Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fra Angelico: The Theology of The Annunciation

Blessed Fra Angelico 1395/1400 - 1455
The Annunciation
Tempera on wood
194 cm x 194 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Blessed Fra Angelico painted The Annunciation many times. Many consider that his painting of The Annunciation on the wall of the northern corridor on the upper floor in the Convento di San Marco in Florence to be his finest rendition of the theme.

Some might also point out his Cortona Altarpiece again consisting of The Annunciation and six small predella pictures as a great refinement on The Prado altarpiece and a much more subtle work.

But in many ways the early Annunciation by Fra Angelico in the Prado painted a few years after he joined the Convent of San Domenico in Fiesole. He painted it for his Convent.

It is a picture which is a vusual sermon on the historical event called The Annunciation whose feast day is on 25 March.

Annunciations abound in medieval art. You can easily get "Annunciation" overload. One can easily overlook the real meaning of The Annunciation. The explanations given of the Annunciation in many books, guides and even Wikipedia is woefully inadequate. For instance Wikipedia states:

"The Annunciation, also referred to as the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the Christian celebration of the announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ the Son of God."

What this painting by Fra Angelico does is fully and explicit state that the Annunciation marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ - the moment that Jesus was conceived and that the Son of God became the son of the Virgin. It is the celebration of God's action in entering the human world as Jesus in order to save humanity and the free and willing acceptance by Mary of God's action of the task of being the Mother of God

In Redemptorix Matris, Blessed Pope John Paul II summed it up thus:

"The Annunciation ... is the revelation of the mystery of the Incarnation at the very beginning of its fulfillment on earth. God's salvific giving of himself and his life, in some way to all creation but directly to man, reaches one of its high points in the mystery of the Incarnation. This is indeed a high point among all the gifts of grace conferred in the history of man and of the universe: Mary is "full of grace," because it is precisely in her that the Incarnation of the Word, the hypostatic union of the Son of God with human nature, is accomplished and fulfilled."

It is a mystery within a mystery. It was an extraodinary event not least as St Augustine said:

"He chose the mother he had created; he created the mother he had chosen." (Sermo 69, 3, 4)

The Catechism paragraphs 484 et seq >is almost a key or summary to all that is depicted by Fra Angelico:

"484 The Annunciation to Mary inaugurates "the fullness of time", the time of the fulfillment of God's promises and preparations. Mary was invited to conceive him in whom the "whole fullness of deity" would dwell "bodily". The divine response to her question, "How can this be, since I know not man?", was given by the power of the Spirit: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you."

485 The mission of the Holy Spirit is always conjoined and ordered to that of the Son. The Holy Spirit, "the Lord, the giver of Life", is sent to sanctify the womb of the Virgin Mary and divinely fecundate it, causing her to conceive the eternal Son of the Father in a humanity drawn from her own.

486 The Father's only Son, conceived as man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, is "Christ", that is to say, anointed by the Holy Spirit, from the beginning of his human existence, though the manifestation of this fact takes place only progressively: to the shepherds, to the magi, to John the Baptist, to the disciples. Thus the whole life of Jesus Christ will make manifest "how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power."

487 What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ.

Mary's predestination

488 "God sent forth his Son", but to prepare a body for him, he wanted the free co-operation of a creature. For this, from all eternity God chose for the mother of his Son a daughter of Israel, a young Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee, "a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary":

The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined mother, so that just as a woman had a share in the coming of death, so also should a woman contribute to the coming of life.

489 Throughout the Old Covenant the mission of many holy women prepared for that of Mary. At the very beginning there was Eve; despite her disobedience, she receives the promise of a posterity that will be victorious over the evil one, as well as the promise that she will be the mother of all the living. By virtue of this promise, Sarah conceives a son in spite of her old age. Against all human expectation God chooses those who were considered powerless and weak to show forth his faithfulness to his promises: Hannah, the mother of Samuel; Deborah; Ruth; Judith and Esther; and many other women. Mary "stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from him. After a long period of waiting the times are fulfilled in her, the exalted Daughter of Sion, and the new plan of salvation is established."

The Immaculate Conception

490 To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary "was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role." The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as "full of grace". In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God's grace.

491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
"Let it be done to me according to your word. . ."

494 At the announcement that she would give birth to "the Son of the Most High" without knowing man, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responded with the obedience of faith, certain that "with God nothing will be impossible": "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word."

Thus, giving her consent to God's word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus. Espousing the divine will for salvation wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son; she did so in order to serve the mystery of redemption with him and dependent on him, by God's grace:

As St. Irenaeus says, "Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race." Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert. . .: "The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith." Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary "the Mother of the living" and frequently claim: "Death through Eve, life through Mary."

Mary's divine motherhood

495 Called in the Gospels "the mother of Jesus", Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as "the mother of my Lord". In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father's eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly "Mother of God" (Theotokos). ..

497 The Gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility: "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit", said the angel to Joseph about Mary his fiancee. The Church sees here the fulfillment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son."

498 People are sometimes troubled by the silence of St. Mark's Gospel and the New Testament Epistles about Jesus' virginal conception. Some might wonder if we were merely dealing with legends or theological constructs not claiming to be history.

To this we must respond: Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike; so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age. The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith, which understands in it the "connection of these mysteries with one another" in the totality of Christ's mysteries, from his Incarnation to his Passover.

St. Ignatius of Antioch already bears witness to this connection:

"Mary's virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord's death escaped the notice of the prince of this world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God's silence." ...

504 Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary's womb because he is the New Adam, who inaugurates the new creation: "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven." From his conception, Christ's humanity is filled with the Holy Spirit, for God "gives him the Spirit without measure." From "his fullness" as the head of redeemed humanity "we have all received, grace upon grace."

505 By his virginal conception, Jesus, the New Adam, ushers in the new birth of children adopted in the Holy Spirit through faith. "How can this be?" Participation in the divine life arises "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God". The acceptance of this life is virginal because it is entirely the Spirit's gift to man. The spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God is fulfilled perfectly in Mary's virginal motherhood."

In the picture which ressembles a triptych caused by the imposition of the columns.

It seems to depict the instant immediately after Mary has given her assent to being the human instrument of the Incarnation. God the Father on the top left of the picture sends the Holy Spirit (as depicted by the dove in the ray of light) to effect the Incarnation.

It is the same Spirit who hovered over the waters at the dawn of Creation (Genesis 1:2). This is another and new creative act on the part of God.

One is also reminded of the passageof the imaginary conversation between God the Father and God the Son in The Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 10: 5 - 7):

"You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation prepared a body for me, You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin. Then I said ... `God, here I am ! I am coming to obey your will`"

It is a picture about the mystery of the Trinity. On the top left we see the source of a great light which is the source of light for the whole picture. We see the hands of God the Father and the ray of light by which the Holy Spirit descends.

Note also the image of God the Father at the top of the column between the Angel and Mary. In later versions of the Annunciation, Fra Angelico would replace this figure by one of the prophet Isaiah as a sign of a fulfilment of his prophecy:

"The Lord himself will give you a sign. It is this: the virgin is with child and will soon give birth to a child whom she will call Emmanuel." (Is. 7: 14)

Some early works depicting the Annunciation used the ray of light to depict a small baby or homunculus descendng towards Mary as showing Christ entering Mary. This was strongly disapproved of by the Church. St Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, a Dominican of the same stripe as Fra Angelico strongly disapproved of this kind of depiction. It is contrary to Scripture.

We see Mary seated on what seems to be a throne. She is the receptacle or vessel or throne for the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. She is beautiful yet filled with humility and obedient to God`s will. Her flesh and blood will become the Saviour`s. His flesh and blood transformed, transfigured and resurrected will become the Christian`s salvation.

The Spirit is the initiator of Christ`s human existence but her consent and her assistance are prerequisites for his human life and our salvation.

Mary has a book on her lap. It is Scripture. The Word is about to be made flesh.

She sits outside her house in what appears to be a loggia. The ceiling of the loggia is the vault of heaven filled with stars.

The Loggia would have reminded Florentines of a particular area of Florence: the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata where there were the The Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation)and the Hospital of the Innocents. ("Ospedale degli Innocenti "

The Basilica contained a famous and renowned painting of the Annunciation.

The legend was that it had been begun by one of the monks but abandoned in despair because he did not feel he could create a beautiful enough image. It was supposedly completed by an angel while he slept. Since about the 1250s, the painting became the standard or model for paintings of The Annunciation in Florentine painting. But Fra Angelico`s work for his Convent broke this mould absolutely and he set the new standard or model.

Beyond the Loggia we see but only imperfectly and partly the inside of Mary`s house: sparsely furnished and empty of other persons. Is that a window or a picture which we see ? Unlike the painting in Santissima Annunziata, there are no regal furnishings or carpets.

The middle portion of the "triptych" depicts the Angel Gabriel, the messenger of God. You will also note the swallow which is placed in the centre of the picture. Traditionally the swallow was the symbol of a messenger. It sits under and on the left hand side of the grisaille of God the Father. The swallow surveys the scene.

The Angel and Mary are looking intently at each other. Both are inclining toward each other. Both Mary and the Angel have their arms and hands in the same pose: crossed across their chests. Both have looks of humility. Mary and Gabriel have the same pink "dress". Both figures are gilded. One does get the feeling that Gabriel is looking on Mary as an inferior would towards a superior.

On the left we see the "hortus conclusus" - the Garden of Mary. In it we see Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden. Their return to the Garden and The Tree of Life is denied to them by another angel, a cherubim with a flaming sword. (Genesis 3:23-24) The parallel of Mary`s garden with Paradise is unmistakable.

Mary is of course the new Eve. Jesus, her Son, is the new Adam.

The Garden of Mary must be one of the most beautiful gardens ever painted. It is filled with trees, plants and flowers of infinte variety and colour. Flowers and plants in medieval times were valued for their curative powers as well as their beauty. It goes without saying that symbolism abounds.

The Palms recall the future martyrdom of Christ. The red roses recall the blood of the Passion

The date 25th March is significant. In medieval times, 25th March as well as being regarded as the actual day on which The Annunciation occurred was also regarded as the date on which occurred the Creation of Adam and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was also regarded as the actual date of The Crucifixion.

Beneath the painting and on the frame are the initial words of The Hail Mary:

Ave Maria Gratia Plena Dominus Tecum Benedicta Tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui

Beneath the inscription are five small predella pictures painted on the same panel depicting the story of the Virgin.