When I’ve given presentations on the art of the Annunciation, the painting that is most universally admired is the version by the African American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner (b.1859-1937). People appreciate it perhaps because of its realism, the beauty of its warm golden light, and the humanity and humility with which Tanner portrayed the teenaged Mary.

The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.
And coming to her, he said,
“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.”
But she was greatly troubled at what was said
and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

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I Have Seen the Lord!

Mary Magdalene stayed outside the tomb weeping.
And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb
and saw two angels in white sitting there,
one at the head and one at the feet
where the Body of Jesus had been.
And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

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David and Bathsheba


At the turn of the year, when kings go out on campaign,
David sent out Joab along with his officers
and the army of Israel,
and they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.
David, however, remained in Jerusalem.
One evening David rose from his siesta
and strolled about on the roof of the palace.
From the roof he saw a woman bathing, who was very beautiful.

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The Visitation

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah,
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Luke 1:39-45


The Visitation, Mariotto Alberti, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Visitation,
Mariotto Alberti, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Mariotto Alberti’s painting of the Visitation, is considered to be the masterpiece of a relatively minor Renaissance artist. In this work we see the harmony and realism, luminous colors, volumetric modelling of the figures, and architectural perspective of the High Renaissance.  In Giorgio Vasari’s  Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1550, he wrote of the artist:

Mariotto was a most restless person and carnal in the affairs of love and apt to the art of living, and, taking a dislike to the studies and brain-wracking necessary to painting, being also often stung by the tongues of other painters, as is their way, he resolved to give himself to a less laborious and more jovial profession, and so opened the most lovely hostelry outside the Porta San Gallo, and at the sign of the Dragon at the Ponte Vecchioa tavern and inn. This life he led for many months, saying that he had taken up an art that was without muscles, foreshortening or perspective and, better still, without faultfinding, and that the art that he had given up imitated flesh and blood, but this one created flesh and blood; in this if you had good wine you heard yourself praised, but in that every day you were blamed. But at last the low life became an annoyance to him, and, filled with remorse, he returned to painting.


The Visitation, ca. 1310, Anonymous German, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Visitation, ca. 1310, Attributed to Master Heinrich of Constance, German,
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York

This delightful sculpture, less than two feet tall, comes from the Met:

“This representation of Mary and Elizabeth’s joyous meeting comes from the Dominican convent of Katharinenthal, in the Lake Constance region of present-day Switzerland. Carved of walnut, with the original paint and gilding almost completely preserved, the figures of Mary and Elizabeth are each inset with crystal-covered cavities through which images of their infants may originally have been seen. The representation of the Visitation, incorporating images of the unborn Christ and John the Baptist, is found with some frequency in late medieval works from German-speaking lands.”


Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life, Dieric Bouts (Flemish), Ca. 1445, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life,
Dieric Bouts (Flemish),
Ca. 1445,
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Dieric Bouts is one of my favorite artists of the Northern Renaissance. This polyptych, a four-part altarpiece, shows the Annunciation, Visitation, Adoration of Angels, and the Adoration of the Magi.

The architectural frames of the panels are based on Rogier Van der Weyden’s Miraflores Triptych in Berlin; it evokes the entrance to a Gothic portico, and alludes to the New Law that is brought about with the birth of Christ.

The biblical passages in the archivolts strengthen this idea:

  • in the first panel, showing the Annunciation, the framing arch is decorated with the story of Adam and Eve;
  • in the central panel, the arches of the Visitation and the Nativity show scenes from the Passion of Christ;
  • in the Epiphany, the arc is decorated with episodes which followed the Resurrection, alluding to the universality of Christianity.
Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life Dieric Bouts (Flemish) Ca. 1445 Museo del Prado, Madrid

Polyptych of the Virgin’s Life
Dieric Bouts (Flemish)
Ca. 1445
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Van der Weyden’s influence is clearest in the Visitation, but Bouts also draws on the art of Van Eyck in his concern for light and color, while his interest in landscape denotes  the influence of his native Holland. Bouts never saw the Holy Land but he is known for including landscapes of his native countryside in his works, as we see here.

In the Visitation, note the age difference between the two women, with Mary radiantly youthful and Elizabeth wrinkled with age. I love the way they tenderly touch each others’ pregnant belly, such a loving and intimate gesture.

That gesture helped me make a connection with the story that I hadn’t experienced before. Imagine yourself in the scene and that you are touching the Virgin Mary’s pregnant belly; feel the baby inside her move and kick. Imagine your startled joy, just as John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb!  This encounter makes Elizabeth sing out her praise; what sort of praise is breaking forth from you?

Junia, female Apostle

Brothers and sisters:
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus,
who risked their necks for my life,
to whom not only I am grateful but also all the churches of the Gentiles;
greet also the Church at their house.
Greet my beloved Epaenetus,
who was the firstfruits in Asia for Christ.
Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.
Greet Andronicus and Junia,
my relatives and my fellow prisoners;
they are prominent among the Apostles
and they were in Christ before me.
Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.
Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ,
and my beloved Stachys.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the churches of Christ greet you.

Romans 16:3-9

Junia the Apostle, modern icon

Junia the Apostle, modern icon

I found these icons on the interests but couldn’t find information on the image origins.

For an overview of the scholarly questions about Paul’s reference to Junia as an apostle, see this article, which also includes references for further reading.

The Bent Over Woman

Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath.
And a woman was there who for eighteen years
had been crippled by a spirit;
she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect.
When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said,
“Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.”
He laid his hands on her,
and she at once stood up straight and glorified God.
But the leader of the synagogue,
indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath,
said to the crowd in reply,
“There are six days when work should be done.
Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.”
The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites!
Does not each one of you on the sabbath
untie his ox or his ass from the manger
and lead it out for watering?
This daughter of Abraham,
whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now,
ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day
from this bondage?”
When he said this, all his adversaries were humiliated;
and the whole crowd rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him.

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus Heals the Bent Over Woman, detail from the Two Brothers Sarcophagus, mid-4th century, Vatican Collections, Rome

Jesus Heals the Bent Over Woman, detail from the Two Brothers Sarcophagus, mid-4th century, Vatican Collections, Rome


Two Brothers Sarcophagus

Two Brothers Sarcophagus





Divine Sophia

I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands.

Wisdom 7:7-11

The personification of Wisdom, or Sophia in Greek (the root of the word ‘philosophy) is found in several places in the Bible, including the Book of Wisdom, traditionally ascribed to Solomon. Solomon’s wisdom has become proverbial and many paintings exist of his judgment between the two women who claimed the same child.

Judgment of Solomon, Nicolas Poussin, 1649, Louvre, Paris

Judgment of Solomon, Nicolas Poussin, 1649, Louvre, Paris

The study of Wisdom/Sophia has a complex history that you can learn more about here. When Google searching the topic, one encounters many New Age websites and images. This isn’t really surprising since Sophia was a favorite of  ancient Gnosticism, which is the basis for much of New Age thought.

Wisdom is always represented as female, and so has been a favorite of feminist theologians (which I don’t regard as a bad thing) and is sometimes seen as the feminine aspect of God, while the Logos or Word is the masculine aspect. She is associated with the Divine Presence in the Bible and is known as Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia, for whom the great church in Istanbul is named.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

She is often equated with the Virgin Mary, one of whose titles is the Seat of Wisdom, depicted with Jesus (Wisdom) seated on her lap, as in this image from a Romanesque church in Bavaria.

Mary as Wisdom Seat in the 12th century Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Bavaria

Mary as Wisdom Seat, Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Bavaria

Representations of Sophia in art actually began in pagan times, such as this Hellenistic Greek sculpture from the Library of Celsus in Ephesus.

Sophia, Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey

Sophia, Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey


Hildegard of Bingen also wrote about Sophia. Hildegard was a 12th century Benedictine nun, theologian, visionary, musician, scientist, mathematician, and all around extraordinary woman. She was  proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and was included in Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist art work The Dinner Party in the 1970s, as was Sophia.

Sophia, The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, 1974-79, Brooklyn Museum.

Sophia, The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago, 1974-79, Brooklyn Museum.


Hildegard documented her allegorical visions in text and illuminations. Hildegard viewed Sophia as the Bride of Christ and Mother of the Church. Her most famous work, written over the course of ten years (1141-51) is Scivias, short for “Scito vias Domini,” or “know the ways of the Lord.” In it, she writes of Sophia:

You of the whirling wings,
circling, encompassing energy of God:
you quicken the world in your clasp.

One wing soars in heaven,
one wing sweeps the earth,
and the third flies all around us.

Praise to Sophia!
Let all the earth praise her!

Wisdom, Hildegard of Bingen

Wisdom. Manuscript illumination from Scivias (Know the Ways) by Hildegard of Bingen (Disibodenberg: 1151)


Here is photo of the image within its manuscript setting:



In this Russian icon, we see Sophia enthroned in the center.

Sophia-Divine Wisdom, Russian icon, 17th c. British Museum

Sophia-Divine Wisdom, Russian icon, 17th c. British Museum

From the British Museum website:

In the centre, within a mandorla, a fiery red angel, crowned and nimbed, sits on a throne. The angel is dressed in the imperial robes of the Byzantine dynasty. Above the angel, in another mandorla, is Christ blessing with both hands. The angel is flanked by the full-length figures of the Virgin Mary (left), holding at her breast a medallion of the Christ child, and John the Baptist (right) holding a scroll. In the upper part is the ‘scroll of heaven’ supported by six angels who are also adoring the ‘Hetoimasia’ in the centre.

The symbolic image of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, is based on the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, in which Solomon says: ‘Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens; she crieth upon the highest place of the city. Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him. Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled’ (9:15). Byzantine theologians treated these words as a prototype of the Church on Earth and a symbol of the Eucharist. St Paul called Christ, ‘Divine Wisdom’ (I Cor. 1:30), which explains the combination of Sophia and Christ within two mandorlas. The Virgin symbolizes both Divine Wisdom and the Temple of Christ, the founder of the Divine Church on Earth. The image of the fiery angel is inspired by the prophecies of Isaiah and by words in the Book of Revelation: ‘And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire’ (Rev. 10:1). John the Baptist at the right, the nearest forerunner of the Divine realm, holds a scroll with the words: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

The composition of the Museum’s icon follows the so-called Novgorod type, first seen on an icon from the St Sophia cathedral in Novgorod and then known from 16th-century copies in the Russian Museum, St Petersburg (Vilinbahova and Pleshanova 1995, no. 35). Icons with this image were often employed in blessing members of the aristocracy.


In 1963, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote a beautiful poem titled “Hagia Sophia”:


There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a
dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness.
This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom,
the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all
things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence
that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in word-
less gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen
roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly,
saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at
once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of
my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking
as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.

I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this,
my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine

Sophia by Thomas Merton

Sophia by Thomas Merton

(For more of Merton’s poem, click here)