In the painting, Mary is greeted by an angel who shares news that she is pregnant with a son. The scene represents the moment Mary accepts the news, symbolised by the angel’s stance with his hands crossed as if venerating Jesus’s mother. A ray of light joins the earthly and celestial worlds as a dove descends to represent the Holy Spirit.
On steps at the bottom of the painting are a sewing basket and rose bush set alight in flame. Set between Mary and the angel, the burning bush mirrors the same fiery image seen by Moses. The bush is alight but not burnt to represent Mary’s virginity. On the steps is a veil on the sewing basket, a nod to an Armenian story where Mary works on such a garment when the divine messenger arrives. Above the two central figures are angels playing music.
The flames of the burning rose bush are naturalistic and mimic real flames from a candle burning on an altar. When creating religious images or godly figures from mythology, El Greco often portrayed these figures and images as realistic and naturally proportioned. This often contrasted with the tormented and elongated depictions of other subjects. Unlike other works by the Greek artist, figures in the The Annunciation are relatively proportionate. Here, it is light and colour that are distorted to create a scene that is in a state of constant change. The colours and brushstrokes are used to evoke emotion rather than the figures themselves. The backdrop is blue and grey, contrasting with the vibrant yellow, blue, crimson and green of the saintly figures and dove.
The Annunciation has Expressionist elements, a style that El Greco used in his paintings towards the end of the 1590s. The painting was one part of a large altarpiece created for the Augustinian College of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnacion in Madrid from 1596 to 1600. The college's patron, Doña Maria de Córdoba y Aragón, died in 1593. It is believed the commission for the altarpiece came from her executor following the lady-in-waiting's death. The Annunciation and other pieces of the altarpiece were dismantled and removed during the French occupation of Spain. It is believed there were seven paintings in total, including The Annunciation as well as El Greco’s The Baptism, The Crucifixion, The Resurrection and The Pentecost.
El Greco created several versions of the Annunciation, and this version is believed to be one of the last of the series he painted in Italy. The Annunciation is also influenced by the Venetian school. The colouring recalls techniques used by Titian, an influential painter of the Venetian school that El Greco admired. The arrangement of the figures and the look of the drapery also resemble work by Tintoretto. At the same time, El Greco positions the figures in a realistic setting that is more in line with Expressionist principles.
Still, The Annunciation represents a departure from more naturalistic approaches the artist used in his other works. El Greco often challenges concepts of harmony and balance that were popular during the Renaissance. He rejected perfect proportions and used elongated and distorted figures influenced by the Mannerism style. Instead, a subjective vision is illustrated to communicate a spiritual message along with the other pieces in the original altarpiece.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, more commonly known as El Greco or The Greek, was born in Crete in 1541. He trained within the Post-Byzantine school of Crete, which at the time was part of the Republic of Venice. El Greco moved to Venice when he was 26, following in the footsteps of other Greek artists. In 1577, he moved in Toledo where he continued to paint and study for the rest of his life. In was in the Spanish city that El Greco created his most famous paintings and sculptures. Most of his contemporaries criticised El Greco’s work for not respecting popular principles of Renaissance are. After his death in 1614, El Greco emerged as an influential painter for Expressionism and Cubism. During the twentieth century, his art gained newfound appreciation and influenced the work of Paul Cézanne, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and others.