Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Fra Angelico in Detroit.

Posting on this blog has been very sparse lately, owing to general busyness and various distractions, and I don't expect that to change in the immediate future. Having said that, I was intrigued to learn via the English Dominican Students' blog Godzdogz that today is the feast of Blessed Giovanni da Fiesole, a fifteenth-century Dominican more widely known as the Renaissance painter Fra Angelico. This year, Fra Angelico's feast day finds me in Detroit, where I've come for a few days of rest during the University of Toronto's winter reading week. As it happens, the Motor City's Detroit Institute of Arts is home to three paintings by Fra Angelico, including the Virgin Annunciate (c. 1450/55) which illustrates this post. I regret that I haven't gotten to the DIA during this visit - I thought about it, but the schedule and the weather didn't cooperate - but I am happy to say that I've been there several times in the past, and I like the fact that the residents of Detroit can claim ownership of a municipal art collection that includes works by Fra Angelico as well as the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez, Cézanne, van Gogh, and Picasso.

I have a bit of a history with the DIA and with Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate. I remember being moved by the painting when I saw it at the DIA as a Jesuit novice, and I later bought a reproduction of it which I've carried with me to New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto but have never gotten around to framing and hanging on the wall. For a bit more on my reactions to Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate, here are some thoughts that I posted here nearly four years ago:
Aside from the loveliness of the Virgin's face and the graceful crossing of her arms, what I like about this painting is the somewhat awkward placement of the book in Mary's left hand. The idea that the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary as she was reading a book is a recurring element in Western iconography of the Incarnation. In Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate, Mary seems to have responded so readily to Gabriel's summons that she hasn't even taken the time to put down the book that she was reading. Crossing her arms in a gesture of submission, she retains her book in her left hand - she even seems to be marking her page with her forefinger. Mary may be eager to return to whatever she was reading, but at the same time she recognizes that her life has been changed forever.
Looking at the painting now, I remain struck by the finger in the book, but I'm also caught by a few other elements. I take particular note of the ring on a finger of Mary's right hand (a mark of her betrothal to Joseph, her consecration to God, or both?) and the fact that Mary is depicted as the teenager she likely was and not as the adult figure common in later iconography. I also notice the color of her garments: the red dress indicative of her humanity and the blue mantle suggestive of the divine benediction which she received in being chosen to be the Mother of God.

This post also seems like a good place to talk about the current status of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the city where Fra Angelico's Virgin Annunciate makes its home. Founded in 1885 and nurtured by decades of donations by local philanthropists with familiar surnames like Ford and Dodge, the DIA has maintained its position as one of the leading art museums in the United States at the same time that Detroit has struggled with depopulation, crime, and perennial economic woes. The future of the city-owned collection at the DIA has been uncertain since Detroit's municipal authorities filed for bankruptcy in July 2013 in an effort to deal with the city's $18 billion debt and multimillion-dollar budget deficit; some creditors and policymakers have suggested auctioning parts of the DIA collection to help the city pay off its debts, with a few questioning whether Detroit can afford to keep an art museum at all.

Though the future is still uncertain, the situation has brightened a bit in recent weeks: state leaders and philanthropic foundations have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the DIA's collection and to prevent cuts in pensions to retired city workers, while a federal bankruptcy judge has put the brakes on proposals that could lead to the sale of some artwork. The City of Detroit, its retirees, and the DIA are not out of the woods yet, but hope is not lost. Perhaps this is a good time for prayers to the Virgin Annunciate ('Our Lady of Detroit'?) that all might emerge intact. AMDG.


At 2/21/2014 8:22 PM, Blogger Lynda said...

I have been drawn back here several times over the past few days by the painting, Virgin Annunciate. There is something that calls me back to reflect longer. I appreciate the heartwarming story of the attempts to save the DIA. Thanks for this post.

At 2/22/2014 3:32 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for your comments - yes, I have also found the painting to be an invitation to prayer and reflection. As for the DIA, they're not out of the woods yet, but recent developments have been encouraging.

At 3/23/2019 11:24 PM, Blogger Kathryn said...

I'm so happy to read your post about this painting. I chose this image to copy today in a workshop for egg tempera painters. Our assignment is to make a copy of a master painting.

I chose this one to copy because of the sweetness of her face and the fact that she has a book. I did not realize it was an annunciation image.

Your observations about her finger in the book, and her folded hands are insightful. I wonder about the design in her halo and on her dress. It seems to be calligraphic lettering, perhaps in Latin. Hard to decipher, and a challenge to copy.

I will certainly visit the DIA if I'm ever in Detroit. The first art show I saw was in Detroit--a Van Gogh exhibition. I was 12, and I realized then that the colors of paintings as reproduced in books are nothing like the colors of the real thing.


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