How to Find the Remarkable Symbolism in this Italian Masterpiece

Decoding The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

There are many symbols in this ornate painting that capture its story. A ray of light bubbles up from the clouds in the sky and bursts forth into the street of an Italian town. It cuts through an aperture in a building and eventually touches the head of a woman in prayer.

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, outside, two figures kneel in the street. One is an angel who has feathered wings on his back and holds a lily flower in his hand; beside him is another man who appears to balance a miniature model town on his knee.

Around the image, various birds perch: a peacock sits on a first-floor loggia whilst numerous doves populate the town. At the front of the painting, an apple and a cucumber lie on the ground. They seem to have been placed there deliberately, and even overhang the edge of the image as if they’re not quite part of the painting.

And then there is the overall strangeness of the composition, the radical perspective and the vivid selection of colours, of terracotta, gold and grey-blue.

It must have been more than ten years ago when I first saw this work of art, The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli. The very first impression it made on me — as my eyes tried to become accustomed to the scene — was one of disorientation.

It can feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a labyrinth and asked to find your own way out again. So what’s going on and how do we find our way in this remarkable painting?

A miraculous moment

As the title of the work indicates, this is a scene of The Annunciation. The woman praying is the Virgin Mary. The event marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ — the moment that Jesus was conceived and the Son of God became Mary’s child.

The Annunciation describes the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and informed her that she would become the mother of Christ. Mary adopts a posture of humility as the news is delivered to her, with her arms crossed in diffidence.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Virgin Mary. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Mary is dressed in fashionable 15th century clothing, with an embroidered bodice and puffs emerging from her slashed sleeves. Notably, her head is uncovered: since only unmarried girls and royalty wore their hair uncovered, it is a reminder that she is both a virgin and Queen of Heaven.

Crivelli followed the established tradition by painting rays of golden light descending from heaven and blessing Mary on the head. Arriving on the rays of light is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, the symbol of God as spiritually active in the world. The motif is from the words of John the Baptist: “I saw the spirit coming down from heaven like a dove and resting upon him” (John 1:32).

An unusual setting

What makes this painting unusual — and what I didn’t understand when I first saw it — is the urban setting of the angel’s appearance, who brings his message forth directly into the street. Traditionally, paintings of the Annunciation show Mary in some sort of walled garden, a reference to her purity as well as the idea that the incarnation of Christ took place in springtime. (The lily carried by Gabriel is Mary’s traditional attribute, a sign of her virtue.)

But in this work, the setting is very much in a town, with brick walls and paved streets. And what’s just as unusual is the bearing of the angel Gabriel, who appears more concerned with the man kneeling next to him than with the Virgin Mary.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

To understand what’s going on here, we have to look at the circumstances of the painting’s creation. The work was first made by the artist Carlo Crivelli for the town of Ascoli Piceno, in the Marche region of Italy. It was painted in celebration, since the citizens of the town had just been granted limited self-government by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV in 1482.

The news reached the town on 25 March, the traditional date of the Feast of the Annunciation, and every year after 1482 a procession was held through the streets of the town to celebrate the political and religious events in one. As in the painting, oriental carpets would be draped over the balconies as part of the celebrations. At the bottom of the painting is the inscription LIBERTAS ECCLESIASTICA, which was the title of the papal edict granting the city its freedom.

This would explain the municipal feel of the painting, which, the more you look at it, is brimming with townsfolk going about their business.

It goes without saying that nobody is there by chance. The man kneeling kneeling beside Gabriel is the local patron Saint Emidius, who holds in his hands a model of the town. On the bridge behind them, a man is given a letter to read by a messenger, referring to the Papal edict.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

In this detail, one sees the thematic cross-over, with two messages being delivered at the same time, one from the Papal messenger and the other from Gabriel.

A feast of symbols

The overall detailing in the painting is extraordinary. Every stone and brick is individually painted, along with the ornamental carvings of the pillars and archway. Textures — marble, wood, fabric — are all faithfully represented.

In one area of the painting, a peacock stands with its tail feathers showing resplendently — a symbol of immortality and Christ’s Resurrection, as according to ancient belief, it was thought a peacock’s flesh never decayed. Even the small wooden cage, which if you look closely contains a goldfinch, is meaningful. Often an attribute of Christ as a child, who in other works of art holds a goldfinch in his hand, the bird signifies the soul of man that flew away at his death.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Peacock, oriental rug and a caged goldfinch. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Carlo Crivelli was born in Venice sometime around 1430. As this painting demonstrates, he was a fine technical painter, and was especially skilled at simulating marble architecture and other illusionistic effects: festoons of fruit and parchment cartellini. (A cartellino was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, as though attached to a wall, often with a nail or pin.)

Illusionistic fruit and veg. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

The apple and cucumber towards the bottom of the painting were Crivelli’s demonstration of his skills as a painter, how he could make objects seem as if they were coming out of the painting. They also carry symbolism: the apple represents the forbidden fruit and associated fall of man. The cucumber — an unusual symbol in Christian art — is thought to refer to the promise of redemption through Christ’s resurrection.

Crivelli died in 1495 in Ascoli Piceno, the town for which he painted this picture. After his death, his reputation fell on hard-times, yet in the 19th century his paintings were seen afresh and admired, especially by the pre-Raphaelite painters of Britain, several of whom praised his work for its remarkable detailed naturalism.

This painting hangs in the National Gallery, London.

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