By Nicholas Jenkins and Catherine Jenkins. 

God delights in good deeds done quietly and unspoken acts of love and obedience to Him. In Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord commands when almsgiving to “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”. Not only should we keep our good deeds hidden from the world, but we should even try to hide our good deeds from ourselves. In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul writes that we must live a “life hidden in Christ”. Elsewhere Christ exhorts us to “receive the Kingdom of God like a child”. That is like a small and unassuming person. Smallness, lightness, quietness: all these qualities carry glory, at times imperceptibly and never loudly, this side of eternity.

This is the great spiritual truth: what is hidden shall be revealed, what is small shall be magnified, “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”

The Mother of God was quiet and humble, God’s lowly-hand maiden, who helped accomplish for God His great rescue plan for His creation. Mary was unwavering in her quiet trust in God. To trust a beloved is to know how much they love you. This is what I, and maybe you, do not always grasp about God, that which is his essential quality: His goodness. To be good is to wish good onto others and to act accordingly. He does not just want us to be happy ultimately, but he wants us to be gloriously happy.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1440–1445

The Annunciation – Fra Angelico, San Marco

Paintings are by definition silent. Yet, if paintings could speak, the one I have chosen to discuss today would be very quiet indeed. The fresco was painted by Fra Angelico for the convent at San Marco where he was a friar outside the cells where the friars dwelt. It was intended to aid their devotion.  The fresco depicts the Annunciation, a very quiet announcement of a very important plan and a meeting of an Angel of God with the lowly Virgin.

My mum got the opportunity to see the fresco when she visited Florence with my dad earlier this year. She was pleased to find the museum at San Marco was not overrun with crowds of tourists. Appositely, it was quiet, hidden and unsought for.  This fresco itself refuses to dazzle, and this is linked to its intended audience, as she notes:

“Fra Angelico followed the traditional typology, depicting the Virgin seated in an enclosed space on the right and the Angel Gabriel entering on the left.  It is interesting to compare this relatively late Annunciation with an earlier version on wood, painted by Fra Angelico in 1426 for an altar in the convent church of San Domenico in Fiesole.  The two paintings were both intended to inspire spiritual devotion, but in very different settings. The San Domenico altarpiece faced the congregation and was accessible for the feast of the Annunciation on 25th March.  The San Marco fresco, by contrast, was only accessible to the friars, who would recite prayers before it at prescribed times during the day.”

She moves on to explain:

“Father Timothy Verdon suggests that the key theological message Fra Angelico wanted to give through the image of the Annunciation is about inwardness and attentiveness to the word of God.  In the San Domenico altarpiece, the colours used and the materials evoked are richer than the San Marco fresco – for example the gold on the robes of the Angel, the cloth of honour behind the Virgin, the blue starry ceiling and the marble floor.  The overall effect is of heavenly light and beauty intended to stir delight in the beholder and help them come closer to God. This highly illuminated effect  was intended for the laity and is in strong contrast with the starker spirituality of the San Marco Annunciation, painted for fellow friars to contemplate. In that painting, the space is much simpler with the Virgin seated on a wooden stool wearing a simple dark robe like a Dominican habit. The symbolic and supernatural features of the 1426 Annunciation have largely disappeared (for example the hands of God sending out the dove of the Holy Spirit on a beam of gold light). Instead of looking down, the Virgin is looking directly at the Angel in loving acceptance of God’s will.”

La Anunciación, by Fra Angelico, from Prado in Google Earth - main panel.jpg

The Annunciation, San Domenico, Fiesole

We view the Virgin through a colonnade of columns which as mum explains “evoke the enclosed space of her womb”. Fra Angelico’s “architecture” is “solid and realistic in scale”. However, “Fra Angelico’s figures continue to be idealised and heavenly, delicately moulded like relief sculpture rather than solid and three dimensional.” It is the lightness and lack of solidity in his figures that perhaps most impresses me about Fra Angelico. G.K Chesterton described brilliantly how Fra Angelico’s represented his angels like “birds or almost like butterflies”. The friar had a deep and inspired understanding of humility.

I shall leave the final encomium  to my very knowledgeable mother:

“Fra Angelico was an innovator. The San Domenico altarpiece, as well as being a first in using linear perspective may also be the earliest example of a single field square altarpiece (pala).  However, as a churchman, Fra Angelico was also able to resist some modern innovations; for example, he retained a medieval colour scheme  and some of the ethereal idealisation of the Byzantine style. The naturalism of Renaissance art was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it could bring images alive and help the worshipper emotionally connect. On the other, it could secularise sacred art and attract the love of the viewer for surface appearance only. In the San Domenico Annunciation, Fra Angelico used rich symbolism and jewel-like colours to evoke the heavenly realm for the congregation. In the San Marco Annunciation, his style is more naturalistic, using simpler colours and a more ordinary looking, realistic setting. Rather than presenting the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, Fra Angelico emphases her humanity, perhaps inviting his fellow friars to identify with her. However, unlike the High Renaissance masters such as Leonardo and Raphael,   Fra Angelico does not end up ‘psychologising’ and humanising his message. If anything, the spirituality of the painting is intensified – there are no trappings between the message of God and the Virgin’s frank acceptance of it.”