Variation on a theme: Annunciation

Jane Fortune
June 28, 2007

An annunciation is an announcement, a proclamation. In Christianity, the annunciation is the moment the angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, telling her that she will bear the son of God. A feast to celebrate this event is observed on March 25, and it is an important subject of paintings and reliefs made for churches and private devotion. Mary is usually depicted reading or holding a book. A lectern, a lily (purity), a walled garden (Mary’s virginity) or a dove (the Holy Spirit) are common features of these works. Florence’s museums and churches abound with portrayals of the annunciation.


For example Simone Martini’s masterful Annunciation (1333), in the Uffizi, is on a rich gold background of gilded gesso, where the words ave gratia plena dominus tecum (‘Greetings most favored one. The Lord is with thee’) are drawn in a straight line from Gabriel’s mouth to Mary’s ear. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s gilded bronze Annunciation (1403–24) on the north door of the Baptistry of the Duomo is both delicate in detail and strong in gesture.  Donatello’s masterfully carved Annunciation (1435), in the Cavalcanti Chapel in Chiesa Santa Croce, is richly decorated with gilding on stone, depicting the exquisite grace and humility of Mary. In the Capponi Chapel in Chiesa Santa Felicita is Pontormo’s breathtakingly beautiful Annunciation fresco (1527).


>Lorenzo Monaco’s luminous Annunciation with Saints (1410–1415), in the Galleria dell’Accademia, is not to be missed.  Monaco was a monk, but lived outside the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where he took his vows. His extraordinarily brilliant and luminous coloring in shades of blues, pinks and violets, the elegance of his figures and the refinement and graceful flow of his drawing, make this an incredibly beautiful work. In Chiesa Santa Trinita, in the Bartolini Chapel, is Monaco’s Annunciation altarpiece, part of a fresco series on the life of Mary.


One of the most magnificent works ever painted is Fra Angelico’s Annunciation (1449), in the Convento San Marco (at the top of the staircase). His use of light and perspective, around an architectural space, makes the work seem very real. As the visitor ‘sees’ the work, the image deeply takes hold of the inner and outer self. Don’t miss this masterpiece! Note the inscription, which translated reads ‘as you venerate, while passing before the figure of the intact Virgin, beware lest you omit to say a Hail Mary’. Also, in cell number three, is another Annunciation by Fra Angelico, which seems to float on the wall.


Set in a garden in a Florentine palazzo, Leonardo da Vinci’s dignified Annunciation (1472–75), in the Uffizi, features a background of mountains, water and sky.  The botanical setting is typical of Leonardo (the angel even kneels on a carpet of grass and flowers). Mary has been reading and responds to the archangel with an expression devoid of emotion, but in deep respect. The sense of depth in this work enhances the importance of Mary, as do the richness and beauty of her robe.


Take the opportunity to see Fra Filippo Lippi’s gratifying Annunciation (1445), a wooden altarpiece that is still in the original place for which it was painted, the Martelli Chapel in the church of San Lorenzo. Lippi’s strong sense of perspective is evident in the way that the orange buildings fade into the end of a garden. The composition of this work is distinctive: a kneeling Gabriel and a standing Mary are crowded on the right side of an arch. Also, Mary’s unusual, agitated pose is much like that in Donatello’s Annunciation in Santa Croce. Two unexplained curly headed angels on the left of the arch are looking at the observer and pointing to Mary. Most interesting is the trompe l’oeil transparent vase resting on the frame, ready for the lilies held by Gabriel!


Sandro Botticelli’s lively Cestello Annunciation (1489), in the Uffizi, with its strong sense of perspective—across the red tiled floor, along its converging lines, which leads out to a landscape—enables the viewer to look through the room. Gabriel, in billowing robes, raises his hand, which forms a diagonal line that continues in Mary’s arm, held across her chest. Her knees are buckling as if she is about to faint. Gabriel looks as if he is actually speaking the words written in Latin beneath the painting’s original frame: ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee’.


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