Theology in Paint

Editor’s Note: Michael Novak, one of the founders of The Catholic Thing, passed away peacefully the morning of February 17 in Washington D.C. (See linked story under News.) We ask your prayers for our friend and colleague, and his family. – Robert Royal

Blessed John (Giovanni) of Fiesole (1395-1455), celebrated in art history as the painter Fra Angelico, and commemorated in the liturgy of the Dominican Order on February 18, was a priest who preached through images, as well as through the spoken word and his holy way of life. Let us look at one of his masterpieces, the fresco of the Annunciation, in the cloister of San Marco in Florence.

A great painting reflects divine providence. As nothing escapes the divine governance of creation, so nothing in the painting escapes the artist’s mastery; nothing is merely incidental. As in beautiful music, every note happens just where it should in the development of the whole work. The theme unfolds to us if we attend to this development among the notes, whether sounds or, as here, colors and shapes.

Notice the corner of Our Lady’s mantle, which separates from the main mass of the fabric (A in our diagram). The major axis of this piece of the mantle parallels the major axis of the archangel’s wings. The extension of this axis connects the corner of the pavement (B) and the seat of the bench at (C); and furthermore makes a right angle with the axis of Mary’s torso (D) as she inclines reverently toward the heavenly messenger. So the two figures are related as a rectangle, which tilts down on the left, where the angel alights, and up on the right, where Mary sits. It is like a seesaw; if one side goes down, the other goes up. The painter sets this inclined rectangle against a series of strict horizontals to make sure we feel its tilt.

Thus Blessed John wonderfully depicts the divine condescension, which elevates the human. “God became man so that man might become divine.” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation 54:3, PG 25:192B; cf. also Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 460). In the traditional offertory rite in the Mass, the priest prays: “O God, who in creating human nature, didst wonderfully dignify it, and still more wonderfully hast restored it, grant that, by the Mystery of this water and wine, we may become partakers of His divine nature, who deigned to become partaker of our human nature, even Jesus Christ our Lord, Thy Son.”

This exchange is miraculous, and Fra Angelico depicts it as such. Visually, Mary’s form is “heavier” than the angel’s, in both color (particularly dark and light contrast) and shape; and yet she is raised as the angel descends. At the same time, a dynamic pair of triangles (E and F) enhance Gabriel’s reverent posture, as they propel upward from left to right, conveying to the viewer a feeling of sursumactio, upward action: We are invited to bow with the angel before the Queen of Heaven, and in the same moment to lift our minds and hearts confidently toward her, and to the miracle God is accomplishing in her. Sursum corda! Note how the second triangle (F) is more vertical than the first (E), halting Gabriel’s advance just before the column that bounds the zone of the painting which represents the Holy of Holies, the space housing Mary, who will henceforth be the Tabernacle of the Most High. Has reverence ever found clearer pictorial expression?

There is more. Notice how the perspective of the arches stretching back in space above the angel suggests movement in time and space, as its alternating rhythm of light and dark shapes indicates the flutter of Gabriel’s wings and his soft alighting; and by implication the action of God throughout the history of his chosen people, coming softly to a pause now in the house of the Virgin at Nazareth, awaiting her decision. Above Mary the arches do not move back; they move from right to left, toward the divine messenger, emphasizing her total response: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” This response of self-surrender is further amplified by the echoing and expansion of blue and green in the same direction, from the Virgin’s mantle to the window to the enclosed garden (a reference to the Song of Solomon, 4:12, and to a reversal of the Fall which took place in a garden).

Fra Giovanni’s fresco conveys the fragrance of divine graciousness. Grace elevates us as we humble ourselves toward God and toward our neighbor. Our bowing down is our lifting up. We are fulfilled by giving ourselves to God, and by serving our neighbor in charity according to God’s will. Beato Angelico’s painting has this grace-filled atmosphere in common with the Liturgy – the Mass and the Hours, which formed him daily.

We have drawn spiritual riches from this fresco by attending to its form, the arrangement of its shapes and colors. We have let the painting inform our perception. Similarly, in the Liturgy we assimilate the measured movements, the postures, the chants, the cadence of the prayers, the rich meaning of every word, and above all the miracle of the Word made flesh in the Virgin’s womb and offered for us and to us daily.

Even in city streets and subways, if we guard and cultivate the gardens of our souls through attendance at Mass and private prayer, helped along by frequent contemplation of great sacred art, we find that, day by day, like a friar in the cloister of San Marco, we are led ever deeper into the mystery: God became man so that we might be made divine through union with Him.

James Patrick Reid teaches painting and drawing at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and serves as artist in residence with the college's Center for Beauty and Culture. He also teaches an online graduate course in the history and theory of Catholic art for the Franciscan University of Steubenville. A portfolio of his work is available at his website.