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Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation in the Cortona Altarpiece

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1433-1434

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation in the Cortona Altarpiece is beautiful, and filled with religious symbolism meant to expound on the doctrines surrounding Christ incarnation.

You can view this post in a video here. 

Who was Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar, who was also an early Italian Renaissance painter. He was a friar first, a painter second. A spiritual man who sought to live out the religious truths he held, Fra Angelico created art to bring others into closer communion with God.

When Angelico joined the Dominican order, he changed his name to Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, or Father John of Fiesole. Later he was nicknamed Fra Beato Angelico, or Fra Angelico. His modest piety and his beautiful paintings earned him the nickname Father Angel, or Father Beautiful Angel. Now he is almost universally referred to as Fra Angelico.

The Dominican Order

The vast majority of his works were done for the monastery in San Marcos where he lived. During an extensive restoration, Fra Angelico was commissioned to take on the decorating of the building, creating a unified message for the monks who lived there.

The Dominicans were largely learned, urban individuals who embraced a contemplative life style. The order valued education and produced many of the theologians and philosophers of the middle ages. Dominicans believed that preaching was not done by words alone, but also by example.

The motto of the Dominicans is ‘docere verbo et exemplo” or to teach by word and example. Their lives, transformed by the practice of meditation, prayer, and contemplation were to be an integral part of their preaching. Study and contemplation were their chosen method of overcoming threats to the church. The Dominicans considered art to be a useful vehicle to teach and educate, and they supported many artists.

Fra Angelico was commissioned to create a fresco inside each of the cells (bedrooms) of his fellow friars. Each cell had a large work that aided the monk who lived there in his daily devotions. These paintings were only seen by the one monk living in the cell, yet they are complex, beautiful, fully realized works.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation for the Church of Gesu of Cortona

As one would suppose, Fra Angelico’s art revolved around religious themes. One of his favorite subjects was the Annunciation. Fra Angelico was influenced by the International Gothic style, by the colors of Sienna and by Giotto’s work. His work has the elements of the early Renaissance, while retaining the elegant lines of Gothic painting.

The piece we will focus on is an altarpiece, sometimes called a retable. That means that the piece sits on the altar, or on a table placed behind the altar, as opposed to a piece which sits on the floor.  It was first made for the Church of Gesu of Cortona, but has since been moved into the Museo Diocesano in Cortona. When this painting is referred to, the city of Cortona is always included so this is The Annunciation of Cortona. This is necessary because Fra Angelico painted many Annunciations.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation of Cortona, Museo Diocesano in Cortona. 1433-1434

Gabriel and Mary in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

As we read this work we have the angel Gabriel arriving from the left to tell Mary that she is going to have a child. Mary is seated on the right, in a portico, reading her Bible. Gabriel is clothed in glory, quite literally as we see the rays of golden light shining around him. The sumptuous pink color and gold thread of the robe evokes the riches of heaven. His wings are luminous. The angel has just stepped into Mary’s garden and is intent on sharing the message he has been entrusted with. His head is jutted forward, his eyes intent on Mary.

The Connection Emphasized

Each figure is framed by their own arch, yet even with a column between them, they are connected by their eyes, and by the words that pass between them.  Their bodies echo each other leaning together, Gabriel’s posture can almost be interpreted as bowing to Mary.  Mary and Gabriel are also connected by Gabriel’s gesture toward Mary. In art it is always wise to take note of someone pointing. It’s as if the artist is saying, here…pay attention. In this case Gabriel is pointing with one hand to Mary, and with the other to God, as he explains why he has come. Mary and Gabriel are both spatially and spiritually connected in this moment.

Mary is seated with her arms crossed signifying humble acceptance. Mary is listening intently to the angel and making eye contact. In many Annunciations Mary has her gaze averted, but here we see her gaze is on Gabriel, as if she doesn’t want to miss anything this angelic emissary has to say.

Humanity and Divinity Connect in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

Virgin Mary from the Cortona AnnunciationSeated on a throne, we see a foreshadowing of Mary’s future when she will be referred to as Queen of Heaven. Fra Angelico is not trying to recreate a historically accurate image of the Angel’s visit to Mary, but a theologically correct image. Angelico knows that Mary was a common young girl who would not have been arrayed in wealthy clothes, but he is communicating the mystery of the incarnation (God taking on flesh) and so Mary wears rich clothing edged in gold and is seated upon a throne, indicating her position in the spiritual realm.

Mary is clothed in a red robe, the color of blood and earth, a symbol of humanity. She is covered by a blue cloak denoting divinity, heaven and royalty. Red and blue are commonly used by artists in this time period to emphasize the human mother, Mary, is carrying the divine within her. The color blue will commonly signify the Virgin Mary, but particularly during the period she is ‘with child’. For viewers this helped to make visual the idea of the incarnation, that Christ left heaven and took on flesh, not only that he came to earth, but that he came as a helpless baby.

This coming together of humanity and divinity is hard to fully grasp.  To elaborate on this idea we have the Angel Gabriel, a divine being, stepping into the walled garden, the world, bringing the message that the God of heaven, in this very moment, is entering into Mary, a human. The Annunciation is the moment of the incarnation and Fra Angelico uses multiple visual clues to remind us of this fact.

The DoveDetail from Fra Angelico's Cortona Annunciation

Above Mary, in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, we see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit in a burst of light. The Bible says that Mary will conceive a child miraculously by the Holy Spirit.  Just above the dove is a roundel with an older, bearded man. Some have interpreted this to be God the Father, who is watching the unfolding scene, others believe this  is the prophet Isaiah who prophesied, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (which means God with us).”

Hieratic scale

We should also note that Mary and the Angel are too large for the building they are in. If Mary were to stand, her head would come to the ceiling. Again, Fra Angelico, while painting a realistic image in many ways is more concerned with communicating spiritual truths, and he makes use of hieretic scale, meaning the size of figures informs us as to their importance. A detail from Fra Angelico's Cortona Annunciation

The Lines of Scripture in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

The words that Mary and Gabriel exchange are written in the air between them. Gabriel’s sentences are the top and bottom ones, the middle line is Mary speaking.  Gabriel says,  “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee.” Mary answers, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The interesting thing about these painted words is that Mary’s are upside down and read from right to left. This is because we are not the ones who are supposed to read the words, God is, and so they are oriented for God’s view.

 

Perspective

As we move to the secondary scene in the work I want you to note the colonnades that run down the side of the building behind the angel. The way the columns are painted is what is meant by perspective. Using mathematics, artists began to create a focal point, generally on the horizon line (where the sky meets the earth) and to draw parallel lines out from that point so that they could orient objects correctly so that the images have depth. Think of train tracks, as they disappear in the distance they appear to come together. In this painting, the vanishing point is to the left, unusual for Fra Angelico. The pillars get smaller in an orderly way and appear to recess back into space. The same is true for the furniture inside of the room. Once an artist decided on the vanishing point, he could orient everything else using math so that it presented a realistic space.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation was painted during the transition from the Byzantine and Gothic styles to the fully realized style of the Italian Renaissance. Artists were beginning to create more realism with perspective, while still hanging onto many of the devices of the early styles, like the use of hieratic scale. Angelico was that unique artist who was influenced by the Humanism and realism of Giotto while not rejecting the older International Gothic Style. Without copying either, Angelico creates his own unique melding of the old with the new giving us the best of both worlds.

Another Garden in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

Detail from Fra Angelico's The Annunciation. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden.

Along the top of the colonnades is an entablature, and a pink line runs through it.  If you follow that line you will come to a secondary scene painted in the top left corner. This is the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The angel with a sword is sending a grieving Adam and Eve out of paradise.

As we’ve noted in earlier articles, it was common to include references to Christ death in the paintings related to his birth. In the same way, it was also common for artist to look back, back to where the whole story started. Why was a Savior needed? Why did God need to come as a baby to save His people? Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, their story is a key element in the nativity story.

In Christian doctrine, Jesus is sometimes referred to as the second Adam. Just as sin came into the world through one man, Adam, so would salvation be brought by one man, Christ. In the same vein, Eve was the first to eat the fruit, and was the mother of all and passed original sin onto all of humanity. In the same way, Mary, would bear the Savior and through her delivery she would deliver the world. Mary is sometimes referred to as the second Eve. Mary’s obedience, seen in this moment when she says “Be it done to me, according to your word.” negates the disobedience of Eve and begins the salvation story.

Detail from Fra Angelico's Cortona AnnunciationThe Temple Curtain, Mary and the Ark of the Covenant

Behind the Angel Gabriel and Mary is a doorway, and if we look closely we can see a red curtain hanging inside. The curtain is a complicated piece of imagery that takes a bit to unpack.

To understand the curtain iconography, we must first understand a few things about the Temple. The Temple complex is divided into distinct spaces. The central area is known as the Holy of Holies. The progression starts in the outer courts. This is where the Gentiles (non-Jews) and women were allowed to be. Next we come to the Court of Israel, the area restricted to Jewish men who met laws of cleanliness (for example, if you had touched a dead body you would have to go through rituals of cleansing before being allowed in the temple). Beyond that were areas only the priests could enter, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was only accessed once a year by one priest. In essence the story of the temple is one of excluding greater and greater numbers of people as one approaches the Holy of Holies. There was a 4 inch thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the sanctuary. That curtain was the final symbol of humanity’s separation from God, of our expulsion from his presence.

Expulsion from Eden and the Holy of Holies

In the top left corner of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, we have seen Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Prior to this Adam and Eve had walked in the garden in complete communion with God, then they sinned and were expelled.

The Temple was a physical reminder as men walked into it of their separation from God. They could no longer freely enter into his presence, death was the punishment for entering the Holy of Holies. Only once per year would a representative of the nation pass beyond the curtain into the Holy of Holies, and there would make sacrifices for the sins of the people.

The Rending of the Curtain

When Christ was crucified, the Temple curtain was torn from top to bottom. This rending of the veil signified the work that Christ’s sacrifice had accomplished. With his death and resurrection the stain of sin was removed and mankind was free once again to enter into God’s presence and enjoy the communion with him that Adam and Eve had experienced in the garden.

The Curtain Imagery and Mary

So why is the curtain included in an Annunciation painting? The Annunciation is considered to be the moment of the miraculous conception. If we were in any doubt that this was the case artist traditionally include the dove descending to Mary to indicate that she will be with child by the Holy Spirit. The time that Mary is with Child she is sometimes referred to as the new Ark of the Covenant. Just as the original Ark was said to contain the uncontainable God, or his presence, so Mary now contains God. In Mary’s case, the doctrine goes beyond her containing God’s presence, but that she actually contains God in the flesh. This is the miracle of the incarnation. The incarnation is the idea of God taking on human flesh to redeem his people.

The moment Mary humbly accepts the Angel’s words the salvation narrative that will end with that torn curtain begins. Most annunciation and nativity art includes some reference to Christ death as we will see in other works in this series. In this particular painting the artist has linked the expulsion from the garden, or our separation from God, to the curtain in the temple, or our reunion with God, creating in this one work the completed cycle.

The Predella Contains the First Identifiable Landscape in Italian Painting

View of the entire Cortona Altarpiece by Fra Angelica
Altarpiece by Fra Angelico, The Annunciation. in Museo Diocesano in Cortona 1433-1434

On an Art History side note, the altarpiece contained seven additional paintings in the predella, or base. These were small pictures meant to praise the virgin. On one of these, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, we have the first identifiable landscape in Italian painting. It is the view of Lake Trasimeno, that would be seen from Cortona.

 

Continue the Advent in Art Journey– Day 8 Merode Altarpiece Campin Backstory & Campin Hidden Meanings

If you would like to explore more about Temple imagery and its connection to the Garden of Eden I would recommend this article.

Additional Notes

Artists during the Middle Ages and Renaissance frequently consulted extra Biblical sources to help them find more images and symbols to add to their paintings. One of these sources was the Proto-evangelium of James. According to this source Mary served in the temple as a young woman. One of the jobs that was assigned to her was to spin the thread and help weave a new curtain for the temple. In fact, she was in the act of spinning when the Angel Gabriel arrived with his announcement that she would conceive.

Artist’s began including Temple imagery into Annunciation paintings because of they saw the connection between The Ark of the Covenant, Mary and the Ark, and the symbolism of the curtain.

Sources

E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website  www.nga.gov

Metropolitan Museum of Art website  www.metmuseum.org

The Getty Center www.getty.edu

Let’s Explore Art    www.letsexploreart.wordpress.com

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

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