LOOK: Prado Annunciation by Fra Angelico
The Annunciation was a favorite subject of the Early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico [previously], and he painted it multiple times throughout his career. Once was for an altarpiece for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
In this version Mary sits on a draped chair under the portico of a domestic space, reading the scriptures, when suddenly this otherworldly being, dressed in rose and radiating, approaches. It’s the archangel Gabriel. His foot crosses the threshold of paradise into Mary’s space—the divine stepping into the human realm. Will you do it? he asks. Be mother to God?
Mary’s initial fear and perplexity eventually give way to glad acceptance. The artist compresses the episode—the arrival, the ask, the cogitation, the answer—into this singular freeze frame. When Mary says yes to God’s plan to become flesh of her flesh and so work out the salvation of the world, God releases his Spirit, who rides a stream of light from the heavens into her womb. At this miraculous moment, Jesus is conceived.
Gabriel crosses his hands over his chest in humble reverence, a gesture mirrored by Mary. Both are still before the profound mystery of the Incarnation.
Fra Angelico used ultramarine—the finest and most expensive of all pigments, made from lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone imported to Europe from the Middle East—to paint Mary’s mantle as well as the star-studded ceiling above her. Blue represents heaven, and here Mary is clothed with it and overshadowed by it.
The male figure in the carved roundel above the central column is, I’d say (based on the unambiguous Montecarlo Altarpiece), the prophet Isaiah, who wrote centuries before the event that “the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).
But Fra Angelico goes even further back than the Old Testament prophets. On the left side of the panel he shows our foreparents, Adam and Eve, being cast out of paradise, having broken God’s trust. They blush in shame—they wince, they cover their face. By including this catalyzing event from salvation history in his painting of the Annunciation, the artist is telling a larger narrative. In particular, he is drawing connections, mainly contrastive, between Adam and Eve and Christ and Mary.
In his epistles, the apostle Paul talks about Christ as the Second Adam, or the New/Last Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:22–23, 45), who came to restore what was lost with the first Adam. Whereas Adam disobeyed God and caused sin to enter the world, Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father, thereby redeeming humanity. The early church fathers, starting with Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian in the second century, extended this corollary with another: Mary as the Second Eve. Whereas Eve rejected God’s will, Mary embraced it, and her obedient yes, like Eve’s disobedient no, had repercussions for all of humanity. As the arts lecturer John Skillen puts it, our undoing in the Expulsion is undone by the Annunciation.
We see on the left an angel driving humanity out of Eden, but on the right, another angel welcomes humanity back in. And in a glorious reversal of the order of first creation, where Eve was created from Adam, here the Second Adam is created from the Second Eve, knit together from her DNA.
In the first issue of her Medievalish newsletter from last December, Dr. Grace Hamman discusses Fra Angelico’s Prado Annunciation in terms of chronos (ordinary time measured in seconds and hours) and kairos (moments outside of time). “Fra Angelico recognizes something that is easy to forget: because God is outside of time, not bound by chronology like us creatures, this painting offers a ‘God’s-eye view’ of salvation history,” she writes, portraying a simultaneity of “falls” that the fourteenth-century contemplative writer Julian of Norwich expounds on:
When Adam fell, God’s Son fell; because of the true union which was made in heaven, God’s Son could not be separated from Adam, for by Adam I understand all mankind. Adam fell from life to death, into the valley of this wretched world, and after that into hell. God’s Son fell with Adam, into the valley of the womb of the maiden who was the fairest daughter of Adam, and that was to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth; and powerfully he brought him out of hell. (Revelations of Divine Love, chap. 51)
“There was never a moment,” Hamman continues, “even in the expulsion from Eden, that Emmanuel was not with us, if one is given the eyes of kairos.”
This came a few weeks after we discussed the artwork, along with several others on the Annunciation, on Hamman’s podcast, Old Books with Grace. It’s such a generative painting!
And the Annunciation is only the main panel. Along the predella (base) are depicted the Marriage of the Virgin, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Dormition (the “falling asleep,” or death, of Mary).
LISTEN: “Cum erubuerint infelices” (While Downcast Parents Blushed) by Hildegard of Bingen, ca. 1175 | Performed by La Reverdie on Sponsa Regis: La victoire de la Vierge dans l’œuvre d’Hildegard, 2003
Cum erubuerint infelices in progenie sua, procedentes in peregrinatione casus, tunc tu clamas clara voce, hoc modo homines elevans de isto malicioso casu.
While downcast parents blushed, ashamed to see their offspring wand’ring off into the fallen exile’s pilgrimage, you cried aloud with crystal voice, to lift up humankind from that malicious fall. Trans. Nathaniel M. Campbell [source]
The Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary theologian, poet, composer, singer, artist, gardener, and physician. She wrote on scientific and medical subjects in addition to theology, which she conveyed not only through prose but also through poetry, music, dramas, and illuminations. She was quite the medieval polymath!
I first learned about Hildegard in a Western music history survey course in college, in a unit centered on her Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues). I couldn’t believe I had never heard about this amazing sister in the faith before. In 2012 she was formally canonized by the Roman Catholic Church—a long time coming!—and Pope Benedict XVI even named her a “doctor of the church,” a title given to saints who have made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine.
The corpus of surviving musical compositions by Hildegard is larger than that of any other medieval composer. More than half of these are antiphons, short free verses sung before and after each set of psalms during monastic prayer.
“Cum erubuerint” is one such antiphon. Hildegard would have sung it with her sisters at her monastery on the Rupertsberg and later the abbey at Eibingen as part of the Divine Office.
The song addresses the Virgin Mary, whose yes to Gabriel set into motion the Incarnation and thus humanity’s deliverance from spiritual exile.
As are many of Hildegard’s compositions, “Cum erubuerint” is highly melismatic—that is, it features long melodic phrases sung to one syllable. For example, I counted thirteen notes on the first syllable, “Cum”! The highest pitch occurs on clara (“clear”), referring to the definitive quality of Mary’s consent, bright and luminous, to this new thing that God is doing. An agent of God’s grace, Mary speaks a word that cuts through the mists of confusion through which we’ve been wandering, lost, uplifting us from the fall (casu), whose depths are underscored by that word’s being pitched the lowest. In her fiat, Mary is essentially saying, “Let there be light.”
Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations) is the title Hildegard gave to her collection of musical compositions, which are preserved in two manuscripts:
- Dendermonde (D), Belgium, Sint-Pieters-en-Paulusabdij, Cod. 9 (ca. 1175). This one is considered by scholars to be the more authoritative. It was prepared under Hildegard’s supervision as a gift for the monks of Villers and contains fifty-seven songs.
- Riesenkodex (R), Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2 (ca. 1180–85). This revised and enlarged edition, which includes seventy-five songs, was produced at the Rupertsberg scriptorium not long after Hildegard’s death.
“Cum erubuerint” appears in both.
Click here for a modern transcription from the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies.
In her critical edition of Hildegard’s Symphonia, Barbara Newman writes,
Hildegard’s creations, compared with a contemporary hymn by Abelard or a sequence by Adam of St. Victor, will sound either primitive or unnervingly avant-garde. In a sense they are both. As a Benedictine, she was acquainted with a large repertoire of chant, but she lacked formal training and made no attempt to imitate the mainstream poetic and musical achievements of her day. Various scholars have hypothesized that she was influenced by German folksong, yet her compositions lack the two essential traits of a popular tune: it must be easy to remember and easy to sing. The difficult music of the Symphonia is sui generis. In [Sr. Maria Immaculata] Ritscher’s words, it is ‘gregorianizing but not Gregorian’ and impossible to classify in terms of any known contemporary movement. (27–28)
And regarding Hildegard’s lyrical texts:
Until the advent of modern vers libre, scholars were reluctant even to dignify Hildegard’s songs with the title of poetry. In style they are much closer to Kunstprosa, a highly wrought figurative language that resembles poetry in its density and musicality, yet with no semblance of meter or regular form. (32–33)
The above performance of “Cum erubuerint” is by La Reverdie, a medieval and Renaissance vocal ensemble that started in 1986 with two pairs of sisters from Italy.
But in addition, here are a few instrumental versions I particularly like:
>> Riley Lee on shakuhachi (bamboo flute):
>> Noël Akchoté on electric guitar:
The song also appears, under the title “From This Wicked Fall,” on the Billboard-topping Vision: The Music of Hildegard Von Bingen (1994), a classical-electronic crossover album of seventeen of Hildegard’s works arranged by Richard Souther. In Souther’s version, nonlexical vocables (sung by soprano Emily Van Evera and mezzo-soprano Sister Germaine Fritz, OSB) replace the Latin text.