LADY’S NIGHT - Solemnity of the Annunciation: Fra Angelico and the New Eve
Usually the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord is celebrated every March 25 because that would be exactly 9 months until we celebrate the Nativity of the Lord on Christmas, December 25. However, since the 25th of March falls on a Sunday this year, the Solemnity is pushed forward a day.
The famous image of the Annunciation featured above was done over 500 years ago by a Dominican Friar, Bl. Giovanni Angelico (Fra Angelico). What distinguishes him from other painters of the early Italian Renaissance was that as a Dominican, Fra Angelico had a great knowledge of theology and scripture, and, in a sense, he was formed as an artist by prayer, the liturgy, and the Word of God. So, not only did he know his heavenly subjects on an academic level, but he also had an intimate relationship with them which influenced not only his painting, but also his entire being, as evidenced by the testimonies of his personal sanctity and his beatification by Bl. John Paul the Great in 1982.
Much like Antoni Gaudí and our beloved St. Joseph, Fra Angelico offered his creative gifts for the reason that they had been given to him in the first place: to serve and glorify God. This son of St. Dominic painted the walls of his Friary of San Marco in Florence, primarily to inspire prayer and love of God.
For years I have seen this image in my history and religion books, (and you already know my love for beuty); thus, I was greatly looking forward to viewing it in person when I was in Florence this past summer. I was only in the city for about 2 days. My first attempt to see this Annunciation was a complete failure. I had arrived at San Marco about mid-afternoon, only to find it closed. After this unsuccessful attempt, I had resigned myself that I would not see Fra Angelico’s Annunciation on this trip. “Oh well,” I told myself, “I guess this is just another reason to come back to Italy.”
However, on my final day in Florence, I decided to give it one more try. My family had gone to the Mercato Centrale to buy some last minute souvenirs before catching our train. So, I literally ran back to San Marco, paid the small entrance fee, and gave my best shot in employing my tourist Italian to ask “Where is the Annunciation?” I was given some directions which I understood mainly through the use of hand gestures, and off I went down the loggia, through the cloister gardens, and up a flight of stars.
Nearly out of breath, I raised my head to see how many more steps I had to climb, when I saw it. There it was. Shielded by a thick pane of glass or acrylic, on the outside wall of the friars’ old dormitory, was this famous image of Our Lady and St. Gabriel the Archangel. I just stood there with my back leaning against the opposite wall, gazing at this momentous scene in salvation history when the fulness of time had come.
First, I marveled at the technique, the colors, the geometry, the position of the figures, the use of perspective and architecture to narrate this familiar biblical story. Then, I took in the entire scene: the humility of Mary, the reverential bended knee of the archangel, the intimate dialogue that would change the world forever. My heart raced, this time not because I had just raced through an old Italian monastery, but out of love, love for God and for His lowly handmaid whom all generations call blessed.
In this image, our God who has loved from the beginning, from the fist moment of our conception, has so loved the world that He sent His only Son to take on our flesh in Mary’s womb so that he could one day take on our sins on the cross. St. Gabriel, an angel, or, rather, an archangel is shown making an act of homage and deep respect towards this simple girl from Nazareth. For he, too, loves Our Lady and acknowledges her as his Queen.
Who, then, is she to whom an archangel bows and address with “Hail, full of grace?” At the Annunciation, Our Lady manifests her appointed role as the New Eve. In the ancient hymn, Ave Maris Stella, an English version of the original Latin states, “O by Gabriel’s ‘Ave’ uttered long ago, Eva’s name reversing, established peace below.“ That is, at the Annunciation, Mary became the opposite of Eve (or Eva). The opposite of “Eva”, if you write the letters backwards, is literally “Ave”.
Thus, as Eve is the Woman of creation (Gen 2:23), Mary is the Woman of Christ’s redeemed creation (Jn 2:4; Jn 19:26; Rev 12:1). Through Eve’s disobedience, death entered our human condition; through Mary’s obedience she brought forth the Life of the World. When Eve encountered the serpent, she embraced his venomous word; when Mary and the Word encounter the serpent, they crush his head, trampling his lies underfoot. Eve rebuked God’s command with a prideful “No”; Mary replied in the fulness of time with her humble, “Yes.” Fiat. May it be done unto me according to your word.
Fra Angelico, appreciating this and so much more, depicted Our Lady with a serene expression, crossed arms, and closed lips. Even now she embraces the Word of God now growing inside of her as she embraced the will of God as delivered by the archangel. By the way, how does one have a conversation anyway with an angelic being? They seem to communicate with their eyes and the unspoken movement of the heart—no audible words it seems, transpires between Mother of God and Messenger of God, but deep, unspeakable mysteries seem to pass between these two figures.
Ah, how can I ever do justice in explaining how this piece of art, this work of beauty touched me? The Incarnation itself is quite an ineffable mystery!
As you may know, I recently posted every day as part of a novena to St. Joseph, my co-patron saint. On several occasions, I drew inspiration from the writings of Sr. Maria Cecilia Baij, O.S.B., an Italian Benedictine nun to whom Jesus had revealed certain details of his hidden life, growing up with Joseph and Mary.
Now, I want to share with you an except from Mystical City of God, a book written by Ven. Maria de Agreda, a Franciscan nun who also reportedly received supernatural visions. Please recall again my previous comments about private and public revelation. In it she writes,
The whole of this celestial army with their princely leader holy Gabriel directed their flight to Nazareth, a town of the province of Galilee, to the dwelling place of most holy Mary. This was an humble cottage and her chamber was a narrow room, bare of all those furnishings which are wont to be used by the world in order to hide its own meanness and want of all higher goods…
To look upon Her caused feelings at the same time of joy and seriousness, love and reverential fear. She attracted the heart and yet restrained it in sweet reverence; her beauty impelled the tongue to sound her praise, and yet her grandeur and her overwhelming perfections and graces hushed it to silence. In all that approached Her, She caused divine effects not easily explained; She filled the heart with heavenly influences and divine operations, tending toward the Divinity.
Her garments were humble and poor, yet clean, of a dark silvery hue, somewhat like the color of ashes, and they were arranged and worn without pretense, but with the greatest modesty and propriety. At the time when, without her noticing it, the embassy of heaven drew nigh unto Her, She was engaged in the highest contemplation concerning the mysteries which the Lord had renewed in Her by so many favors during the nine receding days. And since, as we have said above, the Lord himself had assured Her that his Only begotten would soon descend to assume human form, this great Queen was full of fervent and joyful affection in the expectation of its execution and inflamed with humble love, She spoke in her heart: “Is it possible that the blessed time has arrived, in which the Word of the eternal Father is to be born and to converse with men? (Brauch 10, 38). That the world should possess Him? That men are to see Him in the flesh? (Is. 40.5). That his inaccessible light is to shine forth to illumine those who sit in darkness? (Is. 9, 2). O, who shall be worthy to see and know Him! O, who shall be allowed to kiss the earth touched by his feet!”
In order that the mystery of the Most High might be fulfilled, the holy archangel Gabriel…accompanied by innumerable angels in visible human forms and resplendent with incomparable beauty, entered into the chamber, where most holy Mary was praying…The great modesty and restraint of the Princess of heaven did not permit Her to look at him more than was necessary to recognize him as an angel of the Lord. Recognizing him as such, She, in her usual humility, wished to do him reverence; the holy prince would not allow it; on the contrary he himself bowed profoundly as before his Queen and Mistress, in whom he adored the heavenly mysteries of his Creator. At the same time he understood that from that day on the ancient times and the custom of old whereby men should worship angels, as Abraham had done (Gen. 38, 2), were changed. For as human nature was raised to the dignity of God himself in the person of the Word, men now held the position of adopted children, of companions and brethren of the angels, as the angel said to Evangelist Saint John, when he refused to be worshipped (Apoc. 19, 10).
The holy archangel saluted our and his Queen and said: “Ave gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus” (Luke 1, 28). Hearing this new salutation of the angel, this most humble of all creatures was disturbed, but not confused in mind (Luke 1, 29). This disturbance arose from two causes: first, from her humility, for She thought herself the lowest of the creatures and thus in her humility, was taken unawares at hearing Herself saluted and called the “Blessed among women;” secondly, when She heard this salute and began to consider within Herself how She should receive it, She was interiorly made to understand by the Lord, that He chose Her for his Mother, and this caused a still greater perturbance, having such an humble opinion of Herself. On account of this perturbance the angel proceeded to explain to Her the decree of the Lord, saying: “Do not fear, Mary, for thou hast found grace before the Lord (Luke 1, 30); behold thou shalt conceive a Son in thy womb, and thou shalt give birth to Him, and thou shalt name Him Jesus; He shall be great, and He shall be called Son of the Most High,” and the rest as recorded of the holy archangel.
Bl. Fra Angelica painted such scenes as well, only using paints and brushes. Remember that he first began to paint the walls of his monastery to turn the thoughts of his brothers towards God, to engage their senses and their souls by his works of art. This Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, allow yourselves to be engaged by the beauty of art, the liturgy, and by the Word who became flesh. Open yourselves to God the Holy Spirit Who overshadowed Our Lady and conceived in her virginal womb the Son of God. Surrender yourself, in imitation of Our Lady, to the divine will of God. Offer yourself completely to Him who has offered Himself completely to you. Surrender everything: your will, your heart, your body, your possessions, your past failures, your current joys, your future plans. Listen to His voice, that whisper in the depths of your heart (cf. 1 Kings 19:12) calling you to love and serve as only you can love and serve, to be and to do what you were created from the moment of your conception to be and to do—as did Our Lady, and may you always echo her response at the Annunciation: Fiat!
(Photo: from Wikimedia Commons. I wish I could say that I took this picture, but photography is prohibited within the walls of San Macro Monastery.)