When I went with a friend to Florence, I was the one who wanted to look at the “boring old churches”. We also went to the Uffizi, or “offices”, and passed dozens of Annunciations. Some of the symbolism- the lilies for purity, the dove for the Holy Spirit- may need explanation, but the relationship between the two figures is immediately apparent. Start with one I find difficult:
Philippe de Champaigne. Yes, I know he was French school, but he illustrates all I dislike about the treatment. Gabriel is clearly supernatural, floating above, wings out. Mary is- sitting at a desk! Reading! A peasant- a peasant girl- reading. Would she be surprised to see an angel floating in the air? For this artist, it seems, no.
For me, the Gospel has value for human beings if it is a human story. In de Champaigne’s work, God is taking care of everything, and the human involved is the blessed of God, born without original sin.
Often she is reading. By traditional iconography, she reads Isaiah 7:14
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a maiden shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
I change “virgin” to “maiden” because I understand it is closer to the Hebrew, being able to convey unmarried woman as well as woman who has not had sexual intercourse. In the prophecy, the invaders have overrun Judah and society has broken down. God is with us, and no-one else is.
John William Waterhouse is far more to my taste, even if I would usually deprecate following a style from decades before.
Here the only supernatural thing is the halo, which I like to see as a symbol of force of personality rather than holiness.
John Collier shows the form still has vitality:
Trainers? Well, why not? Here, as always, is a Mary for her contemporary audience to relate to. I am unsure about American teenagers, but I think specifically for a rather older audience to relate to.
At last, to the Uffizi:
Mary, for me, has to be that human being who comes to the sudden realisation that she is in the most difficult position: an unmarried peasant who is pregnant. At that moment, the cry “All generations shall call me blessed” is a cry of faith in herself as a human being, able to cope even with this situation.