Annunciation, Cell 3 by Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico

Annunciation, Cell 3, c.1436–43, Fresco, 176 x 148 cm, Museo di San Marco, Florence, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Conformed to the Image

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

In Romans 8:28, Paul speaks of a collaboration between God and those ‘who are called according to his purpose’, and of how they will be ‘conformed to the image’ of Christ. A calling, or vocation, to serve God and be conformed to Christ was central to the Dominican brothers for whom Fra Angelico painted this Annunciation. It is one of many frescoes which punctuate the architecture of the convent of San Marco, in Florence, where the artist himself was a friar.

These paintings intersected with the friars’ daily lives at every point. They were intended to facilitate the conformity of the individual to the community and, ultimately, to Christ. Most include a Dominican ‘exemplar’ whom the friars were encouraged to imitate: often St Dominic, who modelled himself on Christ, or the Virgin, nominal abbess of the order. Here it is St Peter Martyr, his head bleeding from the wound inflicted by the heretics who killed him, one of the ‘slaughtered sheep’ to whom Paul refers (v.36, c.f. Psalm 44:22).

The friars learned from these exemplars the proper response to the images before them, often through their physical attitudes and gestures, which were associated with particular states of prayer. Peter Martyr appears in a meditative mode of prayer suited to preparations for preaching. He is not anachronistically present at the Annunciation so much as contemplating it (just as the friar who saw it would do) and seeking to understand it in such a way that he can respond to it through his preaching and his behaviour.

The greatest example of vocation was supplied by the Virgin herself, whom we see here accepting the call to be the mother of God’s son. Her own room directly reflects the architecture of the friar’s cell and her presence serves as a constant reminder to him of her humble yet glorious vocation.

 

References:

Hood, W. 1986. ‘Saint Dominic's Manners of Praying: Gestures in Fra Angelico's Cell Frescoes at S. Marco’, The Art Bulletin 68.2: 195–206

Hood, W. 1993. Fra Angelico at San Marco (New Haven and London: Yale University Press)

Reddaway, Chloë. R. 2016. Transformations in Persons and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer (Turnhout: Brepols), ch.5

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