Sunday, 27 April 2014

Crucifixion overload, part two - Fra Angelico

We gave up on the Easter crowds in Florence, huge queues at the Academia (Michaelangelo's "David" etc etc) and the Duomo and the Uffizzi and moving amongst other quieter locales, made eventually for the frescoes by Fra Angelico in San Marco. After a while the LSO* became a little downcast, oppressed, by the agonies and the sadness of the crucifixion story we had already seen in a parade, and now in very many pictorial representations.

In the fresco above, what you see is three men being tortured to death, especially the man on the right.You might point out that counteless thousands of people died thus, and have died since in similar agonies. I'm leaving aside, of course, any question of belief, of the idea that there is a central importance to the Passion as the sacrifice that saves us all, because I don't share that belief. But great art involves us. Once you tune in to the conventions of such works, they are mighty powerful. Such works make one more likely, perhaps, to value the essence of such beliefs, if not all of their manifestions.

This one is calmer, perhaps more about sacrifice and love rather than just torture and agony. Still, look closely at his feet. Blood everywhere. Look at your own palm. Imagine having a big nail right through it.

"And his mother was there, she had to watch all this," murmured the LSO. It was, for once, an Easter experience that was about - well, Easter. You don't have to be a Christian to respond to the power of the story and the representations of it that we saw.

Then we found this famous Annunciation. If you've never seen it - it's quite large, and it's at the top of the stairs, so you walk up towards it. It's a knockout. In a peaceful Italian domestic setting there's suddenly this whacking great angel, just arrived, entirely present in an everyday sort of way, not with a backround of gold leaf, but with a background of a pretty little garden and a peaceful verandah.He is super real, with wonderful Technicolour wings and a gracious, courteous manner. 

He's breaking the news to Mary that although she has never "known" (as the Bible puts it) a man, she is in fact pregnant. And Mary? "She looks gone out," says the LSO. As well she might. Bit of a shock for a girl. Her arms are folded across her tummy. The two figures almost echo each other's posture. 

She looks almost sullen, astonished for sure. Maybe she's thinking "Me? Are you sure? Why me? What am I going to say to Joseph?" Nothing formulaic about it. Later maybe, she might get around to "blessed am I amongst women," but just now she is shocked to her core.

I think it's the combination of the spiritual (or supernatural, if you prefer) narrative context, and the humanity, the insight, of the presentation, that makes it so moving.

What a huge gift, what skill, to make something that makes no literal sense in terms of our daily world, so emotive and immediately real.

*The Long-Suffering One, because she puts up with me, funerals, nonsense etc.

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