(LifeSiteNews) — Prior to his being elected successor of St. Peter, Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote, “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”
In outlining the role of sacred art, St. Thomas Aquinas explains:
There were three reasons for the introduction of the use of visual arts in the Church: first, for the instruction of the uneducated, who are taught by them as by books; second, that the mystery of the Incarnation and the examples of the saints be more firmly impressed on our memory by being daily represented before our eyes; and third, to enkindle devotion, which is more efficaciously evoked by what is seen than by what is heard.
As a teacher of the Catholic faith, I have found that in unpacking the rich symbolism of sacred art, students, even several years later, could recall and explain the meaning of the symbols and doctrines conveyed. Thus, I offer here some reflections upon one of Bl. Fra Angelico’s 14th-century renderings of the Annunciation.
Prior to studying such paintings, it is always most helpful to prayerfully recall passages in Sacred Scripture that bear witness to the event portrayed. Should you wish to do this, which is highly recommended, you will conveniently find the passage in Luke 1:26–38 here.
First, in observing this painting, we can see that Fra Angelico is obviously seeking not to recreate a historical photograph, but to convey the theological significance and splendor of this historical event. Consider the following aspects.
Mary, Queen of Angels, Immaculately Conceived
- Who is the central figure of the painting? We notice this to be the Archangel Gabriel; thus, it is his message that is most important. The word “angel” means messenger and is a description of an office rather than of the nature of a particular unembodied spirit.
- The first word St. Gabriel speaks is “Hail.” This word is a royal salutation, as we see in the Passion accounts, when Our Eternal King, Jesus Christ, is mocked, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Thus, we see that this celestial being, whose nature is far superior to our own, is identifying this teenage girl as his queen. Logically, therefore, Our Lady is honored as Queen of Angels in Christian litanies throughout the centuries, and in this painting, she sits upon a throne to indicate as much.
- The next words of the archangel are, in our translation, “full of grace.” However, the original expression in Greek, kecharitōmenē, is somewhat difficult to briefly translate. Scholars offer that it means something along the lines of “completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace,” indicating one example of scriptural evidence for the Catholic dogma of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.
Mary, Tabernacle of the New Covenant
- What is the Blessed Virgin wearing? Mary is dressed in blue and scarlet, the same colors as those that draped the tabernacle as described in the book of Exodus (Ex. 25:4, 26:1, 31, 36; 36: 8, 35; 38: 18). The tabernacle in the Old Testament contained the presence of God. Our Lady is the tabernacle of the New Covenant, for she bears the Eternal Son of God in her womb. Mary is the glorious fulfillment of the tabernacle of the Old Covenant, which served as the Virgin Mother’s prefigurement.
- To reaffirm this image, we have a burst of light with a dove over Our Lady representing the Holy Spirit. We recall in this event how Gabriel promised, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk. 1:35). This expression is the same as that used in Exodus, when the Spirit of God “overshadowed” the tabernacle, which was then “filled with the glory of the Lord” (Ex. 40: 35). Thus, Mary is “overshadowed” and “filled with the glory of the Lord” with His physical incarnation in her womb.
- It’s always a good idea to look for the presence of fundamental doctrines in sacred art such as the Holy Trinity. Notice that the Son of God is becoming incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit is overshadowing her, and consider the figure at the top of the central pillar gazing down at her. This is actually the Prophet Isaiah. Prophet means “mouthpiece of God,” and he is representing Yahweh, the Father, in the Old Covenant. The three persons of the Holy Trinity surround Mary.
- What was Mary doing when the angel appeared? She seems to have been reading. What text? Well, likely, due to the hint above, the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which foretells, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14).
Children of Abraham in Christ
- Other indicators of importance in such paintings include brightness. Observing closely, one notices the brightest parts of the painting are the white pillars, which emphasize the structure. What is this structure? In the art of this period, there was the concept of the “household of God” represented in various ways. Thus, in the Old Covenant, this structure would signify the Temple, and in the New, the Temple’s fulfillment, the Church.
- What do we notice about the glimpses of the ceiling in the Temple/Church? They appear to be stars. Here one recalls God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be like “the stars of heaven” (Gen. 22: 17), and we remember that the children and heirs of Abraham are in Christ, and as one sees here, in in His Church (Gal. 3: 16,29).
A Visual Summation of Salvation History
The left-hand panel of the painting also conveys a significant amount of information.
- In the upper left corner, one can discern a reminder of the fall of Adam and Eve. Behind the friar, who represents God, we see a small structure that symbolizes, again, this idea of “the household of God,” which Adam and Eve must regretfully leave due to their sin.
- Beneath them we see 1) a barren terrain, and then down farther, 2) some foliage with budding indicating anticipation and hope, and finally, 3) on the near side of the picket fence we see flowers and other plants in bloom symbolizing life and fulfillment.
Thus, we have representations of 1) prehistory after the Fall when there was no hope, 2) the Old Covenant where hope is present due to God’s promises of a coming Redeemer, and 3) the New Covenant where there is fulfillment of those promises.
And looking very closely, one notices the very tips of the angel’s wings straddle the picket fence, indicating that this event, the Incarnation of the Son of God, is what divides the Old and New Covenants.
The Interior of the Temple / Mary’s Heart
- Returning attention to the central portion of the painting, one notices an open doorway in the background. An often-used artistic technique during this period was placing such an opening in the background to indicate when one of the figures was experiencing some great enlightenment, or awareness of something new, as is happening with the Blessed Virgin Mary here.
- One also notices that the interior curtain is red, reminding us of the blood of the Lord’s Passion and the tearing of the curtain in the temple at Our Lord’s death (Mt. 27: 51).
- Thirdly, if the doorway represents Our Lady’s heart (being opened to a new awareness of her role in salvation history, the tear can also recall Simeon‘s prophecy to Mary, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Lk. 2: 35). And with careful observation, one will notice that the angel’s finger is not only pointing directly at the Blessed Virgin’s heart, but it ends right at the edge of the tear in the background.
- Finally, in the face of such difficulty, one notices the gesture of Mary crossing her hands over her chest, a common artistic symbol at the time for her “fiat,” (“let it be done”). “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1: 38).
The insights provided in this article were largely obtained from a presentation given by Dr. Caroline Farey in 2009 which the author attended.
This article was originally published on December 24, 2020.