This is another reflection from Janet Laisch:
The second Saturday of Advent, I traveled from Rome to Florence to tour the former Monastery of San Marco, where the artist and monk, Fra Angelico lived. I walked around the loggia, admiring its repetitious lines and cross barrel vaulting that encouraged reflection.
I thought of my grandmother saying that everyone is called to do something, the fortunate ones follow their callings.
Fra Angelico surely did.
As a Dominican monk here, he painted a fresco cycle starting in 1438. Stepping inside, I saw Fra Angelico’s Annunciation fresco; it measures 7.5’x10.5′, and true to frescos, it is in beautiful condition. Fra Angelico created a three dimensional space using linear perspective with a high vanishing point most convincing when viewed from the first floor.
Once I ascended the staircase, I approached the painting at eye level. The angel Gabriel and Mary inhabit a space that mirrors the monastery: the garden, the cross barrel vaulting, and windowed monk’s dorm are distinguishing features of San Marco.
Too, the protagonists were painted life size rather than to scale; if Mary stood up, she would hit her head on the ceiling. The most elaborate portion of the fresco are the angels’ wings.
Only in person could I appreciate how beautiful and otherworldly they are; they literally sparkle from the shimmery, brightly colored mica rocks used to create the paints reserved only for Gabriel.
The light source highlights Gabriel who was painted with much more detail in gold leaf unlike Mary who wears muted beige and blue that blend into the stone background.
Gabriel clearly impressed Mary; her lips are parted in awe.
Gabriel has just delivered seemingly devastating news that Mary, a virgin, unwed, young, and not wealthy is with child.
In response Mary appears calm. Her parted lips are the only indication that she might feel overwhelmed. In acceptance, Mary intently makes eye contact with her visitor; her arms mirror his arms, and both protagonists slightly bow their heads in reverence.
Their eyes and arms communicate a shared response.
She trusts his message is Gospel and delivers the word of God. Fra Angelico painted Mary accepting the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she will give birth to Jesus Christ our Savior from the Gospel of Luke 1:38. “I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary; “may it happen to me as you have said.”
Contrastingly, Simone Martini’s Annunciation from 1333 portrays Mary shrinking back in fear of her calling from Luke 1:29-35: “Mary was deeply troubled…and …wondered… How, then, can this be?” Unlike Martini, Fra Angelico portrayed only the protagonists without distraction from standardized symbols used in hundreds of Annunciation scenes that were painted by Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque artists; symbols not found in the bible.
Farther down the corridor, I entered the monks’ dorms. Each cell measured 10 x 10 feet–43 cells in total. In dorm three, there is another example of an Annunciation by Fra Angelico. This private devotional piece is even sparser than the previous example.
Here the barrel vaulted room is mirrored in the painting; a Dominican monk views the Annunciation from the left; similar to the monk, who lived in this very room and would have prayed before this image each day.
The monk’s goal is that we experience the Biblical narrative firsthand as a holy vision. We too can imagine what this announcement would have felt like to Mary. She is neither wealthy nor wed and for a woman living in her day, she would have been shunned had Joseph not married her. Yet she bows her head, folds her hands over her chest and looks at
Gabriel accepting God’s calling.
Fra Angelico inspires the viewer to be like Mary, and accept God’s call.
I returned to Rome. The piling snow, like insulation, muted the sounds associated with this crowded city.
It became quiet enough to listen come what may. My thoughts turned to Mary who decisively and humbly accepted her call from God; during Advent, as we anticipate Christ’s Second Coming–another gift from God– we too should listen to how God calls us.
Each of us is called again and again to act in both simple and great ways. We may not live in a monastery where quiet reflection is a part of each day.
However, if we learn to listen, we may just be able to respond to God’s calls as Mary had done–with quiet acceptance.