An Aperture for Grace: A meditation on Botticelli's 'Annunciation'
Spring is a time for surprises. So it is the appropriate season for celebrating the Annunciation—and for pausing before Sandro Botticelli’s depiction of it. None of our expectations prepare us for this scene.
Focus first on the setting, a carefully arranged order inspired by classical architecture. Our attention is seized by the peremptory lines of the flooring, a virtual avenue of parallelograms. In fact, a rigorous geometry governs all the details of the room. Its rectilinear space does not tremble or fluctuate. All is symmetrical, properly proportioned, unerring in its balances. Such order gives us a sense of meaning and structural integrity. The “mean” that Aristotle identified with the good life is just this kind of poised and steadfast balance. Beauty, classically conceived, provides an image of such equilibrium; it conveys calm repose and imperturbable self-assurance. Our lives, it implies, should fit and hang together.
But in the painting rectilinear architecture creates a portal to what transcends it—an anomalous opening that cannot be closed. Though a rectilinear structure itself, this portal exposes the interior space of the room to what is not structured—to the unpredictable and unprecedented, the fortuitous and uncertain, what can surprise, rupture, overwhelm. But for Botticelli, this is no defect. It makes the opening an aperture for grace and gives the terrible beauty of angels access to the life within. The ingress of mystery obeys no geometry. It happens like lightening. Perhaps our inner space is plumbed only when it is vulnerable to astonishment.
The air under the angel’s wings still trembles with movement. This testifies to the terrible urgency of his mission. We often expect grace to be genial and its bearer amiable. But there is something fierce and perilous about this angel—something peremptory about his gesture of command. However, it is clear the angel has stopped and will not advance further. He deliberately leaves inviolate the space the woman occupies so she can decide what her response to him will be. His fingers curve toward the woman in deference and courtesy. His gesture of command has the character of a salutation.
How can the angel command and salute the woman at the same time? Precisely by hailing her. To hail a person is simultaneously to summon and praise her. Hailing celebrates even as it enjoins. Here the angel is Gabriel; the addressee Mary. But hailing happens time and again in Jewish scripture. The daunting emissary of a power too terrible to see calls by name an individual who would otherwise be unremembered. Jewish tradition suggests that the divine Thou summons every human person to some singular vocation. One’s name, uttered by the angel, becomes awesome and holy. One previously indistinguishable is called upon to bear the divine into the world.
But because Botticelli’s angel honors Mary’s freedom to choose how to respond to his hail, the painting suggests that her decision is going to have a pivotal impact on the drama that’s unfolding. Whether an addressee can, in fact, have such an impact is, however, a contentious theological issue that tore the Christian church apart not long after Botticelli completed this work. If a transcendent providence governs history, does it not control the future? If we are free, don’t we control it?
Botticelli leads us beyond the simplifying answers usually given these questions. The angel takes Mary completely by surprise because he comes from a divine Thou she cannot imagine or conceive and summons her into a future she cannot possibly fathom. This God does not control the future—does not make history rectilinear by subjecting it to a divine geometry. He comes to Mary not just from the unprecedented future but as this future. The divine Thou is the absolute astonishment, sprung on us to shatter all our expectations. The power of the Most High breaks open the present to divine possibilities that unsettle all human ordering.
These unfathomable possibilities are precisely what give breath to Mary’s freedom. It is the unprecedented future sprung upon her by the power of the Most High that gives her the power to affect it. The divine Thou governs time by springing the undecided future on us. Gabriel’s hailing of Mary breaks her life open to the awful throe of the holy. History is happening in the space between his hand and hers.
Gabriel’s lips and eyes are open. Mary’s lips are closed, her eyes downcast. Botticelli shows her living her response instead of uttering it. As she does so, her spirit becomes the body of receptivity.
Her hands are bent at a severe right angle that appears painful. Prior to the angel’s sudden appearance, she read Scripture from a lectern that required her to rise to her full height. Now, in response to Gabriel’s hail, she turns her hands to him in a way that accentuates their grievous bend of reverence. It is the sole rectilinear element that remains in her posture. But it makes her hands rhyme perfectly with the concave curve of reverence that shapes her whole body as it comes under the sway of a power that is unpredictable. We are seeing the first movement in a dance of genuflection. The same inflection that bends the hands and knee inclines the head and eyes to bow. The rectilinear is subordinated to the supple bow of modesty, the compliant turn and fluid bend of deference. Her turning opens her to receive the Word the angel speaks. Her fingers, mirroring her body’s gesture, curl to complete the curve of Gabriel’s hand. The drama is at its most intense and most serene in this exacting rapport of hands that do not touch. In the open space between them, grace and freedom join.
This kind of gracefulness is beautiful: Here, too, as in the geometry of the “mean,” everything comes together in an integrating whole. There is, nevertheless, a profound difference between rectilinear order and the kind of grace that Botticelli’s Mary incarnates. For the Greeks, symmetry and balance—self-assured poise and equilibrium—were of preeminent importance. In Botticelli’s painting, Mary’s poise is exquisite but not self-reliant. Her perfect balance is not due to her rectilinear character. It is due to a grace that comes from being hailed. To receive it, she has to be wholly receptive.
Such receptivity involves the willingness to allow one’s being as a whole to be moved, overwhelmed, overcome. This willingness gathers the whole person together into a single vulnerability. Jewish tradition locates this vulnerability in the center of one’s being—the heart. If one’s heart is open, no place in one’s self is safe. Vulnerability makes one liable to profound suffering.
For the Greeks, vulnerability of this sort signified weakness, passivity, lack of self-mastery. But, here, vulnerability is not sheer passivity. It is the consummate ability of the heart, its capacity to assent to what affects it. This assent allows passion to be engendered in us. Passion is not the eros of the Greeks, the desire to possess. It is our longing to give ourselves to what awakens it in us. Passion is self-donation, extravagant self-expenditure. It is the child of grace and freedom. Botticelli’s “Annunciation” depicts the conception of this child. The curvature of Mary’s body gives shape to passion as so conceived. It is what it signifies: her decision to entrust herself wholly to the throe of the Mystery hailing her.
Because it unifies the whole person, such passion creates a harmonious accord that we experience as beautiful. Mary’s single-heartedness brings her entirely into rapport with the movement of grace affecting her. But because this beauty arises from impassioned vulnerability, there is something in it for which the Greek sense of symmetry and self-assured poise does not prepare us. There is a poignancy to it that is heartbreaking.
When we look again at Mary’s raised hands, we sense that she is already beginning to suffer passion’s gravity. Gabriel’s fierceness suggests that divine possibilities are harrowing. His lily is more sword than flower. Her body wavers, as if undergoing a premonition of the unbearable. Her hands are raised, as if in self defense. She doubts, perhaps, her capacity to conceive a passion so terrible. But her hands are open, her palms exposed. Even as it wavers under the weight of grace, her impassioned body curves in fidelity to it.
Poignancy can prove excruciating. Why, then, are we drawn to this painting? Precisely because it moves us by piercing us. We know, in our hearts, that it is our vocation to open them. The painting itself is a portal to the future. We cannot know what is coming. But we can answer when hailed.