Divine Conception: The Art of the Annunciation Sarah Drummond
176pp, 119 colour illustrations
Hardback, £25

The reader's initial impression of Sarah Drummond's Divine Conception: The Art of the Annunciation is of a scholarly work, and indeed it is, but not quite in the way that we might expect. It is rich in illustrations, each one captioned with proper information so that we know the artist's name, the medium ('tempera and gold on panel'), the size and the present location; details that many art books are often too lazy to supply. Where the text mentions a sermon by St Bernard or an obscure medieval patron, such as the Collegio dei Notai in 15th-century Perugia, the footnotes or the bibliography are there to help us, though they don't obtrude because, behind the apparent conventionality is an unusually fine, interesting line of thought. We feel that we are in the hands of someone who is serious and conscientious but not, unlike many academics, patronising and self-important. As we read on we find ourselves entering Drummond's journey along a route we thought we knew, only to discover, through passion tempered by discipline, the pious thought and imagery of another age.

Each of the 12 chapters is devoted to a theme: Prayer and Meditation, The Role of the Angel, The Role of Joseph, and so on. This thematic approach invites a wide range of ideas, so we find theology, symbolism, social history, literature, art and even hints of esotericism skilfully woven together into a balanced whole. Many of the ideas in this ordered study would have been common knowledge in the late medieval and Renaissance periods, but most readers today need to be reminded of the riches of medieval and Renaissance thought, and the author succeeds in doing this with a surprisingly light touch. Each chapter has a dozen or more illustrations including telling close-ups of details – a hand gesture, a bottle on a shelf, an architectural detail – whose significance, without the author's help, we might easily overlook. The art works selected for illustration and discussion are consistently of the highest quality (nothing has been delegated to a picture researcher). Readers will feel at home with most of these pictures, many known and loved from childhood, but they will also discover new and hitherto unknown treasures that will make the next visit to the National Gallery in London (or the Louvre or the Met) significantly more rewarding.

Armed with the knowledge that throughout the Middle Ages both theologians and painters held that the Holy Spirit entered Mary's body through her ear (per aurem), we see just that portrayed in a stained-glass window in Ely Cathedral, or a painting in the Prado. Visitors to Fra Angelico's murals in the Convent of San Marco in Florence may look anew at the posture of the kneeling Virgin in the light of Drummond's observation that Angelico's source was a 14th-century manuscript in the Vatican Library, De Modo Orandi, illustrating the nine modes or postures of prayer, each one of which induced a specific inner state.

Another new idea, at least to this reviewer, is the minute figure of the Christ Child in the emanations beamed from God towards the Virgin during Gabriel's Annunciation. It is surprising how often this occurs in Netherlandish and German medieval art and it can be seen, once you know to look for it, in the famous Mérode Triptych attributed to Robert Campin in the Cloisters Museum, New York. More conventionally it is the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove that artists depict in the descending beam of light, which Drummond refers to, in unusual terminology, as 'the Ray of Creation'. The whole of Chapter Five, The Visible Presence of the Christ Child, is devoted to this.

The scope of the book is mainly confined to the Latin West with just a nod towards the Catacombs and to Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome; Byzantium and Syria are not included. Maybe Sarah Drummond will write a companion volume, since Western Christianity is only half the story. If she does, I will be the first to buy a copy.

Dr Richard Temple