During the celebration of 200 years since its foundation, one of the most interesting exhibitions at Prado Museum is “Fra Angelico and the rise of the Florentine Renaissance”.
The event arises from the restoration of the Annunciation, which the Florentine painter created in 1426 and which is currently part of the museum’s collections. The work has finally been restored to its original splendour and will also mark the starting point for in-depth studies on the painter with the production of monographs and documentaries.
Beato Angelico was a Dominican friar who went by the name Fra [Brother] Giovanni and Guido di Pietro. He took his vows in 1418 in the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole. His artistic training took place within the context of Gothic miniature, where he had developed a meticulous and refined style. However, a new way of painting was taking place in Florence, a style devoid of Gothic elegance but attentive to mankind, his emotions and the physical space in which he moved. This was the Renaissance.
Beato Angelico lived along the dividing line between two worlds. On the one hand, there was the dying gothic style, with almost unreal colours in their preciousness. On the other hand, there was the new language of the Renaissance, naturalistic, with scenes set in a real space and psychological introspection.
Compared to other painters of his generation, he showed a strong didactic vocation. For the Dominicans, preaching was a fundamental moment, the rule required to “contemplate and transmit to others that which was contemplated”. In Fra’ Angelico’s mindset, painting was prayer and contemplation. It served to divulge the sacred doctrine as it was in the Middle Ages. Therefore, art was an intellectual activity, albeit in a minor tone compared to theology and philosophy. His adherence to the new Renaissance style does not come from a simple desire for innovation, but rather from the search for a more clear and engaging rendering of artistic content.
History of an Iconography
The representation of the Annunciation is ancient. We saw it for the first time in the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, in the first half of the III century CE, when the Roman Empire was still strong. In this image, Mary on the left is dressed like a rich Roman matron with a tunic and pallium, while she welcomes an angel in the form of a man – without wings – who carries a stick. The model is that of the emperors of the Late Empire, who held the stick-sceptre in their hands as a symbol of the power they carried. Therefore, the angel-man bearing the staff testifies to being invested with authority, confirming himself as a messenger of the will of God. This scheme of the Annunciation would remain unchanged throughout the early Christian Age. Mary, the regal mother of Jesus, sits on the throne the angel on the left who speaks in the name of an emperor-God. Consequently, this scene of such power would continue unchanged in the Byzantine East.
In the West, on the other hand, during the Middle Ages the situation changed and we witnessed a “humanization” of the scene. Giotto is a fine example. The Madonna is no longer a queen, rather she is placed in a domestic context. The positions are reversed – the angel is on the left and no longer bears the sceptre but the lily. The scene is constructed according to a bipartite outline, on one side there is the angel and on the other the Madonna. In the middle, there is always something that marks the separation between the two fields. This could be a column, a lectern, a flowerpot or something else.
On the threshold of the Renaissance, the structure of the scene is unchanged, along with the symbolic apparatus. However, there is a focus on the expressions of the protagonists. There is still something left of the original solemnity, for example in the fabric that is sometimes stretched behind the shoulders of the Madonna. This is reminiscent of the drapery of honour, the fabric that was spread behind the emperor to emphasize the importance of the role.
The Prado Annunciation
This work is a large square altarpiece, whose central panel measures 154×194 cm. There are three pieces by Beato Angelico with the same subject, however this work, painted in around 1426, marked a turning point. This Annunciation decorated the church of the convent of S. Domenico in Fiesole. For the first time we see the new poetic of light fully expressed in his painting. Furthermore, next to the “divine” light, which is the symbolic medieval light represented by a parallel bundle of golden straight lines that start from the hand of God, another natural light appears. This is the “rational” light that creates shadows and volumes, creating clear geometric spaces. This is the light discovered by the Renaissance.
God appears twice. There is a hand that produces the ray of light on Mary (which indicates the descent of the Holy Spirit as seen in dove inserted inside), as well as a face carved in the central tondo of the portico.
Compared to traditional iconography, the scene is not bipartite, but rather tripartite. The space of the angel is the connection between the terrestrial garden where we find Adam and Eve and the place for Mary. The presence of the Progenitors is not a canonical element – this arises from the desire to remember the Original Sin that made the Incarnation necessary. Therefore, starting from the left there is disobedience (sin) then the saving action of God (the announcement of the angel) and finally the point of arrival, meaning obedience (Mary accepts the high task).
Regarding the rest of the piece, the layout is traditional. Even the setting is what was being defined in the Renaissance, in this case the portico, an intermediate space between the inside and the outside. Specifically, this portico recalls Michelozzo, the Medici’s favourite architect. For this important family, he had created in their neighbourhood, San Lorenzo, numerous renovations such as the family palace and the convent of S. Marco where Fra’ Angelico resided.
A chronological reference also appears in the work. By tradition, the story of the Annunciation takes place on March 25th. The swallow resting on the bar of the arch above Mary is an explicit reference to the date, however it is also an announcement of the new Christian spring.
Symbolism in the Prado Annunciation
Overall, we can say that setting is traditional and all the symbolic elements of tradition are present, starting with the iconic dove.
The association of the dove with the Annunciation took place in the early Christian era, although it was not very widespread due to the fact that the animal was associated with the cult of Venus-Isis, which at the time still had many devotees. Moreover, in the Gospels the dove did not appear at the time of the Annunciation, but rather during Baptism. The Council of Nicaea in 325 had certainly recognized the dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, however only in the 12th century would it become a canonical element of the Annunciation when the memory of the pagan cult had been definitively lost.
In the meantime, the angel has lost the stick, now bearing the lily. The first to use this was the Roman Pietro Cavallini in the 13th century. The lily referred to purity, but also to submission to the law of God. In fact, in the Gospel (Mt 6:28) Jesus invites us to be like the lilies of the fields that abandon themselves to the will of God. Therefore, Mary is compared to this flower as a perfect example of submission to God. However, there are multiple. Due to the fact that its reproduction was quite easy, the lily in the classical world was associated with fertility, and Christian iconography used this aspect as an allusion to Mary’s fruitful virginity. The custom of the lily spread especially in Florence, in light of the fact that the white iris (a variety of lily) has been an emblem of the city since the 11th century. An interesting fact is that the painter Simone Martini – originally from Siena, which is a rival to the city of Florence – replaced the lily with an olive branch in his Annunciation. A nice touch to express his hatred for Florence.
The canonical element is the enclosed garden (hortus conclusus), mentioned in the Song of Songs, an allusion to Mary’s virginity. The same can be said for the interior space that can be glimpsed from the portico, another fixed element that is traditionally placed in relation to Mary’s womb.
Symbolic plants also appear in the garden: the palm and the rose. The palm refers to the martyrdom of Jesus. The people of Jerusalem who welcomed Jesus wielded palm branches – this symbol has always been accompanied by martyrs but not by saints who have not suffered martyrdom. The red rose alludes to the passion of Christ, but also to Mary, who has among her attributes that of a mystic rose.
The Virgin wears a red robe that indicates her humanity as well as the colour of the passion of Jesus. Her humanity is covered by the divine, symbolized by the blue mantle that covers her, which is a reference to her spiritual dimension. In her hands she holds a book because with her came the holy words. Isaiah had prophesied that a virgin would give birth to a son.
In itself, this is simply a beautiful masterpiece, yet it is also full of messages to be decoded and interpreted.
Anna Maria Calabretta