How did it happen?
Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.
At this point, the Holy Spirit enters the Virgin and conception takes place. But how?

Debating this  problem whiled away the time nicely at the council of Nicaea. A 'heretic called Aelian' got himself into trouble there by suggesting that conception was effected through the Virgin's ear. (See the entry on ears in the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols for more on this.)  
  Clearly the usual route would be inappropriate and unseemly, and rather difficult for artists in any case. Fra Filippo Lippi, in his wonderful Annunciation at the National Gallery, London, came up with this novel alternative:

there is a small tear in Mary's robe, through which the Holy Spirit has passed. If it's not easy to see here, go to the National Gallery and have a look at the real thing.

 Now let's pull out and see the whole painting.
The Holy Spirit appears in front of the Virgin in the form of a dove; the hand of God is visible at the top of the picture. So why a dove?

The Holy Spirit
The symbol for the Holy Spirit is a dove, and the dove is a familiar element in Annunciation images, and for images of the baptism of Christ. As with angelic wings, this could evoke uncomfortable memories of Pagan mythology. There the dove was associated with Aphrodite and with physical rather than spiritual love. By the time of the Council of Ephesus this connection had faded, and the dove had become a symbol of purity.  In Annunciation images it  is often accompanied by golden rays, as in this painting by Fra Angelico. This may be a reference to the Apocryphal Gospel of the Nativity of Mary. Referring to Gabriel, this tells us that 'going in, he filled the chamber where she was with a great light'.
    In other versions, such as the one by van Cleve below, the dove hovers above the Virgin. 

Fra Angelico
Prado, Madrid

Joos van Cleve
Metropolitan Museum, New York

 Tiny babies and geometry
Two interesting alternatives appear in these versions by Roger Campin and  Piero della Francesca. Campin substitutes a tiny baby carrying a cross for the dove; Piero simply uses the geometry of the building to suggest movement from the hands of God to the Virgin.

Detail from the Merode Altarpiece, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Full image on this page.

Fresco, San Francesco, Arezzo

Annunciation page 1

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