[Before I get started, an apology. My thoughts on the local cuisine, promised for today, will be posted later this week. I'm still conducting research. Also, may I call to your attention a video clip I've posted of my apartment, called "Rooms With No View." Come in and have a look around.]
Images of the Angel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that God has chosen her to give birth to the Christ abound in Florentine art. It is a favorite theme of a city which, until the mid eighteenth century, entered the new calendar year on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. The Annunciation is associated with springtime, a time of flowers, and Florence is a city whose name means "flowering," whose symbol is the lily, the flower which Gabriel is frequently depicted offering to Mary, whose cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, "Saint Mary of the Flowers." The Annunciation and Florence go together, like Salem and Halloween.
In his often challenging but constantly illuminating book, "Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy," Michael Baxandall points out that, while depictions of the Annunciation might appear to us as varying only according to the setting of the scene, the posture of the principals, the quality of the clothing on display and the skill of the artist, they would have been experienced with far greater sensitivity to theological detail by even the unschooled Florentine of the period, provided s/he attended church regularly. To illustrate his point, Baxandall quotes extensively (pp 51-55) from a didactic sermon by Fra Roberto Caracciolo, a popular preacher of the late fifteenth century, who points to a number of distinct spiritual and mental states - he calls them "laudable conditions" - evident in a close reading of St Luke's Gospel (1:26-38):
1. Conturbatio (Disquiet): St Luke describes Mary as initially "troubled" by Gabriel's greeting.
2. Cogitatio (Reflection): she "considered in her mind" what the angel's words meant.
3. Interrogatio (Inquiry): Mary asked the angel, "How shall this be?"
4. Humiliatio (Submission): she responded, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord."
(In fact, Fra Roberto mentions a fifth "laudable condition" - Meritatio, or Merit - but it's more an imaginative coda derived from devotional meditation on the event than an episode for which there is scriptural "evidence." It focuses on Mary's supposed self-understanding following Gabriel's departure.) "Most fifteenth-century Annunciations," writes Baxandall, "are identifiably Annunciations of Disquiet, or of Submission.... [A] number of marvellous fourteenth-century ways of registering Reflection and Inquiry become blurred... in the fifteenth century."
Once I read this, I began to look at images with which I've been long familiar with a new appreciation. Most Byzantine icons of the Annunciation are also, it seems to me, Annunciations of Disquiet, in which the Theotokos registers her surprise by means of her open right hand turned palm outward toward the Angel -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Ohrid_annunciation_icon.jpg,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Damiane4.jpg - or of Inquiry, in which she is shown gesturing with her right hand, palm upward, towards Gabriel, as if addressing her question to him. Less frequently is she seen with a hand on her breast, signifying Reflection, and more rarely, with her arms crossed over her breast and her head inclined, the image of Submission. Whatever the case, they are sober and restrained.
Those are qualities, I'm afraid, often lacking in some Annunciations of even the most renowned Renaissance masters. At times they can appear almost irreverent. Baxandall (p 56) quotes from a letter by Leonardo da Vinci criticizing Annunciations of too great Disquiet: "...some days ago I saw a picture of an angel who, in making the Annunciation, seemed to be trying to chase Mary out of her room, with movements showing the sort of attack one might make on some hated enemy; and Mary, as if desperate, seemed to be trying to throw herself out of the window. Do not fall into errors like these." (He may have been referring to this Annunciation - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Sandro_Botticelli_080.jpg - by Botticelli, of "The Birth of Venus" fame. (By the way, does that Madonna look familiar to you?)
All this by way of introduction. What I wanted to do today was sing the praises of one particular Annunciation of Submission, one that, in its simplicity, surpasses in spiritual profundity any I've ever experienced before (in Western art, anyway). It is at the Convent of San Marco, where Savonarola served as Prior of the Dominicans whose house it was then, and from where he in effect ruled Florence from 1494 until his death in 1498. It's right at the top of the only stairway leading up to brothers' cells, or single room dwellings. Any of the brothers going to his cell, from the year 1450 on, would have had to pass it. I can't imagine anyone doing so quickly. It is, of course, the Annunciation of Fra Angelico:
In fact, the image is very awkwardly situated. You have to stand on the landing to take it in, but you're too close to it there. You want to take a step back, but then you're on the stairs. So you try to stand there and let it soak in, but there are others coming up behind you, trying to get past, and others wanting to get back down. As I said, an awkward space. But you have to stand there for as long as you can. You have no choice, really. The Virgin simply stops you in your tracks. Her whole being seems concentrated in her expression, in the gaze she fixes on the Angel Gabriel, in the delicacy with which she folds her arms across her breast, in the grace with which she inclines her slender neck, as if offering herself as a willing sacrifice to God. Later, you notice Gabriel's own otherworldly beauty, the vibrancy of his wings, his own posture of reverence; the elegant arched, airy space in which the mysterious encounter unfolds; the simple fence of wood, punctuated at regular intervals with nails, stretching off into the distance beyond Gabriel's plumage, silently foretelling the consequence of Mary's acceptance, a destiny that would take her to the wood of the Cross.
Fra Angelico was not the artist's given name; that was Giovanni. "Angelico" was what his contemporaries called him: the Angelic. In his native Italy, he's known as "Beata Angelico" - Blessed Angelic - as if to underline the fact that his gift was not merely artistic, but spiritual. His art practically compels one to pray.