Faith through Art: The Annunciation through the lens of Fra Angelico
By Norman Farmer
In the first and oldest book on Christian art, St. John Damascene (676-754) famously asked, “How depict the invisible?,” “How picture the inconceivable? How give expression to the limitless, the immeasurable, the invisible? How give a form to immensity? How paint immortality?” “How localise mystery?”
This is how he answered. “It is clear that when you contemplate God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, you will be able to clothe Him with the human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it” (www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/johndamascus-images.asp).
Seven centuries later, in 1433, the Blessed Fra Angelico, OP, answered the identical questions by painting this altarpiece for the church of San Domenico in Cortona, Italy. And today, a “Divine Scrutiny” of this painting shows that he actually exceeded the Damascene’s hope for truly transcendent art by actually depicting the moment of mystical “becoming” when “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). And what is more, he accomplished this in a way that ever since has lifted all who ponder this painting to what the Damascene himself called “a vivid remembrance of the prototype and a longing after it.”
The graceful arc of the angel’s wings sets our thoughts on the course of human history, all the way from the Edenic garden and the expulsion of Adam and Eve (Gn 2:9-10; 3:1-8; 3:23) to the promise kept in the “enclosed garden,” the “hortus conclusus” where “my sister, my bride” is the “all-beautiful ... beloved” and “a fountain sealed” (Song 4-5). There, set apart from fallen humanity, God has nurtured original grace (Gn 2:27) in the virgin heart of Mary. The fall is past; salvation is come; and God’s messenger bears the living Word to the one whom God has prepared to receive it, the one qualified to proclaim “the greatness of the Lord” and rejoice “in God my saviour” (Lk 1:46-7).
The subject of the painting, you see, is God’s very own words –– elegantly inscribed in purest gold. These words are the divine substance of the Son to be born of Mary. They are not images. They are writing, embodiments of the Word; nor are they lines of dialogue, a play script. They are the true and present manifestation of Christ before he is clothed with the human form given him by his mother; they are the real substance of the Son who is present in their very articulation, whether vocal or silent.
Spoken by the Holy Spirit to the angel, they curve downward from God to be said to Mary, their very saying actually being the One whom they name: “Spiritus Sanctus superveniet” ... “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” (Lk 1:35). Next, Mary to St. Gabriel in mirror-writing, and upside down, as God the Father would “see” them “said” from beyond the created world: “Ecce ancilla Domini” ... “I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38); because she is the “favored one” (Lk1:28) and “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41), she, too, speaks God’s words. Again, the angel ... “et vivitus altissim I” ... “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” words eminently suitable to adorn the table of sacrifice. They are intended to be visible at the celebration of Holy Mass and the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The remaining details, breathtakingly beautiful details, simply frame the Incarnate Word: the picket fence of the garden at the tips of the angel’s wings, the cloister with six archways and a curtained door, the starry heavens above, and the golden cathedra where Mary receives the divine messenger. They are Fra Angelico’s tangible complements answering to the Damascene’s six questions (see first paragraph).
The seven archways and the cathedra speak volumes. The number seven signifies completion. The circles divided into eighths, though, point forward –– to eternity, following Christ’s Resurrection, which recalls the first creation and re-sets the Sabbath of the New Covenant –– originally Saturday and now Sunday. Even the floor design is prophetic: “marmi finti dipinta” or “painted make-believe marble,” signifying the light buried in the created earth that will shine at the last day when the redeemed world will be stamped with the seal of Christ the King as that seal appears on the cathedra where Mary is sitting.
From this magnificent painting distilled from Luke 1:26-38, we know why Pope St. John Paul II in 1984 designated the Blessed Fra Angelico, whom he had beatified in 1982, the patron of Catholic artists.