The Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico

The Coronation of the Virgin, c.1435, Tempera on panel, 112 x 114 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Inv.1890 no.1612, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Tuscany, Italy / Bridgeman Images

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The Crown of Life

Commentary by

This passage from James twice promises a ‘blessing’ (1:12, 25) and here in Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin, Mary receives a golden crown from Jesus, her son, on her assumption into heaven. Unlike some paintings of the Coronation of the Virgin—including a second version of the scene painted by Fra Angelico in 1434–35, now in the Louvre—Mary is not here kneeling before Jesus, but sitting by his side. This symmetrical position suggests a mutual gift-giving, which is perhaps appropriate to their relationship: Jesus received his earthly life from Mary, and she receives her spiritual ‘crown of life’ (v.12) from him.

All the circular forms in Fra Angelico’s composition echo the shape of Mary’s crown. The entire gathering seems united in the circle of friendship and celebration: every figure is connected, everyone is touching someone else. Mary looks like a queen, yet all here wear spiritual crowns: their bright halos express their consciousness of God. The trials of their earthly lives are over; they have loved God, and now they enjoy God’s blessing.

Though this is an image of heaven, of risen lives bathed in golden light—no one looks old or diseased—the gathering is still recognizably human, composed of distinctive-looking people from various walks of life. The female saints at the bottom-right corner even seem a little gossipy. This painting is full of hands—holding things, playing instruments, gesturing in different ways. While all the halos invoke a life that is ‘pure and undefiled’, ‘unstained from the world’ (v.27), the hands suggest human agency, so that each figure combines these contrasting elements of the biblical passage. All these people, and most of all the child-bearing, child-rearing mother Mary, whose hands can now finally rest, have been ‘blessed in [their] doing’ (v.25).