This is a small-scale replica of the canvas on the same subject now in the Museo del Prado and was originally part of the altarpiece painted for the church of the Augustinian Colegio de Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación, commonly known as the Colegio de Doña María de Aragón after its founder. The church was consecrated in 1599 while the altarpiece was completed in July 1600 when a carter was hired to transport the elements and a person to assemble them from El Greco’s workshop in Toledo to Madrid. The altarpiece, one of the artist’s most spectacular works, was designed in two sections. It would seem that the principal element in the lower level was The Annunciation, flanked on the left by an Adoration of the Shepherds (now Muzeul National de Arta al Românei, Bucharest) and on the right by The Baptism of Christ (Museo del Prado,Madrid). The Crucifixion was the central element in the upper layer with The Resurrection on its left and The Pentecost on its right (all now in the Museo del Prado). This project marked a new departure in El Greco’s style in which he abandoned a naturalistic approach in favour of a subjective vision in which the forms expressed the spiritual message of the episodes depicted.
The present Annunciation was formerly in the Pascual collection in Barcelona, entering the Collection in 1954.Wethey noted that: “the brilliance and freshness of the colouring of this preliminary study are unparalleled except in the finished work”. El Greco organised the compositional space into two halves corresponding to the earthly and celestial realms. The earthly realm contains few concrete references apart from the reading desk and various attributes of the Virgin. The spatial context and any elements of the room have disappeared and the air that envelops the figures has an unreal atmosphere. El Greco focused on the moment when Mary accepts the message of the Archangel, which crosses its hands on its breast in a gesture of veneration. The upper half of the composition is filled with a cloud of glory in which a choir of musical angels playing instruments follow the directions of the one on the left who beats time, holding the score. El Greco unites the earthly and celestial realms with a ray of light made up of cherubims’ heads through which the dove of the Holy Spirit descends. The emotional force of the painting is increased by the use of contrasting colour and the style of the brushstroke.
Other reduced versions of paintings from the Altarpiece are known. There is another small-format version of The Annunciation in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao; the Galleria Nazionale de Arte Antica in Rome has small-format versions of The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Baptism of Christ; the Saint Louis Art Museum,Missouri, has The Resurrection; and a version of The Pentecost is in a private collection. Writing on the present canvas, Pérez Sánchez noted that its “high quality [...] obliges us to consider it an entirely autograph preliminary sketch or modello”.