Today is the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the three heavenly messengers who are identified by name in the Bible. While Michael is represented in the Old and New Testaments as a princely defender of God's people, and Raphael (in the Old Testament book of Tobit) as the companion of wayfarers and bringer of remedies, Gabriel's role in Old and New Testament is that of helping humans grasp a message from God. (Gabriel is also considered a divine messenger within Islam.) The three messengers are called "archangels" by Catholic tradition not because of their rank among the angels, but because of the high status of their mission.
The Annunciation story allows the artist to release all of his or her imagination in depicting the status of the message Gabriel was sent to bring. In Simon Bening's depiction, Gabriel, as well as Mary, is under the radiance of the Holy Spirit. The archangel wears a crown and bears a staff or scepter, and his magnificent cope is upheld in the front by a small angel, with a whole team of small angels bearing the train! He approaches Mary from on high, from a raised area at least two steps above the ground floor where her chair, bench and knitting are situated. The setting is both a temple (and the "glory of the Lord filled the Temple" as in Solomon's day) and a home, where Mary has her knitting basket and favorite chair.
Although Mary, intent in her meditation, does not see all the angelic magnificence that is approaching, we at least are primed for a very significant message: "Hail, Full of Grace! The Lord is with Thee!"
Simon Bening, illuminator (Flemish, about 1483 - 1561)
The Annunciation, about 1525 - 1530, Tempera colors, gold paint, and gold leaf on parchment
Leaf: 16.8 x 11.4 cm (6 5/8 x 4 1/2 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. Ludwig IX 19, fol. 13v