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Pesellino: The Annunciation Diptych

The object and the story it tells

First a note on what we are looking at. The painting is a diptych i.e. it is physically made in two parts. The two panels would have been hinged down the middle. If you look carefully under the edge of the centre spa of the frame you can see the edge of the panel where the hinges have been removed, and as a consequence the edges are damaged. Small and portable it unfolded like a book. It was probably carried around by the owner, maybe on his or her travels, and opened for contemplation at times of private devotion and prayer.

Second, a note on the story. Few modern gallery visitors will know the passage in the Bible which is illustrated here, Luke Chapter I verses 26-38, by heart. For most of us it is merely an 'Annunciation'. But our 15th century Florentine would have known all the details of the narrative. St Luke's description of the incident is quite lengthy, and he tells a story which has a beginning and an end, with a lot happening in the middle.

In summary, he tells us how Mary was sitting quietly in her room when the angel Gabriel appeared. At first, not unnaturally, she was scared. Gabriel calmed her down and she questioned him about the reason for his visit. He explained, she listened, and eventually she submitted to the will of God. If we were to act out the narrative fully we would need to adopt a variety of different poses, hand gestures, body language and facial gestures to convey the different incidents. So, which episode in the story is portrayed here? Our Florentine would have known, and would have judged the success of the picture by the artist's ability to convey convincingly the particular moment through appropriate pose and facial expression. Mary places her hand across her breast and bows in submission to indicate that she accepts the role and duty that God has placed upon her. St Luke tells us that she said: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to the word'.

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