“Some great paintings are inexhaustible wells, forever self-replenishing,” Michael Glover writes in The Independent’s Great works: Annunciation (1438-45), Fra Angelico. In a well-written article, he refers to a number of other works on the same, very popular subject. Most of these other paintings include symbolic elaborations and allusions which may be said to clatter the subject.
Fra Angelico’s image is sparse: there is no holy book on Mary’s lap, other paraphernalia or decorative allusions pointing elsewhere. Mary and the angel, both with folded arms mirroring one another and looking into each other’s eyes, seem to be quietly and calmly accepting of the message of the conception – of the realisation (incarnation) of the divine. There is an acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation, respect, as well as certainty that it will be carried through.
More importantly, in this Annunciation there is a pervading sense of stillness. In the instant depicted, contact, communion, acceptance have taken place and now there is stillness and silence. Mary and the Angel face one another in a moment pregnant with meaning. They, and we, know that a whole new chapter is to follow.
For me, great works of art, or literature, are great because they are timeless representations of humanity’s most precious treasures. In this case, The Annunciation is the metaphor for the creative moment, when the “aha!” experience is reached (in-spire), when a new thought, a new conception arises in the mind. In this sense, the annunciation transcends the narrower context of Christian belief to emerge as a universal symbol of the creative, generative moment.
A print of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation – which for me captures the universality of inspiration at the moment it materialises in the mind, as it becomes flesh, or ink, poem or book – hangs on the wall of my house. I pass it with pleasure several times a day, always looking and waiting for the “Angel” to appear.