In the days when people experienced the Bible not through reading but through hearing sermons, preachers encouraged their listeners to see biblical stories like the Annunciation unfold in their imagination as a series of dramatic moments. Even though the Annunciation is just a brief event—only 12 lines in Luke’s gospel—preachers during the late Middle Ages interpreted it as a complex unfolding narrative, in which Mary, at first startled and bewildered by the angel Gabriel, reflects on and then humbly accepts her extraordinary mission to bear God’s son. Art of the Italian Renaissance reflected this narrative understanding of the Annunciation: A given painting would typically show only one of the drama’s individual stages or moments, and viewers of the time would immediately have recognized which one was being depicted. According to art historian Michael Baxandall, from Gabriel’s appearance in Luke 1:26 to Mary”s pregnancy 12 lines later there were, to be exact, five such moments—or as one popular preacher of the time put it, “five Laudable Conditions of the Blessed Virgin.”1

The five stages identified by Baxandall are Disquiet (Conturbatio), when Mary is astonished at being hailed by Gabriel as the “most favored one” (Luke 1:28–29); Reflection (Cogitatio), when Mary “wonders what this greeting might mean” (Luke 1:29); Inquiry (Interrogatio), when she asks her question, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34); Submission (Humiliatio), when she humbly lowers her head and says she is the Lord’s servant (Luke 1:38); and lastly Merit (Meritatio), after the angel departs and she already bears Jesus in her womb.

The exact stage of the Annunciation being depicted in a given painting can be identified by Mary’s posture—especially the position of her hands. Painters showed Mary’s Disquiet by painting her with her right hand raised, palm forward, as though to ward off the angel, as in a 15th-century Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli. Reflection was indicated by Mary’s right hand over her breast, her left hand hanging down and an introspective, downcast gaze, as in the example by Filippo Lippi’s son, Filippino Lippi. When making her Inquiry, Mary lifts her right hand toward Gabriel (the example here is by Alessio Baldovinetti). And she demonstrates her Submission by folding her hands across her chest and bowing her head, as in a work by Melozzo da Forli. Paintings showing the condition of Merit simply show Mary alone, after the angel has departed.

Renaissance interest in the Annunciation reflects the deepening interest in the individual experience of Mary: Singled out by God for her extreme virtue, she is also subject to a range of human emotions (such as “disquiet”) and evidently is capable of free choice—of reflecting on, inquiring about, and then humbly accepting her mission. It may be that, by breaking the Annunciation down into stages, artists were trying to investigate and understand the contradiction between Mary’s humility (for which God noticed her in the first place) and her free will, her ability to reflect upon the angel’s words and to say to Gabriel, as though it is her own decision, “as you have spoken, so be it.”