The art essay of the month

The Annunciation (c. 1472) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)

In 1472, many apprentices busied themselves about the prestigious Florentine workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. One apprentice in particular caught the master artist’s keen attention. This novice added details to the periphery of Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ—details which so far outshone the central figures as to astonish the great maestro. Sources from the period report that Verrocchio, recognizing a talent superior to his own, ceded his place to this young man, giving up painting entirely and turning his attention solely to sculpture. The student had surpassed his master.

That talented apprentice was none other than twenty-year-old Leonardo da Vinci. Verrocchio’s commendation had immediate effect, and the newly discovered Leonardo was offered his very first commission: an Annunciation scene.

Breakout work

The lush landscape, stately architecture, and graceful figures of Leonardo’s Annunciation reveal the genius first recognized by Verrocchio. Novel techniques characteristic of the artist’s mature work make their dramatic debut: atmospheric perspective creates a convincing sense of vast distance with its bluish haze; expertly applied chiaroscuroshapes weighty fabric with luminous highlights and deep, richly colored shadows. Even the detail of the Virgin’s elongated right arm—once assumed to be an amateur mistake—was recently revealed to be intentional. Leonardo, cognizant that the viewer would stand below and slightly to the right of this piece in its final placement, applied his study of optics to craft proportions perfectly tailored to a preferential perspective.

Yet there is a deeper meaning to this piece—a meaning accentuated by the stunning visual effects of Leonardo’s technical genius. In Leonardo’s day, before dipping pen in ink for preliminary sketches, artists would consult the patron who commissioned the work. For Da Vinci, these were likely the Olivetan monks of San Bartolomeo monastery on the outskirts of Florence. Navigating the young artist through the scriptural passages, patristic writings, and famous commentaries related to the sacred episode, the monks opened Leonardo’s creative mind to its deep theological implications.


Leonardo speaks to the viewer through a rich and ancient iconographic vocabulary. He situates the Virgin annunciate within the hortus conclusus—the walled garden referenced in the Song of Songs: A garden enclosed is my sister, my bride (4:12). A luxuriant carpet of daisies, campions, and lavenders symbolize Mary’s innocence and purity. Her heart and womb are cloistered spaces—virginal in character—reserved for God alone. References to the miraculous nature of Christ’s conception abound. A glimpse into the Virgin’s chamber reveals her bed, neatly made and undisturbed. The room’s window refers to a medieval explanation of the virginal conception using the metaphor of glass, which remains intact even when penetrated by light.

A pronounced dichotomy between Mary and the angel further underscores this theme. Ensconced within a protective architectural niche, the Virgin is separated from Gabriel by means of an ornate lectern. At this line of demarcation, the man-made architecture she occupies meets the paradisiacal garden of God’s creation, recalling the lost Eden. The book of Scriptures—God’s self-revelation to mankind—appropriately bridges this divide between natural and supernatural realms, foreshadowing their definitive unification in the Word made flesh.

A graceful interaction unfolds as the heavenly encounters the human: opposite hands retract and extend, creating the visual rhythm of a dance. The angel’s arrival has interrupted Mary’s lectio. Her fingers mark the verse she was reading: Behold, the Virgin will conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be Emmanuel (Is 7:14). A divine proposal, long foretold, is uttered by the angelic emissary, who kneels as a suitor before a regal maiden. The entire cosmos holds its breath, awaiting her reply.

Leonardo beautifully frames Gabriel’s salutation—his parted lips and extended forearm—with a small partition in the garden wall. It opens onto a winding path that disappears into the distance. This suggests Mary’s vocation—the path God invites her to embark upon. The full implications of her assent are not readily apparent, yet her trust in God is firm. Indeed, foreboding cypresses (symbols of mourning) and olive trees (evocative of the agony) skirt the path.

The mountain

In bold divergence from his contemporaries, Leonardo does not depict a dove descending in a ray of light or the nude Christ Child being dispatched by God the Father. Instead, relying on his meticulous study of the natural world, Leonardo employs environmental elements to more subtly communicate the descent of the Spirit.

A curtain of trees opens to reveal an enigmatic mountain dominating a far-off landscape. Ringed with clouds, it evokes the high theophany of Horeb or Tabor. Perspective lines guide the viewer’s eye to contemplate its heights. Charged with symbolism, it mimics the pyramidal form of the Virgin in the foreground.

Leonardo’s Olivetan patrons were devotees of Saint Bernard, who remarks in a sermon on the Annunciation: “On that day the mountains poured out sweetness…when the heavens dripped dew from above and the clouds rained down the Just One. The earth opened, germinating the Savior with joy, when on that mountain of mountains—rich and fertile mountain—mercy and truth met, justice and peace embraced.” The Spirit descends like the dewfall upon the fertile new earth of the virginal second Eve—gentle and imperceptible, silent and unseen.


A quiet, matutinal light permeates the scene, stealing in from the east together with the angel. The springtime coloration of the Tuscan countryside glows in its warmth. As its first rays reach the threshold of Mary’s chamber, the viewer is summoned to the threshold of something utterly new: the dawn of a new creation—the prologue of Genesis echoing in the darkness of a virgin’s womb. Things too wonderful to comprehend, things that cannot be known, elicit a hushed reverence. The true light, which enlightens every man (Jn 1:9), is entering the world.

“Truly, the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation is an inscrutable abyss; an unfathomable gulf of significance yawns beneath that sentence of the Evangelist, The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” (Saint Bernard). Leonardo, with his characteristic subtlety, uses the potent language of symbolism to simultaneously reveal and conceal the depths of this mystery.

Amy Giuliano
Holds degrees in theology from Rome and art history from Yale.

The Annunciation (c. 1472), Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Uffizi Gallery, Firenze, Italy. © Jean Bernard. All rights reserved 2022 / Bridgeman Images.