Book Review: The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest by Mark Byford

The Annunciation—Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will bear the Son of God—is one of the most depicted biblical subjects of all time. This narrative episode from Luke’s Gospel has long enthralled me, and I’ve been collecting artistic responses to it over the past several years, cogitating on how I might develop the materials into a book. Turns out, author Mark Byford has beaten me to the punch!

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim's Quest (book cover)

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest (Winchester University Press, 2018) sets out to explore the history and spiritual meaning of the Annunciation through interviews with 150-plus clerics, theologians, church historians, artists, curators, art historians, and others, and through encounters with works of visual art, music, and poetry inspired by the story. It’s very cleverly structured as a pilgrimage, so the book’s organizing principle is roughly geographic, following Byford through England, France, the Low Countries, Spain, Italy, and the Holy Land as he encounters people, places, and artworks in those regions that shed light on the topic.

The scope and diversity of interviewees, from different denominations and even religions (Jews, Muslims, agnostics), is impressive, and the quotes he elicits and compiles here are a valuable trove. The roster includes big names like Rowan Williams and Archbishop Kallistos Ware, as well as others whose insights are just as rich. My fingers were very, very busy taking notes as I read!

Byford’s starting point is The Annunciation by François Lemoyne (pictured on the front cover), which he found himself unexpectedly captivated by upon seeing it at the National Gallery one day. It’s a relatively unknown work that pales in comparison to the other, world-renowned Annunciation paintings at the Gallery. When he saw that it was on loan from Winchester College, where it was installed in 1729, he grew all the more intrigued, as he is from Winchester. He wanted to find out why such a flamboyantly Catholic painting of Mary by a leading French artist came to reside in a public school in Protestant England in the eighteenth century, and why it has been removed from its original setting for display at the museum.

“I am not especially enchanted by its imagery or by its aesthetic value,” Byford admits (13)—but for whatever reason, it grasped him. I share Byford’s assessment of the painting as too cloying, florid, conventionally pious, and seeing it on the page does nothing for me. But I love how in this book, we get to see how differently different people see, because as Byford goes about his journey, he shows a reproduction of Lemoyne’s painting to each interviewee, recording their reactions. Whereas many people read the angel’s presence as domineering or oppressive, overpowering Mary’s will, and his finger as phallic, others read the encounter as a tender one, his finger illustrating his saying, “You will receive power from on high,” and indicating that it’s all about God, not her. Many expressed dislike toward the image because they say it shows Mary as weak and simpering instead of strong and courageous—“it’s disempowering” (82); “I want her to have the same force of character as the muscular angel” (85); she’s too insubstantial—“anemic,” even; “the blood and guts of the woman has been taken out of her” (173). Others were incredibly moved by the image, and commented on the “wonderful sense of movement” (100), the “spectacular light” (204), or Mary’s expression of joyful surrender. Theologian Ben Quash comments on the tattiness of the interior establishing a contrast between broken, worldly space and luminous, heavenly space—and the peeling plaster as a metaphor for revelation, a stripping back (208).

Besides bringing up the Lemoyne painting, Byford asked each interviewee some variation of the following:

  • Is the Annunciation literal (historical, factual) or metaphoric/symbolic?
  • How important is it for Christians to believe in the virgin conception?
  • Do you believe, as Bishop Philip Egan does, that the Annunciation is “the most important event in human history”?
  • Why is the feast of the Annunciation barely acknowledged today?
  • What is the spiritual meaning of the Annunciation?
  • Do you see a parallel between your story and Mary’s? (That is, have you ever felt a call from God that you would consider an “annunciation moment”?)
  • Is Mary a bridge or a barrier to interdenominational dialogue?
  • Do you venerate Mary?

One common point of discussion that results is the agency of Mary—or lack thereof—and on this point, the variant interpretations of feminists are interesting to note. Some feminists hate the story of the Annunciation because, in their reading, God forces Mary to bear a child against her will, enacting something akin to divine rape—and a few interviewees attempt to make this case. But other feminists find the story absolutely empowering for women, in that God comes into the world without the aid of a man, and with Mary’s full consent—a critical detail. Tina Beattie, for example, says, “It’s now a woman who has the voice of authority on behalf of creation” (157).

The word submission has negative connotations in today’s culture, and so can the idea of being an empty vessel, but this is so central to the Annunciation story, and I was glad to see the majority of Christians interviewed here uphold the virtuousness of submission and also recognize that it often connotes strength, and it is itself an act of the will. Like Mary, we can choose to say yes to what God calls us to. There are lots of ways of talking about submission to God, and I enjoyed hearing different wordings and perspectives on it.

Byford is the former deputy director general and head of BBC journalism, and his whole approach in this book is indeed journalistic. He marks his observances of the native environments, demeanors, and mannerisms of his interview subjects, and he presents their words unedited. He doesn’t editorialize, for the most part—that is, until the end, when, after interviewing his wife and (grown) children, he confronts his own views about the Annunciation, including how they have been influenced by the conversations he’s had over the course of the project.

[Below is a small sampling of the 205 images reproduced and discussed in the book.]

The majority of the book unfolds in England, but as previously mentioned, Byford also visits other countries, including places like Chartres Cathedral, which contains at least ten Annunciation scenes; Florence, with its many famous Annunciation paintings, including ones by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci; and the catacombs and churches of Rome. He even makes it as far as Nazareth, where there are two different churches—one Greek Orthodox, the other Catholic—that claim to be the original site of the Annunciation. He interacts with other pilgrims there, collecting their thoughts.

The artistic merit of the image selections is variable. Byford did not choose all the world’s best representations to highlight—though there are many of those; he’s most interested in images that have deep personal meaning for the people who created them or who have beheld them, which means, in the case of one of the women priests he interviewed, a painting gifted to her by an elderly church parishioner (138), or in the author’s own case, an illustration from a 1950s storybook (4). Not all the artworks are reverent, though. Some, such as the Annunciation sculpture by Chris Ofili, and a painting of the same name by Mati Klarwein, used for a Santana album cover, are controversial for their blatant sexuality. Others were made for devotional or liturgical contexts but are controversial for other reasons, like David Wynne’s The Virgin Mary in Ely Cathedral in England, which many describe as hideous.

I appreciate the chapter on global (that is, non-European) depictions of the Annunciation, from the United States, Mexico, Cameroon, Nigeria, Kenya, Australia, Indonesia, and Japan. New to me are the paintings by Tom Thompson, who sets the scene in the bush area of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, on the veranda of a dilapidated Federation-style house (606–7). The wood carving he purchased from a street vendor in Jakarta is also intriguing.

Besides speaking with professionals in the field of visual arts, Byford also interviews a filmmaker and, after sitting in on a performance of John Tavener’s Annunciation, a choral conductor and Tavener’s widow. Some of the conversations in this book resulted in the making of new art, such as fused glass (402), and a poem that beautifully imagines Mary’s internal process as she moves from fear to acceptance to delight (498). In addition, poems on the Annunciation, both traditional and contemporary, are scattered throughout, contributing to the drawing out of meaning of that long-ago encounter between Gabriel and Mary.

The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest is chock-full of goodness, and it caused me to reflect back on my own views about the Annunciation while considering the views of others. Some, like John Shelby Spong’s (126–29), really grated me! Some made me raise an eyebrow or shake my head. But many opened me up to a deeper reading of Luke 1 and the wider narrative, and the inclusion of people from a wide range of theological persuasions and backgrounds was key in that. I join Byford in lamenting the loss of the status and significance of the Annunciation in the church’s celebration, and I hope this book can serve as a catalyst to reignite interest.

I do think its hefty page count, 674 pages, will deter a lot of would-be readers, unfortunately. It is amply illustrated—and in full color!—but most of the images are thumbnail-size, so the heft is mainly text. To trim it down, I think he could have done away with the Madonna and Child artworks, the standalone Gabriel statues, and St. Luke painting the Virgin, focusing more strictly on Annunciation artworks, of which there is an abundant supply. And occasionally I felt that too much context was given on the history of certain churches and the backgrounds of interviewees. But my interest was sustained. I found myself looking forward to each new chapter, to see what new artworks and facets of the Annunciation would be revealed. The integration of historical and practical theology, art commentary, and personal story (the author’s and that of all those who participated in his project) is a hallmark of the book.

From a functionality standpoint, I wish there was a list of figures, and an index—at the very least, of the names of interviewees. I also wish source citations were provided for the quotes not from interviews, as the author quotes church fathers, pastors, and others, giving only inexact references like “a professor quoted on a British Library blog” (317), or “Athanasius said . . .”; interviewees also make statements that I wish I could more easily follow up on, like “Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, said that if there was a virgin birth, it was a secondary miracle compared to the primary miracle of the birth of the Son of God” (484).

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