Luke 1: 37 And Mary said,
Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say.
Mary was young. In the context and customs of her time, she was (almost certainly) 15 or 16 years old. There is nothing biblical that would make Joseph too much older than that, either.
Until the 18th and 19th centuries, artists were pretty much constricted by the Church to depicting Mary as the Mother of Christ, period. As such, she was largely sexless, even a bit cold. After Reformation and the French Revolution broke the stranglehold of the Church in most of Europe, Mary was freed to be human.
And she became vulnerable in her youthfulness, and even sexual in her budding womanhood.
“The Annunciation” by Henry Tanner, 1898. The angel here is a column of light. Young Mary is alone. This painting was controversial because, like the earlier painting shown next, it portrays Mary on a bed.
“Acce Ancilla Domini” by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1850. Despite the confidence we read into the words of Mary as they were scripturally preserved, she was no doubt confused. THERE WAS AN ANGEL- A MAN ANGEL!- IN HER HOME TELLING HER SHE WAS ABOUT TO BECOME PREGNANT! Painters portrayed that surprise, that fear, that hesitation.
“Annunciation” by John Collier (1980s?) Put into a very modern setting, the schoolgirl and the archangel’s initial encounter looks and feels..well, creepy. But we are able to see here, in terms we understand, a pretty good rendition of the age and immaturity of the girl Mary. (Note the lily in front of her which is just beginning to bloom- a lovely artistic touch!)
By the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had opened many psychological doors for painters and other artists to explore- doors of the painters themselves, their subjects, and of the viewers of the art. By the time the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (yes, the same artist who did “The Scream”) painted “Madonna” in 1895, there were few restrictive rules still in effect. This painting reflects both the freedom felt by artists of this period, and freedom from the enforced non-sexuality of Mary by the Church.
Religious art is an outward and visible means of better understanding contemporary theology. The biblical story is not a static one. It has been thought about and understood in many different ways and it is easy for any one cultural group in a particular time to believe that theirs’ is the only and proper interpretation. Artists remind us that God is not suspended in anyone’s time. And they remind us that Jesus, the Word made flesh was born of a real girl: the flesh made Word. He was like us because she was like us.