The Annunciation and its Gardens

Today, March 25th, is the feast of the Annunciation which, according to the Gospel of St Luke, marks the visit of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, during which he tells her she has been chosen to  be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It has been a favourite artistic subject throughout  the Christian world,  and depictions of it can be found everywhere from the Roman catacombs  to books of hours, mosaics, sculptures and paintings, particularly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. There are literally hundreds of Annunciation paintings  from this period and it figures in the repertoire of almost all of the great masters.

Many of these works of art set the scene in a garden or have landscapes in the background but I was surprised how little seems to have been written about them  as settings so, using just a tiny fraction of the paintings available as examples,  here goes….



It’s worth pointing out that March 25th was once the most important day of the Christians world and far more important than Christmas which was later fixed for December 25th precisely nine months after the Annunciation.

Not only was it the date of the spring equinox, but according to the mid-13thc  Golden Legend of the chronicler and archbishop Jacopo da Voragine which was widely read and accepted, it  was also the date of several other significant Biblical events.

These  including the Fall of  Adam and Eve,  Cain’s murder of Abel, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, the martyrdom of John the Baptist, the deliverance of Saint Peter; the martyrdom of Saint James and the Crucifixion.   In England it also became known as Lady Day, one of the four quarter days for rents, taxes and contracts and marked the beginning of the New Year, and remained that until the change of calendars in 1752.

The earliest depiction of the Annunciation is thought to be a 3rd/4thc fresco in the catacombs of Rome which shows a wingless angel with Mary seat in a chair.  However the first documentary evidence for the church marking the event isn’t until the Council of Toledo in 656  where it is described as celebrated throughout the church. 

The first thing I realised  when looking at images of the event is that much of the symbolism  only starts appearing centuries after it is supposed to have happened.  For example angels are not depicted with wings until the 4thc while  the idea of an angel hovering over Mary, or the Holy Spirit’s portrayal as a dove are not found in art before a 5thc mosaic in Rome. [For more on this see Norman Ricklefs, How Angels Found their Wings]

But when does the imagery begin to include gardens or landscapes.? Although several early representations are set  “outside” buildings these are just plain backgrounds  with  no detailing, terrain or plants.

The first vaguely garden-like scene I’ve discovered is a mosaic of 1291, again from Rome, by which time the iconography of a winged angel, the dove of the Holy Spirit, the shaft of light,  the garden scene including plants and a pot of flowers, and even the face of God are all in place.  These are, at first, often simple additions to the scene, as in Daddi’s Annunciation where Gabriel carries a single lily…

… or the vase of lilies and olive branch in Martini’s altarpiece in Siena Cathedral, where we see the first signs of the flowers taking centre-stage as the main prop in the story.  While lilies usually refer to Mary’s spiritual purity St Bernard of Clairvaux, argued that the lily was a symbol of Christ himself, and this may explain its initial inclusion but  it’s the association with Mary that soon prevails.  [As an aside its worth looking closely at the expression on the faces of the protagonists – Mary in particular doesn’t appear very happy- not helped by the words that almost seem like a deadly glance  between them]  

By the end of the 14thc we begin to see landscape  playing a more prominent role in the setting, as in the rocky scenes behind Mary’s shelter imagined by the Flemish artist Melchior Broederlam who took the traditional format and added a much more naturalist  touch.  There is even a tiny glimpse into Mary’s garden tucked in behind Gabriel’s wings. The same approach can be seen in Broederlam’s other surviving works.


It’s however not really until the following century that proper gardens and landscape backgrounds start to be included. Amongst the earliest is the small wooden panel of the  Annunciation by the Flemish artist Petrus Christus . According to the Metropolitan  Museum in New York where it now hangs,  it is “exceptional for its bird’s-eye view and outdoor setting… and  its meticulous observation of plant life.” It sets the rules  for many later versions with Mary on the right, inside and Gabriel, on the left outside, and is full of symbolism. Some of which is obvious, other parts more implicit,Mary  can for example, be seen, as  the personification of the Church while  “the architecture, which is part Romanesque and part Gothic, refers to the coming of Christ and the transition from Judaism to Christianity”.




The Garden of Eden is another common reference. Fra Angelico painted several versions of the Annunciation but this one is interesting because  it shows Mary’s house opening directly into Eden, where Adam and Eve are being expelled. and which is also full of very carefully depicted and probably identifiable plants, presumably from around Florence where it was painted.                                                  








A similar formula can be seen in Giovanni di Paolo’s version below, again with detailed plant life in the Garden of Eden – rather akin to a “flowery mead” – turf studded with clumps of wild flowers – which is supposedly an essential part of a mediaeval garden. For more information on that see Sylvia Landsberg, The Mediaeval Garden 1995  The other things I like about this  painting are the way Gabriel with arms folded looks as if he’s telling Mary off, and that Joseph is sitting inside by the fire, a sure sign that is still March, so maybe Gabriel is just shivering!.





Mary is often depicted in a completely enclosed garden – a hortus conclusus – drawing parallels with the verses from the Song of Solomon: ‘a garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed’.




A good example of the fully walled garden can be seen  in Domenico Veneziano’s simple almost delicate panel version of the story. Unfortunately no longer perfectly symmetrical having been trimmed down on the left side.

Through the arch is a garden with high brick walls and although only a small part  is visible it looks quadripartite, with flowers along the path edges and roses climbing over an arch in front of a  locked gate at the very centre, which can be linked to another Biblical quotation, this time from Ezekiel  and again referring to Mary’s  acceptance to bear the Christ child:  “Then the Lord said into me; this gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it, therefore it shall remain shut..”

Although normally shown as a solid wall some artists found other ways of depicting the enclosure. Fra Angelico, for whom the Annunciation was an important subject, chose a neatly designed and constructed wooden fence for his fresco in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, backed up by a thick woodland wilderness outside. Meanwhile Vittore Carpaccio at the beginning of the 16thc had a more sophisticated way of defining the garden, by making the gateway one of open lattice-work, with more trellis set into the walls, again with a dense thicket outside.  It’s also worth noting the potted carnation, another of the flowers associated with Mary making an appearance.





In other, usually later, examples the hortus is not longer quite so conclusus, and as in D’Amelia’s painting show the walled garden with an open doorway revealing a landscape beyond. There you can make out a small fortified town, river and mountains such as can be seen as almost standard setting for the background for paintings of the period.



Other painters tried different ways of reducing the sense of enclosure while keeping it in place symbolically, lowering the height of the walls for example while others  moved away from the hortus conclusus  entirely.   In the sumptuous Baglioni chapel in Spello  near Perugia landscape plays a major role in the backgrounds to all of Bernardino Pinturicchio’s frescoes. His  Annunciation is set in a grand Renaissance loggia which opens to a minimally closed garden, with trellis-edged beds and an open gateway leading out to  and meticulously detailed mountainous landscape beyond.

Lorenzo di Credi painted several annunciations including both a symbolic hortus conclusus and a non-existent one.  In the first Gabriel is shown kneeling in a small area filled with wild flowers, again like a flowery mead, surrounded by a wall which is only high enough to serve as a seat.  There is  an open  garden beyond and mountainous landscape in the distance.





In the second,  dating from the 1480s the house opens directly onto a much  more expansive garden, with apparently no intervening courtyard. A path leads down a shrub-lined avenue  to water,  with a wooded landscape beyond.






I would guess that few of these more “natural” or “realistic” backgrounds are painted from life or are of real locations. One that definitely is can be found  in an unfinished manuscript Book of Hours, painted for Charles of France, the brother of Louis XI.

In the background of one of a double page spread of the Annunciation is this fairytale castle standing in a very stylised landscape. It has been identified as his  favourite residence, the Château de Mehun-sur-Yèvre, near Bourges, which features in other images and the ruins of which are still extant.


Another which is believably realistic   is on a panel painted by Hans Memling.  Indeed it is regularly used in books as an example of a late mediaeval garden, complete with cake-stand topiary and low turf-topped walls.




Memling’s teacher Roger van der Weyden even offers another somewhat  sketchy but credible garden which opens on to an urban street…




There’s also several, what I would imagine to be reasonably realistic, if somewhat stylised, contemporary Italian garden scenes, many of them by  Fra Filippo Lippi.


They often  feature the classically inspired architecture of the early Italian Renaissance, with gardens to match. But either he was drawing on a real garden, or he had a stereotype in mind as the same view features in several paintings.

What is most evident are tall trees, with lower branches removed  set in formal patterns in what appears to be grass, but there are also features such as the plant covered verandah and low-fenced beds seen on the left above.








Other paintings reveal details of garden design or features which unless you look closely would be easy to miss at a first glance. For example tucked underneath one of Gabriel’s wings, in a version by Bartolomeo Caporali, is a  carefully depicted well, with a garden wall, hedging and topiarised  trees.




Other paintings give realistic accounts of the world outside the garden, with trees that look like trees rather than merely stylised versions, or countryside and prospects that “feel” like they actually existed. On the other hand sometimes,  these garden and landscapes become more fantastical than real.


A good example of that -and again the more  minimalist way of showing seclusion using a low wall – can be seen in Leonardo’s Annunciation dating from 1472 which he was still working in the studio of Verrocchio.


The garden beyond the wall is largely hidden but has a winding path through it, and  a stand of tall trees, several of which are cut into the cake-stand pattern  seen on a smaller scale in many mediaeval manuscript paintings. They are strange enough but the wider landscape is stranger still. On the left is a misty river cutting through a rocky terrain, but on the right a harbour full of tiny ships is dwarfed by bizarre almost blancmange-shaped mountains, the largest wreathed in clouds.




And just take a look at this strange backdrop. Apart from the fact that Mary looks as if she is about to fend off a dive-bombing Gabriel,  the  landscape is an odd mixture. On the left there is a tiny fragment of formal garden, while the church in the centre looks believable  – but other parts notably the  town looks more like elements from a fantasy.



And finally in this whirlwind overview, many paintings show evidence of how plants and flowers were used in pots both  outdoors…

detail from Niccolo da Foligno’s Annunciation, 1466


and indoors…as  in  one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, Carlo Crivelli’s very urban masterpiece of perspective…




I don’t know why but by the early 17thc the setting for Annunciation paintings is almost always indoors, and by the 18thc it is declining in interest as a subject.  However, in the 19thc, perhaps for the same reason I talked about in a recent post on Nuns in the Garden artists once again begin to turn to it but in very different ways, and I’ll return to look at those in another post – maybe this time next year!

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5 Responses to The Annunciation and its Gardens

  1. Pat Webster says:

    A fascinating overview of the subject.

  2. brigittewebster says:

    Very much enjoyed this article! Thank you!

  3. tingats says:

    Once again an unexpected and highly interesting article and perspective on gardens full of amazing illustrations. I look forward to your posts every Saturday.

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