“I am the Lord’s Servant”: Consent and Bodily Autonomy in Depictions of the Annunciation

Today’s post is by Maryanne Saunders. Maryanne is a Doctoral candidate in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London where she researches gender and sexuality in contemporary religious art.  Her twitter handle is @maryanne_fs

The Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would carry the Son of God, is one of the most recognisable scenes in Christian art and beyond. The imagery of Mary and the Angel is so recognisable that we may have ceased to interrogate the subject matter and notice how the use of medium, gesture and composition affect the overall meaning. The works discussed here are from vastly different temporal, geographic and social contexts. Each piece takes the subject of Luke 1 26-38 and offers an interpretation, or exegesis, of Mary’s position and ability to consent to what God is asking of her. Whilst I am not necessarily arguing that there is a clear pattern of change over time, the later versions of the scene differ in how free the artists feel to reinterpret and decontextualise the original passage; this is evident in my examples but certainly not in all modern and contemporary Annunciation paintings. 

My first artwork is an Annunciation scene by the Dominican Friar Fra Angelico in Florence, 1432. The painting was commissioned for Angelico’s own convent in which Mary was a central and venerated figure. The humility and devotion of Mary is emphasised by her gesture and the prayer book on her lap. The white flowers in the garden symbolise her purity whilst a beam of light shines on her from the heavens representing holiness, or even the moment of conception itself. The artist has included a depiction of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden on the left-hand side, in what may seem an odd or anachronistic addition to modern eyes. However, the comparison of Mary and Eve was a significant part of the Christian narrative of salvation which posited Mary as the ‘new Eve’ only this time she was without sin or fault. (Pitre 2018 33) Including both characters in the painting allowed Angelico to emphasise Mary’s historical and theological importance even at the expense of her humanity; as long as she is considered a symbol or human of divine importance the reality of her situation can easily be dismissed as speculative or unimportant. As a symbol, Simone De Beauvoir states that “woman is both Eve and the Virgin Mary. She is an idol, a servant, source of life, power of darkness; she is the elementary silence of truth, she is artifice, gossip, and lies; she is the medicine woman and witch…” (De Beauvoir 1949 197)

But what was Mary’s historical context? We know that Mary was engaged to Joseph by the time of the Annunciation (Luke 1:27) and the legal age of marriage under Roman law was 12 years old (Codex Iustinianus 5.4.24), whilst the Talmud recognises maturity in girls aged 12 plus also (Mishnah, Niddah 5:6). Neither of these indicate consent or autonomy by any means and certainly, by today’s standards, 12 years old is a young child not a marriageable adult. Mary’s age is not discernible in Angelico’s painting but in English painter Arthur Hacker’s version from 1892, Mary is notably young. In this image, Mary stands centrally in the composition and a white veil shrouds her, both reminding the viewer of her innocence and drawing attention to her anxious expression. Her crossed arms appear defensive and the angel somewhat sinister as he whispers into her ear from behind. In Hacker’s version, which was completed less than ten years after the Criminal Law Amendment Act raised the age of consent from 12 to 16 in 1885, Mary appears vulnerable and overwhelmed in the face of a request too large to comprehend. Whether the legal reforms in the UK had any influence on the artist’s understanding of the story is unclear however, the question of the effect of shifting social and cultural norms on biblical exegesis – visual or otherwise – is a significant one. 

 De Beauvoir uses the image of women as prey in The Second Sex, stating “Through her [the Virgin], passions are tempered; she is what is given to man to satiate him.” (334) That men are active and women are passive is another socially conditioned assumption that may lead us to uncritically accept the Annunciation story as unproblematic, even today. De Beauvoir’s analysis of Mary is relevant here too when she describes her as “…man’s prey; she is his downfall, she is everything he is not and wants to have, his negation and his raison d’être.” (196) Woman as ‘other half’ of man, also known as the complementarian view, undermines the notion of a woman’s consent— or lack of. How can a woman ‘really’ reject a man, sex or procreation, if that is what will lead to her completion and salvation? 

Of course others can, and will, argue that Mary’s situation, although unusual, was ultimately a powerful one. Womanist Theologian Diana Hayes asserted that Mary’s apparent consent was not “being used merely as a passive, empty vessel, but a yes to empowerment, challenging the status quo.”(Hayes 2010 111) This interpretation is certainly compelling, but as long as the Annunciation and the symbol of the Virgin Mary herself continues to be used in arguments against the dignity, bodily autonomy and safety of women and girls it is hard to reconcile these perspectives. For example, Mary’s age was referenced by defenders of disgraced Republican senate candidate Roy Moore in 2017 when an associate said “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus” when questioned about Moore’s pursuit of teenage girls whilst he was in his late thirties.(The Independent 10/11/17) Furthermore, images of Mary are routinely used by anti-abortion campaigners in pickets outside clinics and online.

Contemporary artists have explored these controversies by re-contextualising the scene even further. Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson-Wallin’s Annunciation (1998) is a notable example of this. In the artist’s retelling of the story, the angel is seen presenting a test tube to a lesbian couple hoping to conceive. Ohlson-Wallin turns the idea of a virgin birth on its head by rejecting heteronormative ideas of conception and introducing modern fertility treatments and alternative family structures into the work. The figure of Mary appears nervous but hopeful and in control as she looks directly at the messenger whilst clutching her stomach. This image represents what could be construed as the opposite of an ‘act of god’ or miraculous pregnancy, conception via IVF or Donor Insemination is a long and difficult process for any couple not to mention the extra legal hurdles for same-sex couples. Ohlson-Wallin’s image came at a topical time in the late nineties when queer couples in her native Sweden were beginning to fight for equal recognition in IVF and adoption processes. It depicts how autonomy and choice over our bodies and potential parenthood works both ways; consenting adults have the right to decide whether they want children or not – and how. 

By surveying these works we see that the Annunciation can be viewed in vastly different ways depending on what we focus on. Within any depiction of the story we may see the first steps in a grand narrative of salvation, a scared and coerced child or even something we relate to from our own experiences of consent, fertility and autonomy. Regardless of what we bring to the work as beholders or the artists’ intentions, the subject of the Annunciation is never neutral; it has and continues to evoke some of the more troubling aspects of religious and social history as well as proving a fecund source of artistic expression and vital arguments for the continued protection of bodily autonomy and consent. 

Image info:

 Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1432. Tempera on panel,  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Arthur Hacker, The Annunciation, 1892, Oil on Canvas, Tate Britain’s London.

Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin, Annunciation, 1998. Photograph, Private Collection 


Tags : annunciationBible and artElisabeth Ohlson-WallinFra AngelicoVirgin Mary

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