The Annunciation by Fra Angelico
The Annunciation (c.1450)
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A masterpiece of Renaissance art, the Annunciation that Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro) painted for the north corridor of the San Marco convent is arguably his finest version of this traditional theme. Painted in fresco, it formed part of the decorative scheme at the Dominican convent in Florence - one of the most important sets of murals from the Renaissance in Florence. Financed by the Florentine Medici family, the commission was awarded around 1440 and included the convent's altarpiece together with more than fifty other frescoes. It followed the redesign and renovation of the entire friary - church, living quarters and library - by the architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, and the opening of the first public library since Antiquity, at a cost of more than thirty-six thousand ducats. A Dominican friar who was reportedly regarded as an inspired saint, Fra Angelico was in fact a highly talented painter fully in tune with artistic developments of the Early Renaissance, who travelled extensively and produced some of the greatest Christian art of the time - switching in the process from International Gothic to the modern Florentine idiom. He was a master of all mediums including panel paintings, fresco and tempera.
The Annunciation at San Marco Convent (North Corridor)
Dominican monks at San Marco followed a life of strict, devout worship and lived in simple, humble cells. Fra Angelico's Biblical art (concerning the Life and in particular the Passion of Christ, as well as regular themes like The Annunciation, The Adoration of the Magi, The Descent From the Cross, Madonna and Child with Angels and Saints, and others) were designed to aid their meditations and inspire their devotions. Fra Angelico's deeply moving Annunciation - which depicts the Virgin being told by Archangel Gabriel that she is to bear the child Jesus - located on the south wall of the north corridor, was deliberately positioned on the upper floor in front of the staircase, as an illusionary window, which looked out onto a garden and cloistered area. In this way, the artist brought the sacred scene of the Annunciation into the monks' perceived world of physical reality.
One of the last San Marco frescoes to be completed, this masterpiece of Early Renaissance painting was painted on Angelico's return from Rome in 1450. It shows Gabriel and the Virgin conversing in a cloister fringed with Corinthian columns. Mary is pictured seated within the cloister, which underlines her separateness from the world. The picture perfectly expresses the feeling of veneration on the part of Gabriel, as well as the submissive humility of the Madonna, while the gentle nature of the scene is reflected in the curves of both the figures and the architecture. Although the picture indicates good control of linear perspective, its lighting is rather inconsistent. Mary casts a shadow, but Gabriel does not - perhaps because he is a messenger of God. In addition, interior of the arcade is evenly lit throughout, despite the natural daylight coming from the left. Given the evenness of the lighting, the modelling of the figures owes more to Giotto (1267-1337) than to Masaccio (1401-1428) or, less still, Jan Van Eyck (c.1390-1441).
Fra Angelico's Annunciation at Cortona (c.1433)
Another famous version of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico is the tempera painting executed on wood for the altarpiece of the church of San Domenico at Cortona, now in the town's Museo Diocesano. An altogether richer, more decorative painting than the San Marco version, its figures of Gabriel and Mary are painted much larger than normal, in order to be more visible by the congregation, that was often seated some distance away. The ornate furnishings and robes glorify the splendour of God. In the far background, as if to illustrate his mastery of perspective, the artist inserted a miniature, shadowy Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Perhaps Fra Angelico is intimating that the birth of Christ will redeem Adam and Eve's original sin and bring us all back to brilliance. A number of small pictures painted in translucent colours for the base (predella) of the altarpiece feature additional stories of praise to the Virgin.
Fra Angelico's Annunciation in the Prado (c.1430)
This earlier Annunciation is the principal painting on the panel known as the Prado Altarpiece. The painting, which was originally commissioned for the Church of San Domenico in Fiesole, was later sold and taken to Spain. Underneath the Annunciation are five small scenes illustrating the story of the Virgin. They include: Mary's birth, her marriage to Saint Joseph, her visit to her cousin Saint Elisabeth, the birth of Jesus, and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The basic pictorial design of the main image of the Annunciation was reused by the artist in both the Cortona and San Marco versions.
Devoted exclusively to religious art, Fra Angelico is best known for his fresco paintings in San Marco. These can be divided into two groups: those pictures intended for communal contemplation (like the Annunciation), and those designed for private meditation by friars in their cells (like Noli Me Tangere, the Transfiguration and the Coronation of the Virgin). He utilized his art purely for didactic purposes - to pictorialize and illustrate the message of God - and, while influenced by both Giotto and Tommaso Masaccio, he personnifies how the new Renaissance mastery of architectural perspective accompanies a continuing delight in the Byzantine use of decorative gilding.
NOTE: Compare Fra Angelico's highly traditional Annunciation with the more modernist approach of Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556), one of the more unusual artists of the Venetian High Renaissance.
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