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Bill Thayer

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Queen of Heaven

26And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God upon a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. 28And the angel came upon her and said, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."

Gospel according to Luke, ch. 1 (King James Version)

[image ALT: A high-relief stone carving in which an angel (male, robed, and with a great outstreched wing), on one knee and holding in his left hand a long thin sceptre topped with a fleur-de‑lis, presents something with his right to a young woman standing in a Gothic-arched niche and holding a book in her right hand dropped to her waist. It is a depiction of the Annunciation on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto, Umbria (central Italy).]

With what remarkable economy the sculptor has shown us this event! Having shown himself capable, in other reliefs on the façade of Orvieto cathedral, of handling scenes most crowded with incident and detail, both convincingly and pleasingly, here he has chosen the essentials: a young woman and the bearer of extraordinary tidings.

She is not surprised or frightened; interrupted at prayer or reading, she is starting to think, and despite what she hears, she remains very much in charge. That she is an aristocrat — a Lady — we can see in her body language above all, but also in her book; and our sculptor, obviously trained on classical Roman models, has depicted her capite velato, her head veiled in much the same way as the high-ranking priests of Antiquity (for example, the emperor Augustus).

This focus on the essentials, the artist has bought at a price, or at least so it seems at first. The typical Annunciation scene very often includes three other visual cues: God the Father, usually shown as an old man in a cloud; the Holy Ghost as a dove; and between Mary and the angel, a flower, usually a lily, symbolizing her virginity and pleasing fragrance before the Lord. None of these appears in this scene; or do they?

The lily is the easy one. In the stylized form of a fleur-de‑lis, we see it at the tip of Gabriel's scepter, where it is a most appropriate symbol of power: to explore the connections, see this article on the Greek and Roman scepter and especially the links in the footnote there.

And here is where I wish I were a little bird and could get a bit closer than this telephoto; for now, call it conjecture or pareidolia, but do you see the capitals holding up the arch around Mary? To her right, God the Father, raising His arms in benediction; to her left the Dove descending.

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Page updated: 11 Jan 21