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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Feast of the Annunciation and the Incarnation of Our Blessed Lord

In honor of the Blessed Mother's feast today I offer several artworks by "Fra Angelico," the 15th century Dominican Friar who was known by his contemporaries as Giovanni da Fiesole (Brother John from Fiesole), but was labeled "angelico" (the angelic one) because of his piety and holiness. Even during his lifetime (or shortly after) he was described as Il Beato (the Blessed). Pope John Paul II made the title official in 1982 when he beatified the well-known artist. Looking at his paintings one sees his deep faith and love for the Blessed Mother as well as his understanding of her role in salvation history.

The first picture stresses Mary's humility. She is dressed simply and kneels at prayer. Her eyes are cast down and with her hands crossed over her breast one can imagine her already "pondering these things in her heart."

Notice Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden in the background of the middle picture. It doesn't show well here but there is a little flower-covered fence that separates the old covenant from the new. Notice the image of the Father at the top of the column and the shining dove showing Mary's threefold role as daughter of the Father, spouse of the Holy Spirit, and mother of the Son. Fra Angelico tells the story of the new Eve with his paints.
I don't know the order of the pictures as they were painted, but I've arranged them in a way that tells the story. The angel stands in the first picture and Mary kneels. Perhaps that is her position when the angel finds her - kneeling in prayer. In the second Mary sits and a book rests on her lap, perhaps the Psalms or Proverbs. The angel is moving downward. Has Mary just said, "Let it be done to me and the angel is falling before the living tabernacle of Mary's body?" In the last picture both Mary and the angel kneel and the angel is telling her something - perhaps that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is going to have a baby "because nothing is impossible for God." Mary leans toward the angel showing interest and concern. I can imagine her already in her mind leaving in haste to assist her cousin.

Is the little bench in the first and third pictures a silent reminder of St. Joseph? Can't you imagine Joseph working to build it, a tender act of love for his future bride, and did Fra Angelico want to remind the viewer that there is another important person in the scene even though we don't see him? The chair in the second painting is more like a throne with an elaborate covering reminding us that Mary is, indeed, a queen. And she wears richly colored garments trimmed with gold as well. It is easy to see that she is the Queen of Heaven.

Notice in all three pictures the columns and Roman arches. Mary is also the Mother of the Church. And in the middle picture isn't that a confessional behind the angel inviting the viewer to come through her intercession to reconcile to her Son?

When you think of the ugliness of what passes for art today, what a gift we have in the ancient artists like Fra Angelico who taught the faith through beauty. When so many were illiterate, their catechism was a visual one: stained glass windows and paintings adorning the churches.

So thank you, Blessed Giovanni, for giving us such tender portraits of the Mother of Our Lord that teach us the faith. And thank you, dear Mother, for saying yes. Pray for us that we might place our hands in yours and kneel with you at the foot of the cross on Calvary hill this Good Friday. Help us to be with you at both the beginning and the end of Our Lord's journey to the Resurrection where each of us will kneel and proclaim, "My Lord and my God."

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