Pause from the Hustle and Bustle to Glimpse the True Meaning of Christmas in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation Painting

This year many of us are back to a more normal and busy season of shopping, decorating, and preparing for Christmas! What a blessing after many months apart, but sometimes the hustle and bustle becomes overwhelming and takes our eyes off the true meaning of Christmas.

In the Renaissance Florence, Italy was a city filled with hustle and bustle. It was a major center for weaving and dying wool and silk, and merchants made lots of money exporting their cloth all over Europe.

Their wealth helped fuel the Renaissance. Florence produced some of the most famous artists of all time:

Ghiberti (the bronze doors of the Baptistry), Brunelleschi (the architect who finally figured out how to build a dome big enough for Florence’s cathedral),

St. George, Donatello

Donatello (revolutionized sculpture with relaxed poses and realistic figures),

and of course Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

A few years before the pandemic my husband and I joined the thousands of tourists who daily spill out of trains into Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station and into a city still filled with hustle and bustle.

Getting our bearings outside Santa Maria Novella train station

Long lines await those who come to tour Florence’s Duomo (cathedral), gaze at the masterpieces by Leonardo and Botticelli at the Uffizi Art Gallery,

The Uffizi, author photo

Madonna and Child by Botticelli, photo by author

and see Michelangelo’s statue of David at the Accademia.

Not to be outdone, Florence’s streets are a shopper’s paradise. High-end fashions, gold jewelry, and home goods fill stores and overflow into big outdoor markets. Venders of leather products are everywhere, making it a toss-up whether the sales pitch, or the smell of leather is stronger!

Florence bustles even more at night. Families with babies in strollers and dogs on leashes emerge for their evening passeggiata, (stroll), joining tourists still snapping photos. Everyone throngs the streets, walking, shopping, visiting, and dining in outdoor restaurants. In every piazza (square), street musicians and puppeteers draw happy crowds. It’s fun, but can become overwhelming.

After a couple days we wanted a quiet place to refresh our tired minds and bodies and found it at the Museum of San Marco in what was once a Dominican monastery.

Surrounding a quiet cloister is some of the most beautiful art in Florence, though few people know about it. A cloister sometimes refers to a whole monastery, but is technically the covered walkway around a peaceful garden that the monastery buildings surround.

In the 1430s Dominican monks took over the monastery, dating from a much earlier time, and began renovations. One of the friars, Fra Giovanni, soon known as Fra Angelico, painted frescoes of the life of Christ throughout the monastery and in each of the monks’ cells (rooms).

In fresco painting, paint is applied to a freshly plastered wall, becoming part of the wall itself as plaster and paint dry together.

Once only monks could see Fra Angelco’s frescoes, but today anyone can wander through the quiet halls, looking into each small cell to see brightly colored frescoes of Jesus’ life on the otherwise plain walls.

One large fresco, The Annunciation, once greeted the monks, and now greets us, at the top of the stairs to the monks’ cells. Because the stairs turn a corner, we didn’t see the fresco until we were right below it. Then it filled our eyes as we climbed the last few stairs.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is a beautiful annunciation painting, showing a moment of quiet serenity in a cloister like the one downstairs. The archangel, Gabriel, bows before Mary to announce that she will bear the Christ Child, and Mary folds her arms in humble submission to God’s will.

The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico, Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy, author photo

The fresco is part of a plain wall. It has no elaborate frame, but the simplicity of the painted columns and arches create lights and shadows that draw us into its painted space. They frame the serene Annunciation in beauty as no gilded frame could.

Archangel Gabriel’s colorful wings and gold embroidered robe catch our attention next. The robe drapes in graceful folds, showing rich shades and tints of pink.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, detail. author photo

That pink repeats in just two other places—the floor of the open cell behind Mary and on her headband. The repetition of pink takes our gaze from Gabriel to the woman seated on a humble wooden stool. Mary’s plain, white robe contrasts with her dark blue mantle and frames her face and folded arms.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, detail. author photo

Fra Angelico didn’t want us to miss her sweet expression and submissive gesture.

Behind Gabriel in the fresco, a garden blooms with delicate flowers and lush greenery. A walled garden in annunciation paintings symbolized Mary’s purity and virginity. It also reminded viewers of the Garden of Eden and what mankind lost when Adam and Eve sinned.

The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico, Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy, author photo

Devotion, based on Luke 1:26-38

Fra Angelico eventually became prior of the monastery of San Marco. The Dominican order was founded, as were the Franciscans, as Europe transitioned from a mostly rural economy to a time of more trade and bigger cities. Traditional, often rural, monasteries and monks couldn’t easily help city dwellers.

Dominicans and Franciscans didn’t stay in their cloisters. They went out into the busy city streets to preach the gospel in down-to-earth sermons and minister to people in need. During the years of the Black Death thousands of friars died caring for the sick.

When the San Marco friars returned at the end of a busy day, they would pass through the quiet cloister and trudge up many stairs to their cells.

The Annunciation by Fra Angelico Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy, author photo

  • As they turned the corner and Fra Angelico’s fresco of The Archangel Gabriel coming to Mary filled their eyes, were they reminded of the vast splendor of God and His heaven?
  • When they looked at Mary, did they share her attitude of humility and submission to be obedient to God’s call?
  • When they looked at the garden, did they think of the Garden of Eden and mankind’s fall into sin and separation from God?
  • When they looked at the cloister and thought of their own cloister downstairs, did they long for a permanent rest from their labors, especially against their own and others’ sins?
  • Did they stand in awe of the amazing love and grace God has given us in the gift of His Son?
  • Were they amazed anew by the miracle of God taking on human flesh and being born of a virgin to dwell among His people?
  • And did they praise God for opening the Way to return to a renewed and eternal garden of peace with God through faith in Christ’s perfect life, sacrificial death, and resurrection?

Most of us today can’t withdraw into a monastery to get away from the hustle and bustle of the materialistic holiday season.

But perhaps we can daily find a little quiet space and time to think on God’s splendor, our humble estate, our longing for a permanent rest from struggling with our own sin and a sinful world, and praise God for opening the Way through Christ back to the Garden!

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Molly and I hope you’ll come back for just one more post in December for an angel art project for your children. It’s so simple, yet bright and beautiful, you will want to display it on your tree or table!

 

 

14 thoughts on “Pause from the Hustle and Bustle to Glimpse the True Meaning of Christmas in Fra Angelico’s Annunciation Painting

  1. photojaq

    I loved this post. I have been to Florence (Firenze) three times, for a few days each time. I’ve seen all the things you pictured (I think I bought a belt in that leather shop!!), but I’ve never wanted to stand in line to go into the Duomo. It’s a beautiful site from the outside, including spying the gargoyles, but too hot and not enough time to wait. I did wait to see Michelangelo’s David in person, but most of the time I walked to see the sites (went on a couple cooking tours, and a wine/cheese trip into the hills and vineyards of Tuscany. I can’t wait to return! Thanks for stirring the memories! In that San Marco monestary, I also saw a cool statue in the courtyard (can’t find the pic now) of a knight in anguish.
    Happy CHRISTmas to you and yours.
    Jackie

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    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      Oh such wonderful memories you have of your visits to Florence! I’m glad my post stirred them up–it has so much beautiful art, and San Marco is amazing! As for the leather–well I bought some, too! I don’t remember the statue of the knight, so if you find the photo I’d love to see it. I loved those thick wooden shutters in the monk’s cells. What do you like best about Florence? May you have a blessed Christmas, also, Jackie!

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  2. JD Wininger

    You brought back so many memories with this post, and shared more information that we even got on tours and things while in Florence. Loved this post Ms. Kathy. Thank you ma’am.

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    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      You’re very welcome, J.D.! I’m glad it brought back good memories of such a beautiful area of Italy. We loved our visit to Italy and the history and art are amazing. Did you have a favorite place or activity in Italy?

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    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      You’re welcome, Barbara! I’m so glad you enjoyed these art works, and I wish you blessings and a Merry Christmas, also. I enjoy your photos from Korea so much. They really give a glimpse of everyday life there.

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  3. Katherine Pasour

    Next to actually being in Florence and seeing all this in person, is reading about the history of these frescoes and seeing the beautiful pictures you shared. There’s such a long history of faithfulness and service in that monastery. You really got me to thinking as I read the questions you posed. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, pictures, and inspiration.

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    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      You’re very welcome, Katherine! I’m glad you enjoyed the pictures and am thankful that those questions got you thinking. They sure did me also as I looked again at my pictures and thought about those long ago monks! Thanks so much for your encouraging comments and I know your Christmas posts will help us reflect on God’s wonderful gift to us.

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  4. Jeanne Takenaka

    Kathy, I loved this post. I never really knew what fresco paintings were. I’ve not been to Florence yet. What a gift for you and your husband to have visited there! I so enjoyed reading about this painting. You brought it to life for me as I read your words.

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    1. Kathy The Picture Lady Post author

      Thank you, Jeanne. Being able to visit Florence and other beautiful places full of art and history in Italy was truly a gift! I’m glad you enjoyed seeing this painting. It is so gorgeous–my photos and descriptions don’t do it justice. Merry Christmas to you and your family! I’ve been enjoying your posts with ideas of how to thrive through this busy season!

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