The painting, Annunciazione di Cestello by Sandro Botticelli, or the Cestello Annunciation, has always struck me. I first saw it in 2014 at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Italy, as a sophomore in college spending my spring semester abroad. At first glance, it looks like a typical representation of the Annunciation, a favorite subject among many Renaissance artists. Indeed, many of the best-known artists of the period have their own interpretations of the event, including but not limited to da Vinci, Caravaggio, Titian, and Jan van Eyck.
Botticelli is even known to have painted seven paintings on the subject, with each having its own distinguishing features. In fact, we had seen so many different depictions of it throughout museums and churches in Italy that one of our final assignments in our art history class that semester was to choose one painting representing the Annunciation and examine its symbolism and style. While all the paintings we saw were amazing in their own right, I felt that there was truly something special about Annunciazione di Cestello.
I recall being drawn to this particular painting among the others I saw representing the Annunciation because of the gestures of both the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary and their clear emotions which Botticelli represents.
Here, we see Gabriel getting on his knees to announce the Good News to Mary. He seems to be giving her a reassuring look, as if to say, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). By depicting his subjects in this manner, Botticelli highlights the importance of Mary and her role in the Catholic faith.
It is clear from the positions of her hands that Mary is surprised by the sudden visit by Gabriel and what he has to say to her, yet at the same time, her facial expression depicts her being “full of grace” (see Luke 1:28), submitting herself to God’s will. As such, the painting centers on Gabriel’s and Mary’s hands reaching out to each other, which is symbolic of the convergence between annunciation and acceptation.
Imagery typical in cultural depictions of the Annunciation is found in this painting. For example, Mary here is depicted reading a book before Gabriel brings her the Good News. This book represents what the prophet Isaiah wrote about the coming of the Messiah, who would be born to a Virgin. In this way, the paintings affirm that Jesus is indeed the Christ promised to us in the Old Testament and who will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy in the New Testament.
One will also note the strong presence of nature in depictions of the Annunciation, and it is no different here. Mary is usually seen reading in or near a garden during the event in question. Here, Mary is inside when the angel appears to her, and the garden, along with an idyllic countryside, is seen through a window in the background. This recalls Eden, the paradise that was lost by man to sin, and that Jesus, the coming Savior that Mary will bring into the world, will give back to man through his death and resurrection. While the garden is often more prominent in other depictions, here it is presented as being secondary to the interaction between Mary and Gabriel.
Several years after first glimpsing this painting, it is still the one I prefer the most out of all of the many beautiful works of art depicting the Annunciation.
While it is indeed interesting to see how different artists use the same symbolism, the best part of Annunciazione di Cestello is the psychology of the main subjects. It is truly amazing the way Botticelli was able to convey such human emotions from both figures, but particularly from Mary, whose complexity and humanity is shown. Her willingness to accept God’s will for her is made all the more powerful by the evidence of her being “troubled” depicted in the painting.
Mary herself said to Gabriel, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). During this Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, let us be more like Mary in accepting the Lord’s will for us.