William Blake - The Annunciation to Zacharias by the Angel

by Alexandra Tuschka


The old priest Zacharias was just about to burn incense in the dimly lit Jewish temple in Jerusalem when suddenly none other than the archangel Gabriel appeared to him. His gesture towards heaven underlines the divine origin of his message. He informs the high priest that he and his wife Elizabeth, who remained childless until old age, will conceive a son. They are to name him "John" (Hebrew for "God is gracious"). Zechariah looks a little puzzled. His censer now hangs down unmotivated. Only the cloud of smoke tells us that it has just been moved wildly. Zechariah asks for a sign, whereupon the angel imprisons him with muteness until the son is born. This is both a sign and a punishment for Zacharias having doubted the message.

This scene of the Annunciation marks the beginning of the Vita of John the Baptist and also the first narrative cycle of the New Testament. This is why it is still frequently found in the picture cycles typical of the Middle Ages. However, since artists from the Renaissance onwards often specialised in the high points of a saint's life, this prophecy did not establish itself as an independent pictorial theme. Although William Blake painted the work around 1799 / 1800, long after the Middle Ages, he is no exception in that he too devoted himself to more than 50 different Bible scenes in the two years. The government official Thomas Butts had commissioned them. Of these, about 30 have survived.

Blake uses his typical colours here: red, pale blue and gold. He sprinkles the work with a few details that reveal that he must have known the Bible scene and its iconography well. For in Luke 1,5 - 1,25 it is described that the scene takes place in a temple, and Zacharias, as a faithful servant of God and priest, had to offer the incense sacrifice. The seven-branched candelabrum (also "menorah") on the left is typical of this scene and was a common feature of many churches in the Middle Ages. Firmly connected with Judaism, it refers here to the Jewish temple in which this scene takes place.


Immediately afterwards, Luke reports, from verse 1,26, on the prophecy of the birth of Jesus to Mary, which has gained a firm place in art as the "Annunciation Scene" and has been depicted in numerous ways. The parallels between the two stories are obvious: an angel appears with a prophecy and makes the impossible possible. In the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth, two old men become parents; in the case of Mary and Joseph, a virgin becomes pregnant. While we know the name of the angel in Zechariah's case, he remains anonymous in Mary's Annunciation.


William Blake - The Annunciation to Zacharias by the Angel

Pen and black ink, tempera and glue on canvas, 1799/ 1800, 26.7 x 38.1 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Sandro Boticelli - The Annunciation to Mary

Oil on wood, c. 1490, 150 x 156 cm, Uffizi Gallery, Florence