Early history

This is probably the earliest of all images of the Annunciation; it comes from the from the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome and dates from the third century. The simple iconography shows Mary on a throne, addressed by a wingless angel.  Very early images of the Annunciation were rare, but this may be because most of the surviving early Christian art is found in catacombs, and the Annunciation may not have been seen as an appropriate image to reflect a death. 

Veneration of the Virgin began early in the development of Christianity, but it remained localised and somewhat unofficial. The first Council of Nicaea in 325 recognised the truth of the virgin birth, but the key moment was probably the first Council of Ephesus in 431 when Mary was declared the Mother of God. After this time, churches dedicated to the Virgin appeared, notably Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Among the many beautiful mosaics in this church is this fifth century Annunciation - Gabriel has now acquired wings, and the Holy Spirit has become a dove.

  A fascinating source of early Christian images come from ampullae, small flasks for holy water or oil brought back from holy sites by pilgrims. This sixth century ampulla showing an annunciation scene is from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 


 In these early years Christian iconography was problematic. To many it echoed a pagan past, and to produce images of Mary could summon up memories of, and suggest parallels with, goddesses such as Isis or Aphrodite. As the centuries passed, memories of the old gods began to fade. Acceptance of any  images was still uncertain, however. Some considered them idolatrous, and  in the east the periods of iconoclasm between 730 and 787 and 814 to 842  brought about the destruction many Marian icons. However, the Second Council of Nicaea  (787) permitted such images, on the understanding that it was the person depicted, not the image itself, that was being venerated.  
  All of these pronouncements were, of course, supported by lengthy theological argument, but as much as anything they were probably an unspoken recognition of the human need for, and insistence upon, a mother goddess to worship. 
  Marian devotion remained much more potent in the East than the West, and the full flowering of her image in Europe didn't appear until the second millennium.

Annunciation page 1

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