The Angel’s Greeting

The Angelus has origins dating from long ago: all the way back to the 12th century, with the recitation of the Hail Mary. And in every era, artists have tried their hands at representing the Annunciation


On March 25th, the Church makes memory of the Annunciation: an important pause to commemorate what suddenly happened in the history of mankind, in order that man could be changed profoundly and saved. The experience of education to the faith that characterizes us has contributed to our formation by having us recite a prayer that comes from long ago, even though the Angelus was crystallized into permanent form as we recite it today only around the first half of the sixteenth century. In the centuries before that, this term was applied to the moment of prayer specifically devoted to the daily recitation of the “angelic greeting,” the Hail Mary (a custom that seems to have spread in England before it took hold on the continent of Europe). The practice of reciting the Hail Mary three times in a row dates at least to the twelfth century, and St Anthony of Padua (1195-1231) strongly recommended it. This devout practice was a great favorite also of St Mechtilde of Helfta (1241-1298) in her Revelations, and St Bonaventure, in a chapter of the Order of the Friars Minor in 1269 proposed to recite these three Hail Marys in the evening after Compline, meditating on the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, urging at the same time that the recitation be preceded always by the ringing of a bell so that the brothers and all the faithful around would know that it was time for the Hail Mary. As time passed, in the Christian lands, the practice was repeated first in the early morning, and then at midday. Testimonies on the noon recitation are found around 1413 in the land now known as Czechoslovakia and in 1423 in Cologne. Pope Sixtus IV, in 1475, was the first to endow the recitation of the Angelus at noon with an indulgence. This indulgence was confirmed and extended by Pope Leo X in 1517 to whoever recited it in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, and Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) seems to have been the last one to grant them. This is a moment of prayer, then, that has been marking off the day for centuries and that even saves Christianity in difficult moments, such as happened in Belgrade in 1456, when the Turks were carrying forward cruel invasions. The formula we know now appears for the first time–according to J. Fournée in his The History of the Angelus. The Angel’s Message to Mary (Lev, 1997)–in an office of the Blessed Virgin (Officium parvum BMV), printed in Rome during the time of Pope Pius V (1566-1572), and also in the Manuale catholicorum by the Jesuit St Peter Canisius, published in Antwerp in 1588. In our books of devotion, according to their date of publication, the Angelus bears the reference to Pope Benedict XIV (September 14, 1742) and Pope Leo XIII (March 15, 1884). The greatest artists have chosen to immortalize this moment: Mary is usually shown kneeling or seated and sometimes has a book in her hand or nearby. The tradition preferred in the West and known in the East only because of Western influence (see the sixteenth-century Mount Athos frescoes) likes to visualize Mary meditating on the Bible, and more precisely, according to the suppositions of the Fathers of the Church, on the passage by the prophet Isaiah (7:14): “Behold, a virgin will conceive…,” or reading a psalter, as reported in the Meditationes vitae Christi, a book dear to late medieval artists. Among the earliest works representing the Annunciation, we can cite the frescoes by Giotto (ca 1305 in the Arena Chapel in Padua) and the panel painting by Simone Martini (1333, Uffizi, Florence). And we should not omit Fra Angelico’s Annunciation in the Convent of San Marco in Florence (ca 1440), the one by Leonardo (ca1475, Uffizi), or The Angelus by Millet (1857-59, Louvre, Paris).