Natalie d'Arbeloff did a recent take-off on a Fra Angelico "Annunciation," for her accordion book project, and asked if any of us could identify the source. I did a little research to identify the original painting, but then found myself looking at other versions of the same subject by the same artist: Fra Angelico, who lived in Renaissance Italy between 1395 and 1455.
It wasn't unusual for Renaissance artists to revisit a common subject like the angel Gabriel telling Mary she was going to bear a child, especially when they were commissioned to paint complex altarpieces (see the full example in the third image, below) which often showed scenes from the life of Christ.
What's particularly interesting, though, is how the depictions change. The gestures and attitudes of the figures may, at first glance, look similar but they often show an evolution in the artist's thinking about what was going on in the story, or they may reflect the desires, position, or status of the patron who has commissioned the work.The painting that Natalie used (at left) has a formal composition, with the figures arranged in opposition and framed by the architecture of the courtyard and the formal garden beyond it. However, those are pretty fantastic striped wings on Gabriel! Here Mary is leaning forward to receive the message from the seated angel, who points toward heaven. Though it looks earlier, this is a small painting from a series Fra Angelico did not manage to complete at the end of his life.
In the version below (Convent of San Marco, late 1430s) the figures are under the porch, and the feeling is much more intimate. They've both got haloes; Gabriel's wings are feathery and developed, but he too has his arms crossed and seems almost to be bowing before Mary. The garden at left is developed and realistic.
In the famous "Prado Altarpiece" (1430), painted for the Church of San Domenico in Fiesole and sold to Spain in 1611, the theology of the incarnation has been developed through extensive use of symbolism. The garden becomes the garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve being thrown out in humanity's fall from grace. These two events are tied together, indicating the reversal that Christ's birth was supposed to represent for human beings.
I spent more time studying yet another version, below, from Fra Angelico's Cortona altarpiece (1432-1434). The figures are fluid, realistic, and arrested in their motion; the perspective is complicated; there's a lot of gold being used -- look at those gilded wings and coin-like haloes -- and the decorative details everywhere in the painting are very developed and elaborate. Gabriel even speaks golden words toward Mary, and there is a lot of nuance in her gaze and their gestures.
Ultimately, inspired by Natalie's example, I began thinking about making a relief print based on this painting. I did a sketch, looking at the painting on the computer screen, and then worked on tracing paper with pen and ink, simplifying the poses, exaggerting some features, and adding heavy ink margins to my drawing. Then I cut out the figures, making deliberately rough outlines, and moved them around; then I glued them down and did some more drawing, cutting and glueing.
I was interested in what the placement said about their relationship, but also in the more abstract issue of how the shapes fit together and interacted, even before the addition of haloes and any background structures. I decided to zoom into the scene to concentrate attention on the actual encounter. It seemed like I wanted Mary to be definitely seated, and lower than Gabriel, but I don't like her downcast eyes; her crossed hands are submissive enough. In the next iteration I'll change the gaze so she's looking up at him, and change his eye so that it looks down. I do like what's happening now in the negative shape between the two of them, and want to go further with the positive/negative shapes and overall abstraction. This is all very preliminary, but it seems like there are still a lot of ways to go with this, 600 years later, so stay tuned for further developments!