First off, I want to wish you a late but very happy feast day of Blessed Angelico, better known as Fra Angelico! He is one of the best religious artists of all time, not only for his fine detail but also for just… well… being a saint, basically.
No, really, this is important! You see, I study a lot of art history while I prepare for these blogs and try to figure out who the artist behind the painting is, so I can point out some of the symbolism that you might otherwise miss.
Most of the time, this is a miserable endeavor and I end up omitting a lot about the artist in my reflections, preferring to only speak about the religious nature of the painting. What can I say? Some of them are brilliant artists, but sin permeates their personal lives and their history is full of bad life decisions. So, I suppose it’s a good thing that I study their lives so I can pray for them, just in case they need a little help getting to Heaven. (By the way, if you see an artwork that you like and I don’t mention much about the personal history of the artist, please pray for the artist!)
But Fra Angelico is one of those religious artists that I actually love researching because he is so saintly. He wasn’t originally called Fra Angelico, for one… that title, which is Angelic Brother, was given to him by his fellow brothers who observed his piety and devotion to God. He used to weep while he painted pictures of the Crucifixion. And, honestly, he seems to be basically a great person overall with a beautiful relationship with God.
His paintings of Jesus are brilliant, but his paintings of the Virgin Mary are just… astonishing in their beauty and detail. I’ve already featured one of his paintings of the Madonna of Humility, but let’s take a look at this particular painting of his Madonna of Humility!
Isn’t it a gorgeous picture? If you didn’t know any of the religious symbols in this picture, you would still know that it was religious art that honored the Madonna and Child in a beautiful way. And so you would gaze upon it and be moved to worship Jesus Christ and love His mother, knowing that this glorious picture depicting Christ and His mother was nothing compared to the actual Heaven that awaits us, if we only follow Jesus.
But even for an educated person who might understand some of the religious symbols used in this picture — perhaps Fra Angelico’s fellow Dominican brothers, for instance — this picture has plenty of depth to it so that you can gaze upon it and really contemplate the glory of God through the love of Mary, the woman that He made to carry Himself.
First of all, why is it called the Madonna of Humility? Simple, she is sitting down! In iconography of the Madonna and Child, she is usually sitting enthroned. And so, when you see her sitting down instead of enthroned as the Queen Mother of Christ, she is assuming a position of humility. Thus, her title.
Why is she holding a pot of flowers? Because it is symbolism of a popular medieval story of a miracle in which someone doesn’t believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity and claims, “I’ll sooner believe in her perpetual virginity as I will that there’s a flower in this empty pot!” (Spoiler alert: the pot miraculously sprouted the most beautiful lily ever.) And, to further emphasize her perpetual virginity, the Child Jesus hands her another lily.
The flowers in the pot, by the way are carnations… legend holds that where the Virgin Mary wept at the foot of the cross, carnations grew. And so carnations are a reminder of the Virgin and Christ’s sorrowful Passion.
And then there’s her halo! The halo has the words “Ave Maria Gratia Plena” on it, or “Hail Mary Full of Grace,” which are the words that the Archangel Gabriel greeted her with.
Also, did you see that star on her right shoulder? That is to honor her name, Miriam, which has among its meanings “Stellis Maris” or “Star of the Sea.”
So, this picture already has plenty of gorgeous symbols! But one of my favorite symbols of this picture is something that is so subtle that I never noticed it until I zoomed in.
Do you see the embroidery all around her dress? Lovely, isn’t it?
Now, click on the picture (which will take you to the high definition photo of the artwork) and look at the embroidery on her lap.
It is the Ave Maria, or Hail Mary prayer!
Written all along her cloak in gold is the Ave Maria! It is most distinguishable on the top of her head and in her lap, but if you can squint, you can make out various other places as well, such as the hem of her cloak, etc.
Isn’t that an incredible detail?
And it’s just astonishing that this sainted artist could love Mary so much so as to include all these details — and probably even more that I am missing — to honor the Virgin Mary in a beautiful way that shows her important place in scripture!
How fitting to have angels around her with the words that the angel said to her embroidered in her clothes!
How magnificent are the words, “The Lord is with thee” when the Lord Jesus Christ rests in her lap in all of His glory!
And how magnificent is this icon where God Himself in all His glory deigns to show Himself with one of His creatures — the Virgin Mary!
Religious art is inspired art, and studying at this sort of art makes me yearn for the joys of Heaven. How much more so would Fra Angelico, the artist who painted Crucifixion scenes in tears, yearn for Heaven while making this sort of image of the Virgin Mary finally embracing Jesus?
And how wonderful it is that he is there and praying for us now!
Blessed Angelico, pray for us!