The event of the Annunciation is considered a model for all catechesis, which I’ve mentioned often before, and which is explored in more depth in this wonderful book, The Pedagogy of God.
The frescoes of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico are a beautiful example of how art can be used to unify rich teachings of the Church within a single image, and therefore as a wonderful tool for teaching the Faith.
This exercise – using the Catechism to discover the riches of the doctrine of the Annunciation through Fra Angelico’s fresco – was developed by Dr Caroline Farey of Maryvale Institute. Taking part in this class opened my heart to contemplate deeply on the mystery of the Annunciation – in a way I have not experienced before through art.
I suggest you have a go yourself: In the back of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a full index of citations which will blow you away. Everything that is referenced in the Catechism, all the “living sources of the Faith”, are listed here. It is a great way to discover how the Church interprets a particular passage of Scripture.
As an example, we can take the Scripture passage of the Annunciation, Luke 1:26-38, and see what doctrine the Scripture is linked to, and how Fra Angelico expresses it in his Annunciation.
I am really excited about this and you will see why… Let’s dive into the Catechism and go through the references to this passage one by one…
- CCC 497 – (1) Jesus’ virginal conception is a “divine work” – the angel is sent from God – the image is centred around him as the messenger sent from God (depicted in the gold rays emanating from him); (2) “The Church sees here the fulfilment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’ (Isaiah 7:14)”. An image of the Prophet Isaiah is seen in the stonework at the top of the image. In a certain way, God the Father who spoke through the Prophets is represented here. The Holy Spirit is seen in the form of a dove above Our Lady. God the Son is being conceived as a man in her womb. The Three Persons of the Trinity are present
- CCC 706 – “God promises descendants to Abraham, as the fruit of faith and of the power of the Holy Spirit” – Where is Abraham depicted in the picture? You can see in the ceiling are portrayed numerous stars… God the Father promised Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky
- CCC 723 – “By the Holy Spirit’s power and [Our Lady’s] faith, her virginity became uniquely fruitful” – Where is fruitfulness in this picture? On the left hand side in the foreground, we see a fruitful garden
- CCC 2571 – “Abraham’s remarkable hospitality at Mamre foreshadows the annunciation of the true Son of the promise” – Mary’s own attitude of hospitality, receptivity, openness is depicted in her hand gestures, but also in the scarlet veil at the back, which is drawn open… We can say more about this later
- CCC 488 – This passage quotes from Lumen Gentium: “just as a woman had a share in the coming of death, so also should a woman contribute to the coming of life”, alluding to Mary as the New Eve – we see the first Eve depicted being banished from the Garden at the back of the picture
- CCC 332 – “Angels have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation, announcing this salvation from afar or near and serving the accomplishment of the divine plan: they closed the earthly paradise… Finally, the angel Gabriel announced the birth … of Jesus himself” – We see two angels – one in the background banishing Adam and Eve from Eden, and one in the foreground, announcing salvation. Angels both close and open
- CCC 494 – Quoting St Irenaeus, “Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race”. Her words, in Latin, “Ecce ancilla…” Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done unto me according to thy word, come from her mouth, and can be read upside down, they can be seen and heard by God the Father. The other two lines of words proceed from the mouth of the angel: the top line reads, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, drawing our eye to the Holy Spirit depicted in the form of a dove; the bottom line reads, The power of the Most High will overshadow you, drawing our eye to her womb where the Word will be conceived
- CCC 490 – To become the Mother of the Saviour, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role” – The Catechism quotes Lumen Gentium 56. CCC 491 affirms how she was “redeemed from the moment of her conception“. How is this fullness of grace depicted in art? We notice that she is clothed richly, as she is in many works of art. People may object to her being so richly endowed, but it is after all Scriptural: “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
- CCC 430 – “In Jesus, God recapitulates all of his history of salvation on behalf of men” – here, we see the first moment of this ‘recapitulation’, this gathering of all things in Christ as Head. Jesus is the name meaning, “God saves”, as CCC 2812 puts it, “the name of the Holy God is revealed and given to us, in the flesh”. Salvation is seen in the circles on Our Lady’s throne, each in eight segments: eight refers to the ‘eighth day’ of the Resurrection – the redemption of humanity and creation
- CCC 709 – Israel broke the Davidic covenant by becoming a kingdom like other kingdoms. But the promise of the Kingdom made to David would be a work of the Holy Spirit. We can see signs of this promise in the palm tree – a symbol of victory, and a foreshadowing of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (see also CCC 559), and in the Scriptures, likely the Psalms, on Mary’s knee. The palm tree also symbolises the Cross of Christ – the Paschal Mystery. Another sign of the Paschal Mystery is the blood-red colour of the veil and of Mary’s garment, and the angel’s pointing directly to Mary’s heart, reminding us of Simeon’s prophecy that a sword shall pierce her heart
- CCC 505 – Jesus is the New Adam, ushering in “the new birth of children adopted in the Holy Spirit”. We see the first Adam in the background
- CCC 486 – “the whole life of Jesus Christ will make manifest ‘how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power’ (Acts 10:38)”. This ‘making manifest’ is enormously significant, as we have seen with the lifting of the veil, which is scarlet, alluding to the temple veil, the fine linens mentioned in Exodus. Our Lady’s blue cloak also symbolises this unveiling. What is significant about Christian revelation is that the unveiling is not something that ‘happens’ to God (like the Wizard of Oz is unveiled!) but, of us. Our eyes are unveiled. The opening of the veil signifies Our Lady’s interior life, her openness and receptivity to this revelation of God. You will also notice the folding back of the carpet, another reference to unfolding and unveiling
- CCC 269 – the universal power of God – “He is master of history, governing hearts and events in keeping with his will” – Notice the garden to the left, which is untended in the background, but tended in the foreground in front of the picket fence. We can see this garden, following the line of the building (Church), as symbolic of the movement of salvation history. The palm symbolises the Crucifixion (notice the two blooming white flowers at the foot – Mary and John) and the blooming, tended flowers of the Church in the foreground. The sharp turn of the building is symbolic of the turning-point of history: the Incarnation
- CCC 64 – “Through the prophets, God forms his people in the hope of salvation” – the budding flowers before the fully blooming garden can be seen as the prophets
- CCC 2617 –“‘Fiat’ – this is Christian prayer – to be wholly God’s, because he is wholly ours” – Mary’s Fiat is seen in her hand gestures. There are traditionally five hand gestures of Our Lady depicted in art, through the stages of the Annunciation – this is the fifth, symbolising her surrender to God’s will
As you can see, this is a beautifully catechetical piece of art. All five foundational truths are depicted (the Blessed Trinity, Christ, the Paschal Mystery, the Church, the dignity of the human person – in Mary herself) in one scene, exquisitely interlinked, showingthe Faith as an organic whole.