The Annunciation and Baxandall

7:00 AM

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1445

Spoiler alert: “Most fifteenth-century paintings are religious pictures” (Baxandall 40).

Now that we’ve all recovered from that shocker, let’s move on. It’s not surprising that in the study of Renaissance art history, one is bombarded with countless Madonna and Childs and innumerable Crucifixions. You might think the artists didn’t have any creativity, or that 15th-century life wasn’t interesting enough to paint anything else, but there was a clear-cut reason for the abundance of religious paintings: instruction. In the days when the Church controlled the commission and production of art, art became a tool to educate the general public about their own religion. It was a way to envision stories so that people could better understand them, and to create a spark of interest and spark religious fervor in their minds.

But, how? An artist cannot just paint a religious scene however they want. An artist’s rendition of a scene must be ambiguous to appeal to many people’s internal visions, but succinct enough to keep a clear meaning. It wasn’t easy. Artists were expected to produce art that would excite, compel, and educate viewers. With the notion that the viewers of religious artwork were primarily ignorant and uneducated common folk, art could not be too complicated. One pope put it like this,“What a book is to those who can read, a picture is to the ignorant people who look at it,” (Baxandall 41). With the Bible as the book in question, artists did not have a lot of leeway in their art. Perhaps that is why so many Annunciations look so similar.

Take Fra Angelico’s rendition. The artist rendered the well-known story simply, with vibrant colors and interesting detail. The faces of Mary and Gabriel show little emotion, which allows viewers to decide what Mary was feeling when she received the big news. The reasoning behind this ambiguity is that, “The public mind was not a blank tablet on which the painters’ representation of a story could impress themselves; it was an active institution of interior visualization with which every painter had to get along” (Baxandall 45). No matter how Fra Angelico thought the story went – his art was for the public so it had to follow a certain code of objectivity. With this in mind, paintings that were once blank and emotionless transform into opportunities for imagination and personal interpretation.

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