Painting of the month for September 2015

The Annunciation

c.1440. Fresco Convent of San Marco, Florence

I was recently daydreaming about my holiday in Florence, remembering the all beautiful art I saw there. Then flicking though my beloved copy of Gombrich’s The Story of Art this familiar image caught my eye. Although there are countless of Annunciation scenes in the history of painting, this one stands out to me. Baroque visions of dramatically posed figures in jewel colours with gilt or theatre-like backdrops of ancient ruins. But in this minimal and quiet version by Fra Angelico the story is at the core of the painting, and I think this is what makes it more powerful.

Although he spent the majority of his life in monasteries is known that Fra Angelico had some formal training in painting and illuminating. In 1436 he moved from his monastery in Fiesole to San Marco in Florence, and was commissioned to decorate the inside of the new monastery. The shape of this fresco painting fits into the corner of the room, the space of which is imitated in the image through linear perspective. We see whitewashed walls, a cross-vaulted ceiling and a loggia on the left. To the right we see the Virgin Mary in a plain pink dress. She is in the process of getting up from the wooden stool she was kneeling on. The book she holds in her right hand indicates that she has been interrupted whilst reading, but her face is calm and her expression is serious and ready to accept her fate. She is young, fair skinned and flaxen haired, all highlighted by a golden halo. Her long gown creates some ambiguity about what her body, as she appears elongated and disjointed. She looks up at the Angel Gabriel, whose youthful and serene face mirrors Mary’s and is equally as beautiful. He too has blonde hair and a golden halo, but he wears a darker pink than Mary. Both figures have crossed arms, creating a symmetry and sense of equilibrium in their bodies and their dialogue. His wings are the only detailed part of the painting, and are like that of an owl in pattern, but rainbow coloured. I love the flame at the top of his head, which brings a religious mysticism to the painting. There is a saint standing in between the columns on the left, perhaps St. Dominic as it is a Dominican monastery. He is an onlooker like us, making us feel that although we are not a part of the scene we are privileged to witness it.

There is a sense of idealisation about the figures, but all of the frescoes in San Marco had a purpose; to provide the monks there with a visual aid for prayer and meditation. Whoever inhabited this cell over the centuries lived with the image, which would have been a constant reminder and a comfort. During Fra Angelico’s time at this friary the notorious Savonarola was prior, heightening the adherence of the order’s rites. The painting is spare in detail and lacking rich colour, but it is all the more moving and evocative because of it. It is pure and gets to the core of the story, the word of God illustrated simply and elegantly. Like most religious art of this kind it wasn’t created for us to analyse or enjoy, which is perhaps why I have rambled on so long trying to find the right words.

"ANGELICO, Fra Annunciation, 1437-46 (2236990916)" by carulmare - ANGELICO, Fra Annunciation, 1437-46. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons -,_Fra_Annunciation,_1437-46_(2236990916).jpg#/media/File:ANGELICO,_Fra_Annunciation,_1437-46_(2236990916).jpg