Day 7 – Piero della Francesca, The Annunciation, c. 1455, San Francesco, Arezzo.
Originally posted on 25 March 2020
Something to look forward to: it’s only NINE MONTHS to Christmas! And while we’re at it, I’d like to wish all you mothers out there a Belated Happy Mothers’ Day! The two are not unconnected. Admittedly, anyone reading this outside the UK will be going, ‘But it’s nowhere near Mothers’ Day’, because elsewhere it is celebrated in May… the month of Venus. Not that they are pagans. But then, the UK is officially a Protestant country, and yet we choose to celebrate Mothers’ Day as close as possible to Lady Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation, which, put like that, sounds rather Catholic. Thanks to endless Nativity Plays, and the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, we associate the Annunciation with Christmas. But it is when the Archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus, so it must be nine months before Christmas. It’s today!
So to celebrate, I have chosen an Annunciation by that most Renaissance of artists, Piero della Francesca. I’ve had a request for Piero from a rather fantastic author, who also happens to be a mother. This particular story also works well, as we have just looked at two other Archangels (see #POTD 5 & 6 – and keep the requests coming in!)
What makes Piero so ‘Renaissance’? Well, long story short, it is the way in which he grounds this most mystical of events in a rational, human world, imbuing it with order, clarity, and a due sense of proportion. That’s not to say that everything is ‘to scale’. Mary has a great sense of majesty and dignity by dint of her monumental appearance – she is far larger than Gabriel. Of course the bible does not give the heights of either of them. You would think that their appearance is a matter of artistic interpretation, but it is usually determined by tradition.
The aim of the painting is to tell the story, and for this story you need the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. After that, anything else is optional. So how do artists know what to choose? Well, that’s where tradition is important. I’ve always thought of images like this a bit like cover versions of a song – the lyrics and melody remain the same, but the rhythms and the backing track are different. And very often, you like the one you knew first the best.
Piero’s ‘backing track’ is a deceptively simple piece of architecture, highly decorated in specific places. Mary stands under a loggia supported by columns. She is in a ‘reserved’ area, her own sacred space, almost as if she is standing in a shrine. The angel steps forward, bowing slightly out of respect, the gesture of his right hand somewhere between greeting and blessing. In his left hand he holds a leaf – which might surprise you. You might have been expecting a lily, the symbol of Mary’s purity and virginity, part of the usual ‘backing track’. However in this instance he is holding what is probably meant to be a palm leaf, usualy held by martyrs to symbolise their victory over death. This might in itself be surprising, given that the Roman Catholic Church believes that Mary is without original sin, and as a result, she never died. So it must refer to the victory over death promised by the incarnation – God becoming man – which the angel is announcing now, as Christ would die to save mankind from its sins, and so triumph over death. This is relevant in this particular painting, as it is part of a cycle, a series telling a rather long and wonderful story, ‘The Legend of the True Cross’ (i.e. the very cross on which Jesus died).
Gabriel stands in front of a door, which has the most intricate and complex decorations – the paler ones include a circle containing three swirling leaf shapes, which, given that Gabriel is announcing the conception of the Son of God, probably refer to the Holy Trinity. The brilliance of the decoration also serves emphasize to the supernatural nature of his of greeting. Mary also stands in front of a highly decorated panel, which is, in all probability, another door. Doors are very common in Annunciations, one of the regular elements of the ‘backing track’. They are usually shut, and refer to the ‘hortus conclusus’, or closed garden mentioned in the Old Testament in the Song of Solomon. Early Christians interpreted this reference as foretelling Mary’s virginity: the garden is fertile, but it has not been entered – the door is shut.
In the top left of the painting we see God the Father, dressed in a traditional blue and red, with long white hair and beard. He is looking down at Mary from the clouds and holding his hands out towards her, as if he has just released the dove which represents the Holy Spirit. But you’ll be hard pressed to find the dove… It is just about visible, but easily mistaken for a small cloud (which would probably have been Piero’s intention). However, it is far less visible than it would have been.
There is more than one way to paint on a wall. All wall paintings are murals, but not all murals are frescoes. A fresco is painted onto fresh – i.e. wet – plaster, and the paint bonds with the plaster as it dries, effectively becoming part of the wall. This is known as ‘buon fresco’, or ‘true fresco’. However, you could also paint once the plaster has dried – a technique called ‘a secco’ (i.e. on the dry plaster). The trouble with this is that the paint doesn’t bond with the plaster – and so is far more liker to wear off. A lot of the Holy Spirit seems to have been painted ‘a secco’. Either that, or he’s flown away.
Piero uses the architecture to structure the painting, but also to give it meaning. Each of the characters has its own space – God the Father up in the sky, Gabriel approaching in front of the wall, and Mary in her dedicated space. Various art historians have probably attributed ‘meaning’ to the window and wall at the top right, but I would be dubious about taking any complex suggestions too seriously. It does include features common to 15th century Italian houses, though, and ensures we know that the event is taking place on Earth, and somewhere that we recognise – this is our world. The wooden pole in front of the shuttered window would be used to hang out laundry, or to air rugs, for example. It also allows Piero to show off his ability with perspective, light, and shade, all of which are used to create three-dimensional form and space. The light is especially relevant here, as this is the point of the Christian story at which the Light of the World (Jesus) comes into the world. However, in this painting, God is not the major source of light: notice how the column is lit from the right. This helps to make the column look more realistic for the any viewer in front of the fresco itself, as the main window in the chapel is just to the right of this painting (in the second image you can see the window, admittedly at night, behind the Crucifix which hangs above the High Altar of the church). Lighting the column from the right therefore makes it look as if the light on the column is coming from the window in the chapel – so the column appears to be real, and in the same space as us.
It is not just a column, though, it is a metaphor for Mary: it has the same proportions, for one thing. A column has three sections – a base, a shaft and a capital. A capital is the ‘head’, in this case scrolled and leafy, at the top of the column. The size of the capital compared to the full height of the column is exactly the same as the size of Mary’s head compared to her full height. Piero maps this out for us. The column is supporting a beam-like structure called an entablature, which is in two sections, going left to right above Mary’s head, and diagonally backwards towards the second column. This diagonal section of the entablature is in line with God the Father – and especially with his hands. It would appear to mark the direction of travel of the Holy Spirit as it heads towards the Virgin, like a landing strip. It also connects the column to Mary, showing us the similarity of their proportions. But what makes it a metaphor? In the same way that the column supports the building, Mary supports the Church – in its broadest sense – and for that matter the whole of God’s mission, through her acceptance of the responsibilities, joys and sufferings inherent in becoming the Mother of God.
For most other artists this would have been more than enough, but Piero’s brilliance means that there is even more to it. I think the architecture holds yet one more meaning. ‘The Annunciation’ stands out in this fresco cycle as the only story that is not part of ‘The Legend of the True Cross’. However, another part of the narrative is missing: the Crucifixion itself. I honestly can’t remember who came up with this idea, and it might even have been me (but probably not!): the Crucifixion is not in the chapel itself. In the church as it is arranged today it seems to be represented by the far earlier painting hanging above the High Altar, a placement that surely, in some way, reflects the situation when Piero was working. In the narrative ‘The Annunciation’ leads up to this, of course (admittedly from the other end of Christ’s story), but it also performs another function. The bible tells us that Jesus was crucified alongside two thieves, and often all three are shown in a row, with Jesus in the centre. Not so here, you might think. But look at the second illustration again. To the right of the Crucifixion, the fresco shows the ‘Dream of Constantine’. The Emperor himself lies in a cylindrical tent with a conical roof, supported by a vertical pole. The pole takes an equivalent position to the column in the Annunciation. In the same way, the base of the roof of the tent, and the overlapping entablatures in the other fresco are also equivalent, and are placed at the same height in both frescoes – about 3/5 of the way up the painting. Seen this way, the compositions of both frescoes are based on the cross. ‘The Annunciation’ and ‘The Dream of Constantine’ sketch out the positions of the two thieves on either side of Christ. It may be nine months to Christmas, but we’re a lot closer to Easter.