A great work of art doesn’t just pull you into its mysteries. It offers a way out, a way beyond. Whether it is the open door at the back of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, or the bright, beckoning hatch in the upper-right corner of Picasso’s Guernica, or the twisting weathervane’s rod that spins our eye out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, there is always an escape route from the work’s claustrophobic tensions. We lose ourselves in these paintings, yes, and linger awhile among their surface intensities, but only as a preliminary stage in our ultimate propulsion through them. The warped and shrieking lightbulb head of Edvard Munch’s The Scream might transfix us for a time, but we eventually slope off from the scene along the icy railing that slants to the electric horizon beyond.
It may be impossible to trace this masterly flourish of visual relief-valves, these exit strategies, back to their birth in the history of image-making. But there can be little doubt that a widely-admired 15th-Century fresco that adorns a wall in the Convent of San Marco, Florence, is a formative moment in the tradition’s development. The handiwork of a Dominican friar by the name of Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (better known today as Fra Angelico, or the “Angelic Friar”), the Early Renaissance masterpiece tells the story of the Annunciation – the moment in the Gospel of Luke when the Archangel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary to inform her that she will give birth to Jesus. Despite the mystical magic of the scene – the elegant collision of spirit and flesh – and the lilting, lyrical light that Fra Angelico cast it in six centuries ago, it is clear that the artist is not content with merely engaging our eyes with the magnetism of the encounter. He wants our souls to soar through it.
Fra Angelico’s fresco on a wall in the Convent of San Marco depicts a familiar biblical narrative (Credit: Alamy)
Fra Angelico was in his 40s and at the height of his considerable powers as a painter when the legendary Italian banker Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned him to decorate the walls of the recently refurbished Convent of San Marco in 1437. By accepting the job, Angelico would have been fully aware of the aesthetic challenge at hand. The task of recounting such familiar biblical narratives as the Annunciation – a story that had been told and retold countless times since at least the 4th Century AD – would require enormous skill and innovation, especially given the location of these frescoes in the intimate living quarters of such a pious compound.
Angelico himself had tackled the Annunciation several times in the preceding decade in luminous altar works whose exquisite apricot glows are among the treasures of the Prado Museum in Madrid, and the Museum of Cortona in Tuscany. Painted in the mid-1430s, these two earlier versions of Gabriel’s meeting with Mary reveal a virtuoso hand at work, eager to impress our eye with the superficial opulence of the gilded haloes around each figure’s head, the regality of Mary’s makeshift throne and her flamboyant cape, which has been alchemised into an illusion of flowing fabric from ultramarine (a priceless pigment painstakingly extracted from the semiprecious gemstone lapis lazuli, excavated thousands of miles away in Afghanistan’s “Valley of Stone”). Over their heads, the otherworldly radiance of star-spangled vaults, crests and falls like slo-mo comet showers. Consistent with countless Medieval portrayals of the Annunciation before it, these are scenes whose spiritual lavishness we are meant to luxuriate in forever.
Fra Angelico painted the Annunciation on previous altar works; in them, Mary and Gabriel were surrounded by opulence (Credit: Alamy)
Now a mature artist with a formidable reputation to uphold (the celebrated 16th-Century Italian historian and writer Giorgio Vasari would later say that “this truly angelic friar” possessed a “rare and perfect talent”), Angelico would need to reinvent the experience of encountering a story so familiar, it was at risk of visual fatigue to 15th-Century ecclesiastical eyes. He began by radically stripping back the sumptuousness in which he had previously encrusted the tale, disposing entirely of those gaudy gold aureoles, Mary’s extravagant cathedra and garb, and that fussy interior decoration that enveloped the meeting in garish glitz. Only the irresistible, iridescent plumage of Gabriel’s angelic wings – fitted in Heaven – is retained.
Rather than relying on the lure of glitter and chintz to seduce his audience, Angelico opts instead for the intense intimacy of the silent dialogue between his two subjects’ eyes. Their stare is the crux of the encounter, and Angelico has isolated its magnetism by demonstrating a heroic restraint in storytelling elsewhere. But what ultimately draws us into and through the work is an optical sleight of hand that is truly remarkable. Crucial to the fresco’s impact is its physical position within the floorplan of San Marco – a site-specific element that the artist adroitly exploits to maximum effect. By placing the fresco on a wall towards which monks move as they mount a staircase that leads to a collection of dormitory rooms, Angelico makes ingenious use of the residents’ kinetic, escalating perspective.
The artist was keenly aware, of course, of innovations in the principles of geometric perspective that the Italian designer Filippo Brunelleschi had introduced only a few decades earlier – in particular, how the receding orthogonal lines of every scene we look upon converge to a distant vanishing point. The persuasiveness of that illusion of real-world depth relies for its effect on the careful alignment of those orthogonal lines to the eyes of those who look upon the work. For his Annunciation, Angelico cleverly manipulated Brunelleschi’s principles and made his perspective lines far too steep to be effective to any observer apart from those in slow ascendance towards his fresco – a trick that transforms his work into a curiously elastic dimension.
Angelico used the illusion of a vanishing point to draw our eyes towards a barred window behind Mary (Credit: Alamy)
To heighten the effect of rigging the work’s perspective, Angelico has gone further still to situate the fresco’s vanishing point to a spot that lies tantalisingly just beyond the bars of a small window in the back of the painting. As one climbs the stairs towards Angelico’s Annunciation, in other words, their eyes are simultaneously lured into and barred from entering this semi-permeable boundary that separates the world we can see from one that lies just outside it. By establishing an exit for our eyes and at the same time frustrating our access to it, Angelico has subtly raised the stakes on looking. The predicament of his painting, which compels us to pass through its world while forcing us to remain in it, is one to which any soul can relate.
Angelico’s contemporaries would have instantly recognised his employment of the barred window, beyond which lies a secret and unreachable garden, as a version of the hortus conclusus – a recurring symbol in Christian art and literature of the era. Meaning “enclosed garden”, the hortus conclusus was a complex metaphorical device that recalled, on the one hand, the loss of paradise, and, on the other hand, the Mary’s own immaculateness. To educated Medieval eyes, the window’s bars symbolised the Virgin’s own inviolable purity. To impel us towards that obstructed aperture, Angelico was dabbling in religiously risky and audacious choreography – luring us to contemplate, however subliminally, a penetration of the impenetrable.
Remove that escape route from the work, and the impact of Angelico’s fresco would be infinitely diminished. The barred window, which hovers in the sightline of the fresco’s two protagonists (further amplifying its importance), creates an invigorating tension in the work. Remove it from the blueprint of his fresco, shutter it completely, or draw heavy drapes across it, and the painting closes down. Its optical magic collapses. Angelico has meticulously measured just how much a glimpse of paradise we need to keep going. And nothing more.
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