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The Hidden Meaning of Fra Angelico’s ‘Annunciation’

annunciation – en


Karen Andrews - published on 08/22/13

You've probably seen several of Fra Angelico's versions of the 'Annunciation' before, but there's one that breaks from tradition and has a special meaning for the Dominicans in whose monastery it was painted.

This week’s painting is chosen from the vast tradition of Western art, which – unlike the iconographic tradition that we examined last week – varies so much in style and content that it is usually possible to attribute a work to a particular artist or to his school.  However, although the various representations of Christ, Mary, the Angels and Saints, etc. may be as different as chalk and cheese, much of the symbolism contained within the works remains identical to that which we discussed last week.  This should come as no surprise when we remember that the whole purpose of this symbolism was to create a language that was accessible to both the educated and uneducated alike.  Therefore, the great Western masters carried on this language and added to it with ever greater complexity as time went on.

There are aspects of Western art that stand apart from iconography: for instance, there is a greater sense of drama in much of it, and the representations of the major figures were not drawn from the images of the past.  Many Western artists relied upon models who would pose for the various ‘likenesses,’ and therefore provide the features of the main characters in a particular work of art.  This fact alone has provided a great deal of friction between the two great artistic traditions, but for the average viewer, both are highly successful in revealing the mysteries of the Christian faith.

There is a very important point to consider here. As in iconography, Western sacred art did not set out to produce “tasteful” paintings to hang on our living room walls; they too were to provide a focus for prayer and for the Liturgy, and were “vessels” for reflection and for action.  With this in mind, I have chosen a work by the Dominican artist Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455 A.D).  It is a work that is beautiful in its simplicity, but which also demands a decision from the viewer – its simplicity is not to be taken lightly.

If you type “Fra Angelico’s Annunciation” into Google Images, you will see that a few of his works were given this title.  But unlike the image above, these others were richer in color and “grander” in their sense of drama.  However, I have deliberately chosen this more, for want of a better word, “simple” work to demonstrate that the context of a painting was very important.  This has to be taken into consideration as well as the content of the work, but before we do this, I would like you to look at one of his other “Annunciations” and see if there is anything that strikes you as different between the various depictions of Mary.

I think that you might suggest two main differences: the most obvious being that in the image we are considering, Mary is not wearing the traditional blue cloak that we are so used to seeing in pictures and on statues in Churches and in our homes.  The other main difference is that in our image Mary is kneeling; in Angelico’s other Annunciations, she is seated – this is very important.

Mary is traditionally painted wearing blue, which was used to represent Heaven.  There is a very sound reason for this: the pigment blue came from ground Lapis Lazuli, which was extremely expensive and therefore particularly pertinent that it represented the Heavenly.  When it is used on a representation of Mary, it is referring to her status as the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven.  If you were to surf the net for paintings of Mary up to the 17th or 18th century, you would find that in a great many of them she is seated on a throne-like chair that is very often a stone chair carved in such a way that it looks almost like church architecture.  Such symbolism covers many aspects of Church teaching on Mary – certainly to represent Mary as the Mother of God (Theotokos) and Queen of Heaven, but also, and perhaps more so for the intended audience, as Mother of the Church (there is a church document called Marialis Cultus by Pope Paul VI that covers all the titles of Mary).  Another title of Mary is “Seat of Wisdom” (Christ being Wisdom himself), and so artists had to present Mary in such a manner that much of this teaching would be recognized and understood.

Why then, did Fra Angelico seem to break with tradition in our chosen work?  The answer lies in the context of the work. This piece was originally commissioned for one of the cells (bedrooms) of the San Marco Dominican Priory in Florence.  If you care to visit the priory, you will see that every single cell has an Angelico fresco in it (a fresco is a work that is painted directly onto a wall rather than onto a canvas or wood).  In cell 3, our work is painted on the wall that also has a window on it and is opposite the bed.  This was carefully planned.  When the Dominican brother went to bed, or indeed arose in the morning, he was confronted with a single choice: look out of the window onto the things of this world, or look upon and contemplate the divine mysteries.

It is at this point that it becomes clear why Mary is not painted with all the finery of Heavenly blue or seated upon the magnificence of an architectural throne.  The work is entitled “The Annunciation,” but within Mary’s story, it is that precise moment at which she had to make a decision.  The Holy Spirit had not yet come upon her; she was not yet the “Seat of Wisdom,” but rather that young virgin whose “Yes” the whole world waited to hear.  It was the moment before all the grand titles could be applied to her, and so she is kneeling in humility and prayer at the moment of her decision rather than seated; the angel, bathed in the light of God, stands before her saying “Do not be afraid” rather than kneeling as the Holy Spirit comes upon her in Fra Angelico’s other Annunciations. 

Mary is the example that the Dominican brother is invited to emulate, and in case we (the viewer) miss this, Angelico has inserted a Dominican (possibly St. Dominic himself) standing in the shadows.  Note that he stands upon a small piece of green rug, representing creation.  The brother is still confined to the reality of this world; all he can do is stand in the shadows and reflect upon the scene before him and make his choice, just as Mary had done before him.

If you look at Angelico’s other Annunciations, you will see an abundance of symbolism: Mary wears both blue and red (on Mary, the red represents her maternity); there is an enclosed garden in the background, which represents her perpetual virginity; Adam and Eve appear in the background of one of them because Mary is the “New Eve”;  there is a blue ceiling with stars in the same work, which represents the cosmos (the Annunciation is a cosmic event affecting the whole of creation).  Do you now get a feel for the difference in the work here?  The context affected the way that Fra Angelico composed his work and used the symbolism; it was a tool designed to prompt the Dominican brother (and us, as the viewers in turn) into turning his back on the temptations of the world and copying the humility and simplicity of the Virgin Mother Mary, the pre-eminent member of the Church.

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