Uffizi Gallery

Holy Fear

[If reading this by email, please tap the title at the top to open your browser for the best experience.]

Simone Martini, Annunciation {detail} (1333)


It is easy at this time of the year to think of our observance of Christmas as being all about good news, the celebration of love, and “tidings of comfort and joy.” We find a caution with regard to this assumption within so many biblical texts, but especially within Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives.

Consider for a moment how often the phrase, “fear not,” appears in Scripture. Encounters with the divine presence, whether directly as in Moses’ and Elijah’s experiences, or through the medium of an angelic messenger for Mary and Joseph, typically inspire fear about the prospect of coming into contact with the source of all goodness and holiness.

For me, one of the most compelling quotations from the Authorized or King James Version is that which we hear every year in the broadcast of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. (from Luke 1:26-35)

It is no surprise that, when she saw the angel, Mary was troubled, and wondered what form of greeting this may have been.

Simone Martini’s Annunciation altarpiece has long been one of my favorites in this genre, especially with its glorious gold-leafed background and stunningly carved woodwork. But most compelling for me is the way that God’s angel, depicted kneeling, greets Mary with the words of salutation literally cut into the surface of the painting’s wooden panel. Mary’s recoil at the encounter involves – I think – several dimensions: an innate humility along with a pious regard for the presence of divinity; an accompanying holy fear; and a natural human reticence about such an intimate encounter. Notice how she is shown pulling the collar of her cloak about her neck.

Note also how the angel bears what appears to be an olive branch of peace, and how a vase of lilies stands between them, a symbol as we have seen of both Mary’s purity and of the resurrection that will be gifted to God’s people through the Incarnation of her promised yet improbable offspring.

In considering all of the above, I encourage you to look up Exodus 24, especially verses 9-11. You may well be surprised by what you read there, an unexpected anticipation of what we celebrate at this time of year!

Martini’s complete altarpiece


If you wish to have greater access to biblical texts, and with multiple translations freely available, I recommend http://www.biblegateway.com, with which I have no professional or financial connection.