“Let’s say that Fra Angélico is more of a painter friar than a friar painter,” said the art historian and cultural promoter Sara rubayo. In fact, the architect Giorgio Vasari even said of him that he never started a work without praying first. During his life, straddling Fiesole, Florence and Rome, he received commissions from different pontiffs, painted altarpieces, frescoes or illuminations in sacred books, but his masterpiece, the one for which he is remembered almost six hundred years later – he was born near Florence in 1395 and died in Rome in 1455—, is The Annunciation, which can be seen today in the Prado Museum in Madrid. “It is a work,” Rubayo describes it, “in which the earthly and the divine meet, not to mention the moralizing and educational intention that it treasures.” Also, the table is not without a dose of symbolism. “There is a character in the painting,” warns the art historian, “who, although we would never guess it, acts as the eyes and ears of the Dominican Preaching Order.”
The Annunciation It constitutes the central part of an altarpiece with predella —or what is the same, an altarpiece with a bench, that is, the lower part on which the bulk of the action rests—, which is made with the technique of tempera on panel and in which you can see two scenes. “The theme,” explains Sara Rubayo, “is directly inspired by the Bible.” Specifically, in the passage from Saint Luke 1,26-38, where the encounter between two alien worlds is narrated: the divine or spiritual with the earthly or human. But what do we see in the main scene? “First of all,” says the historian, “you have to look at the architecture, which Fra Angelico uses to frame the main scene and to show the perspective, something that, at the same time, allows him to introduce Renaissance elements such as the semicircular arches and the capitals of the columns, which support the Gothic ceiling painted like a starry sky. ”
In this main scene we see how a golden and rectilinear ray of light breaks through the left and impacts directly on the body of the Virgin Mary: “With that, Fra Angelico is telling us:” We are at the moment of divine conception “” ‘. And precisely that is the most extreme connection between the earthly – until that moment, the Virgin Mary – and the spiritual or divine. “That solar ray,” continues Rubayo, “emanates from the heavens with the hands of God, which hide the dove of the Holy Spirit.” For his part, the Archangel Gabriel appears before the virgin to announce the news that she will be the mother of God on Earth, just as the sacred scriptures promised, which, the historian observes, ” they rest on the virgin’s lap. ”
Far from showing any kind of astonishment, the young mother responds to her new responsibility with a serene bow: “We perceive it when she bows her torso and when she crosses her arms as in a kind of prayer.” And it is precisely that prayer, in addition to the sacred scriptures that the Virgin has, the channel of communication between the earthly and the divine. With this gesture, Fra Angelico demonstrates his educational intention, since he ‘teaches’ people that it is possible to speak with God and that prayer, prayer and reading are the correct ways to do it.
The second scene stars Adam and Eve at the time of their expulsion from Paradise. “They both appear in a very dramatic attitude,” Rubayo slides. Around him, Fra Angélico demonstrates his great knowledge in the field of botany by painting a multitude of plants in a typical Renaissance garden.
The swallow and the Dominican Preaching Order
In this work, which Fra Angélico painted between 1425 and 1426 and which, therefore, is halfway between the Gothic and the Renaissance, there could not be a lack of symbolism. ” We find it in my favorite character on the whole table, ” jokes the art historian: ” The swallow ”. He is the only witness of the scene and acts as a representation of the Dominican Preaching Order, of whom, traditionally, it is said that they learn by observing and then spread the word of God. For this reason, we are in front of a piece that extols the pillars of this Dominican order: praying, meditating, contemplating and preaching.
This is not the only annunciation that Fra Angelico painted, but “it is the only one in which we clearly see that ray of sunlight that represents God himself,” Rubayo clarifies. Years later, the Medici commissioned the painter friar to decorate the convent of San Marcos in Florence, a work that took him five years. Later, both Pope Eugene IV and Nicholas V commissioned him to paint frescoes in the Vatican and today his works are preserved in the Niccolina Chapel. All the effort that he put into religious paintings, in prayer and, above all, in preaching led another pontiff, in this case, a much more modern one, to canonize him. In 1982, Pope John Paul II made him a saint and, after two years, he was appointed patron of artists.