Above: Roundel, Annunciation to the Virgin, 1500–1510. South Netherlandish. Colorless glass, vitreous paint, and silver stain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1972 (1972.245.1). See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.
March 25 has been a significant date—both religious and secular—throughout Western history. In the Julian calendar, today’s date marked the vernal equinox. In parts of the medieval West, it was used as the first day of the calendar year, although Roman traditions of celebrating the new year in January continued throughout the Middle Ages. (See last year’s post “The January Feast,” January 15, 2010.)
In the Christian calendar, March 25 also marks the feast of the Annunciation, which came to be celebrated on this day very early in the history of the Church. According to the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel visited Mary in Nazareth, and announced that she would conceive and bear a son, Jesus. March 25 falls nine months before December 25, the date of the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, although the liturgical celebration of the Annunciation on March 25 may well have predated the celebration of Christmas on December 25. The complexity of the religious significances that came to be assigned to March 25 in the course of the Middle Ages is indicated in Jacopo de Voragine’s thirteenth-century compilation The Golden Legend:
This blessed Annunciation happened the twenty-fifth day of the month of March, on which day happened also, as well tofore as after, these things that hereafter be named. On that same day Adam, the first man, was created and fell into original sin by inobedience, and was put out of paradise terrestrial. After, the angel showed the conception of our Lord to the glorious Virgin Mary. Also that same day of the month Cain slew Abel his brother. Also Melchisedech made offering to God of bread and wine in the presence of Abraham. Also on the same day Abraham offered Isaac his son. That same day St. John Baptist was beheaded, and St. Peter was that day delivered out of prison, and St. James the more, that day beheaded of Herod. And our Lord Jesu Christ was on that day crucified, wherefore that is a day of great reverence.
The date had also borne a millenarian interpretation in the Frankish empire in the tenth century: it was prophesied that the world would come to an end with the coincidence of the Annunciation with the date of Good Friday in the year 970. Abbo of Fleury, a tenth-century Benedictine monk, refuted both this and other apocalyptic predictions. (The two feasts coincided twice more before the year 1000.)
In England, where Annunciation Day is traditionally known as Lady Day, March 25 was considered the beginning of the year up until the mid-eighteenth century. The “quarter days” of the English medieval year—Lady Day, Midsummer Day (the feast of Saint John the Baptist), Michaelmas Day (the feast of the archangel Michael), and Christmas Day—divided the year into four periods of about three months. These Christian feasts were celebrated in conjunction with the dates of the spring equinox, the summer solstice, the autumnal equinox, and the winter solstice, and were used to fix the dates for payment of rents, the terms of leases, and the hiring of servants or agricultural laborers, in a system that persisted until well after the close of the Middle Ages.
Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Stevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1999.