The Annunciation by Vanessa Bell

The painting depicts the meeting between the angel Gabriel and Mary as described in Luke’s gospel.

‘God sent the angel Gabriel … to Mary. The angel… said ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid, you have found favour with God… You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High… He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his Kingdom will never end.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me as you have said’.

Luke 1:26-38

The Architectural Context

It was traditional for depictions of the story of Jesus’ life to be situated in the nave of the church, the area of the church where the congregation was seated. It helped them to see themselves as part of the story and conveyed the fact that God came to share in every aspect of their lives in the person Jesus. He was in every respect, apart from sin, one of them. The places and people portrayed were those of their own day and environment. This was as equally true of the paintings at Berwick as it was of the murals in Renaissance churches.

The Annunciation, the beginning of the story of Jesus’ life, is the first painting to be viewed as you enter by the north door. It is a welcoming picture. In seeing Mary, those entering the sacred space of the church are invited to adopt the same spirit of humility before the presence of God. And, if there are those who might feel fear or anxiety, as Mary at first did in God’s presence, they are encouraged to see the angel Gabriel raising a hand in blessing. It is a story and painting then that captures the key dimensions of religious feelings: anxiety, humility and blessing.

But its positioning on the south side of the nave also means it is set against the natural source of light coming into the church. The coming of God into the world through Mary echoes the coming of light into the building. The source of light in the painting echoes that of natural light. This effect is increased by the fact that the windows are now plain glass and allow a view through and out of the church.

The Painting

The painting has many features typical of a 14th-15th Century Annunciation and, following that tradition, incorporates the symbolism of works of that period.

It is a painting really of two portraits, that of Chattie Salaman as a female angel Gabriel and that of Angelica Bell, Vanessa and Duncan’s daughter, as Mary.

The angel Gabriel, holding lilies, a symbol of Mary’s virginity, is painted in a strong proclamatory colour and posture. Mary, kneeling, dressed in white symbolic of her purity and virginity, humbly receives and accepts the call of God.

Gabriel and Mary are separated by a pillar which is an architectural feature often found in Renaissance Annunciations. It symbolises the boundary between two dimensions: the meeting of a spiritual, heavenly world and a material, temporal, earthly world.

Through the opening is a walled garden which might serve as an ‘hortus conclusus’ (closed garden) whose ordered beds and high walls are a further symbol of Mary’s virtues; her virginity, her self-control, containment and discipline. It represents the keeping out of the lures and temptations of the world in order to focus on the heavenly. In the right corner of the garden a fruit tree is in flower, spring has arrived, Mary’s eventual fruitfulness in the birth of Jesus alluded to. The garden portrayed is actually the walled garden at Charleston and Vanessa would probably have worked on this painting in her studio at the top of the house overlooking it.

A blue shawl flows from Mary like water down between the figures. It is something without precedence in Renaissance depictions and could simply have been introduced for aesthetic and compositional purposes. But Vanessa would have known that the Holy Spirit was often symbolically portrayed in the form of a dove, or as water. So perhaps it symbolises the movement of the Holy Spirit by which the child is conceived.

There are no haloes in this painting – just the use of the natural lighting effect perhaps to convey the Divine Light transfiguring the holy person that a halo symbolises.

To fill the awkward space at the base of the painting Vanessa has painted a marbled shelf and a vase that is filled with Madonna lilies. The lilies stand out of the painting by the contrast between the dark background and the light that catches them – making them look alive and freshly picked.