Once thought to be the work of Domenico Ghirlandaio, this painting is now generally agreed to be an early work by Leonardo, painted sometime between 1472 and 1474. The painting was originally housed in the Convent of Monte Oliveto outside Florence and is probably an altarpiece, although the identity of the patron is unknown.
The work illustrates the influence of Verrocchio on the young Leonardo, in the sculptural quality of the figures and their draperies, and the forms of the Virgin’s reading table, which call to mind Verrocchio’s tomb for Piero de’ Medici, completed in 1472. The architecture seen on the right, in front of which the Virgin is seated, reflects the conventions of linear perspective probably learnt by Leonardo in Verrocchio’s workshop. The blurred, hazy outlines of the features of the landscape background give the impression of great distance, heralding the artist’s development of aerial perspective in the replication of atmospheric effects and the effects of natural light.
Leonardo’s profound interest in naturalistic detail is apparent in virtually every element of this painting, including the landscape, the numerous plants and trees, and the figures, all of which the artist studied first hand from life.
The Annunciation was a popular theme during the Renaissance period. The image is meant to suggest the moment of the Virgin’s miraculous conception, when Christ became man through the Holy Spirit who descended from God. The Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin, “You shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus”. The three essential elements are the angel, the Virgin and the dove of the Holy Spirit descending towards her.
St. Bernard and other early writers emphasized that the event took place in springtime, so sometimes flowers in a vase are included or a Lily, which is also a symbol of the Virgin’s purity. According to St. Bernard, at the time of the Annunciation, the Virgin was reading from a book the words of the prophet Isaiah, “A young woman is with child and she shall bear a son”.
The Archangel Gabriel usually has wings and is dressed in white. Here he kneels on a carpet of flowers within an enclosed garden or hortus conclusus, which is another traditional symbol of the Virgin’s purity. The flowers also refer to the feast of the Annunciation, which was the 25th March and so associated with springtime.