The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland

The Annunciation, by Bicci di Lorenzo (1373–1452) and assistants. As God points to Mary—a ray of light emanating from his hand toward her—the archangel Gabriel greets her with the words, “Ave Maria gratia plena” replies “Ecce ancilla Domini” (Behold the handmaiden of the Lord). These Latin phrases are inscribed in the gold halos around Gabriel’s and Mary’s heads. The stories of the virgin birth figure prominently in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But are these conception stories in the New Testament to be understood literally? Or are they Matthew and Luke’s poetic expressions of the holiness and integrity of Jesus?

This altarpiece painted in oil is extraordinary because it is fully preserved, complete with predella, below, and frame and canopy, above. The three scenes in the predella illustrate other important moments in Mary’s life: from left to right, her birth, presentation in the Temple and burial.