Faith through Art: Reflections on the Annunciation at Convento San Marco
By Norman Farmer
This month the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25 invites reflections on the most famous and likely the most spiritually esteemed painting of the subject (Lk 1:26-38): this fresco at the Dominican Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy, painted around 1442 by Blessed Fra Angelico (photo at top right). Giorgio La Pira, a former mayor of Florence has the definitive word on Il Beato’s masterpiece: “Florence is the center of the world. San Marco is the center of Florence. And the Annunciation by Blessed Angelico is the center of San Marco. Therefore, the Annunciation is the center of the world,” he said in Settima Cielo in 2015.
Every day for more than 600 years, five times a day for the Canonical Hours of prayer, the entire San Marco household solemnly, silently descended from the convent dormitory and passed through the cloister on their way to the adjacent church, returning to the dormitory at the conclusion of each hour. With each transit they paused before Blessed Angelico’s life-size image of Dominic, kneeling in tears at the foot of the cross and pleading in anguish for mercy (photo at bottom left). Known as the “manifesto of Dominican religious Life,” this image teaches the need for unconditional faith in Christ our Redeemer (V. Alce, OP, “Homilies of Fra Angelico”).
Reascending the stairs, each friar paused at the landing. Solemnly regarding the Annunciation framed precisely by the stairwell some 20 feet above each followed the instructions inscribed at the base: “When entering, you find yourself before the image of the intact Virgin. Take care not to forget to say an ‘Ave.’” Since all knew intimately the details of the painting, a glance sufficed to align prayer intentions with the visual details.
Mary and the angel face one another (Lk 1:28) in a graceful loggia, luminous in the gentle light from an unseen source in the upper left. It enters the loggia through three archways, one more than the pair used for binocular mortal sight and thus underscoring the difference in the dynamics of this painting between things seen and things un-seen: “for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:17-18; Rom 8:24-25).
The trinitarian motif is repeated by the small enclosed garden –– the “hortus conclusus” (Sg 4:12). It appears in the shape of a triangle formed by the abrupt left edge of the painting (right up against the corner where the corridors meet), by the picket fence (the traditional symbol for the intact Virgin), and by the floor of the loggia where the unseen mystery of the Incarnation is fulfilled. Thus, do the ambiguously sourced light and the abrupt termination of the image at the corner of the intersecting corridors fuel a viewer’s sense that “the light of the world” (Jn 8:12) has indeed become one with the flesh of his holy mother, whom Aquinas says “should be informed in mind concerning Him, before conceiving Him in the flesh.”
As Mary leans bodily into the mystery of that holy light, thereby expressing her silent “Fiat,” she adds further to growing sense of imminence evoked by this painting, something that only the subtlest practitioner of mystical painting could imagine, much less achieve. As each friar knew, and modern art-critics unanimously miss, Mary does not look directly at the Angel. Instead, she fixes her gaze upon something beyond the truncated sightlines of this painting. And because we cannot see it this “something” is bound to be divine, not human. However, when one steps into the corridor to follow Mary’s line of sight, he does see –– another fresco (image below at right)! This time a smaller version of the manifesto image but now with an utterly transformed and transfigured Dominic. Standing erect, composed, and serene in faith, he gazes raptly upon the Crucified One in the spirit of a hymn attributed to St. Bernard and inscribed in cursive under the Annunciation: “O Savior of the world, I greet you, dear Jesu, and would stand by your Cross –– you know why. Give me the strength to do so.” Here then is the complete manifesto of the Dominican faith. Not in an image, but in the cells and corridors of the convent among people of faith for whom the mystery of the Annunciation is as much a reality as it was for Mary when the angel spoke.