Fra Angelico (1440-1445)

A Bigger Splash 1967 David Hockney born 1937 Purchased 1981

Everything is terrible (again) so here’s a bit of seasonal action. This encounter between the Angel Gabriel and Mary, still in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, has a far more restrained palette than his other versions, lending the episode an air of lyrical contemplation befitting the Dominicans who lived there, including the “angelic friar” himself. The two figures are framed by the pillars that both separate and draw them together. Their shared eye contact holds an intense intimacy that expresses the extraordinary contract made, while their physical complicity suggests such tenderness, trepidation, and the more obvious physical reality of pregnant. Narrative and chromatic restraint highlights how the acceptance of something divine but unknown involves such terrifying risk. Angelico also uses technical innovations around geometry and vanishing points to illuminate a whole host of ideas: the viewer’s gaze (especially mounting the stairs above which this picture sits) is drawn to the barred window at the back. We might recognise this enclosed garden that represents Mary’s purity, as well as the memory of loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden. It predicts comparable visual release valves at the back of paintings from Las Meninas to American Gothic. It also reflects something about how we look at our own presence in the world: by placing the exit strategy at the picture’s focal point, we are made to consider the sensation of being in the moment yet simultaneously passing through it. Perhaps most of all, we’re reminded that what happens behind closed doors can resonate ceaselessly and even change the world’s entire structure. Angelico manages, in one exquisite episode, to combine the private, the personal, the divine, and the eternal: the value of sympathy, courage, faith, and the life-changing power of saying yes.