Foto Marburg/Art Resource, NY

In a 15th-century relief (shown here, compare with 14th-century Annunciation by Master Bertram of Minden) from the portal of the Marienkappelle (Church of Mary) in Würzburg, Germany, a tube carries the Word straight from God’s mouth to Mary’s ear. (A dove is visible emerging from the tube by her ear; over her head the infant Jesus can be seen sliding down the tube.) The idea of the Word entering Mary per aurem, through the ear, made perfect sense in the Middle Ages, when most people could not read but instead had the Bible read to them in church. Recalling such an image, the poet William Butler Yeats wrote in his 1931 poem “The Mother of God”: “A fallen flare / Through the hollow of an ear; / Wings beating about the room; / The terror of all terrors that I bore / The Heavens in my womb.”