December 8th is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which commemorates that Mary, out of all people ever born, was created by God to be “full of grace” and, thus, a fitting vessel to bear the Son of God. The Feast is often confused with the Virgin conception and birth of Jesus. Today’s reading is the Annunciation.
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.
Then the angel said to her,
“Do not be afraid, Mary,
for you have found favor with God.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you shall name him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,
and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever,
and of his Kingdom there will be no end.”
But Mary said to the angel,
“How can this be,
since I have no relations with a man?”
And the angel said to her in reply,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.
And behold, Elizabeth, your relative,
has also conceived a son in her old age,
and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
for nothing will be impossible for God.”
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
One of my favorite paintings of this scene (and there are soooo many!!) is from a delightful early Northern Renaissance altarpiece, now in the Met. Be sure to click on it to enlarge it so you can check out the tiny Jesus flying down on the ray of light toward Mary! I love this image of our Lord eagerly coming from heaven to be our Savior! As you contemplate this painting, consider what it means to you that Jesus, with full knowledge of the cup that would be given to him, still came for us, descending into the Blessed womb that was prepared for him.
The Merode Altarpiece, workshop of Robert Campin, 1427-32, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
From the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
Having just entered the room, the angel Gabriel is about to tell the Virgin Mary that she will be the mother of Jesus. The golden rays pouring in through the left oculus carry a miniature figure with a cross. On the right wing, Joseph, who is betrothed to the Virgin, works in his carpenter’s shop, drilling holes in a board. The mousetraps on the bench and in the shop window opening onto the street are thought to allude to references in the writings of Saint Augustine identifying the cross as the devil’s mousetrap. On the left wing, the kneeling donor appears to witness the central scene through the open door. His wife kneels behind him, and a town messenger stands at the garden gate. The owners would have purchased the triptych to use in private prayer. An image of Christ’s conception in an interior not unlike the one in which they lived also may have reinforced their hope for their own children.
One of the most celebrated early Netherlandish paintings—particularly for its detailed observation, rich imagery, and superb condition—this triptych belongs to a group of paintings associated with the Tournai workshop of Robert Campin (ca. 1375–1444), sometimes called the Master of Flémalle. Documents indicate that he hired at least two assistants, the young Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1400–1464) and Jacques Daret (ca. 1404–1468). Stylistic and technical evidence suggests that the altarpiece was executed in phases. The Annunciation, which follows a slightly earlier workshop composition, probably was not commissioned. Shortly thereafter, the male donor ordered the wings, which appear to have been painted by two artists. At a later point, in the 1430s, presumably following the donor’s marriage, the portraits of his wife and of the messenger were added. The windows of the central panel, originally covered with gold leaf, were painted with a blue sky, and the armorial shields were added afterward.