I’ve always been struck, even haunted, by this painting, as I have by the Annunciation theme in general. It is quite an early Renaissance painting, still showing many of the signs of the transition from statuary to painting in the gilding and the arches.
If we want to find a Middle Way reading of what it might mean to us, we need to first of all put aside any doctrinal associations that may be getting in the way. Yes, the angel is announcing to Mary that, despite being a virgin, she has conceived the son of God. You don’t have to believe that any such thing happened, or that there was a man who was the son of God, or indeed to support the restrictive notions of womanhood implied by the stress on virginity in the Christian tradition. Just put all that stuff aside, look at the painting, and see what experiences it evokes.
What I experience primarily is the sacred otherness of the angel’s message, and Mary’s uncertainty and hesitation before it. The angel seems to be bearing a message for her, as for any viewer, that the potentialities within us are startlingly bigger that we had ever thought. That utter weirdness and difficulty is emphasised by the gold, which puts us in an other-worldly ambience; by the angel’s inhuman wings; by the lilies; and by the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering above them.
Mary is quite right to be hesitant, but at the same time she seems to recognise that this strange event is not a threat. It may be strange and apparently other, but at the same time it needs to be accepted in a wider framework. Perhaps others may read a girlish lack of confidence into Mary’s posture, but I’d rather read a certain provisionality. She’s holding all this weirdness, for the moment, albeit warily. She’s going to see how things turn out.
The whole scene can thus symbolise for us the difficulties of any big new idea or prospect that takes us ‘beyond our comfort zone’, and especially the problems of creativity. Whenever we develop something new there’s an ambiguous Middle Way to be found between a fixed idea of what we want to create and its absolute value on the one hand, and an idea of the many discouraging difficulties, distractions and potential failures on the other that might lead us to feel that the thing we want to create is valueless. Giving birth to the Son of God (before we get into the big question of the significance of ‘Son of God’) is a situation where you can easily imagine both of those extremes presenting themselves to Mary. More traditionally, on the one hand she could feel proud, on the other unworthy. In between there is provisionality, riding the creative wave. And I feel that’s what the artist is trying to depict here.