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Fresco of the Annunciation

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On the left spandrel of the choir arch, the angel greets the Virgin. The iconography is a standard one: he brings a bouquet of lilies; the banner reads:

ave maria gratia plena dominus tecum

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On the right spandrel, the moment of Jesus' conception: as Mary accepts, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a rather bullet-like dove, descends upon her.

Annunciations of this type, split over a door or an arch, are not uncommon. The artist here though has done something wonderful, elevating the type to a prefiguration of antiphonal liturgy as practiced by religious communities: the angel calls and Mary, having chosen prayer and virginity, responds. The conversation is that of the Gospel, and underscoring the reminder, Mary responds from a choir bookstand.

Mary's Response

In Annunciation scenes, the Virgin is very often depicted at prayer, interrupted in fact by the angel. Now what could be more normal to a medieval Christian, than that she should have been praying from a psalter; or even, as here, anachronistically reading the Gospel? The text of Luke 1:38, telling the story of the Annunciation, reads:

So Mary said,
"The servant woman of the Lord here:
let it be done to me according to your word."

and the angel left her.

Here her prayer-book is open to the very words she spoke, and only those:

ecce ancilla Domini,
fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum

As often happened, the artist misgauged the layout — a more charitable possibility is that he chose to divide the sentence between the two clauses, between Reality and Acceptance — and amusingly tried to compensate for it by an awkward perspective in which the right page is larger than the left and by fooling us into believing that the last word, tuum, is hiding behind the rail, when there's clearly no space for it. . . This also accounts for the abbreviations on the right-hand page; more interestingly, the left-hand page has been stretched out with a line containing two squiggles: a date or even a signature, maybe.

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Reading down the left page, then the right:
     ecce ancilla domini
     fiat michi secundum verbum tuum

(The bars over the vowels in secundum and verbum mark the weakly pronounced consonants n and r.)

The writing belongs to the Gothic family of scripts. Many Anglo-Saxons at least will equate it with "church writing", but it only appeared in the late 12c. Over the centuries since the introduction of Gothic script I think readers developed a certain psychic ability! It gets more and more compressed and the letters become more and more similar, until for us it becomes very difficult to read, especially in pastier low-grade samples. Here though, the Virgin's book is still pretty readable, as Italian Gothic tended to remain thruout. My best guess is Italian Book Gothic, ca. 1350.

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Page updated: 30 Oct 17