Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, c. 1438-47, fresco, 230 x 321 cm (Convent of San Marco, Florence)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Monastery of San Marco, in Florence, now a museum. We’ve just walked up a staircase from an inner cloister. The first thing you see at the top of the stairs is a large fresco by Fra Angelico.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:18] As soon as one enters, one gets a sense of the contemplative life of the monks who lived here and their dedication to prayer.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] The painting is set in a hallway amongst the monks’ cells.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] Many of them decorated with frescoes that would help to focus the monks’ prayers and meditation. This monastery was built in the 15th century. There was a pre-existing building here, but the Observant Dominicans in Fiesole, they were in need of a new home.

[0:46] This location was given to them by the pope, and then the rebuilding of the monastery was supported by Cosimo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence.

Dr. Zucker: [0:57] Cosimo lavished money on San Marco.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] The motivation for Cosimo de’ Medici was to help him achieve salvation, to do good works that would hopefully, on the day of judgment, help redeem his soul.

Dr. Zucker: [1:11] This was especially important to somebody like Cosimo de’ Medici, who was fabulously wealthy. He sought out this new order of Dominicans because they had so strictly renounced worldly possessions. There does seem to be a conflict here, one of the wealthiest men lavishing his fortune on monks who have taken vows of poverty.

[1:30] It’s within that conflicted environment that Fra Angelico, who was a monk here, produced this extraordinary fresco and who had distinguished himself as one of the great painters of the early and mid-15th century. We see two principal figures, the Virgin Mary on the right, the archangel Gabriel on the left, at the moment when Gabriel is announcing to Mary that she will bear the son of God.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] The angel Gabriel greets Mary and says, “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women.” Appropriately, the angel bows. We can see the left knee pressing through the drapery as the angel lowers her head.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] They’re placed within this loggia with these beautiful classicized columns. We can just make out a room beyond, and to the left an enclosed garden.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] That fenced-in garden is a symbol. It’s called a “hortus conclusus,” translated as a “closed garden” in Latin. It’s a symbol of Mary’s virginity, the fact that she conceives Christ but remains a virgin.

[2:28] The central column divides the scene in two. We can see on the left that the column is illuminated and on the right the column is in shadow. And that draws my attention to the illusionism.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] The light and the shadows that that light casts are consistent. Look at the light that moves to the upper right in back of Mary’s stool. If you look at the pointed arch just above Mary’s head, the right side seems to be illuminated. That light seems to come from the angel.

Dr. Harris: [2:58] The angel doesn’t cast a shadow.

Dr. Zucker: [3:01] The naturalism co-exists in his work with representations of spirituality. Look, for example, at the wing of the angel. It sparkles. It seems divine. This is because the artist mixed silica in with the fresco.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] The increasing naturalism that artists were interested in in the Renaissance was, in some ways, in direct conflict with their representation of divine, of spiritual figures.

[3:24] I see that here in Fra Angelico choosing not to use perfect linear perspective. That’s obvious when we look closely at the space of this loggia. The floor seems to tilt upward. The figures themselves are too large for the space they occupy.

[3:39] Their faces are very nondescript. Neither the angel nor Mary seem like specific individuals. All of these things would have helped the monks to engage in their own meditation, their own contemplation, to picture these things for themselves.

[3:55] Fra Angelico doesn’t want to give them a very concrete image of the Annunciation that shows the scene in a particular way. He wants to open up the possibility for imaginative contemplation of this moment when God is made flesh.

Dr. Zucker: [4:09] One of the ways he does that is he removes a lot of the symbolic forms that would normally be seen in an Annunciation.

[4:16] Gone is the vase of lilies, a symbol of Mary’s virginity. Gone is the book that she’s often shown holding. The people who would have walked this corridor would have been extremely well-schooled in this story and didn’t need those prompts.

Dr. Harris: [4:30] That tension that we’re talking about is seen also in those fabulous wings. You mentioned how they sparkle, but they’re also the most colorful part of this painting.

[4:40] So to me, on the right, we have Mary on earth, seated humbly on a wooden stool, dressed humbly. And then, this divine figure with gold embroidery, or this moment when the divine enters the earthly realm. Of course, he wasn’t going to make this a perfect illusion of reality. This is the central miracle of Christianity.

[5:02] As we look at the architecture, we can see that Fra Angelico is using the vocabulary of architecture developed by Brunelleschi in the beginning of the 15th century. These beautiful spare columns that have composite and Ionic capitals straight from classical antiquity, the round arches.

[5:20] What we’re looking at is architecture that’s very similar to the architecture you could see if you looked out the window toward the cloister.

Dr. Zucker: [5:28] It’s important to remember that we’re seeing this painting differently than it would have been seen in the 15th century. The painting is illuminated by electric lights and the window to the left, which is flooding the fresco with light and through which you can hear the traffic outside, was enlarged.

[5:43] And so we would have seen this painting in much dimmer light. I can only imagine that as a result, the spirituality of the painting would have been enhanced to an even greater extent. The sparkling of the wing of the archangel would have pierced the light in an even more transcendent way.

[5:58] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Fra Angelico, The Annunciation," in Smarthistory, May 18, 2021, accessed July 12, 2024,