Great works: Annunciation (1438-45), Fra Angelico

Museo de San Marco, Florence

Some great paintings are inexhaustible wells, forever self-replenishing. Such a one is Fra Angelico's frescoed representation of the Annunciation at the monastery of San Marco in the north of Florence. It is a painting of that key moment in the Christian story when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and announces that she will give birth to a son by miraculous means. The story, though central to the Christian story, appears in only one of the Gospels, St Luke's. The fresco can still be seen on the first floor of the monastery, at the top of the staircase, where Fra Angelico painted it. It is the first image that you see as you ascend the stairs to the dormitory level, and its position is perfectly calculated to make an overwhelming emotional impact upon the visitor. Other works by Fra Angelico and his followers, one small image in each, can be seen in the tiny monk's cells on the same floor.

The subject was an immensely popular one, painted over and over again during the Renaissance. Some of its greatest interpretations were dramatic – if not histrionic - in the extreme. Lorenzo Lotto's idiosyncratic Venetian version of the same subject, painted about a decade before this one, sees Mary turned away, in fear and apprehension, from the angel Gabriel, who has just appeared in her bedroom, with his crimped, golden hair streaming. It is almost as if she wants to leap out of the picture frame. God is at the window too, pillowed on a cloud, pointing a stern finger at her, unequivocally. She is the chosen one. There is no going back. A small cat at her back does a half leap from the floor in sympathy. The room is cluttered with objects, some of great symbolic signifance.

There are several celebrated paintings by Fra Angelico of the same scene. One of the most awe-inspiring and elaborately sacramental is a panel painting dating from 1432-4 that can be seen at the Museo Diocesano in Cortona. The loggia in which the confrontation takes place looks opulent and fanfarishly stagey in the extreme. Mary sits on a seat covered with a precious fabric. The angel is in brilliant red, with fussy gold embroidery. The fluted columns shine as if reflecting back at us the glory of everything that we are witnessing. In the lower part of the painting, along the bottom of the altarpiece, a long panel tells the story of Mary's life in a frieze of familiar scenes. Mary, prayer book in her lap, listens, rapt, as the angel, both long index fingers pointing, one towards Mary and the other towards God, whose image is represented in the spandrel of the arch above him, explains the overwhelming significance of his visit. You can almost overhear him saying the last words reported by St Luke in the first chapter of his Gospel: "For with God nothing will be impossible."

The scene that Fra Angelico paints on the wall of the monastery just a few years later is dramatically different in mood. In spite of the fact that the scene also takes part in a loggia, the painting is plainer, and altogether more austere and more intimate in mood. These two beings, one human, the other angelic, seem set apart from the world. We see an open doorway at Mary's back, with a small window of the kind that you can still see in the monks' cells in this bedroom. There are spandrels – as in the painting at Cortona – but this time they are empty. Something important is happening, but the angel looks modest and confiding, as if he is engaging in a private conversation. They incline towards each other as if exchanging confidences. There are no trumpet blasts here, no immediate sense that this angel, in spite of the almost comically colourful flourish of his wings, is the emissary of the Creator; that he has suddenly appeared to the horror, awe and consternation of his human and animal witnesses.

The painting – unlike many of the versions by other painters – also lacks the range of symbolic objects that would have reminded onlookers of Mary's chastity: lilies, chasuble, the carafe, the washbasin. Instead, we have a plain wooden fence marking the boundary of a garden in which small spring flowers seem to be growing. Behind that fence Tuscan cypresses are flourishing. There is no holy book on Mary's lap. Instead, she and the angel have their arms folded modestly, one mirroring the other, over their chests in the sign of the cross. Mary sits on a plain-looking wooden stool – it looks more like a milking stool than the kind of splendid object that the mother of the saviour of the world might be expected to occupy. There is a strange stillness about the scene. They look into each other's eyes. They do not seem about to speak. There is nothing more than that. Yet that seems to be sufficient. Mary does not seem to be troubled. If anything, she looks serenely accepting. The colour of their clothing – the extremely delicate pale pink of the angel's robe matches the garment on Mary's upper half – once again lacks the kind of fanfare that give to so many religious paintings of these times their atmosphere of almost otherworldly opulence.

The figures are painted shallowly, harking back to pre-Renaissance painters. This lack of depth contributes to the simplicity of the scene. The whole scene is a masterpiece of quiet understatement.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Fra Angelico (c.1387-1455) is most celebrated for his series of fresco paintings at the San Marco Monastery in Florence. A brilliant colourist he is a painter who stands on the very cusp of modernity. His painting harks back to Giotto, and his best known pupil was Benozzo Gozzoli.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker