In the last two days we have visited two of the standard must-see sights that left quite different impressions on me. (My current intention is to hit all the things that look to be interesting, skim over them to see what catches my attention, and then go back to revisit when I know what I am lookng for.) First, we went to San Marco, or rather the museum, which is the attached cloister. Fra Angelico pained frescoes all over the place and his other paintings were brought in from other places to make a collection of his works.
On the way there, we passed through the Piazza della Signoria and stopped in to see the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, the ancient seat of government. As we were leaving, I discovered that this is the view out the door.
Well, architects and sculptors have been working on the view for a few hundred years.
Proceeding north, we found one of the few parking areas in the city center, restricted to electric cars and motorcycles.
The San Marco museum contains many frescoes by fra Angelico, but the subject that appears most often is some variation on this. The kneeling figure is St. Domenico, the founder of the Dominican order.
There are lots of other images, too, including a couple of very interesting Annunciations. The Annunciation is when Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she is going to have a baby, she should name him Jesus, and so on. (See Luke 1:26-38).
The Annunciation is one of the most frequent images. It seems to me to represent the most direct confrontation between the human and the divine. There is a lot of standard symbolism in the images, including always a large distance separating the two characters. There is also a physical barrier (a post or wall) between them and/or a view out a doorway showing the whole world between them.
In the early altarpieces, the separation is often so great that the angel is in a small panel on the upper left corner and Mary is in a small panel on the upper right panel, with the whole of the altarpiece between. In the earlier works, the angel tends to be majestic and Mary terrified. Later in the Renaissance the angel becomes more worshipful and Mary more composed. By the end of the Renaissance, when painting was beginning to go to secular subjects, the angel is trying to get her attention and Mary looks bored. I had to put that in now, because although it makes a nice story, as I see more variations the situation gets more complex. There are variations in all kinds of directions, but I think it all shows the basic direction of the artists' views on spirituality.
Fra Angelico has one Annunciation at the head of the stairs as you approach the floor with the monk's cells,
There is no boundary, no symbolism, no distracting decoration, just the direct confrontation. With St. Dominico looking on.
Fra Angelico never retouched his paintings. He said the way they turned out was God's will. The Pope offered him the chance to be archbishop of Florence but he turned it down, because he did not feel capable of governing other people.