Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Annunciation Template

Fra Angelico   |   c. 1440   |   San Marco, Florence

I've been studying books of Renaissance art lately and I've noticed that the angel depicted in the Annunciation goes through an evolution that becomes increasingly stylized. That shouldn't be too surprising, since the artists shown in this posting either taught each other or competed with each other. In any event, they were setting standards for each other. It's interesting to see a progression in the rendering of the angel, and that it finally settles on an iconic pose and gesture.

We begin with Fra Angelico's angel. Fra Angelico painted the Annunciation numerous times, and while his angels did not kneel, they bowed before the Virgin. The angel above, painted in Fra Angelico's own monastery, comes closest to kneeling, with what might be interpreted as a curtsy.

Filippo Lippi   |   c. 1440   |   Martelli Chapel   |   San Lorenzo, Florence
Filippo Lippi's angel was painted around the same time as Fra Angelico's. The rich detail, and especially the folds of cloth, make Filippo Lippi's work seem much later. Filippo Lippi has his angel kneeling and holding a lily, the symbol of purity.

Leonardo da Vinci   |   1475   |   The Uffizi   |   Florence
Leonardo painted his Annunciation angel when he was 20 or 21. Now the angel kneels, carries a lily, and makes the gesture of a blessing. So far, all of the angels have been wearing red garments. Red was a favored color in altarpieces, in part because the pigment was more expensive; it was literally a richer color, worthier of holy subjects.

The youthful Leonardo sets himself apart by representing the halo as an actual burst of light, rather than a static plate of gold.

Domenico Ghirlandaio | 1482 | Cloister of the Collegiata | San Gimignano
Ghirlandaio — who is credited with being a teacher to Michelangelo — painted this Annunciation angel, which follows the pattern of holding a lily, kneeling and blessing.

Pinturicchio | 1479-85 | Baglioni Chapel, Santa Maria Maggoire | Spello
Pinturicchio's angel follows the pose, lily and gesture ...

Sandro Botticelli   |   1490   |   The Uffizi   |   Florence
... as does Bottecelli's angel, which now seems to both kneel and bow.

I find the progression interesting. Did the pose become a standard because it was seen as more aesthetic? Did it better please religious clients? Or perhaps these artists recognized that the pose contributed to a stronger composition. Notice that each one of these angels takes the shape of a triangle that leads the eye towards the space occupied by the Virgin. We can dwell on the folds of cloth, but which artists have most successfully lead the eye to the right through strong body movement and gesture? Leonardo and Bottecelli.


  1. A fascinating analysis of how great painters develop their iconography in order to further the meaning of the pictures.

    I went off on my own tangent, noticing how much the face of the Pinturicchio angel resembles that on the first U.S. 'Chain Cent' of 1793. (Photo at: )

    There is the same general profile, the same staring eye, and the same wild, flowing hair that was not deemed appropriate for Miss Liberty, and led to the quick replacement of the design.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. You have shown beautifully the awareness of the Italian Renaissance painters towards perspective, realism and the conveying of humanity which was missing from Medieval art.
    Its Leonardo’s angel for me, but aren’t their wings wonderful?
    A lovely post Mark – thanks.

  3. Interesting indeed and all equally as beautiful.

  4. Hello Mark:
    What an interesting and intriguing look at the development of the angel in Renaissance art. We agree with you that, those depictions which appear to be the most 'successful' are those of strong composition, drawing the observer into the picture and towards the Virgin Mary, the main subject of the piece.

    Whatever the individual differences and relative merits of these works, it never fails to amaze us that pictures painted so many centuries ago can still dazzle the onlooker with their brilliance.

  5. Hello Mark, Another very beautiful post. You mentioned that red was favored in altar pieces because it was more expensive. Genuine cinnabar (vermillion,) an ancient color, in its original form is obtained by shooting arrows into inaccessible cliffs to dislodge it. These ancient colors are still available from a German company, Kremer-Pegmente. Vermillion today is replaced with the less toxic Cadmium Red.

  6. Fra Angelico's angel's wings have always absolutely fascinated me

  7. Hello Mark,
    I'm up to date now and as usual, I leave so delighted and inspired.
    Thank you.

  8. I think all of your reasons are correct regarding the pose. At least, they are all feasible. This is going to sound way out there, but your post made me look at classical renditions of the Sphinx, and there is the same crouching, winged, pose that can be found.

  9. Hello, Parnassus - While I'm not a numismatist, I do love studying old paper currency, and I've always been struck by how much the designs and symbols alluded to the ancient past. The old liberty dime always reminded me a little of Alexander the Great.

  10. I must say that I too am fascinated by the colorful wings of Fra Angelico's angel.

    As always, Mark, a thought provoking post.

  11. Hello, Rosemary - Though I have cropped all these images considerably, one can still see that they are all rich in perspective and geometric patterns. Isn't it interesting how the Renaissance painters placed religious subjects in contemporary Florentine space and time? I find that to be a very modern approach.

  12. Hello, Steve - Thanks, I agree. I've always had a hard time, when visiting the National Gallery of Art, moving beyond the galleries of Renaissance paintings. That period continues to be a major inspiration to me.

  13. Hello Jane and Lance,

    These works do indeed still dazzle — and sometimes more.

    I was at the Uffizi several years ago and was amazed that the gallery allows viewers to get close enough to the masterpieces that one can practically press one's nose against them.

    I was emotionally overwhelmed viewing Leonardo's painting of the Annunciation when I realized at some point that I was not only standing so close to it, but was in fact occupying the same space that Leonardo himself would have. And with that realization, tears came to my eyes.

  14. Hello, Gina - Have you read Victoria Finlay's book, "Color: A Natural History of the Palette? It's a most interesting book, and certainly gives one an appreciation for all that goes into a paint tube.

  15. Hello, Gaye - I too love Fra Angelico's wings. I might add here that I favored the earth-toned murals that he painted for his fellow monks over his altar commissions. In retrospect, the paintings in San Marco impressed me more because they depicted spirituality in the "every day." There is also a palpable humility in his work — it's no mistake that he was called Fra Angelico!

  16. Thank you, Anyes - your comment brings a smile to my face!

  17. Hello, Michael - I don't think your comment is way out there at all! I keep a file on sphinxes, and as I type this, there are images of griffins taped to my studio wall. Just as with angels, it's interesting to see how the sphinx is so widely depicted. My favorite sphinx has the unmistakable head of an 18th century woman!

  18. Hello, Yvette - I rather enjoy the wings on Pinturicchio's angel, which have the design and coloring of a pheasant!

  19. Great post: I love Ghirlandaio--I think he's incredibly underrated. He sneaks himself in several paintings in that typical Renaissance gesture.

  20. Math and art once again make a pleasing composition using the golden mean.....I agree with the wings, they are always a delight to look at! Great post Mark and a very nice discussion in the comments!
    GIna-great trivia about the gathering of vermillion.

  21. Hi, Donna - I agree with you about Ghirlandaio, and I too enjoy when I see he's placed his own handsome, distinctive face into the scene.

  22. Hi, Theresa - I know you are a great student of the golden mean. I recently saw the subject discussed in an interesting book by Pierre Berloquin — "Hidden Codes & Grand Designs."

  23. your posts are interesting ( i read also the greek keys )
    i am not very into Renaissance but i would say Leonardo always has an appeal to me, that might starts from his amazingly complicated personality, to the way he painted the hands. its always the hands i notice on his paintings.
    delightful to have found your blog
    greetings from the North : )

  24. HIYA MARK! :D
    Fascinating as always. Were these artists all lefties? Because the subjects face the right side of the frame.
    I know Leonardo was, what of the others?

  25. Hello, Demie from the great North!

    Leonardo did indeed have a complicated personality, and I often wonder in which direction he would turn his attention if he lived in our time — perhaps computer graphics, perhaps cinema, perhaps he would forge even newer directions. In any event he would still be a rnnaissance man.

    Perhaps you know the story of how his master Verrocchio allowed him to paint a full figure in Verrocchio's painting of the Baptism of Christ. It was a little angel that outshined Verrocchio's own figures. And the story goes that Verrocchio was shocked by that and soon thereafter quit painting to concentrate on sculpting.

  26. Hiya Leebert!! :o)

    Leonardo was actually ambidextrous, and so his famous mirror writing doubtlessly came more naturally to him than it would to you or I. There is also the possibility that Leonardo was cross-dominant, meaning that he might have done some functions with his right hand and some functions with his left.

    You bring up an interesting point regarding the angels always being to the left of the Virgin. Hmmm. Perhaps this is a natural part of story-telling (that is to say, leading the eye inward to the main subject), or perhaps there is some symbology there. I don't know!

  27. Mark, we learn so much from you, in things which we (unfortunately) take for granted. Seeing these different interpretations, immediately led me to the Pre-Raphaelites interpretations

  28. Thank you, David! I very much admire the Pre-Raphaelites, and at Christmastime I feature a Pre-Raphaelite angel as my desktop pattern — I'm looking at it now.