In a portico full of lights and colors we are the spectators of the encounter between two mysterious characters. Both seem shy but aware of what’s coming, they tilt their heads and fold their hands. This picture so sweet, deep and full of dominant colors depicts one of the defining moments of the Christian tradition. Today we discover the Annunciation by Beato Angelico in the version preserved in the Prado in Madrid.
The story of the work
The Archangel Gabriel has just arrived and is about to start speaking and announcing to the Virgin Mary that she has been chosen by God to be the mother of Christ. And at that exact moment the Annunciation was born in the version of the Dominican friar Beato Angelico.
The work was created as a devotional panel for the altar of San Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence. And it not only tells of the moment of the Annunciation but also of other episodes. One in particular is visible behind the Angel and is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Other episodes instead relating to the story of Maria’s life are told in the predella below the work.
The predella of The Annunciation by Beato Angelico
But what is a predella and why is it considered part of the work? The predella is a horizontal band, therefore a real panel depicting religious scenes. And it was often created at the base of a polyptych or an altarpiece as an actual part of the work. If we imagine it as a story it is as if they were introductory chapters of a book that better explain the heart of the story and introduce us to the characters. In this case the life of Mary who is one of the protagonists of the image.
And in this case the predella is part of the work even more because it transforms it into a perfect square so it really is an unmissable piece.
The details of the work
But returning to the central work. The two protagonists are Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. On the left a diagonal ray of light falls on Maria, illuminating her very intense blue cloak and peach-pink dress.
The Divine Light
This light diagonally crossing the painting represents the omnipotent presence of God. It appears to start from a sun on the left and then the golden ray touches the golden halo of the archangel and spreads before Mary. Within this ray of light a white dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, which marks the moment of conception.
Mary in Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation
Mary’s face is portrayed as that of a shy young woman and perhaps a little frightened by the situation. And at the same time it allows us to see Beato Angelico’s skill and experience in painting the details. In fact, as an artist he begins as a miner of manuscripts, and therefore has a real aptitude for the representation of detail.
Moreover, the pose of Mary, with her hands crossed, symbolizes her submission to the will of God. And being the protector of the Dominican friars to which Beato angelico belongs, she also plays a central role in her personal history.
The Archangel Gabriel
On the other side of the central column is the Archangel Gabriel. She wears a gold and pink robe of a similar shade to Maria’s dress. The halo around his head was made with a worked gold leaf, burnished then made darker in practice. This well-kept halo has the purpose of strengthening the divinity of the character, who is after all the messenger of God. From his back the two wings are born, also these of a golden color and super detailed. Each feather is carefully depicted and it almost seems as if you can feel the weight of these wings on her back.
The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise
The tips of Gabriel’s wings come out of the porch to the left and allow us to shift our gaze to another scene. This time a scene from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It is about theexpulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, an episode which adds a lot of drama to the whole painting and which gives one more piece of information: in fact Christ will be born on earth to save humanity from original sin.
The somewhat dejected, I would say downcast figures of Adam and Eve have literally fallen from God’s grace and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. And the step itself is decorated with plants so detailed it looks like a medieval tapestry. In fact, in making these field flowers in the foreground, Beato Angelico’s work tells of the influence of the Gothic style on his works. At their feet on the ground there seems to be a red apple, like that of Snow White, the forbidden fruit. And they themselves move beyond the frame of the painting, as if they were about to leave the painting.
Sculpted head and swallow
Two other interesting details are found in the central scene. Above the central column of the portico is the carved head of a bearded man. This is an image of God, the all-seeing and knowing Father.
Perched on the central column, above the heads of Mary and Gabriel and immediately below the image of God, there is instead a swallow. Probably this symbolizes the resurrection of Christ. Just as Christ dies and then is reborn, in fact the swallow disappears, only to return every spring. Thus we have in the work Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The composition, technique and colors of The Annunciation by Beato Angelico
From the point of view of the composition, finally, the two figures of Mary and Gabriel complement each other thanks to the play of curves of their positions. And Fra Angelico in my opinion managed very well to represent the intensity of their meeting. But there is also a sense of tranquility, which makes the work almost perfect.
In fact, this precious work shows Fra Angelico’s strong powers of observation and skill. The use of light, bright colors and the naturalness of the poses make the characters quite realistic. And then, furthermore, the architectural structure created with the columns and the open chamber at the back give the sense of depth and create the impression that both figures are inside a real and physical space.
Let’s say that it is a precise example of the concept of space we talked about in the video on the 7 elements of a work of art.
The perspective in The Annunciation by Beato Angelico
And Beato Angelico to give this sensation uses the linear perspective which serves to convince us that we are also inside a real and three-dimensional space. But the beauty in my opinion is that we are exactly halfway between Gothic and Renaissance. All the lines create a three-dimensional space contrary to what happened in the Gothic style but they do not reach the central vanishing point as will happen from the Renaissance onwards.
His being an experimenter but not too much, however, is not a coincidence. Beato Angelico has in fact painted many altarpieces and frescoes which are all characterized by simple lines and very bright colours. For him, painting was an act of devotion and in my opinion his works seem to convey the strength and inspiration he draws from his Christian faith, but also from the beauty he sees in the world around him.
If you’ve come this far, welcome to the #arteclub for all art enthusiasts who want to find out more about the work or the artist of the day.
The Annunciation in other works by Beato Angelico
Beato Angelico revisited the theme of the Annunciation in the paintings and frescoes created at different times in his career. This Madrid Annunciation is done at about the same time as another altarpiece for the church of San Domenico in Cortona, Tuscany. And Beato Angelico also created a very famous third Annunciation, the fresco for the convent of San Marco, near Florence.
I remember perfectly on a school trip to Tuscany in high school trying to go and visit the convent in Florence and instead ending up in the police station due to a missing wallet. A crazy mess. But then at university from Milan I went to Florence many times and in one of these I was able to visit the convent even in the spring and I recommend it because it is a fantastic experience, even for those like me who are not believers.
This work at the convent of San Marco compared to the other two previous versions is much more a much more serene image, with soft colors and with an angel with spectacular wings.
Another curiosity is the fact that Fra Angelico, now known as Beato Angelico, is truly Beato, that is, he was called Beato and then was officially beatified in 1982.
The theme of The Annunciation by Beato Angelico
On the subject of the Annunciation, on the other hand, a book would have to be written, indeed many will have already done so for sure, because it is one of the most widespread religious themes together with the Crucifixion of Christ. Even in contemporary art there are really interesting episodes such as the all-female one in Tom Chambers’ photographs. Or that of La Chapelle of last year quite famous. Or that of Warhol which takes up Leonardo and makes the characters disappear and finally the one in sculpture by Keith Edmier which instead cites Filippo Lippi and the symbol of the lily which he pins is associated with the purity of the Madonna. All wonderful in my opinion.
And if you liked this post in which we discover something more about the Annunciation by Beato Angelico, I suggest you take a look at my post on the 7 elements of a work of art or the one on the Arnolfini spouses and the videos onchannel Art&theCities Youtube.