Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Annunciation Scene: Fra Angelico

You can see this beautiful Annunciation by Fra Angelico in the Convento di San Marco in Florence, absolutely one of the most extraordinary places in that extraordinary city. Instead of being in a museum, this painting is on a wall, by a staircase, where it was an object of meditation for the monks as they walked by. (Fra Angelico also painted a series of wonderful images in the individual cells of the monks, whose number included the notorious Savonarola). This particular painting dates to the year 1450.

The painting itself is sparse and uncluttered. Mary and Gabriel are in an outdoor colonnade with no decorations or objects of any kind. Mary holds no book, and the angel does not carry flowers. Yet while there are no objects that clutter the scene, there are many beautiful decorative details, such as the colors of the angel's wings and the delicate grass and flowers in the left-hand side of the painting.

Yet while the scene itself is extraordinarily simple, there are two elegant inscriptions on the painting which add to the message that the image itself conveys.

The first inscription reflects the mystical Marian devotion of Fra Angelico himself. It reads, in Latin, Salve, Mater pietatis et totius Trinitatis nobile triclinium Maria!, "Greetings, Mother of dutifulness, the noble triple-couch of the entire Trinity, Maria!" It's hard to translate the pun on Latin triclinium into English. The Latin word means a "three-fold couch," which was used as a dining couch, wrapped around three sides of a rectangular table. Hence, it was a couch with room for all three members of the Trinity to take their places.

These words are part of Adam de Saint-Victor's medieval Latin hymn in praise of Mary. Here is some more of the hymn: Salve, Mater Salvatoris! / Vas electum! Vas honoris! / Vas coelestis Gratiae! / Ab aeterno Vas provisum! / Vas insigne! Vas excisum / Manu sapientiae! / Salve, Mater pietatis, / Et totius Trinitatis / Nobile Triclinium! Verbi tamen incarnati / Speciale majestati / Praeparans hospitium!, "Greetings, Mother of the Savior! Chosen vessel! Vessel of honor! Vessel of celestial Grace! Vessel foreseen from all time! Distinguished vessel! Vessel carved by the hand of wisdom! Greetings, Mother of dutifulness, the noble triple-couch of the entire Trinity, Mary! Preparing still a guestroom for the special grandeur of the incarnate word!"

The notion that Mary is a "vessel" is a motif that will be illustrated in other annunciation scenes.

Meanwhile, in addition to the evocation of Mary the triclinium, there is another inscription below the painting. This inscription is an example of "speaking words," which directly address the passer-by who might be looking at the painting. Here is what that inscription says: Virginis intacte cum veneris ante figuram pretereundo cave ne sileatur ave, "When you come before the figure of the intact virgin, as you pass by, take care that you do not fail to say "Ave!" (Ave Maria, the "Hail, Mary!"). These are lines from a hymn to the Virgin Mary, and the next line of the hymn explains why everyone should say their "Ave!" as they walk by: Invenies veniam sic salutando Mariam, "You will find forgiveness by thus saluting Mary."

So imagine the monks of centuries gone by, as they walked by this beautiful fresco on their way to their cells, greeting the image of the virgin with their own words of "Ave!"

This is one of my favorite annunciation scenes of all time, and San Marco is one of my favorite places to visit in Florence. Do you have memories of this beautiful place in the city of Florence? Feel free to share your memories in the comments!

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