The San Marco Annunciation is a fresco painted at the top of the dormitory stairs in the monastery in S. Marco in Florence. The artist, Fra Angelico, (c. 1400-1455) was a Dominican monk influenced by the painters Masaccio and Giotto, the architect Brunelleschi, and the sculptor Ghiberti. His paintings are didactic in that they teach the doctrine of the church but at a deeper level they have a transcendent and universal message. The quotes in italics are taken from the text of art critic David Piper’s book cited below. The distinctions that we are advocating are revealed in one of Fra Angelico’s paintings, The Deposition painted c. 1440. The painting depicts the body of Christ being lowered from the cross and “on the left the holy women, with the shroud, are gathered about the kneeling Mary; on the right Florentine worthies in contemporary dress stand in contemplation. On the left, it has been said, the religion of the heart [feeling]; on the right, that of the mind [intellect].” The Observant Dominicans were playing an important part in the evolution of human consciousness but were not yet aware of the important distinctions which recognize feeling and intuition qualitatively superior to emotion and intellect.
Perhaps what the Observant Dominicans were searching for was the answer to the First Great Question, Where am I? They believed a more profound response could be made to that question by shifting from “mystic emotionalism” to the reality that they believe was revealed by nature. “Giovanni Dominici, former Prior of Angelico’s convent, had stressed that, steeped in the study of the natural world and inspired by love, the mind of man could grasp the nature of the heavenly world. Fra Angelico’s painting is correspondingly clear, direct and optimistic; the certainty of his line-drawing, the radiant light of his pictures and their lucid shining colours all express this, and also convey irresistibly the painter’s own sweetness of nature.” Fra Angelico is foreshadowing the Renaissance and its humanism. Self-reliance and the genesis of modern science make their debut in his art.
Fra Angelico was himself advocating a change in consciousness within his particular religious order. The Observant Dominicans whom Fra Angelico joined were a reforming movement within the order, emphasizing the need for direct and simple preaching, and rejecting mystic emotionalism. Unfortunately, what the reformers were advocating was greater reliance on the intellect. They were correct to de-emphasize emotion or sentimentality, what they called “mystic emotionalism.” But they failed to comprehend the need to distinguish between emotion and what we label “feeling.” Feeling, as we mean it, is synonymous with intuition or the sensation that comes from the heart, the deepest source of human wisdom.
Sentimentality and emotionality are closely related. Being sentimental means colored by emotion rather than reason or realism. Sentimentality means excessively or affectedly sentimental. The reforming monks were correct to mistrust “emotionalism” which is based in the drama created by the ego, but they were unwittingly throwing out the baby with the bathwater in failing to identify and rely on the deeper connection with universal wisdom.
Fra Angelico is most famous for his many renderings of The Annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s announcement of the Incarnation. The angel typically stands before the seated or kneeling Virgin Mary with the auspicious good news. What makes this announcement a profound metaphor is that this “Incarnation” was universal in that “Christ Consciousness” is within each human being. We are all pregnant with the possibility of awakening to the perfection of life as it is. That was Jesus’ gospel, his “good news” which has yet to be understood by the bulk of humanity.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.