Here are the Annunciation pictures I took at the Uffizi the other day. I can’t get enough of them, so I snap them over and over and over again. Maybe I should be posting pictures of Holy Week to correspond to the current season, but I resonate with the beginning of Christ’s life, and with what God is asking of Mary—to be the Christ bearer. I keep asking what God wants me to bear and what I hear is hope and love.
I did it again, something I’ve done on every visit to Florence. I went to the Convent of San Marco and took photos of Fra Angelico’s frescoes on walls of the monks cells.
Christians are encouraged to study and contemplate God’s word as revealed in Scripture. The Dominican monks in the fifteenth century did this by reading and praying the picture on their cell walls—a spiritual experience. Today we read the Bible—an intellectual experience.
My visit to San Marco, however, was a mind, body, spirit experience. My mind drew from my reading and study of the Bible. My spirit was touched by the visual message of the frescoes. My body experience the visceral experience of a monk in his cell.
Santa Trinita is an empowering place to pray. I have discovered the perfect to pew, where at a single sweep of my eyes, I can take in artwork representative of many theological concepts that give power and definition to Christianity.
I’ve been thinking about a powerful message I learned in childhood, one that was reinforce in college art history courses, and continues to remain as intellectual dogma to this day. It goes something like this: religious paintings are beautiful as art, but we enlightened individuals (including sophisticated Protestant Christians), don’t need them to tell us about Jesus. After all, we can read and interpret.
For as far back as I can remember, I’ve been bothered by this interpretation. Finally I’m admitting that for me, such a stance is full of hubris and arrogance. It doesn’t fit with my belief that God loves everyone and that everyone is equal in God’s eyes. Nor does it resonate when I view medieval and renaissance paintings in Florence.
This was made clear to me this morning as I viewed Fra Angelico’s frescos in the monks’ cells at the Convent of San Marco. I was in awe. My faith needs these picture to help me learn about Jesus, and follow his teachings.
The other afternoon I visited the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of the Carmine. The chapel’s frescoes, depicting the Life of Peter, are predominantly the works of twenty-one year old Masaccio, with some contributions by Masolino and Filippino Lippi. The painter Masaccio, along sculptor Donatello and architect Brunelleschi are considered the leaders of Renaissance in Florence in the first half of the fourteen century. Each left Florence for a while to study antiquities in Rome. Unfortunately Masaccio died there at an early age. These frescoes, along with the Trinita in Santa Maria Novella are the primary extant works of the artist.
The chairs facing the chapel offer a quiet, comfortable place for visual lectio divina.
If you are ever in the vicinity of Clinton, Massachusetts, treat yourself to a visit to the Museum of Russian Icons. This treasure trove of icons has been gathered together in a former mill-building-turned-museum by founder, collector and businessman Gordon B. Lankton. The visit will put you in a beautiful place of silence, solitude and simplicity.
Until you can get there in person, take a tour on http://museumofrussianicons.org
I experienced the holy in this museum. The icons caught my gaze, and even while listening to the docent, I walked around in prayer, knowing that I was in church.
The morning before my visit I had looked at a postcard of the Resurrected Christ by Piero della Francesco during my prayer time. And then, the very next day, there I was, praying in front of these beautiful icons Christ.
If you want to draw Christ into your life, if you want to feel Christ’s presence intensely and constantly, give praying with icons a try.
The following is also posted on my cottagebythesea blog (along with a slideshow) but I want to add a little here. Just as I don’t read the Bible only as history but how that history speaks to me now, I don’t look at religious paintings only as history (of art), but as living stories with messages for me today.
When I gaze at Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, I think of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will be the Christ bearer. I also ponder what God is asking be to bear, what God is calling me to do in my life.
My observation is that Asians make up the largest group of tourists in Italy these days. It’s a good thing for the economy; they are the ones carrying huge bags out of the high-end designer stores on Via Tournabuoni. I’m talking about pocket books costing $2000 and dresses at $4000. There aren’t enough of us American to keep those shops open. I understand this—well kind of.
In museums and churches I notice Asians glancing at noteworthy pieces of art while intensely reading their guidebooks. For me, on the other hand, the history of western art, and especially the Biblical stories depicted in paintings, are deeply embedded in my mind and spirit. When I visit museums and churches I have an enormous back-history to draw upon, both consciously and unconsciously. It at these times that I am reminded of my superficial viewing of Asian art at the Shanghai Museum in 2003, and I am humbled.
The Convent of San Marco is one of my favorite spiritual places, not only in Florence but in all my travels. If I were a privileged nun I would pick the cell with Fra Angelico’s fresco of Jesus and Mary Magellan in the garden outside the tomb. According to John’s gospel, Jesus is telling Mary not to touch him because “I have not yet risen.” We know that the Holy Spirit has not yet been given. This mystery gives hope to all of us that Jesus’ saving message is not only for those who knew him in Palestine, but for future generations throughout the world--including you, including me.
Every time I visit San Marco I take pictures of every fresco in every room, keeping their beauty and message alive for me in new ways. Today I have selected some to tell Jesus’ story, from Annunciation to Resurrection. I have included the cell windows in the hope that you will enter and feel the Holy Spirit.
I took sixty pictures of the Madonna and Child at the Uffizi this morning, and I know I didn’t get them all. Here are a few, more or less in chronological order, starting with the ones by Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto, painted around the end of the thirteenth century, and ending with one painted in the seventeenth century.
Although the interpretations move from religious to secular, in all the paintings I am aware of the impersonal and distant relationship between Mary and Jesus. For me, this is not a message of mother love but of the sacrifice of Mary as the mother of God, and the foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross.
This morning I visited the Church of Orsanmichele. The second floor, which is only open Monday mornings, displays the originals of the statues in the niches on the exterior of the building. The building has beautiful statues and incredible view of the Duomo.
Today I was attracted to the bronze statue of Jesus and St. Thomas by Verocchio. Doubting Thomas, as we often refer to him, speaks to me, as I’m sure he does to many. We doubt this miracle of Jesus, God with us. We want proof. In this statue Thomas’ reluctance to touch is not unlike my reluctance to believe. I am willing to try from afar, but not up close. Give me some distance, please. Jesus understands this and seems to be waiting and allowing Thomas to move his hand just as close as is comfortable. This waiting with love is there for us as we dare believe with full hearts.
(A disclaimer: I have chosen not to take the time to offer histories of the places I visit, nor to identify the works of art and the creators. The internet is at your fingertips.)