Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Annunciation: With Fra Angelico's Help

The Feast of the Annunciation has been moved to today, March 25 having fallen on Holy Saturday this year. And here is Fra Angelico's (1437-46) depiction of this well-known gospel scene: 
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. He went in and said to her, "Rejoice, you who enjoy God's favour! The Lord is with you." (Luke 1:26,27ff)

Fra Angelico painted at the start of the Italian Renaissance, which means his paintings give birth to completely new ideas. We see Mary seated outside (a new idea) on a patio surrounded by arches. This cloister setting would have been familiar to the Dominican friars for whom the painting was created, making the image immediately accessible to them on an emotional level. 

The stone columns, serve as frames, the figures of Gabriel and Mary separate and distinct, but also joined into one as heaven and earth come together in the Annunciation. Even the thin, horizontal metal bar which runs through the tops of the columns, while serving the practical purpose of architectural support, all the more symbolizes the coming together of the divine and human. 

There is a wooden fence, to the left behind Gabriel, which in symbology means that Mary in her virginity is like an enclosed garden. But I think it's much more than that. I'd suggest that in this painting we are allowed entre into Mary's interior vision - her inner graced life of contemplation.

Dominican friars take vows of poverty and so there is nothing imperial about this Mary. Instead of a gilded throne, she sits on a low wooden stool, as if she were going to milk a cow or sit in a circle of kitchen girls to peel potatoes. Her pink dress echoes the angel's robe; her blue mantle suggests her elevated or royal status.

The only fussiness is seen in Gabriel's highly decorated wings. Maybe Fra Angelico didn't want Gabriel to look like a winged bird, or maybe he just couldn't handle the bare, unadorned reality of what's happening in the scene. Maybe he felt that somehow love has to be decorative. No matter. 

We notice too, that while Gabriel clearly has his eyes fixed on Mary, not a word has been spoken. The two lean into each other, their hands folded across their chests. Already, in silence, there is the language of  intimacy and heart.

A friar's little room is called a cell. Behind Mary is just such a room, but I would say the window placed there symbolizes Mary herself. It is through Mary, open in the littleness of  her youth, simplicity and humility that God has found incarnating access into our world.

There is nothing extraneous or overtly symbolic in the painting: no vase of white lilies, no prie dieu to kneel upon, no open prayer book, no Holy Spirit dove in the sky, no rays of light - only a  lawn of little spring flowers. Something new, fragrant and lovely is beginning here for us!

A key word in all of this is new: God's new idea depicted by an artist in a new way in a new (Renaissance) time. Often in religion we wind up just admiring what's old. Any ideas for yourself, your family, your parish ? Something new and life-giving!


  1. It struck me. Jesus came into the world poor and hidden, as Mary was poor and hidden. Her soul so ready to accept the message and giving us the Hail Mary's to obtain grace for our souls. One of my favorite hymns: Daily, daily sing to Mary, Sing, my soul, her praises due.. I count on you to sing Her praises daily.

  2. I love how you explain the details. I would never know to look for the meanings in these things.

  3. The next time a painting shows up at the head of the post - before reading anything in the post itself - let your eye roam over the entire picture, stopping to notice everything. Let your mind float a bit. See what YOU see.

  4. Gabriel's wings are intricately decorated and have bands of colors. Yet the colors are gold and then earthy. Maybe representative of Gabriel's uniting of heaven and earth in this frozen painted moment. This struck me as I studied the painting as you suggested.

  5. A delight! Thank you for reminding us of the Annunciation and for repainting the canvas for us.

    1. The painting is a delight, yes! I love that Fra Angelico has painted Mary, not on a throne, but on a work stool, and that a garden of little field flowers is springing up behind Gabriel. God's newness. Will we allow it?

  6. Dear Father Stephen,
    This journey through Lent and the Octave of Easter has been a wonderful path of twists and branches, but always leading us to reflect on ourselves and on our faith, bringing us each day a step closer to Christ. I am filled with gladness that I have this resource to help me fulfill my desire of being a good Christian, not only for myself, but also for others as well. I will continue to check in here and grow myself a little at a time. Amen

  7. "A little at a time." Yes, the spiritual life doesn't happen quickly but rather slowly, gradually, like fruit ripening - not all at once, but rather over an even long season.

  8. I often wonder what it was like for Mary. What an honor to be chosen, but at the same time, what a burden.

  9. To be sure. The downside was tremendous: She had to tell Joseph and his and her own family. The judgment of the village. The stigma - most of which would have come from religious authorities. The loneliness and risk of punishment.