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Europe 1300 - 1800

Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 3

Lesson 3: Painting in central Italy

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation (Prado)

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation and Life of the Virgin (in the predella), c. 1426, tempera on wood, 194 x 194 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker
The Annunciation is described in the Gospel According to Luke 1:26 - 38. 

Below is the King James translation:

26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name [was] Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, [thou that art] highly favoured, the Lord [is] with thee: blessed [art] thou among women. 29 And when she saw [him], she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible. 38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Prado in Madrid, and we're looking at Fra Angelico's Annunciation. Now, the Annunciation by Fra Angelico that most people are familiar with is a fresco that's in San Marco, in Florence. This is a painting that was made for a church not far from Florence-- DR. BETH HARRIS: In Fiesole. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It is extraordinary in that the frame is original, and so, not only do you have the main panel, but you've got the predella underneath with all of its original framing elements. I'm not sure that I've ever seen that. DR. BETH HARRIS: These things were often taken apart and sold in pieces. We have an Old Testament scene of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden, or the expulsion, by an angel, and actually that scene is joined to the Annunciation scene, because in the upper left, we see the hands of God releasing this divine light and a dove, which you can see just to the left of the column-- DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The Holy Spirit. DR. BETH HARRIS: --which is the Holy Spirit. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So we have actually the fall, and then the reason for Christ's existence. DR. BETH HARRIS: And Adam and Eve as the precursors to Mary and Christ. So the man and woman, who caused the Fall from Grace, and Mary and Christ, who make salvation possible. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And then we have God, the Father, looking down in an almost classical relief sculpture in the center just above that column. The predella below is the very condensed series of scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary, from her birth, to her marriage to Joseph, the Visitation-- DR. BETH HARRIS: Through to her death. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: --through to her death. That's right. And they are really meant, in a sense, the literal support for this later story. So stylistically, one of the things that I find quite important is the sense of quiet and solemnity that Fra Angelico was able to achieve. You have the angel, who is bowing below Mary. His hands are crossed, which is a symbol of respect, of prayer. Mary reflects that with her own hands. I'm really taken by the density of the Garden of Eden. All of that fruit, those flowers, those wonderful sort of anti-perspectival field of flowers below the feet. And then you have this piece of stark architecture. They are both too large for the space that they occupy. DR. BETH HARRIS: Absolutely. I think if Mary were to stand up, she would hit her head on the ceiling. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I think so, but none of that is really important, because this is a kind of reverential and invented exploration of beauty as a way of representing the divine. DR. BETH HARRIS: So this is painted contemporaneous with Masaccio painting the Brancacci Chapel. So we have two radically different approaches going on in Florence at the same time. And I think that's a good reminder that not everything in the Renaissance is this linear movement toward naturalism, but this variety of styles. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Whereas Masaccio was looking for a very, almost mathematically, accurate rendering. Here we can see an artist who's looking to celebrate the decorative as a way of expressing the moral-- DR. BETH HARRIS: The spiritual DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: --and the spiritual. Absolutely. DR. BETH HARRIS: And if you look, there's no cast shadows. There's not that kind of intense modeling that we see with Masaccio. There's not a lot of specificity to the faces and individuality in the faces-- DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But there is specificity to the decorative. Look at the wings of the angel, for example. DR. BETH HARRIS: Or the gilding of their halos. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Or just the foliage in the Garden. It's quite sumptuous, isn't it? DR. BETH HARRIS: It is.