Welcome to Day 7.
Today we meet Fra Angelico. An early Italian Renaissance painter who was also a Dominican friar. When he joined the 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.
As one would suppose, his 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 Cartona is always included so this is The Annunciation of Cortona. This is necessary because Fra Angelico painted many Annunciations.
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.
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. The are also connected by Gabriel’s gesture toward Mary. In art it is always advantageous 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. She is again clothed in a red robe, the color of blood and earth, covered by a blue cloak denoting divinity or heaven. The red and blue was a regular symbol used by artists in this time period that emphasized the human mother carrying the divine within her. It reminds me of a line from the song, ‘Mary Do You Know’ that says, And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.
This coming together of humanity and divinity is hard to fully grasp. Gabriel stepping into the walled garden is a visual picture of the divine coming into the mortal world, and the message that he brings is the same, the divine Christ is in that moment literally coming into the world.
Above Mary, we see the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit in a burst of light. Just above the dove in a roundel 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).
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Fra Angelico was, by all accounts, a deeply pious and gentle man who sought to paint the sacred stories in such a way as to provide a visual meditation of the spiritual meaning of Biblical accounts. By including all of the details that he does, he hopes that as this painting sits on the altar, worshipers will view it and mediate on its meaning and implications. I’m guessing he would not be happy that the painting now sits in a museum admired by patrons who probably only know he is considered a great artist and that the painting is pretty, but unaware of the deep spiritual depths contained in the work.
On an Art History side note, the altarpiece contained four 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.
Altarpiece by Fra Angelico, The Annunciation. in Museo Diocesano in Cortona 1433-1434
You can find other articles in this series here.
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.