Why is Gabriel nearly always on the left?

Leonardo da Vinci
Uffizi Florence.

Traditionally, Gabriel appears on the left in Annunciation paintings. Why?
In western culture we tend to view things from left to right; this is the way that writing works. So when we 'read' a painting, unconsciously our eyes move across the painting from left to right. This means that in an Annunciation we end up at the Virgin Mary, the most important character in the painting. This movement also suggests the actual arrival of the angel swooping in, providing a sort of split-second animation; this is particularly true in the less static images of mannerist painters.
    In some settings, such as the right-hand wall of a chancel, a Right-to-left direction might be more appropriate. It has been suggested that, in cultures where text is read from right to left, Annunciation images work the other way, though up to now I haven't enough evidence to prove whether this is so. (Though see the final observation below.)

Right or left?

There is a theological if slightly confusing message here too. Gabriel may be on the left of the painting, but he is of course, on Mary's right.  In paintings of the last judgement,  Heaven is on the right hand side of Jesus  (the viewer's left) while those destined for Hell head disconsolately off to the left - the viewer's right.  As Gabriel has come from Heaven it is to be expected that he would come in from this direction.

Hans Memling: Last Judgement
Muzeum Narodowe, Gdansk

Of course, not all artists went along with this idea. Later artists had other ideas about the arrangement and structure of their paintings. Philippe de Champaigne painted the Annunciation more than once, but always with the angel on the viewer's right, as in this painting from the Wallace Collection in London.

What this small image cannot show is the extraordinary sense of depth the artist creates - you need to stand in front of the real thing to fully appreciate it.. The viewer's eye starts in the foreground - Gabriel  - then tunnels into the painting towards the Virgin Mary. 
    3D may be the latest thing in movies - but Phillipe de Champaigne knew all about it back in the seventeenth century. If you don't believe me, go to the Wallace Collection (a terrific day out) and see for yourself. 

An experiment
You may know this Annunciation by Andrea del Sarto in the Pitti Palace in  Florence. If not, which image below works best for you, the correct version or the flipped one? I'm not telling you which is which - Click here if you want to know.)

A final observation - The Annunciation and Boffin Boy and the Forest of the Ninja.

   After completing this section of the website, I received copies of the Arabic edition of a children's graphic novel series I wrote a few years ago. Of course, in this edition the book works from right to left, and what we would think of as the back cover becomes the front cover. Fascinatingly, every image in the book had been  'flipped' by the Lebanese publisher to create a mirror image of the original.

Annunciation page 1

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