most broken in the darkest wood, even when we can’t seem to see Christ or when his fullness is obscured, it’s still a new year, a time reset for us all by the greatest announcement ever received.