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Painting in central Italy

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.