Among the earliest representations of the annunciation in Christian art are the frescoes in the catacombs in Rome, where [the] funerary art was a “prayer”, a witness to hope. Particularly significant was the message of Christ’s victory over death. The annunciation to Mary is the very beginning of this message.
As I have already mentioned, the annunciation to Mary is somehow the beginning of God’s plan to redeem humankind through Christ. However the annunciation is not depicted exclusively in this light. Over time it becomes increasingly used as a message pertaining not only to salvation, but also to revelation: the mystery of Christ is first revealed to Mary. Mary is considered to be the first witness to God’s love taking shape in the Incarnation.
With the passing of time, the attention focuses more and more on the nature of Christ and the dogmatic importance of his representation, as true God (the Council of Nicea in 325 declared that the Father and the Son are consubstantial; the Council of Ephesus in 431 proclaimed that Mary is the mother of God) and true man (the Council of Chalcedon in 451 declared that two natures –human and divine- coexisted in Christ). Yet, it is above all the divinity of Christ that the victorious Church wants to stress (it is after the Edict of Theodosius in 381 that Christianity becomes the official religion of the empire). Mary acquires a nobility and a regal nature of clearly imperial inspiration. The regal nature of Mary is naturally due to the regal nature of Christ, increasingly represented as Christ in Glory, who will judge humanity at the end of time.
In the 5th century, in the mosaic of the triumphal arch in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, a flying dove appears for the first time in an annunciation, symbolising the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit as a dove can be found only once, namely in the account of Christ’s baptism. However, the Council of Nicea in 325 declared that the dove of the baptism was a valid symbol for the Holy Spirit. From then on, the dove will be depicted above all in the annunciations of Mary and then later in the scenes of the Pentecost and eventually in the images of the creation and the Trinity. It should be said though that the depiction in Santa Maria Maggiore remained for a long time a unique example, perhaps due to the aversion towards the still existing cult of Venus which also used the dove as a conventional symbol. Four hundred years would have to pass before this symbol took hold in Christianity: it became a fully integrated part of the annunciation iconography in the 11th-12th centuries.
The seat of the Virgin, who is often depicted resting her feet on a footstool, is covered with an imperial cushion. At times the seat becomes an actual throne. We frequently see an aedicule with a gable above it, suggesting the idea that the Virgin is the “dwelling place” of the Most High, and the symbol of the Church itself.