The story unfolds

The dialogue between Gabriel and Mary can be broken down into four stages.

1. Gabriel arrives; Mary is alarmed by his words.
 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured,the Lord is with thee: Blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying . . . .

2. Mary thinks about what Gabriel has said.
 . . . and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

3. Gabriel speaks, and Mary asks Gabriel a question.
 And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

4. Mary says yes. 
Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

Stage 1: the arrival of Gabriel.
It is often assumed that it is the sudden appearance of the angel that causes the alarm, but if we read the text closely it is clear that it is the message that causes the consternation:
blessed art thou among women. 
Mary it seems, is familiar with angels. This stage of the story is known as conturbatio, and is one of the most frequently illustrated. The clue to which stage is being shown is Mary's hand gesture, and, in the case of conturbatio, sometimes the posture.

Simone Martini
Uffizi, Florence

Lorenzo Lotto
Pinacoteca Comunale, Recanati

Sandro Botticelli
Uffizi, Florence

Watch out! I'm going to crash!
Perhaps a little too much conturbatio from
Carlo Braccesco (Louvre)

Stage 2: Reflection
This stage, known as cogitatio, is again illustrated with distinctive hand gestures: one hand on the breast and the other open.  The face is generally deep in  thought. 

Fra Bartolemeo
Duomo, Volterra

Dieric Bouts
Prado, Madrid

Stage 3. Questioning - How shall this be done?
This stage, known as interrogatio, is the least frequently illustrated in art. Mary's hand is raised in enquiry. In this painting, Gabriel has folded his arms and appears to be in listening mode.

Alessio Baldovinetti
Uffizi, Florence

Stage 4. Acceptance.
The fourth stage, know as humiliatio, illustrates Mary's final words: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.
Again, hand gestures are the key: Mary crosses her hands across her breast in a gesture of humility. All of Fra Angelico's Annunciations illustrate humiliatio. 

Jan van Eyck
From the Ghent Altarpiece, St Bavo, Ghent

ra Angelico
Museo Diocesano, Cortona

The virgin annunciate.
This stage is not taken directly from the bible narrative. It shows the virgin deep in thought following the departure of the angel. The best known version is this one by Antonello da Messina. Antonello painted the annunciate virgin a number of times, but this one, in Palermo, is the best.

This all seems very straightforward, but, of course, life's not like that. Many artists combined the various stages, or did their own thing entirely. By the Baroque period much of this careful biblical referencing was lost. 

Annunciation page 1

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