Sometime in the 1470's Leonardo da Vinci painted an Annunciation for a nunnery in Florence; it is now in the Uffizi Gallery:
This rectangular painting is said to have come from the church of San Bartolommeo connected to a Benedictine nunnery on the other side of the Arno from the Duomo in Florence.
The nunnery was up on a hill above Porta San Frediano, the hill called Monte Oliveto because it was full of olive trees. (Monte Oliveto and the church still exist in Florence; from the Via Pisana follow the Via Monte Oliveto up the hill; it will wind around a grove of olive trees.)
But back to our painting. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance Mary is known as the "porta clausa," the "closed door" and as the "hortus conclusus," the "enclosed garden."
Visual references to both those Latin metaphors can be found in Leonardo's painting. Where is the "porta clausa?" The door next to Mary on the right is "open" to reveal her bedroom, complete with bed, a domestic place of conception. The image of the red bed evokes the emotional intensity of her moment of pregnancy, but the open door there is not "closed."
Behind her body, though, are two impenetrable walls with quoins that come together to form a "porta clausa" for the phrase that refers to Mary's virginity. She sits at the juncture of those walls, enclosed by them. She is a closed door in this corner.
The Angel Gabriel, who arrives on uplifted wings and bended knees to announce to Mary that she will be pregnant with Christ by God, alights on a garden carpeted with botanically-correct flowers and plants which are in full bloom. (A recent book on Leonardo's flowers (2013, Aracne) by Giovanni Gestri - I Fiori di Leonardo details the accuracy of the artist as botanical observer.)
Mary and the Angel appear together in this "enclosed garden," "hortus conclusus." Behind the angel and Madonna is a low gray parapet which "encloses" the "garden." That the enclosure is only broken where the Angel holds forth lilies in bloom may suggest to the viewer that she is impenetrable except by God.
Lilies are signs of purity because they are white flowers, but the lilies held by the Angel are open and full, signs of fertility and ripeness. The coming together of fertility and inviolability as expressed by Leonardo happens in the most natural of scenes, outdoors in the enclosed garden.
Normally 15th-century Annunciation scenes have either God the Father flying in with angels in the sky or the dove of the Holy Spirit flying in as Mary hears the words of the Angel. It was said that as soon as the Angel's words reached her ear that she was impregnated. (See blog entry on Simone Martini's Annunciation, also in the Uffizi.) In Leonardo's Annunciation the only thing to appear above the heads of the main protagonists is a cloud with edges touched with light. But are we meant to see the face of God in the shadows of that cloud? are we meant to see an angel? or is the cloud the dove with outstretched wings? Leonardo makes the cloud deliberately mysterious and indefinite and yet part of Nature.
In his notebooks Leonardo studies nature in drawings and comments. God was present everywhere for him, in the cypresses behind the wall, in the lake beyond the garden, in the clouds that block our view of the mountain in the background and in the cloud which may form the shapes of the Deity.
The artist respects the tradition that maintains that Angel Gabriel had wings, but his wings are based on drawings Leonardo made himself of actual birds which he recorded.
Since Nature was his Deity (we rarely see him speak of holy figures in his writings), we see the divinity rendered by the artist here in the natural forms he observed. But the more he studied Nature, the more he realized how much of it was unfathomable, mysterious. In the background is the smoky atmosphere, the "sfumato" for which he is famous, the indefinite contours of things in the distance, especially the outlines of the mountain at the back. Leonardo chooses to represent this great divine mystery as the interaction of human beings with the Deity in Nature. His botanically-correct flowers, then, don't reduce the mystery, they add to it, because they make us question what is real and make us see the divine patterns in natural forms.
The "Monte" at the back of the scene but exactly at the center of the panel and exactly halfway between the two protagonists is also meant to contribute to the mystery at the heart of the painting.
It is shrouded in cloud, but we still understand it to be another "Monte", the Monte Oliveto where the nunnery was and probably also the Mount of Olives at the end of Christ's life just before he is arrested and killed. The cypress tree and the sarcophagus painted directly beneath it, both symbols of death, are here to remind the viewer of the end of life in the middle of a painting about the beginning of life. "I am the beginning and the end," Christ said, and here the alpha and omega are explicitly rendered.
The sarcophagus is a sculpted feast of animal claw feet, acanthus leaves, garland and shell. But did Leonardo or Verrochio paint this part of the painting?
Which brings us to four more things to note:
1) ATTRIBUTION of the ARTIST -Since Leonardo was still in Verrocchio's studio as a pupil during this period, it is possible that some of the painting is begun by Verrocchio, particularly the sarcophagus, while Leonardo is certainly responsible for other areas, such as the hair of the Madonna and the graceful figure and face of the Angel. The sarcophagus, as has been pointed out by other scholars, resembles the bronze sarcophagus tomb by Verrocchio in San Lorenzo in Florence.
2) DELICACY - Everything in this painting is handled with delicacy, but there are several sections where that delicacy is most evident. The way the Angel holds the lilies with one hand and blesses the Virgin with the other is painted with the greatest of delicacy.
The Angel keeps a distance from the Virgin and lands with the gracefulness of a dancer kneeling to request a dance from the Virgin. The way the see-through veil falls over the lectern and under the Bible is treated with greatest delicacy; the see-through veil may be another visual reminder of the mysterious state of the Virgin; impenetrable and yet penetrated by God.
The way the Virgin places her right hand on the page of the Bible where she has been reading, while lifting her left hand up as she faces the Angel directly is handled by the painter with another delicacy. The fingers of the right hand are drawn as separate elements and are placed in such a graceful, light touch, that she seems to be a ballerina placing her hands into the dance.
3) THE STAGE OF THE ANNUNCIATION - the gesture of the Virgin's hands indicates the stage of the Annunciation narrative being played out here. (See Michael Baxandall for the 5 stages of the Annunciation linked to the biblical text.) She points to the place where she was reading and lifts her left hand to address the Angel directly; she also looks directly at the Angel.
This placement of hand and head clearly indicates the INQUIRY Stage of the Annunciation story. She is not afraid (FEAR STAGE), she is not reflecting by looking down (REFLECTION STAGE), she is not accepting with hands crossed over chest (ACCEPTANCE STAGE). She is asking him, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" Her question hangs in the air between the Virgin and Angel.
Since Leonardo's entire life was consumed with INQUIRY, the choice of Annunciation stage is most likely his. He was greedy to know as much about life as he could during his own stay on earth. That he should paint this scene as a question rather than an answer is indicative of his attitude toward all of Nature. That some questions can never be answered fully, that life remains ultimately a mystery, is what, towards the end of his life, gives him frustration.
4) ANNUNCIATION for a NUNNERY - It might seem strange to hang a painting about pregnancy in a place where pregnancy is forbidden. Why would the subject of the Annunciation have been appropriate for a nunnery, in spite of the fact that it depicts the moment of conception for Mary? In the story told in Luke, at the very end Mary says, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy word." Her submission to the will of God would have served as a model for the nuns in the Benedictine abbey church where it was originally.
This particular Annunciation is most appropriate for a nunnery because she is asking how she could be pregnant if she hasn't ever slept with a man. Since the nuns were supposed to follow her example, their own sexual innocence could be expressed through the gesture of Leonardo's Virgin. Leonardo also makes the Virgin's penetration by God so beautiful that it would have appealed to the aesthetic sensitivities of cloistered nuns who devoted their lives to marrying God.
The question posed here, then, in the figures of the Angel and the Virgin rendered by Leonardo, is more visually satisfying than any answer.