Advent is a time to relish the beautiful music, poetry, and art that adorn the season. It is a season of expectancy and wonder. If you visit Florence, Italy, you may see an astoundingly beautiful Advent fresco in its original setting, The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. The San Marco Museum is a must see place because of Fra Angelico’s frescos. Friar Angelico lived at the Dominican priory of San Marco from 1439 -1446. He was an artist of the first rank and devoted his talents to the humble service of his brothers by adorning the walls of their dormitory cells, where the monks spent time in prayer and rest. His paintings were intended for the private use of the monks, supporting their contemplative life, and certainly not for the ego of the artist. At the top of the dormitory stairs the visitor is greeted by a gorgeous painting of the Annunciation.
Without the wings you might think the painting depicts a man and a woman bowing and greeting one another. She on a milking stool and he on his knee – an image of courtship perhaps – he a little lower than she. The mutual bow is reminiscent of the Angel Trinity icon by Andrei Rublev – there is no hierarchy here, just mutuality (a deep bow). Christians used to bow to one another, just like Easterners do today. It is a practice we might do well to recover because bowing attunes body, mind and spirit to a deep respect for one another.
The wings remind us that the messenger is from God. The gorgeous colors of the wings are the colors of the rainbow, recalling God’s promise of safekeeping (Genesis 9:13). Mary is the picture of unadorned beauty and humility, the kind of humility that allows God to guide one’s life. The artist has depicted the moment of acceptance when Mary says “Let it be unto me according to your word”. She an unmarried virgin has accepted without histrionics or emotional display the news that she will become pregnant. This is not a Hollywood moment, just quiet understatement. The setting at the top of the stairs in the monks’ dormitory helps us know the meaning of the painting. If the painting was hanging in a museum, the meaning would be less obvious. But here the artist is telling us that the state of prayer, quiet and contemplation is a condition of receiving God’s gift. The new birth of God in human life comes to those who are lowly in spirit, not filled with their own importance. We ascend in humility to the top of the stairs to meet the angel who has descended from heaven to grace us with God’s gift of Jesus.
Fra Angelico bridged the Medieval and Renaissance worlds. The painting includes references to both worlds: the Corinthian and Ionic capitals, use of perspective, natural light and realistic human form point to the Renaissance; the Romanesque arches, the landscape, the contemplative theme point to the Medieval Age. The artist is telling us that art itself is being reborn, even as the angel tells Mary of a new birth. But for Fra Angelico the womb of artistic rebirth is the state of contemplation as personified by Mary. Many artists, writers, composers, and scientists would agree that inspiration is a gift that comes out of silence beyond the ego.