Annunciation (Fra Angelico): A Spiritual Gem of Renaissance
As I dived into the ocean of sculptures and architecture through official records and archaeological studies of India, I found that most sculptures never in India were initially never sculptures. In fact, what we see today as sculptures are the parts of architectural buildings; which tended to break from their structure. And in between all these, one of the most surprising aspects was that only the people who actually saw God were supposed to make paintings and carvings of God as the only spiritually awakened saints could make them. These were specially called Bhakti paintings. Now coming to the Renaissance in Europe, a similar spirituality was considered. You might see numerous artists painted Christ and Madonnas, but only a few of them could really crack them up such that viewers were astonished on seeing them as if you could really communicate with them. One of the most spiritual paintings of all time which even Vasari pointed out in his Lives of Eminent Painters and Sculptors, is from the artist Fra Angelico. I will address him as Father as he is the most spiritual artist of all time who purely dedicated his life to God's love. Vasari points out that he received many commissions in his lifetime, but just for the path of love from God, he neglected those. Today to honour his dedication and spirit, we are learning about one of the most spectacular artworks from the period, the Annunciation (Fra Angelico). Hold me to the end to know about it.
1. Artist Statement.
We don't know the statements from the father but one of the quotes by which Vasari intended to describe him says,
"Fra Giovanni Angelico da Fiesole, who was known in the world as Guido, was no less excellent as painter and illuminator that he was upright as a churchman, and for both one ad the other of these reasons he deserves that most honourable record should be made of him. This man, although he could have lived in the world with the greatest comfort and could have gained whatever he wished, besides what he possessed, by means of those arts, of which he had a very good knowledge even in his youth, yet resolved, for his peace and satisfaction, being by nature serious and upright."
In the words of John Ruskin, in Modern Painters, Volume II, he describes Father Guido as,
"Fra Angelico is not an artist properly so called, but an inspired saint."
2. Subject Matter.
The still and meditative tableau of Annunciation (Fra Angelico) depicts one of the defining moments of the Christian tradition when Archangel Gabriel announces Virgin Mary that she is chosen to be the mother of Christ. Hence, the subject matter of this artwork is the Archangel Gabriel and Virgin Mary. The presence of a diagonal shaft of holy light falling on Mary illuminates the intense ultramarine of her cloak and the complementary peach tones of her dress. On the other hand, Gabriel is shining with a gold-patterned robe and a similar shade to Mary's dress. We will do an extensive breakdown of the composition through elements and will learn it in-depth in upcoming sections.
Born Guido de Petro, Fra Angelico painted the Annunciation of San Marco. This Father composed many fine frescoes and altarpieces using fine lines, light and pure colours inspired by artists like Pietro della Francesca. He illustrated and illuminated manuscripts when he joined the Dominican order as Fiesole near Florence. It is crucial to know that Fra Giovanni was the name Father's disciples would call him, and Angelico (angelic) was probably added to his name after his death.
Apart from the church's patronage, he received other commissions, which let him travel widely in his later years. However, the best of his works can be visible in the San Marco monastery of Florence from 1440.
The Annuciation (Fra Angelico, San Marco) was composed in the years 1441 to 45.
Perspective has a dual power, and it can seriously create a barrier of space beyond the material boundary of the picture plane. We can see from this canvas that perspective plays a crucial role here. Little do we know about this altarpiece is that the paintings and frescoes made by Fra Angelico at different points in his career revisited the theme of the Annunciation. For instance, an altarpiece for San Domenico in Cortona, Tuscany, also depicts the Annunciation in Madrid around the same time. Cortona's altarpiece, while similar in composition, is more decorative and features gold text flowing from the archbishop's and Mary's mouths. Annunciation by Fra Angelico is one of his third celebrated frescoes, a work that can be seen in the dormitory staircase of the convent of San Marco near Florence. In contrast to the two earlier versions, which are dramatic and colourful, this image is serene and pure. To know the entire background of the altarpiece, you have to wait for the upcoming sections.
Fra Angelico's Annunciation resides in the north corridor, the south wall of Museo di San Marco.
7. Technique and Medium.
The painting has a medium of tempera on the Panel. Using linear perspective, Father convinced the viewer that the area within the classical portico structure is tangible and has three-dimensional space. The canvas dates from the Early Renaissance period and has few elaborate techniques when the Gothic conventions were given away.
There are Corinthian columns in the painting, which decrease in size and recede into the background, and arches in the ceiling appear to be rising.
Tempera on panel
230 x 321 cm
Not on sale
Where is it housed?
Museo di San Marco
A Detailed Explication of Annunciation (Fra Angelico).
About the Artist: Fra Angelico.
Born as Guido, Fra Angelico, the Dominican Friar, was born in 1387 at Vicchio near Florence. Before we read anything about the artist, you must know that we really don't know anything about him. For instance, we are unaware of his birth date, home and father's name. There is a vast gap of at least twenty years, which lies in the shadows. Whatever we know about him is through a brief account of Vasari and then his commissions.
One of the first works in his paintings was a panel in the Certosa of Florence, placed in the principal chapel, where Father painted the Madonna with the Child in her arms and beautiful angels at her feet. Beloved for his merits, this father was accompanied by his brother, Benedetto, to reach the convent and seek a religious life. As I previously stated that we don't know about his earlier life. So what remains for the study is his artworks.
Another well-known early work of this father was The Last Judgement, which is in Accademia in Florence. It consists of a marvellous group of angels solemnly dancing in a ring before Christ.
And the best-known composition from the artist is the Madonna dei Linaioli. Surrounded by twelve angels on the frame, they each hold a musical instrument, catching a public fancy in a way that no other works of the artist could do. The shimmering-pleasant colour, graceful forms, and charming look form a rigid structure of the canvas.
We've already seen a brief overview of his works, and now let's move on to the actual reason for our visit, to learn about one of his most perfect paintings, The Annunciation.
History and Background of the Artwork.
As I said, we don't know anything historical about the life and conventional stories of the artist. But there is a lot to know about the altarpiece, Annunciation (Fra Angelico).
If one wants to learn more about this father's art style and values, he must visit the famous Museo di San Marco. In addition to being a Renaissance structure, the building is a shrine to the artist's work, which is still a religious building today. The artist gave it a form of decoration with zeal and emotion, characterising his finest efforts. Hence, the first thing we study here is the Museo di San Marco!
Upon entering the shrine, you are immediately attracted to the Christ on the cross with Saint Dominic, which can be found at the end of the corridor and opposite the main entrance, a magnificent representation of dignity with a pitiful expression.
And over the doors, you will find five exquisite lunettes, out of which one Sacristy door is Saint Peter Martyr, which indicates the rule of silence. On the walls of the refectory stand Christ with the wound prints, his head and face of wondrous beauty, while over the doors to the Foresteria or guesthouse stand the lunette of Christ as a pilgrim, and Saint Thomas Aquinas over another wall. There are the following scenes, which one could see:
Noli me tangere
The Madonnas and Saint Joseph Adoring the Divine Child.
The buffeting of Christ. Here the hands do not have bodies and are the mouths which spit over him, producing a subtle effect. The artist address to the Saviour, "Prophesy unto us, O Christ, who is he that struck thee?"
The Coronation of the Virgin
The Presentation in the Temple
The Madonna and Child with Saint Francis and Saint Dominic.
Now the story starts with the year 1441 when this father received the commission to paint a large Annunciation, that can be visible to all in Lay brothers' corridor and opposite the opening of a staircase linking the dormitory storey with the walkway below. Therefore, the father decided to pierce through the corner range containing the friars' cell with a wide fictive window, whose jambs, stills, and lintel were painted to look like pietre serene. Furthermore, enclosing a window, he depicted a loggia of slender columns with an opening onto a garden of flowers. It made friars and visitors admire and enter into the world of fresco with an experience of the space and time of the event as if the incarnation is real and immediately present.
Annunciation (Fra Angelico) was centered purposefully so that the outer left edge of the penultimate column of the loggia meets the centre of the fictive frame window and the stairway through which the painting is first seen. Thus, he sacrificed the right third bay of the loggia but depicted a garden and wood beyond it on the left. Using a compositionally dynamic high horizon line and a lateral vanishing point within the cell window, the artist desired to provide the viewer with the maximum area of the light-filled loggia and highlight the light diffusion.
Now, let me tell you how Fra Angelico painted the famous Annunciation of San Marco. So, once he prepared colours, he used to divide the surface into gironate. And at first, he used to paint the background of the upper part of the fresco and then the artist executed the capitals in the middle zone, finally completing the loggia on successive days. The bays, mounted frontally, have semicircular arches with unmoulded capitals topped by shafts with marked entasis. As in the cloister, their sides are foreshortened and recede in perspective, with arches and vaults resting on Ionic capitals. This way, this father successfully formed a grandeur of the composition, along with the humility and expressiveness of the Virgin's glory and innocence.
Understanding the Meaning of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation.
The compositional meaning is simple, which says that Gabriel announces Mary as God's choice for the birth of Christ.
Let us read Luke 1:28-33 to understand the entire story. It says,
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee.
27. to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
28. The angel went to her and said, Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.
29. Mary was greatly troubled by his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
30. But the angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God.
31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.
32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.
33. And he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.
34. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35. The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
36. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.
38. I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
The artist portrayed this narration in his altarpiece, Annunciation (Fra Angelico).
Subject Matter Analysis of the Renaissance Masterpiece.
It is finally time when we carefully analyse the Annunciation painting by Fra Angelico and see all the elements within it. I am breaking the components as it will make your reading uncomplicated.
1. Angel Gabriel.
Bowing in homage, Gabriel is the angel with magnificent variegated wings, painted in Terre Verte, white, red and yellow ochres, seeming motionless. He wears a tunic which is rich caput mortuum coloured mixed with red ochres, edged and embroidered with golds, falling from the shoulder and gathered in wide folds at the waist. The tunic is further brightly illuminated at the back and touches the ground in light-angled folds, drawing in such a way that there is slight friction to the marble floor. He looks almost childlike, which gives him an appearance of innocence. Hands cross over his chest, lit by a diffused radiance, the flesh is in lighter tones and illuminated by white and soft pinkish ochres. With half-closed eyelids than his mouth, Annunciation by Fra Angelico shows him with expressions of smile and reassurance.
In her gaze, the Virgin accepts the archangel's presence and prepares herself to welcome the Holy Spirit. Sitting on a simple stool in front of her room, she sits with the view of a garden or enclosed garden by a Lord, a metaphor for Mary. She is slightly bent in the forward direction as she brings her hand up to her breast. With a diaphanous-complexion on her face, she looks Holy and innocent. She wears a tunic with the same ochre shade as the loggia, not adding any more pigment. An imposing mantle of intense azurite, outlined in gold and lined in precious malachite, is applied a secco over a black ground.