The importance of the annunciation to medieval and Renaissance Florentines is best reflected in the fact that until 1750 the beginning of the new year corresponded directly to the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25. Leonardoâ€™s Annunciation, probably commissioned for the monastery of Monte Oliveto outside Florence, depicts the initial moment of encounter between Gabriel and Mary, when Gabriel announces to Mary: â€śThe Lord is with you!â€ť (in the Vulgate: Dominus tecum). Mary is seated behind a lectern, which is best understood as an altar, underscoring her priestly role. On the lectern rests a book whose fluttering pages (presumably stirred by the rush of Gabrielâ€™s arrival) are stilled by Maryâ€™s fingers. The 13th-century Meditations on the Life of Christ (written by a Franciscan monk in Tuscany) suggests that at the moment Gabriel appeared, Mary may have been reading Isaiah 7:14, a passage traditionally understood as a prophecy of the virginal birth. The lily that Gabriel holds is a symbol of Maryâ€™s purity.
The transfigured Christ is miraculously lifted above Mount Tabor between Moses (on the right) and Elijah (on the left). James, Peter and John (from left to right) react to the blinding light and powerful drama occurring above them. Raphael is often called the great assimilator of the High Renaissance style, and the work exhibits the expected characteristics of balance, proportion and symmetry. The transfiguration appears in the upper half of the large altar painting (13'4" Ă— 9'2") while the story of the possessed boy (which follows the story of the transfiguration in Matthew 17) inhabits the earthly realm. This is the last piece of art that Raphael worked on before his death on Good Friday, April 6, 1520, at age 37. It was brought from his studio in Rome and placed above his bier during the funeral in the Pantheon. The painting was originally commissioned by Cardinal Giulio deâ€™ Medici for the Cathedral of Narbonne, France. He established a competition between Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo, a Venetian artist, and Raphael may have included the rendering of the possessed boy to outdo Sebastiano.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti created a profound visual interpretation of Jesusâ€™ presentation in the temple. The viewerâ€™s eyes (along with the eyes of most of the figures) are drawn to the character of Simeon, an older, bearded man, holding the Christ child in his arms. Mary holds the childâ€™s white blanket, but her attention is directed to the child. Two women behind her look at Simeon, the only figure whose clothing depicts movement. Joseph seems to have just stopped a gesture with his hand. Likewise, the High Priestâ€™s sacrificial act is arrested. Just as Luke combined two separate rituals, the purification and the presentation, into a single event (2:22â€“40), so Ambrogio telescoped two separate elements in the narrative, Simeonâ€™s song (Nunc Dimittis) and Annaâ€™s prophecy, into a single epiphany. While Anna is holding her prophetic scroll (which begins with the words et haec ipsa hora, â€śat that momentâ€ť), Simeon opens his mouth to speak. For Ambrogio, his patrons and his audience, this event was not simply a historical moment preserved in time. The viewer is invited to proclaim with Simeon: â€śMine eyes have seen thy salvation!â€ť
The adoration of the shepherds was a very popular theme north of the Alps in the 15th century. Domenico Ghirlandaio learned about the subject in 1483 when Thomas Portinari, a Medici representative working in Flanders, brought a work by Hugo van der Goes to Florence. The Florentines favored the Epiphany scene of the Adoration of the Magi because in medieval Florence Epiphany was celebrated on the same day (January 6) as the baptism of Christ, and John the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence. The birth of the Messiah, according to Luke, has the power to lift up the lowly, the despised and the violent (1:52). The occupation of shepherds may have conjured up an image of a despised and potentially violent group (see Josephus, The Jewish War). However, by their actions these rustic shepherds align themselves with a more positive portrait of the good shepherdâ€”an image already evoked by the mention of the city of David, for David, of course, was himself a shepherd before becoming king. The Christ Child lies before a prominently placed Roman sarcophagus that foreshadows his death and that bears an inscription foretelling his birth.