Taddeo di Bartolo’s Annunciate Virgin is an exquisite panel painting by a foremost artist of early Renaissance Siena. In the light of candles and oil lamps, the richly worked gold surfaces would have glowed with a heavenly radiance. Intricate patterns were created with special metal punches. Built up in clusters, they revolve around the Virgin’s head as materialised light and define the pictorial space; running around the inner edges of the Gothic arch, the myriad sharp points constantly direct the viewer’s gaze back towards Mary. Minimal pictorial means are used to maximal effect; Mary’s halo overlapping the boundary at upper left pushes her forward in space, towards the viewer, making her more tangible and present to their prayers.
The painting depicts the Virgin receiving the archangel Gabriel’s message that she is to be the mother of God (Luke 1: 26-38). Almost certainly, it was once paired with another panel of the announcing Gabriel. Representing the beginning of Christ’s mission to save humanity, the Annunciation is a popular subject in Christian art. Often, the two protagonists would be physically separated, as here, so that Gabriel’s message passes across the intervening space of the real world to reach the waiting Virgin. The viewer is involved in the action as witness and participant, invited to echo the angel’s salutation, used as a popular prayer to the Virgin, the Hail Mary.
The ACU panel preserves elements of its original frame. The spandrels of the enclosing Gothic arch bear a raised pattern of flowing vines, using a technique known as pastiglia: wet plaster moulded into shapes, allowed to harden and covered with gold leaf. The borders are decorated with punched rosettes, their compact circles playing off against the more sinuous rhythms of the curling vines. The palpable forward projection of this frame enhances the impression of Mary’s physical presence.
Directly facing the viewer, the Virgin’s monumental figure fills the pictorial field. She is shown three-quarter length, her body cut off by the lower edge. Like a camera zoom, this creates a sense of proximity, as if Mary is right before us. The star on her blue mantle celebrates her as Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), illuminating humanity’s path to Christ. Bordered with gold in a pattern that echoes her halo, Mary’s cloak frames her face and draws the eye around her form. Its mellifluous line parts to reveal the vivid red of her gown and frame her womb, stressing her virginal fecundity and status as mother of God.
An open book in her lap, the Virgin has evidently been interrupted at her reading. The small size suggests a prayer book, presenting Mary as a model of piety. The text is illegible, except for the first letter on the left page, which seems to be an E, highlighted in red following contemporary scribal convention. According to pious belief, when the angel arrived, the Virgin was reading Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the Messiah (‘Ecce Virgo concipiet; Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son’, Isaiah 8:14). Thus Mary was imagined to be reading a prophecy of her miraculous pregnancy at the very moment when it was about to take place. Past and present are bound together as promise and fulfillment.
Despite her open book, Mary is no longer reading. Her bent head, downcast eyes and distant, unseeing gaze combine to stress her profound introspection. The content of her thoughts is suggested by her beautifully modelled right hand, raised in a gesture of surprise and wonder. Cued by Renaissance preachers, viewers would have recognised Taddeo’s picture as the second of four successive stages in Mary’s responses to the Annunciation, when, after initial disquiet at hearing herself so lavishly praised, she pondered what this might mean (Luke 1:26). It is a moment fraught with drama, since upon her response to Gabriel hinges the divine plan for human redemption. Taddeo gives the viewer privileged insight into the Virgin’s emotional and spiritual state. Salvation history is made accessible and immediate, and the beholder is encouraged to empathise with the mother of God as they prayed before the image.