Fra Angelico – Annunciation or On the Presence
Ak.mal. Petr Veselý / CZ / - visual artist, painter,
High School of Art and Design and Higher Vocational School Brno
Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk, born Quido di Pietro. He was born around 1395 and died on 18 February 1455. He was beatified on 3 October 1982 by John Paul II, but was already called Il Beato during his lifetime. Subsequently, he was listed in the Roman Martyrology as the Beatified Giovanni Fiesole, called Angelico. At the same time, he was made the patron saint of artists. (x1)
There are some fifty frescoes by Fra Angelico in the cells, corridors and refectory of the San Marco Monastery in Florence. They date from 1436–1445. One of them is the fresco Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, probably among the first ones made. Fra Angelico made another, larger fresco in the monastery corridor, and also several paintings on wooden boards with the theme of the Annunciation.
Our fresco completely lacks traditional attributes associated with the theme, i.e. a white dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, a beam of light (present e.g. in Fra Angelico’s panel painting that is today in Prado, Madrid), or a window through which the beam would penetrate; there is neither the scroll with the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14), cited by Luke the Evangelist (1:35), which can be read in the Gospel of Matthew: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son.” (1:23) For example, the panel with the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary made by the Master of Vyšší Brod also includes a depiction of God the Father, looking on from another world, separated by a kind of trim from the rest of the celestial and earthly space. Zdeněk Neubauer comments: “The world of God lies outside the world, both visible and invisible, in total concealment and separation. God is present in His concealment. ”
In Fra Angelico's fresco, though, there is no "hint", nothing obvious to convey God's presence, nor the attributes of a prophecy. The painting complements or affirms the simplicity of the cell. Only the presence of the angel figure refers to the message of which he is the mediator, the messenger… Besides the two figures essential for the story, i.e. Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, the fresco shows only a concise image of the setting, parts of two pillars supporting the vault on the left side, the vault itself, and a stool on which the Virgin kneels with an open book (the Gospel) in her arms. It may be worth mentioning how much the stool on which the Virgin Mary is kneeling contrasts with the throne on the above-mentioned panel by the Master Vyšší Brod. Further, there is an inconspicuous rectangular opening on the right in the wall, perhaps indicating a horizontal movement, supported in the scene by the figure of the founder of the order, St. Dominic, watching the scene from the left, from the edge of the fresco. The dark shadow of the opening in the wall may point to a nightly, dark world, a world fallen into sin. The fingers of St. Dominic's clasped hands point upwards, while the archangel's arms are folded in front of his body, the right hand moving upwards and the left downwards. Mary's hands are crossed on her chest, at the same time holding the open gospel, to which she points with the finger of her right hand, actually in the direction of the archangel's (i.e. the messenger’s) gaze and thus referring to the text of the prophecy. The edge of the shadow on the wall behind the figure of the Virgin Mary is an extension of the line of the angel's head and hers. The light is actually present even in this way, by inversion... “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” At the time of Annunciation, the Word became flesh in Mary's womb...
The painting’s means of expression are seemingly restricted, manifested by relatively sparse colours, among other things. In fact, the artist uses a wide range of possibilities in the very vocabulary (brush strokes), from the lightly sketched lines of Mary's cloak, making the impression of an underpainting and perhaps suggesting that the work is unfinished, to the carefully modelled volumes of human skin and draperies. (The colour of the archangel’s wings ranges from cold earthy greens to warm tones of natural ochres.) By the way, in his Lives Giorgio Vasari writes that Fra Angelico never corrected nor remade his painting, always leaving it as it originated from the first brushstroke on, because he believed this to be God's will. This is another way to point to the semantics of the present, to the moment of intersection of the here and now – through this specific painting gesture – with eternity.
If we interpret the fresco of the Annunciation geometrically and analyse its construction and composition elements, we find that the circles of the arches of the vault in the upper part have their centre in the vanishing point of the floor perspective of the corridor painted on the wall. The imaginary diagonal line connecting the faces of the angel and the Virgin runs through this centre. Parallel to this direction, in the angel's view, is also the axis of the book in Mary's arms. The spirit and the word resonate here. The picture, its layout, is inscribed or inserted (deposited) into the format of the fresco; it is the result of relationships that extend outside the format, generally referring to universality (of space and time). However, geometrisation, to which perspective can also be assigned, in the sense of conceptualisation of sensory reality, does not divert from reality; on the contrary, it provides another dimension to the intensity of the present moment – as a moment in the place of eternity. (Vincent van Gogh notes in a letter to his brother Theo: "… instead of painting a trivial wall [...], I paint infinity.")
Didi-Huberman concentrates on the central part of the fresco when he writes: “If there is nothing between the angel and the Virgin in his Annunciation, it is because the nothing bore witness to the indescribable and unfigurable divine voice to which Angelico, like the Virgin, was obliged to submit completely. But to say something like this means not to look, it means to be content only with what is to be seen. There is not nothing because there is white. It is not nothing, because it reaches us without our being able to grasp it, and because it envelops us without our being able, in our turn, to catch it in the snare of a definition."
To some extent, the construction of the whole composition can be perceived as an early Renaissance trompe l’oeil, an illusion of the eye, since the fresco is indeed an optical niche in the wall. At the same time, it is physically part of the wall. The person who dwelled in the monastery cell –probably the artist who made the painting – and touched the wall of the cell, touched at the same time the wall painted in the picture, i.e. the place in the picture and the attribute of the scene; he physically participated in it, he touched the place.
Later cracks in the plaster on which the fresco is painted constitute a somewhat random, so to speak non-systemic, but surprisingly humanizing element. These cracks too are not mere cracks in the wall, i.e. in the backing of the painting; this wall is the background plan with the figures of the kneeling Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel being optically mounted on it – and this painted wall is at the same time the real wall of the cell. A crack in the wall is therefore a real crack in the painted wall, too.
At this point I will try to point out a certain connection with Gothic panel painting, which can be – apparently in contrast to mural painting – characterized as an object. One of the reasons is that the panels used to be part of an altarpiece or reliquary, or served as portable altars. The reverse side was usually prepared in some way and painted with respect to the front side. Panel paintings are therefore double-sided and the contents of both sides are usually in direct relation to each other. In her essay Středověký obraz jako posvátný objekt [Medieval painting as a sacred object], Hana Hlaváčková writes that the Gothic painting “is not only two-dimensional, the panel has its thickness that is acknowledged, and it also has its rear side, which is part of the object…” Renaissance and later paintings painted on canvas have no rear side, and the frame in which they are set is not part of the painting, but instead something that separates it from our world, making it exclusive… While the medieval painting, spiritual in its content, is a distinctly material object, the Renaissance painting, often full of sensuality, is a mere mimesis, with its material component being merely some sort of inconsistency: the thin canvas is a necessary backing that fixates the immaterial mimesis. However, the medieval painting is material and therefore constitutes a natural part of our material world (as evidenced among others by the admitted existence of its rear side).
On the back of the panel painting of the Madonna of Most there is an illusive window with parchment fillings and in the middle of its crossbars there is the letter M – Mary. The relationship between the obverse and the reverse is in the very motif of the window, which is an analogy to Mary. It refers on the one hand to the Annunciation, of which it is an attribute and, in this case, also to the cross, to the crucifixion.
Other possible connections with our topic include the relationship of the visible and the invisible, or the desire to know the unknown, to “break through” the phenomenal world; the relation between the surface or illusive space and the real space… A detail from Giotto’s fresco of the Last Judgement in Padua, with a figure in the upper left part of the fresco uncovering “another world” behind the main painted scene, as well as for instance a woodcut from the 16th century, where the figure of a pilgrim looks beyond the real landscape into a kind of cosmic scenery, can be taken as examples. The nimbus, too, can be a similar “distraction” from the real place and time; in our fresco especially that of Virgin Mary, where it gives the strong impression of an opening into some virtual space “behind” and, in a way (like a mirror) before the depicted scene as well.
A slightly transformed context can be seen in examples of art from the second half of the 20th century, e.g. in Lucio Fontana. By cutting through the canvas, he follows up with the theme of the need for knowledge, the desire to “look behind” in a broader context, but he primarily addresses the relative conditionality of the canvas in three-dimensional space, i.e. the image as a two-dimensional object with real space being part of it. However, the phenomenon of wounding should also be mentioned here, represented for example by the coloured woodcut of the Divine Heart from 1470, with a real cutting through in the shape of a heart.
I will add a digression referring to a few examples of the thematizing of the painting as an object, or rather of the back side of the painting and the frame, i.e. what we commonly perceive as hidden and subsidiary, as a "necessary evil". Examples include Jan Svoboda's The Other Side of a Photograph (1969), The Back Side of a Painting by Cornelius van Gysbrechts (around 1670) or the object called 24 Stretcher Frames by Imi Knoebel (1968–1969) – in this case radical concepts of what is (or is not) a painting, making visible what is commonly hidden, a technical necessity, themed here as a new communicative and aesthetic quality.
The "story" of the Madonna of Częstochowa can serve as another example of the semantics of the frame. A copy of the Madonna (from 1956) travelled among Polish parishes for almost twenty years. In 1966, Polish Communists prohibited showing the icon for almost eight years. The parishioners, however, decided to continue touring the frame only, based on the presumption that it directly referred to the icon and that the prohibition did not apply to it (the presence of the absent).
Another example is the object To Hang by Eva Hesse (born 1966). It is a large, more than two-meter-high frame on the wall, as if "treated" (perhaps as an acknowledgement of its necessity, the care for it) with a wrapped strip of cloth and an arched steel wire that protrudes from the frame into the room. Maybe to delineate the space, to indicate the aura of a non-existent painting, its inaccessibility (Ortega y Gasset writes that "the frame constantly demands to have a painting inside it, and if it does not then the section of the world one sees through the empty frame often appears as a painting in itself”) or, on the contrary, to delimit the viewer’s imaginary inner space – but in this case with the viewer standing outside of it. In fact, unlike the fresco in the cell, a virtual image is inaccessible, unreachable, "unattainable", inviolable... As in her other works, Hesse refers here to both the hanging picture and the three-dimensional object, interconnecting them. She voids the content, limiting the painting in a way to the convention of its hanging on the wall.
If we return to the theme of the painting as an object conceived from both sides to which we relate from the outside, what we see in the cell of the San Marco Monastery is a painting that is a direct component of the space as an object to which we are positioned from within. The wall on which the fresco of the Annunciation is painted is not an arbitrary backing, it is not indifferent to the painting. The painting is actually conditioned by it, as well as by the small space of the cell.
The Annunciation scene is present, and repeatedly represented in the cell. The "materialization" is supported by the physical presence of the wall (which, as we have already mentioned, is at the same time an attribute of the painting), but also by the physical presence of the painting. The two make a whole, both being touchable, present. (Perhaps this is an indirect reminder of the need for physical touch as in Doubting Thomas – to make sure.) Rather than a depiction, what matters here is the presence of the depicted scene as a painting here and now, its identification with the wall of the cell. Therefore, the depicted scene is not independent of the cell's space, of its simultaneous presence in time. On the contrary, it is connected with it. It has not already happened in the past, it is happening now, just like the cell is happening. It comprises the wall with the fresco, which is physically present, which is material, the wall is both a kind of matrix and a container of the image. We perceive the topic, the attributes of the topic, the specifics of a particular approach, the compositional qualities, but also the presence of the painting, the place itself, its qualities, its perception, ourselves as those who perceive, i.e. the "benchmark" of time; the relation between “external and internal existence”.
As already mentioned, we are present in the cell – even indirectly. Not present with something that needs to be precisely named, that we need to adhere to, even though the scene we see is obvious. We are not close to what had happened, to something already past, but to something that is just occurring, that is happening now.
When we face the fresco, we are with it rather than looking at it.
(The remark that I am going to suggest now may seem provocative: the presence that I have in mind in this context does not seem to be conditioned by real physical presence on the site…)
I believe that the mimetic aspect, the illusion of three-dimensional reality and the implied link to trompe l’oeil are merely the outer aspects of the fresco’s properties. What is more important is the physical presence of the painting as such, which can be perceived (in the words of Hana Hlaváčková) as “terminal being” acquiring an exclusive character through its transcendence of the material world, which may be perceived as sacred.
We can further refer to the thesis of the French poet and essayist Yves Bonnefoy, who writes in connection with early Renaissance painters that they freed the painting from its medieval vaulting without denying the object its essence and "in fact concentrating its dispersed evidence and bravely introducing the light and unity of the sacred in sensory experience”. Jiří Pelán notes in the afterword to the translation of Bonnefoy's poetry: “the encounter with Italian art brought him the fundamental knowledge that art at its top may be a place of blending the physical with the spiritual, the phenomenal with the mathematically essential, that it is able to grip, incarnate even the finality of existence, the 'presence' that reopens an outlook on the unity of being.”
Georges Didi-Huberman, cited above, writes: “Before an image, our presence is grasped at once and at the same time it renews itself in the gaze’s experience. […] Before an image – however old it may be – the present never ceases to reshape, and the past never ceases to reshape as well. Before an image, finally, we have to humbly recognise this fact: that it will probably outlive us […].The image often has more memory and more future than the being who contemplates it.” “One minute in the life of the world is going by,” says Paul Cézanne, “and we can only preserve it if we become it.”
I would like to stop and deal with the way of perception, specifically with the meaning of a particular time associated with the immediate perception. The need for rather long-term focused attention is often mentioned. I would like to point out, however, some sort of unwitting perception, when the nature of the perception is momentaneous, like a one-second flash. “Something” that we see in a split second can be a fundamental insight… All at once, suddenly, the perception is somehow burnt in, funnelled in a single moment, an immeasurable fraction of time, which is eternity… The moment is not a denial of eternity, it includes eternity. The action depicted on the fresco is thus happening continuously, it begins continuously. The moment is an expression of eternity.
Aleš Novák writes in his Epifanie věčného návratu téhož (Epiphany of the Eternal Return of the Same): “If our conduct is at any moment the culmination of the entirety of time and being in unity of their instantaneous nature, then every act and every decision stand for reality itself, and are not unique and irrevocable because ‘we live only once’, but because we live eternally and we live eternity.”
The place, place cell, place wall, is established, conceived in a similar manner… The event that establishes and sanctifies this space is not its trace, legacy, but its presence… The event can be understood as an experience in time, i.e. an experience of the presence, an encounter with representation. (Zdeněk Neubauer)
Sometimes I mention yet another level of such “seeing”, namely Luke's verse (24:31) at the supper at Emmaus: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.” We have touched something that suddenly disappears, but not forever, or to happen again, for it remains in our deep inner experience, in our memory… (Years ago, deacon Václav, standing before my work in progress, a painting of the Supper in Emmaus for the side altar in the chapel of Vratislavice, suddenly remarked: "And what if you painted it a second later, that is, when He already disappeared?")
According to Giorgio Vasari, Fra Angelico said a prayer before he began painting. His work was preceded by a thorough spiritual preparation, concentration, contemplation, presence for the work…, God's presence, presence of oneself…
Fra Angelico's fresco of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary may be perceived as a "flash of grace" breaking through the present, "real" time, into timelessness, into "before time."
Besides St. Luke, Andrei Rublev (1360 or 1370–1430), canonized in the Orthodox Church in 1988, and Albert Chmielowski (1845–1916, canonized together with Agnes of Bohemia on 12 November, 1989), originally a painter and founder of the Albertini Order, caring for homeless people, can be considered as other patrons saints of painters.
Translation Kateřina Danielová