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).
12 Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. 13Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; 14but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, 20for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. 21Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; 24for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.
26 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.