San Marco is one of the gems of Florence. It is the Dominican friary, once residence of Savonarola but also of one of the most remarkable and innovative artist of the 15th century. He was a Dominican Friar, Giovanni da Fiesole, but more commonly known as ‘Beato Angelico’ or Fra Angelico.
He is buried in the Dominican church of Sopra Minerva in Rome. San Marco is almost a gallery of Fra Angelico’s work. As you go through the Friary his work comes to meet you; it invites you to stand and look. Fra Angelico will not let you be a visiting tourist. He quietly holds you, insists that you attend; stop looking and see with interior eyes.
Not only is Fra Angelico’s work artistically innovative it is also contemplative. This is especially evident in the works painted on the walls of each cell occupied by one of the Dominican friars. These are smaller, often very personal and mystical works, designed to serve the prayer of the occupant and draw him into the mystery of salvation. All the scriptural scenes displayed are made up of faces and landscapes that any inhabitant of Florence and the surrounding countryside would recognise. The ‘event’ is not some moment in the past, it is ‘now’, in this place and I am part of it. In his use of space and light, and also the quiet dynamism of his scenes – sometimes they appear to anticipate the surreal, especially when they are compositions of the instruments of the passion – Fra Angelico moves away from the gothic conventions.
The frescos are spare, the people and their gestures are clear but not too busy; there is light and space created out of the careful interplay of place and people. In this way Fra Angelico produces a sense both of stillness and amplitude, even within a small frame, that makes space for us. All of these features are on display at San Marco at the top of the stairs leading from the public spaces and works of the ground floor to the upper floor where the friars have their cells. The top of the stairs is framed by the Annunciation.
It is not accident that we rise up the staircase into its presence, it marks our entrance into a different level of life: from the busy world of the friary below into the private space for rest, prayer and meditation upon the word/Word of God. This private, ‘enclosed’ space becomes a sanctuary as the friars (or us) take time to meditate upon the mysteries of Christ’s life and in the silence open the interior space of the attentive mind and heart to hear the word. The invitation at the base of the Annunciation fresco is to pause and say an ‘Ave’. We stand on the threshold, not only of public and private spaces, but exterior and interior worlds, the interplay of nature and grace. Fra Angelico’s faith imagination always drawing inspiration and depth from that ‘admirabile commercium’ – the wonderful exchange – of the Incarnation.
By placing the Annunciation at the point between the two worlds of the friar’s life, the active and contemplative, – between the two dimensions of the viewer’s life – Fra Angelico makes us ‘ascend’ into the moment. The space of the Annunciation is arranged so that we too stand in the space just before the loggia. Although the loggia is itself well defined and has the stillness of a cloister, it is also filled with ‘thresholds’. We can see from the outer space of the garden to the enclosed space of the encounter, and within it the suggestion of the door leading even further to the inner chambers of the house.
Not until we are directly in front of the scene do we notice that that figures of the angel and Our Lady are massive. They are impossibly large for the space in which they are meeting. It would be impossible for them to use the small door and the tiny window which is positioned between them. Fra Angelico was certainly aware of Masaccio’s innovative use of mathematical perspective, so the disproportionality must be intentional. It works from the bottom of the staircase and allows the figures to grow as we approach or ascend until we stand before them, held and overwhelmed. It is as if all the time Fra Angelico is moving us from being viewers to beholders. The very size of the figures comes to fill the whole scene evoking in us a deeper response, an ‘experienced understanding’ with the interior eyes of faith; it cannot be articulated, only held and pondered.
The Annunciation is remarkably uncluttered. There is just the Angel and Mary: the Angel in the subtlest of movements towards her and she, wrapped but inclined towards the Angel. These subtle physical gestures carry a quiet intensity of attentiveness. Neither the Angel or Mary speak, yet we are in no doubt that they are communicating. Although they do not touch they are in the most intimate communication and contact. They, too, are caught in the event which is happening; it is all the more absorbing because it is not visible, at least to the naked eye.
Again, Fra Angelico almost imperceptibly transfers us from an exterior to an interior space of contemplation. Although the traditional symbols of the annunciation are absent, in this austerely beautiful moment there is one that delights and carries with it the joy of the encounter. It is the garden which stands in contrast with the clean and unadorned spandrels. It is another enclosed space which plays upon the title of Mary, hortus conclusus, a garden enclosed. The title which echoes the Song of Songs.
The delicacy of the flowers may well reflect Fra Angelico’s own delight and skill as an illustrator of manuscripts before becoming a painter. The rich profusion of the garden’s floral carpeting suggests the new spring of redemption; it recalls the first garden from which humanity was exiled and now is about to be restored. The promise is ‘now’, it is here, in this moment uniting two worlds: heaven and earth, external and inward, action and contemplation, and we are privileged to be drawn into the moment. To hear the Angel’s wordless prophetic greeting and Mary’s response which echoes through time and gathers all creation. What better way to honour Fra Angelico’s Annunciation than to pause, wrapped in the moment, and silently say our own ‘Ave’.