The Archangel Gabriel has just landed – his gilded peacock-like wings still raised – interrupting the Virgin Mary from her reading. She stares at her visitor in terror and gathers her cloak around her in fear. This is the Annunciation, the moment Gabriel told the Virgin that she would conceive the Son of God. The Holy Ghost who would impregnate her is shown here as a dove, with a gilded halo, flying in above Gabriel’s head.
Strozzi has included Gabriel’s greeting in gold in the border of his pink dress, ‘Ave Maria’ (‘Hail Mary!’). This picture is a variant of paintings of the Annunciation by Strozzi’s teacher, the Florentine painter and friar, Fra Angelico. This panel was cut in half some time before it entered the National Gallery’s collection. The two halves are now reunited but the original picture probably also included a scene showing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, as can be seen in some of Fra Angelico’s versions.
The Annunciation is celebrated on 25 March, which in Renaissance Florence, as in several other Italian cities, was the first day of the new year. It is the moment when the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would miraculously conceive the Son of God, Jesus Christ; the beginning of the Christian calendar.
Strozzi’s colourful and arresting panel highlights the drama of the moment. Gilded wings still raised, the Archangel Gabriel has just landed, interrupting the Virgin from her reading. Arms crossed – a sign of humility – he bows gently towards her. Terrified and shocked, she clasps at her cloak, ready to pull it around her. At the same time she leans in to get a closer look at the heavenly visitor. The silence of the scene is broken by the words embroidered in gold at the hem of Gabriel’s pink dress, ‘Ave Maria’ (‘Hail Mary!‘), the greeting recorded in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1: 26–38). The dove above Gabriel’s halo, who has flown in on golden rays, represents the Holy Ghost, which will impregnate the Virgin.
The action takes place in a covered arcade outside the Virgin’s house, which looks onto a garden enclosed by a low wall and a trellis bearing white flowers. In the centre of the garden is a well. On the lawn a translucent glass vase holds a bouquet of lilies. The enclosed garden, the clear waters of the well and the white lilies are all symbols of the Virgin’s purity. The lilies are improbably tall, rising to almost the height of the house. They were probably added at the last minute, perhaps at the request of the patron. Beyond the garden is a mountain dotted with buildings and topped with a church and in the distance a series of mountainous towns.
The artist’s name, ’ZANOBI', is hidden among the gilded foliage pattern in the border of the Virgin’s blue cloak. Strozzi was the pupil of the friar-painter Fra Angelico, who painted several versions of this scene, including one in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. This picture closely resembles those works. Fra Angelico’s versions include an extended landscape to the left of the picture, visible beyond Gabriel’s wings. This lush garden of flowers and fruit trees is clearly supposed to represent the Garden of Eden because it includes a scene of the expulsion of Adam and Eve.
The National Gallery purchased Strozzi’s picture as two separate panels in 1894: it had been cut in half at some point in the nineteenth century. It was later joined together to restore its original appearance but the picture had also been cut down on all sides. This explains why we can’t see Gabriel’s foot or the tops of the arches. It is likely that it too once featured a scene of the expulsion from Eden but that this is now lost. Fra Angelico’s versions also include a predella with scenes of the life of the Virgin, which has also probably been lost from Strozzi’s picture.
The red and white circles that look like targets on the pillars are the coat of arms of the Florentine Lanfredini family. Technical analysis has shown that these were painted over a coat of dried varnish, suggesting they were added after the painting was finished. Coats of arms were usually painted on a picture’s frame, normally near the predella. It’s possible that the coat of arms on the pillars were added when the original predella and frame – now lost – were removed. The picture was probably made for the church of San Francesco al Monte where Glorgio Vasari, the sixteenth-century artist and biographer of many Italian artists, recorded seeing it.
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