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AN EXPLORATION OF THE JOYFUL MYSTERIES OF THE ROSARY

DEPICTED BY GIOTTO AND FRA ANGELICO


By
Danielle Marie Duet
A Masters Essay submitted to the faculty of the Master of Arts in
Catholic Studies Program in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the Master of Arts in Catholic Studies
University of St. Thomas
Saint Paul, Minnesota
2015 2016

Dedicated to
my best friend and the love of my life,
Jeffrey Rother.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
DEVOTION OF THE ROSARY ............................................................................................... 3
PRAYER AND PAINTING IN THE EARLY RENAISSANCE ..................................................... 5
GIOTTO DI BONDONE ........................................................................................................ 7
FRA ANGELICO ................................................................................................................. 9
JOYFUL MYSTERIES OF THE ROSARY .............................................................................. 12
The Annunciation .............................................................................................. 13
The Visitation .................................................................................................... 16
The Nativity ........................................................................................................ 21
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple ....................................................... 24
The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple ................................................ 28
ENCOUNTERING THE INCARNATION ................................................................................ 32
APPENDIX ......................................................................................................................... 36
BIBLIOGRAPHY ................................................................................................................ 44
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ...................................................................................................... 46

DEVOTION OF THE ROSARY


THE ROSARY is traditionally one of the oldest, greatest, and most popular forms of
Marian prayer in the history of the Catholic Church. It is a profound meditation on the life of
Christ as seen through the eyes of Our Blessed Lady. This devotional practice has been loved by
innumerable saints and pious Christians throughout the centuries, serving as an instrument of
abundant graces.1 It primarily consists of mental and vocal prayer assisted by a circlet of beads
partitioned into five decades used for counting the corresponding prayers and mysteries. In
Catholic culture, the origin of the Rosary is typically associated with the pious legend of Saint
Dominic receiving the beads in a vision from Mary for the conversion of sinners. While it is a
well-established tradition in the Catholic Church, and certainly true the Dominicans were
responsible for popularizing the Rosary we know today, historical facts reveal an evolutionary
progression of the devotion stemming from the desire of the laity to participate more in Christian
worship.2 This particular method of prayerusing beads to aid a repeated recitation of prayers
dates back to the Desert Fathers in the earliest days of the Church and historically derives from
pre-Christian traditions of ancient Eastern religions.3
Initially various forms of the Rosary developed with the rise of Marian devotion in the
Middle Ages. These devotions began with the Marian Office in medieval monastic traditions and
eventually extended to the laity in a simpler form known as the Little Office of the Blessed
Virgin Mary. The angelic salutation, Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, is found
as a repeated recitation in the prayers of the Marian Office. This became the basis for the longer


1
John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 2002), 1.
2
Richard Gribble, The History and Devotion of the Rosary (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor
Publishing Division, 1992), 1114.
3
Ibid., 2628.
3

version of the Hail Mary, which was established in its current form around the fifteenth or
sixteenth centurybecoming the essential foundation for the Rosary.4
As the popularization of Marian devotion continued it was a custom to recite the Hail
Mary in a series of 150 repetitions, echoing the 150 psalms, with the assistance of prayer beads.
Shorter versions of reciting the Hail Mary in a series of 100 or 50 repetitions also emerged based
on the numbers of the shortened psalter. This method of prayer gradually developed between the
twelfth and sixteenth centuries. In time, the faithful consistently recited this prayer devotion with
the Our Father, a set of ten Hail Marys (referred to as a decade), and the Glory Be (minor
doxology) five, ten, or fifteen times.5 It was given the name of the Rosary in the thirteenth
century, meaning Crown of Roses, in honor of the flower attributed to the Blessed Mother.6
Saint Louis De Montfort explains the significance of its name as a spiritual bouquet, stating,
Our Lady has shown her thorough approval of the name Rosary; she has revealed to several
people that each time they say a Hail Mary they are giving her a beautiful rose and that each
complete Rosary makes her a crown of roses.7
This lovely devotion to Mary existed in many forms throughout the Middle Ages and was
eventually standardized by the sixteenth century in its current form to accompany three sets of
five scriptural meditations based on episodes from the life of Christ.8 These meditations include
the five Joyful Mysteries (the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation of
Christ in the Temple, and the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple), the five Sorrowful

4
William Storey, The Complete Rosary: A Guide to Praying the Mysteries (Chicago: Loyola
Press, 2006), 2629, 35.
5
Garry Wills, The Rosary: Prayer Comes Round (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005), 45, 13.
6
Sally Cunneen, Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions, Ed. James Martin,
American 188.7 (Academic Search Complete, EBSCO, 2003), 1113.
7
Louis De Montfort, The Secret of the Rosary (Bay Shore, NY: North River Press, 1954), 32.
8
Wills, 56.
4

Mysteries (the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the
Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion), and the five Glorious (the Resurrection, the
Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Assumption, and the Coronation of
Mary); a total of fifteen mysteries. Each decade of the Rosary is prayed in accordance with one
of the Joyful, Sorrowful, or Glorious Mysteries. This provides a way for illiterate Christians to
reflect on the life of Christ by contemplating on the Gospel message, found in the sacred
Mysteries of the Rosary. That being said, it is a very complex spiritual devotion; but those who
pray the Rosary faithfully find it peaceful and comforting, connecting them with the Incarnation
on a deeper level.9

PRAYER AND PAINTING IN THE EARLY RENAISSANCE


With the rise of the Rosary as a popular prayer devotion during the Early Renaissance,
many artists depicted scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Interestingly enough,
these scenes typically corresponded with the Mysteries of the Rosary. During this time painters
developed many pious images for churches, chapels, and private devotional purposes. These
depictions were desirable as wall frescoes and altarpieces to enhance the experience of individual
prayer. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the scenes from the life of Christ and
the Virgin Mary generally occurred in a series. This allowed the viewer to follow the progression
of events in chronological order.
In Italian painting these visuals highlighted many biblical themes, such as the Nativity
and the Crucifixion. Emphasizing Christs human nature in these images made it easier for the
faithful to relate to his earthly existence; thus, aiding devotees in meditating on the life of Christ

9
Cunneen, 1113.
5

in a much more profound way, similar to meditating on his life through the Mysteries of the
Rosary. Both forms of prayer meditations essentially follow a method of chronological
progression. When the viewer reflects on each scene in these paintings, or meditates upon the
Mysteries of the Rosary, he or she follows the narrative of Christs life in an orderly fashion
from the Annunciation to his Resurrection and glorification.10
The Florentine painters of the Early Renaissance, such as Giotto and Fra Angelico,
produced a variety of these scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary in altarpieces and
frescoes over the course of their lives. Giotto and Fra Angelico were both artistic masters at
conveying a sense of holy transcendence in the midst of daily life. After much research and study,
I believe their paintings exquisitely capture the beauty of Gods love for all humanity and many
of them harmoniously resonate with the scriptural passages that coincide with the Rosary.
In this essay I will focus on particular images by Fra Angelico and Giotto that depict the
Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary; images that I believe illuminate ones heart and mind to the glory
of God in a visual manner, helping one to encounter the Mystery of the Incarnation, and
therefore being an important contributor to the prayers of the faithful. That being said, it is
interesting how these artists portray the same scenes from the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary in
similar, yet very different ways. Each of their interpretations places a different tone and emphasis
on the salvific redemption of mankind.
However, before further analysis of these images, let us take a look at the following
sections of this paper which give brief biographical accounts of each artist and puts a contextual
framework around their accomplished body of work. I believe it is important and necessary to


10
Jean Sorabella, Painting the Life of Christ in Medieval and Renaissance Italy
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008), Web.
6

know about these artists and their backgrounds so we will have a deeper understanding of their
influences, technique, and meaning behind each of their images.

GIOTTO DI BONDONE
Giotto di Bondone (ca.12661337) was already a master Italian artist when he was
commissioned to produce the fresco cycles of The Life of the Virgin and The Life of Christ for
the chapel of Santa Maria della Carit at the Arena (also known as the Scrovegni Chapel or the
Arena Chapel) in Padua, Italy. He was born in the remote mountain village of Vespignano, about
twenty miles away from the city of Florence. It is said that the great Florentine painter, Giovanni
Cimabue (ca.12401302), discovered Giottos artistic talent when he was just a young boy.
Cimabue first found the child etching an image of a sheep into a stone just outside the boys
home village. He was so impressed by his drawing that he immediately invited the young Giotto
and his father to come along with him, back to Florence, so Giotto could study art under him as
an apprentice. However, these claims of Giottos discovery are not factual accounts of his early
life, but rather they derive from a pious legend associated with the biographical accounts of
famous artists, written by Giorgio Vasari (ca.15121574), entitled The Lives of the Most Famous
Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. While it is uncertain as to whether or not Giotto was, in fact,
Cimabues pupil, it seems that this story is not unreasonable to believe since his work tends to
resemble that of Cimabue and many other Florentine artists. 11
It is most likely that Giottos artistic training began in Florence during his early life, but
the first historically documented evidence of him residing in Florence dates back only to the year


11
Bruce Cole, Giotto: The Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (New York: George Braziller, 1993), 1415.
7

1301.12 By this time Giotto was a well-established artist, producing masterful works of art. His
boldness and originality led him to abandon the conventional artistic styles of the thirteenth
century as he sought more natural and lifelike expressions. In doing so, he developed a unique
style and color palette, adopting the use of subtle tones rather than the dark and heavy hues many
of the Byzantine artists used before him. Giotto became such an influence that this color
technique, which he utilized for both tempera and fresco painting, was accepted by many other
Florentine artists and remained in practice throughout the following 150 years. Yet, his human
forms were most innovative. According to Julia Cartwright, seen in her text The Painters of
Florence, Giotto introduced almond-shaped eyes, long noses and oval countenances with square,
heavy jaws which he substituted for the staring eyes and round faces of Byzantine artists. 13
Along with his artistic mastery and distinctive stylization, Giotto continued to develop
other revolutionary techniques that would have a significant influence on Italian painting, such as
the fresco technique known as giornatawhich is the Italian word for a days work. This
refers to the daily application of wet lime plaster to a small area of a walls surface, which is
followed immediately by the application of pigment paint. This technique is certainly a contrast
to the older method, pontata, which was the plastering of a very large surface area and painting
over the plaster once it had completely dried.14 By replacing this method with giornata, Giotto
was able to devise a unique system in which he could section off portions of the wall that he felt
comfortable to paint and complete within a day. However, this task required Giotto to work very
quickly and efficiently, seeing that he needed to paint on the wet plaster before it dried.


12
Ibid.
13
Julia Cartwright, The Painters of Florence from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century (New
York: E.P. Dutton, 1901), 12, 2122.
14
Francesca Flores D'Arcais, Giotto (New York: Abbeville Press, 1995), 24.
8

Eventually other artists adopted his technique, but it was certainly a novelty to paint frescoes in
this particular manner.15
This method was used to create Giottos most important and influential work of art, the
fresco cycles seen in the Arena Chapel (Fig. 1). It is said that around 1305, Enrico Scrovegni, a
wealthy moneylender and noble citizen of Padua, commissioned Giotto to decorate the chapels
interior with fresco paintings that would illustrate the narrative of salvation history spanning the
course of three generationsbeginning with the parents of the Virgin Mary, Saint Anne and
Saint Joachim.16 The entire series of fresco cycles was masterfully crafted and carefully arranged
by Giotto to include three divisions of fresco tiers inside the chapel. The uppermost fresco tier
illustrates scenes from the Virgin Marys early life, titled The Life of the Virgin, followed by the
middle tier that depicts Christs childhood and ministry, called The Life of Christ, which is
continued by a lower tier that portrays Christs crucifixion and death, titled The Passion of
Christ.17 Giotto takes the viewer through the narrative in chronological order. These fresco
arrangements unfold in a visual sequence of progression, illustrating the events that occurred
before, during, and after the life of Christmuch like the succession of events seen in the
Mysteries of the Rosary.
FRA ANGELICO
Fra Giovanni da Fiesole (ca.13871455), better known as Fra Angelico, was an
accomplished Italian painter of the Early Renaissance as well as a zealous Dominican friar. He,
like Giotto, illustrated many scenes over the course of his life that tend to correspond with the

15
Alan Pipes, Foundations of Art and Design (London: Laurence King, 2008), 134.
16
Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, The Cambridge Companion to Giotto (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2004), 197.
17
Sarel Eimerl, The World of Giotto, c. 1267-1337 (New York: Time Incorporated, 1967), 109
110, 116.
9

Mysteries of the Rosary. This pious man was born around 1387 in the upper valley of the
Mugello, not far from the great city of Florence. He went by the name of Guido di Pietro before
he left the world to enter the novitiate at the age of twenty to become an Observant Dominican.18
Fra Angelico studied as a novice in Cortona and took his solemn vows as a friar around the year
1420 at the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole.19 However, much of Fra Angelicos early life
still remains a mystery. Historical information, such as Fra Angelicos birth year and when he
entered the Order, derives mainly from the biographical accounts written by Giorgio Vasari,
which may or may not be historically accurate.20 Nevertheless, it is important to know that Fra
Angelico was not only a superb artist of his time, but he was also a saintly Dominican priest with
a deep love for the Church.21
Throughout his formation Fra Angelico was commissioned to paint for Dominican
institutions that assisted the Order with their preaching work. Earliest records show that he began
his work as a Florentine artist around 1418. Although it is uncertain, it is plausible that Fra
Angelico studied the art of painting and illuminating manuscripts as an apprentice under Lorenzo
Monaco (ca.13701425), a Camaldolese monk and great Florentine painter. However, it is
evident from Fra Angelicos artistic techniques that he continued to move beyond the Late
Gothic style of Lorenzo Monaco and developed more novel stylizations that influenced the art of


18
Giulio Carlo Argan and James Emmons, Fra Angelico (Geneva: Skira, 1955), 7.
19
Ferdinand Holbck, New Saints and Blesseds of the Catholic Church: Blesseds and Saints
Canonized by Pope John Paul II during the Years 19791983 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
2000), 113.
20
Laurence Kanter and Pia Palladino, Fra Angelico (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art,
2005), 3.
21
John Saward, The Beauty of Christ and His Saints, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness
of Beauty: Art, Sanctity, and the Truth of Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 2.
10

the Early Renaissance, such as depicting forms and figures in a more three-dimensional way with
the use of light and shadowknown as chiaroscuro.22
He resided at the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole for many years until he was moved
by the Order in 1436 to the friary of San Marco in Florence. This newly renovated convent was
rebuilt especially for the Dominicans in Fiesole and financially supported by Cosimo de Medici.
Relocating to the convent in Florence brought Fra Angelico closer to the center of artistic
activity in the region. He soon had more exposure with his artwork and was commissioned by
Cosimo to decorate the interior of the convent church of San Marco, the chapter house, cloisters,
refectory, hospice, and entrances to the cells in the upper corridors with intricate fresco paintings.
These images that adorn the walls of the convent are thematically linked to that of the life of
Christ and the Rule of the Dominican Order.23
Fra Angelico is greatly renowned for his artwork in San Marco and one of his most
prominent fresco paintings in the convent is his Annunciation (Fig. 2). It was completed around
1450 and it is located within the dormitory at the top of the stairs of the second floor corridor.
This was a very popular scene to recreate over and over again among many Renaissance artists.
Over the course of his life, Fra Angelico depicted several variations of the first Joyful Mystery of
the Rosary in altarpieces and frescoes. It captures a pivotal moment in Christian history where
the Archangel Gabriel brings the joyous news to Mary that she will conceive and give birth to
the Son of God. Fra Angelico places the viewer in this intimate moment with shallow figures and


22
Ross Finocchio, Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro) (ca. 13951455) Heilbrunn Timeline of Art
History, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006), Web.
23
Argan, 8; John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy. 4th ed. (Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2012), 256257.
11

a lack of depth, creating an overall simplicity to the scene, which harkens back to earlier frescoes
painted by the master artist Giotto.24

JOYFUL MYSTERIES OF THE ROSARY


Both Giotto and Fra Angelico beautifully illustrate the essence of the Joyful Mysteries of
the Rosary in each of their fresco paintings in their own particular style of the Early Renaissance.
As we take a closer look at these images, it is important to remember that the Joyful Mysteries of
the Rosary are fundamentally based on the dogma of the Incarnationthe teaching of the Church
that the second person of the Trinity became flesh and is both fully human and fully divine. In
his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, Pope John Paul II states:
The first five decades, the joyful mysteries, are marked by the joy radiating
from the event of the Incarnation. This is clear from the very first mystery, the
Annunciation, where Gabriels greeting to the Virgin of Nazareth is linked to an
invitation to messianic joy: Rejoice, Mary. The whole of salvation history, in
some sense the entire history of the world, has led up to this greeting. If it is the
Fathers plan to unite all things in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10), then the whole of the
universe is in some way touched by the divine favor with which the Father looks
upon Mary and makes her the Mother of his Son. The whole of humanity, in turn,
is embraced by the fiat with which she readily agrees to the will of God.25
Therefore, as we reflect on the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosaryseen in the following images
painted by Giotto and Fra Angelicowe enter into the moments of the most profound joy the
world has ever known, by means of the Incarnation.


24
Michael Glover, Great Works: Annunciation (143845), Fra Angelico, The Independent
(London: Independent Digital News and Media, 2010), Web.
25
John Paul II, 27.
12

The Annunciation
Giottos Annunciation (Fig. 3) fresco depicts this key moment in historythe first act of
mankinds salvationby bridging the series of The Life of the Virgin and The Life of Christ.26
The image of the angelic salutation is immediately visible upon entering the Arena Chapel, seen
directly above the central archway. It is, in fact, located in such a prominent position because the
chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Annunciate, as well as the Virgin of Charity.27
Unlike Giottos other fresco paintings in the chapel, the figures in this image are
separated at a great distance and juxtaposed on opposite sides of the triumphal arch. Both figures
are enclosed in their own architectural space, facing each other. The Archangel Gabriel is seen
on the left while Mary is placed on the right, showered in a heavenly glow. Gabriel
acknowledges the Virgin and raises his right hand in a gesture of blessing, which establishes an
essential emotional connection between the two figures and indicates to the viewer the
directional left-to-right movement of the narratives progression.28 Both figures kneel in the
presence of the other and are composed in a reverent manner. Their gaze locks intensely from
across the wide gap of the archway, giving the scene a dramatic effect that permeates throughout
the rest of the chapel. Mary appears to have been startled from her reading desk and, while
holding onto a small book, she calmly folds her hands across her chest in a gesture of prayer. She
remains poised, graceful, and majestic when encountering the angel, showing that she is ready to
receive the fullness of the divine will of God.29

26
Laura Jacobus. Giottos Annunciation in the Arena Chapel, Padua. Art Bulletin 81.1 (1999:
Academic Search Complete. EBSCO.), 93.
27
D'Arcais, 171; Cole, 13.
28
Eimerl, 120.
29
James Stubblebine, Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), 81;
Moshe Barasch, Giotto and the Language of Gesture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1987), 72.
13

It is interesting to note that in this scene the Madonnas layered garments are depicted in
red and white. This attire may reference common womans fashion during the thirteenth century,
possibly Giottos attempt at making the Virgin more relatable to the faithful. Marys white tunic
seen under her red outer garment may also symbolize the purity of her womb enclosed within the
temple of her flesh. That being said, Gabriel also wears a white undergarment. His is called an
alb, which is a basic white clerical robe worn under the chasuble by all clerics of the Catholic
Church during liturgical celebrations. Gabriels alb is trimmed with gold and he also wears a
pink overlay. His liturgical vestments were standardized for this time period and commonly worn
by angelic figures in art.30
Although the figures complement each other very well visually speaking, they remain
spatially detached from one another. Taking a look at Fra Angelicos Annunciation (Fig. 2) from
San Marco it is evident that both Mary and the angel are contained within the same frame. In
comparison to Giottos version, they are depicted physically closer to one another. In my opinion,
this seems to evoke a greater sense of closeness to Marys fiatmeaning that the proximity
between Mary and Gabriel represents the temporal closeness to the moment of her saying yes to
God. Alternatively, Giottos figures are much more distant. His rendition may suggest that the
angel has just appeared to her and we are witnessing an earlier moment where Mary falls to her
knees after being startled from reading.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that in both Giottos and Fra Angelicos variation of
the Annunciation the figures are visually separated by an architectural element. In Giottos
Annunciation Mary and the angel are fully enclosed in separate spaces within the architecture
whereas in Fra Angelicos version a large pillar, which mimics the columns seen outside of San

30
Jacobus, 98; Andrew Ladis, Giotto's O: Narrative, Figuration, and Pictorial Ingenuity in the
Arena Chapel (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), 151.
14

Marco, divides them. I believe that it is also possible for this division to insinuate a
differentiation in nature between the angelic and human forms; yet at the same time their
interaction communicates that both are rational creatures teleologically made for beatitude
which is accomplished through obedience to Gods will. In this scene Fra Angelico illustrates
their obedience to God for the salvation of the whole world by Marys consent to bear the
Incarnate Son through the mediation of the angelic messenger. As the Madonna graciously
accepts Gods holy will she responds with a similar gesture to Giottos Virgin Annunciate,
folding her hands delicately across her chest in prayerful reverence and humility. Although her
face is somewhat generalized, her eyes are very expressive. Marys gaze locks with Gabriels
across a diagonal and she bends forward slightly, as to accept the responsibility entrusted to her.
This scene beautifully captures the Annunciation as a quiet moment between the angel
and the Virgin, demonstrated by graceful gestures and muted tones. The image intentionally
remains spare and does not contain extra appurtenances, such as a book or reading desk, to
distract from the engagement between Gabriel and Mary. The figures immediate surroundings
are bathed in light, adding an overall luminous glow to the piece.31 Mary and the angel are
framed by an elegant loggia and are exposed to the outside elements, whereas Giotto, in contrast,
encloses his figures within a very dark interior. However, in a similar way, both artists use the
symbolism of the barred window in their architectural settings to convey Marys virginity and
chastity. The main difference here is that Fra Angelicos environment is more open to nature and
the surrounding beauty of the outside world. He depicts the exterior with a garden that is seen
between the colonnades, receding into a vanishing point with forced perspective.


31
Kanter, 184.
15

Interestingly enough, this painting contains the actual cloister of convent, making it an
extension of the environmental space of San Marco. Since the fresco is located in the dormitory,
the friars regularly saw it on a daily basis. It was painted on the wall of the upper corridor at the
top of the stairs with a slanted perspective that creates an illusion to the viewer that one could
ascend the stairs and continue walking directly into the scene. With that said, the image is
located in a place of prayer for the friars and it displays a large inscription on the base of the
fresco, stating, As you venerate, while passing before it, this figure of the intact Virgin, beware
lest you omit to say a Hail Mary.32 This indicates that it is expected for the viewer to pray
before the painting. Thus, images such as this scene by Fra Angelico and Giottos Arena Chapel
variation are certainly more than mere fresco paintingsbut rather they are an experiential
encounter for the clergy and the lay faithful. They are devotional aids to prayer for meditating
upon the Joyful Mystery of the Annunciation.

The Visitation
As we continue to explore the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, depicted in the Early
Renaissance, it is necessary to look at the Cortona Altarpiece (Fig. 4) by Fra Angelico, which is
one of the greatest artistic achievements of Florentine painting. It includes six scenes from the
life of Mary and was painted between 1432 and 1434 for the church of San Domenico in Cortona,
Italy. This magnificent altarpiece incorporates elaborate detail along with elegant engravings and
mordant gilding. The large main panel of the altarpiece is a depiction of the Annunciation, which
greatly resembles Fra Angelicos 1450 fresco rendition in San Marco.33


32
Paoletti, 256257.
33
John Pope-Hennessy, Angelico (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1981), 15; Kanter, 84.
16

There are seven small images below the main panel of the Cortona Altarpiece, called
predella panels, framing the bottom. The outer two predella scenes are depictions of Saint
Dominic and the inner five panels are a continuation of the life of the Virgin. Fra Angelico
depicts The Visitation (Fig. 5) on the third predella panel. This scene follows the Annunciation in
the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, when Marycarrying the Christ Child in her wombvisits
her cousin, Elizabeth, who is six months pregnant with Saint John the Baptist.34
In the image, Mary greets her cousin with a warm embrace. Fra Angelico exquisitely
captures the joy that emanates from this beautiful interaction. He rightly depicts Mary and
Elizabeth as the most prominent figures of the painting, which is emphasized by their placement
in the foregrounddeliberately keeping them at a slight distance from the onlookers in the
middle ground. They stand before a shaded structure where a figure peers out from behind an
archway to witness this joyful encounter. To the left of the Virgin is another woman who makes
her way up the hillside. As she ascends the hill, she, too, looks in the direction of Mary and
Elizabeth. In this case, I believe Fra Angelico intentionally depicted these bystanders as a visual
representation of our own observation of this event, while viewing the painting. This, in turn,
welcomes the viewer to approach the encounter, much like the woman coming up the hillside, to
participate as a witness of the Visitation.
As this event is described in the Gospel of Luke, the two pregnant women are seen
greeting each other in the hill country. Their environmental surroundings transport the viewer to
a desert land much like Judea. However, Fra Angelico illustrates a familiar view of a hazy
Tuscan summer in the distant background. This is, interestingly enough, the first time a


34
Pope-Hennessy, 1517.
17

recognizable landscape is seen in Italian art.35 Lake Trasimene, which can be seen from Cortona,
is shown in the distance as well as the medieval fortress tower of Castiglione del Lago, which
has since been destroyed. In this interpretation, the firmament above the city fades from a deep
indigo into a bluish-gray against the horizon line, indicating nightfall. The wispy clouds that
streak the sky add to the tranquility of the scene and create a quiet setting, fit for the Magnificat
to take place. 36 Therefore, the imagery of this predella panel from the Cortona Altarpiece
conveys a spatial context for the viewer as well as a scenic background that was perhaps familiar
to those living near Cortona at the time, making the image more relatable and conducive to
contemplative prayer on the second Joyful Mystery.
While the Cortona Altarpiece is entirely attributed to Fra Angelico, it is plausible one of
his pupils, Piero della Francesca, worked on the background setting for The Visitation. Piero may
have been experimenting with variations of daylight, depth, and panoramic imagery, which is
possibly why this scene differs so distinctly from the others in the predella sequence. Regardless,
this segment follows its episodic progression in an orderly manner and resonates well with the
fifth predella panel, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Fig. 12), which harkens back to
the receding perspective in the background landscape of The Visitation.37 Thus, Fra Angelico
harmoniously ties in a series of scenes from both the Virgins life and the life of Christ much like
his predecessor, Giotto, with the Arena Chapel frescoes.
In Giottos version of The Visitation (Fig. 6) the Virgin Mary is also seen embracing her
elder cousin, Elizabeth. This scene is located on the right-hand side of the Arena Chapel archway
beneath the Virgin Annunciate. Giotto appropriately positions this portion of the fresco cycle

35
Christopher Lloyd, Fra Angelico (New York: Phaidon, 1979), 6; Argan, 45.
36
Robert Douglas Langton, Fra Angelico (London: George Bell & Sons, 1902), 4546.
37
Argan, 4546.
18

adjacent to the segments of Christs infancy and childhood, found on the south wall. This
happens to be a fitting moment for Giotto to depict before introducing The Life of Christ series.38
However, it is peculiar that this image is juxtaposed with The Pact of Judas (Fig. 7), seen on the
left-hand side of the triumphal arch below the Annunciation. Typically, the Visitation is not
associated with the Pact, which makes this a rare artistic occurrence. Although it is unexplained
as to exactly why these scenes are paired together, I believe that it is evident that this parallel
creates a strong contrast between vice and virtue.39
The Visitation expresses affection along with the virtues of generosity and charity
between the two women, while The Pact of Judas conveys the vice of avarice and the exposure
of usury. These images reflect one another like a mirror. They oppose each other not only within
the thematic context of the scene, but also in a visual mannerdisplaying an inverted color
sequence of the figures attire. From left to right, the figures in The Pact of Judas are
individually wearing yellow, red, and green, while the figures in The Visitation are dressed in
green, red, and yellow. 40 Interestingly enough, Mary is dressed in red, wearing the same
garments from Giottos Annunciation. Judas and Elizabeth are both wearing yellow and thus
correspond in opposition to one another. In The Pact, Giotto portrays Judas firmly clutching a
canvas bag, which contains his thirty pieces of silver for betraying Christ. This grave
transgression ultimately leads to Christs crucifixion and death on the cross. However, Giotto
illustrates a stark contrast with the juxtaposition of The Visitation. In Giottos version of the
second Joyful Mystery, Elizabeth humbly bows before Our Lady, recognizing the life of Christ
within her. She graciously acknowledges this sentiment by stating, Blessed are you among

38
Stubblebine, 81.
39
Derbes, 201; Ladis, 1922.
40
Ibid.
19

women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.41 Therefore, this image is heightened with a
sense of drama with the foil made between it and The Pact of Judas, highlighting virtue in
opposition to vice and life in opposition to death.
With a strong emphasis on life, the Visitation conveys a celebration of fecundity. The
once-barren Elizabeth, who miraculously conceived a child in her old age, rejoices with Mary for
the life they each carry within their wombs.42 Giotto even depicts attendants accompanying the
pregnant cousins, which adds a ceremonial aspect to the piece. Although it is not necessary for
attendants to be present when visually recounting this event,43 it is interesting that both Giotto
and Fra Angelico decided to include such figures as witnesses in their interpretations.
Another visual similarity between these accounts of the Visitation includes the placement
of the two main figures, Mary on the left and Elizabeth on the right. As the two women embrace,
both variations show them facing each other in profile. They are also the only figures depicted
with halos, emphasizing their sanctity and virtue. Additionally, these scenes take place outside of
an architectural setting with an observer standing near the archway of the main structure.
Therefore, it is possible that Fra Angelico was greatly influenced by Giottos account of the
Visitation for his Cortona Altarpiece. In my opinion, however, Giotto probably captures the
essence of the scene in a much more profound way by contrasting it with the sin of usury in The
Pact of Judas so as to emphasize the virtues of charity and generosity to a greater degree.


41
NRSV, Luke 1:42
42
Derbes, 201; Ladis, 23.
43
Barasch, 108109.
20

The Nativity
Giotto begins his Life of Christ series in the Arena Chapel with The Nativity (Fig. 8),
which is the first of five scenes dedicated to Christs infancy. This fresco is located in the first
position of the middle register on the south wall, to the right of The Visitation. Taking a closer
look at the image, we see angels flocking above the stable, greeting the newborn Christ Child in
songs of adoration and exultation. It is evident that Giotto employs the description of the birth of
Christ from the Gospel of Luke by painting the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and
lying in a manger. Based on Scripture, we also see shepherds gathering to witness this glorious
sight. They are seen standing to the right of the Holy Family in awe and amazement.44
However, Giotto does not base all of his art upon Scripture alone. For example, he places
an ox and an ass near the manger, paying homage to the Christ Child, which is not found in any
biblical accounts of the Nativity. Instead, he illustrates the animals as part of a popular legend. In
some ancient traditions the ox and the ass are symbolic of contrasting the Old and New
Testamentsthe ox representing the New Testament, identifying with the Jews, and the ass
representing the Old Testament, identifying with the Gentiles. Together, they symbolize that all
of humanity, both Jew and Gentile, will be unified both spiritually and corporally through the
Mystery of the Incarnation.45
In this interpretation of the Nativity, Giotto places the figures in the middle of a bleak
landscape with a small shelter barely shielding the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child from the
outside elements. Being exposed to the chilly night air, Joseph huddles down by the manger to
keep warm and falls asleep after an exhausting night of searching for lodging for his wife and
child. Meanwhile, the infant gazes up into his mothers eyes. As Mary shifts upon her bed she

44
Derbes, 232; Stubblebine, 81.
45
Stubblebine, 81.
21

reluctantly gives the child to a servant woman to prepare him for his first bath, which
symbolically represents the Rite of Baptism. However, the Virgin looks forlornly upon the baby
while handing him over. Her gaze mimics her sorrowful expression in the Lamentation (Fig. 9),
which is a scene in The Passion of Christ series that depicts Mary tenderly holding her dead son
after the Crucifixion. This likeness of Marys expression in The Nativity and the Lamentation is
Giottos way of linking Christs birth and death, suggesting that Our Lady gazes upon her sons
future to a time when she must give him up to a tragic fate for the salvation of the whole world.
Therefore, Giotto innovatively captures this scene with an entirely new approach, adding intense
human drama and a sorrowful undertone to this joyful event, unlike many earlier depictions of
the Nativity in Medieval art.46
Fast-forward about 145 years and we see that Fra Angelico also illustrates the life of
Christ in a chronological series, known as the Silver Chest or Armadio degli Argenti (Fig. 10).
This assignment was commissioned by Piero de Medici, Cosimos son, for the Basilica della
Santissima Annunziata in Florence. At Pieros request, Fra Angelico painted the doors of a
wooden cabinet that would protect the silver votive offerings for the new oratory. This was a
prestigious assignment among the most venerable churches in the city of Florence.47
Fra Angelicos Nativity (Fig. 11) is situated in the midst of his many square panels of the
Silver Chest and is located in the top right corner of the cabinet. In this scene, the Blessed
Mother and Saint Joseph are depicted kneeling on either side of the Christ Child in adoration.
Mary peacefully gazes down at her son with a smile. Her hands converge in a gesture of prayer.
She is dressed in a royal blue robe and crowned with a large golden halo above her head. Saint
Joseph is also seen with a golden halo and is clothed in an ocher cloak, creating a complementary

46
Derbes, 232; Stubblebine, 82.
47
John T. Spike, Fra Angelico (New York: Abbeville, 1996), 186.
22

color scheme with the juxtaposition of his attire and his wifes sapphire gown. As he bows
toward the infant, Joseph reverently crosses his hands over his chest.48 Interestingly enough, this
particular hand gesture expresses humility and submission, which was a required posture of
greeting in the Middle Ages when one encountered a Byzantine emperor.49 Thus, Fra Angelicos
interpretation of the Nativity conveys familiar gestures of reverence, to those of his day, and in
turn places a strong emphasis on the adoration of Christ, even from the very moment of his birth.
Inspired by Scripture, this scene is flanked by two bible verses written in Latin. The top
verse refers to Isaiah 9:6, stating, For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and on the
bottom edge of the image is a segment from Luke 2:67, reading, The days were accomplished
that she should be delivered, and she brought forth her firstborn son.50 While Fra Angelico
refers back to Scripture by displaying this set of text within The Nativity, he tends to diverge
slightly more from Saint Lukes account than Giotto. Instead of depicting the infant wrapped in
swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, Fra Angelico places the baby Jesus centered on the
ground, before Mary and Joseph. As we encounter this scene of adoration, we see that the Christ
Child emits a radiant glow as he reaches up to his mother. Choirs of angels hover directly above
the stable and shepherds curiously peer around the corner in hopes of catching a glimpse of the
newborn King. In a similar way to Giottos version of the Nativity, Fra Angelico also includes an
ox and an ass bowing before the Lord in accordance with popular tradition. Nevertheless, he
certainly captures the essence of this scene, with all of its glory, joy, and wonder, even though
there may be a few discrepancies in relation to Scripture.


48
Kanter, 98; Spike, 186.
49
Barasch, 77.
50
Spike, 186.
23

With that said, it seems to me that this interpretation of the Nativity exquisitely conveys
the peace and joy of Christs birth, whereas Giottos variation expresses the scene with a more
melancholic undertone by referencing the Lamentation. Consequently, we see that these master
artists portray two versions of the same scene very differently. The celebration of Jesus birth is
surely found in Fra Angelicos Nativity, but the reality of what is to come resonates more with
Giottos interpretation.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple


Another scene, by Fra Angelico, that corresponds to the life of Christ during his infancy
is The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Fig. 12). Although he made several variations of this
scene over the course of his life, this particular painting is part of Fra Angelicos series of
predella panels in the Cortona Altarpiece. It represents the moment when Christ is presented in
the temple and offered to God as the firstborn child according to the old Jewish tradition in
fulfillment of the Law of Moses.
Standing in the center foreground is the Jewish priest, Simeon, holding the infant Christ
in his arms, which resonates well with the scriptural account of the Presentation found in the
Gospel of Luke. From this Scripture passage, Luke 2:2238, we know that it was divinely
revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had looked upon his Savior. The Blessed
Mother and Saint Joseph stand to the left with their sacrificial offering of two turtledoves, which
was a customary practice for the purification of the mother after giving birth.51 Saint Anna the
Prophetess, an old Jewish woman who prophesied about Christ at the temple, is also present and
patiently waits on the right to behold this joyful encounter.

51
Cole, 74.
24

All of the figures are portrayed with elaborate halos and elegant robes trimmed in gold.
The columns of the temple recede into the nave behind the figures. Fra Angelico hints at the
exterior space by placing a small round window in the apse and a doorway on the left wall. He
plays with light and shadow in this architectural setting, giving the temple a dimly lit interior
with a strong illumination hitting the forefront of the image, coming from an outside source,
beyond our view.52
As discussed earlier, on page 18 of this text, The Visitation and The Presentation predella
panels both contain deep receding perspectives that complement each other very well. These
segments occur at regular intervals and break up the other predella scenes in the Cortona
Altarpiece that are very broad and shallow. Additionally, the entire altarpiece itself seems to be
an exploration of the relationship between lighting and perspective, which is especially evident
in the two predella scenes mentioned above. Therefore, according to Giulio Carlo Argans
biographical and critical study of Fra Angelico:
No wonder, then, that The Visitation takes place in a picture space replete with
light, and The Presentation in the semi-darkness of an architectural interior seen
in perspective. This contrast between architecture and nature, theoretical
perspective and natural perspective, is one of the earliest examples of its kind in
painting, dating from shortly after 1430.53
Thus, we can conclude that Fra Angelico was not only a very innovative Florentine artist, like
Giotto, but he also achieved a unique synthesis of visual aestheticssuch as his complementary
use of lighting and perspectivefor creating captivating and mystical imagery for private
devotional purposes.
In Giottos version of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Fig. 13), which is the
fresco located in the central position of the middle register on the south wall of the Arena Chapel,

52
Lloyd, 48.
53
Argan, 46.
25

we see a familiar portrayal of the Presentation according to the scriptural account in Saint Lukes
Gospel. Giotto illustrates Mary handing the Christ Child over to Simeon, demonstrating her
humility by submitting to the Mosaic Law and recognizing that her son had come to fulfill it. The
old priest holds the infant in his arms and gazes upon him, as it was foretold. Saint Joseph stands
to the left with Mary and is seen holding the sacrificial offering of two turtledoves, very similar
to Fra Angelicos version. On the far right we see the old Prophetess Anna gesturing towards
Christ and holding a scroll in her left handa scroll that indicates the redemption of mankind
through this child, the Messiah.54
While the placement of these figures in this image corresponds similarly to the figures in
Fra Angelicos predella panel, there are many other visual differences and distinctions that are
unique to this particular painting. For example, Giottos fresco looks extremely flat with little
visual perspective or depth when it is compared to Fra Angelicos predella version. The
background and the entire image itself remains very shallow. A floodlight is casted over the
general area with shadows only found in the creases of the figures robes and underneath the
Romanesque canopy over the altar. Furthermore, this canopy is the only interior space of the
temple depicted in this scene, which resembles part of the temple shrine shown in The
Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (Fig. 14). Additionally, there are more figures in this
scene, which are not included in Fra Angelicos rendition. For instance, directly above Anna is
an angelic messenger and on the far left, behind Saint Joseph, is maidservant dressed in a
shimmering pinkish-blue gown.55 Although this was a joyful and intimate moment for the Holy
Family and the elderly Simeon, I believe Giotto includes these other figures, which need not be


54
Stubblebine, 83; Ladis, 79.
55
D'Arcais, 179, 182.
26

present, possibly as a way to highlight that Christ was presented in the temple as the Savior of all
humanity in fulfillment of prophecy.
In turn, he strongly alludes to Christs death, which is a very prominent undertone in this
scene, much like in his Nativity. Unlike Fra Angelicos depiction, Giotto illustrates Simeon with
a very somber expressionone whose gladness has been darkened by a vision of the sword that
will one day pierce the Virgins heart.56 As a result, Christ is portrayed as a frightened infant
who reaches for his mother at the sight of Simeons face, which reveals to him his future agony
and ultimate death on the cross.57 Therefore, Giotto certainly intensifies the drama in this scene
with a particular emphasis on the death of Christ accompanied by Marys gesture of giving him
up in fulfillment of the Law of Moses, and consequently, giving him up for the salvation of the
whole world.
This scene by Giotto, as well as Fra Angelicos, beautifully captures the essence of the
Presentation narrative as it is described in the Gospel of Luke. Both illustrate their images with
similar placement and layout of the figures. However, these variations differ greatly in lighting,
perspective, and their thematic undertones. As I previously mentioned, Fra Angelicos imagery
has much more depth and perspective with the receding columns of the temple and the darkened
architectural interior. This is surely a novelty for the period of the Early Renaissance that far
surpasses the shallow appearance of Giottos fresco. But aside from these particular aesthetics,
Fra Angelicos painting seems to focus more on the present moment of the fourth Joyful Mystery
rather than adding on additional theological motifs that could potentially distract one from fully
contemplating this scene. He illustrates a peaceful Simeon holding the child fondly, who is now
ready to die, whereas Giottos Simeon evokes a sorrowful countenance and thus indicates the

56
Ladis, 79.
57
Ibid.; Cole, 74.
27

inevitable end of Christs missionhis crucifixion and death on the cross for the salvation of the
world. It seems to me that Giottos preoccupation with the death of Christ is a recurring theme in
many of his Arena Chapel frescos, especially in the infancy narratives of The Life of Christ series.
Nevertheless, this soteriological aspect is still found in Fra Angelicos work, but it tends to be a
much more prominent feature in that of Giottos.

The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple


The last Joyful Mystery of the Rosary is the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple.
With the conclusion of Christs infancy, Giotto depicts this scene in the Arena Chapel as the first
episode of the Ministry of Christ within his Life of Christ series. This fresco is titled Christ
Among the Doctors (Fig. 15) and it is located furthest to the left in the middle row of the north
wall. Unfortunately the image is severely damaged, but what survives of it is still remarkable
nonetheless. Giotto illustrates this narrative as it is described in the Gospel of Luke, portraying
the moment where Mary and Joseph find their lost son in Jerusalem, teaching at the temple, after
searching for him for three days. In this scene, we encounter the twelve-year-old Christ engaged
in a deep theological discussion with the elderly doctors. The young Christ is situated in the
middle of the image, dressed in a rich red robe, and gesturing with his hands in explanation.
Astonished by his wisdom, the doctors huddle around him in a semi-circle and listen intently.
However, Christs parents enter the temple in a frantic whirlwind after searching high and low
for their missing child. They eagerly discover him seated among the elders and implore him to
return home with them. Christ responds in obedience, but he informs them that he has come to
do to his Fathers will and, thus, indicates that he has already begun his mission and ministry.58

58
Stubblebine, 83; Cole, 81.
28

The reactions and gestures of the figures in this image are quite interesting. For instance,
Marys reaction to discovering her son in the temple is portrayed by her extended arms, ready to
receive him. Her overall countenance conveys that her motherly heart was deeply troubled by
Christs disappearance. However, while her outstretched hands insinuate her receptivity, this
expression mimics Marys gift-giving gesture in Giottos Presentation of Christ in the Temple.59
Most likely, Giotto deliberately made these gestures of giving and receiving by Our Ladys
extended hands appear interchangeable and I would suppose that it is up to the interpretation of
the viewer. Hence, there seems to be, in my opinion, the implication that Mary, whether giving
or receiving her son, does so with the selfless love of a mother in obedience to the will of God.
As I previously mentioned, the doctors gathered around the temple listen closely to
Christs teachings and in doing so they show various reactions. Only one of them is completely
distracted by the emergence of Mary and Joseph while two others in the left corner put their
heads together, as if holding a separate conversation out of earshot from the rest of the group.60
Another elder, seated directly next to Christ, raises his hand in discussion as if ready to enter into
a dialogue with the child. The others on the right side of the image sit quietly and remain
attentive, even with slight commotion from the appearance of Christs parents. Nevertheless, the
boy remains calm and continues to teach in the temple in order to fulfill what he came to do.
Within this temple setting the architectural interior seems to encircle the Christ Child and
the elders, centering on the focal point of where Christ is speaking. In this interpretation, Giotto
depicts the temple without open windowscompletely enclosed from the outside world. As a
result, it is entirely concealed from the external sunlight, creating a very dark and somewhat
sinister interior. The space seems to shrink in on itself and the features of the temple chamber are

59
Ladis, 111112.
60
Ibid., 123.
29

slightly obscured by the shadows that loom overhead in the ceiling, apses, and vaults.61 With that
said, Giottos reoccurring theme of foreshadowing Christs death is done so by means of the
darkened temple interior. Andrew Ladis explains in his critical study on Giottos work:
Giotto makes near-palpable darkness the essential image of the Christ Among the
Doctors. Darkness is the obscurantism of the Jews; darkness is the Old Law
before the Incarnation; darkness is death, both physical and spiritual. In the
process, Giotto furthers the sense of danger that surrounds Christs mission,
danger we know to be fatal, especially now, when the darkness seems
overwhelming.62
Therefore, I believe Giotto amplifies the sense of drama in this fresco with the symbolism of
darkness in relation to death in order to convey Christs mission and how it will inevitably unfold.
Fra Angelico also illustrates the same scene as a segment of his Silver Chest, known as
Christ Teaching in the Temple (Fig. 16). He places the twelve-year-old Jesus in the center of the
image among the elders, like Giotto. In the image, Christ raises his right hand and continues his
discourse, even though it is evident that his parents have arrived to take him home. The Virgin
Mary and Saint Joseph wait patiently on the left and they, too, watch closely as their child
teaches. In this case, Fra Angelico depicts them as composed and intrigued by their sons
dialogue with the doctors instead of showing their anxiety over losing him. The young Christ
even acknowledges their presence by the turn of his eyes and the tilt of his head in their
direction.63 This gesture is done out of respect; but seeing that he is still seated among the
doctors and not getting up to leave immediately with Mary and Joseph indicates that Christ must
stay a little longer in order to finish his Fathers work at the temple.


61
Ladis, 111.
62
Ibid., 112.
63
Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena After the Black Death (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1951), 56.
30

Two scrolls containing a variation of Latin text frame the image along the top and bottom
edges. The top verse is taken from the Old Testament, Jeremiah 8:89, and the bottom verse is
from the New Testament, Luke 2:4650.64 These verses are placed within the scene to help the
viewer encounter the episode as it relates to Scripture, as previously noted with his segment of
The Nativity. In fact, all of Fra Angelicos Silver Chest scenes are framed by Scripture in this
way, an Old Testament verse on top and a New Testament verse below, as an aid to prayer for
the faithful.
While this scene resembles Giottos Christ Among the Doctors fresco with the placement
of its figures, the entire temple itself is vastly different in regards to its structural design and, in
particular, its illuminated interior. For example, shafts of light fall behind the figures from the
open temple windows directly above. This is certainly a direct contrast to Giottos enclosed and
darkened temple interior. The architecture in Fra Angelicos version allows for the harsh external
sunlight to be diffused within the scene. Even the colors are slightly subdued with simplistic
tones rather than being intensely illuminated.65 Although there are shadows at the top of the
temple arches and on the floor below, the overall lighting produces a dynamic atmosphere
certainly suited for a lively discussion. Therefore, it appears to me that Fra Angelico uses light to
adjust the cadence of this narrative to articulate the beginning of Christs mission and ministry
with the metaphor of lifelife, in association with the life-giving words spoken by Christ to the
elders at the temple and his ultimate defeat of death by the Resurrection.


64
Jacqueline and Maurice Guillaud, Fra Angelico: The Light of the Soul (New York: Clarkson N.
Potter, 1986)
65
Argan, 111.
31

ENCOUNTERING THE INCARNATION


These venerable images by Giotto and Fra Angelico reveal the Mystery of the Incarnation
and the young life of Christ from the events in the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. Meditating
upon these artistic masterpieces aids the faithful in meditating upon these mysteries in prayer.
Recalling the purpose of this devotion, the Rosary, itself, is an aid to deepening and living ones
faith, increasing holiness and virtue. It has been a beloved prayer of the faithful for centuries
throughout the history of the Catholic Church. Each of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosarythe
Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the
Finding of the Child Jesus in the Templecollectively express the most joyous occurrences in
salvation history. As it is written by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter, Rosarium Virginis
Mariae, To meditate upon the joyful mysteries, then, is to enter into the ultimate causes and
the deepest meaning of Christian joy. It is to focus on the realism of the Mystery of the
Incarnation and on the obscure foreshadowing of the mystery of the saving passion.66 Therefore,
while the Rosary is a complex spiritual devotion, the elaborate imagery of each episode in the
work of Fra Angelico and Giotto is intended to guide the viewer in their encounter with the
divine. The sensory experience of counting beads while reflecting on the image of a particular
mystery helps to create ideal conditions for inspiring ones contemplation and prayer.
For this reason, it is precisely why depictions of the life of the Virgin and the life of
Christ were abundantly desired as wall frescos and altarpieces to be seen in chapels, churches,
convents, and basilicas during the Early Renaissance. As a result, master artists, like Fra
Angelico and Giotto, received many grand commissions to adorn sacred interior spaces. Their
images, to this day, continue to assist the faithful when they come to pray in the house of God.

66
John Paul II, 28.
32

They add beauty and transcendence to the interior of the church, making it especially fitting for
liturgical celebrations to take place.
The scenes discussed in this paper from the life of Christ in the Arena Chapel, the
convent of San Marco, the Cortona Altarpiece, and the Silver Chest all correspond to the
narratives of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. All of the images painted as part of a larger
series follow the progression of events in chronological order and flow together in a cohesive
unit. Together, they are the Joyful Mysteries and together they are unified by the joy of Christ
coming into the world, as explained by Saint Louis De Montfort in The Secret of the Rosary:
These are called the Joyful Mysteries because of the joy which they gave to the
whole universe. Our Lady and the angels were overwhelmed with joy the moment
when the Son of God was incarnate. Saint Elizabeth and Saint John the Baptist
were filled with joy by the visit of Jesus and Mary. Heaven and earth rejoiced at
the birth of Our Savior. Holy Simeon felt great consolation and was filled with
joy when he took the Holy Child in his arms. The doctors were lost in admiration
and wonderment at the answers which Jesus gaveand how could anyone
describe the joy of Mary and Joseph when they found the Child Jesus after He had
been lost for three days?67
Each of these scenes painted by Giotto and Fra Angelico emphasize this joy accompanied by the
soteriological aspect surrounding the Incarnation; the fact that Christ was born in order to die.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen discusses this paradox in his book Life of Christ, stating, Every
other person who ever came into this world came into it to live. [Christ] came into it to die. It
was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life and thus led to His death; it was rather
that the Cross was first, and cast its shadow back to His birth.68 Thus, death was the ultimate
fulfillment of his lifeto die so that we might live. By means of this Mystery of the Incarnation,
Christ becoming man for the sake of our salvation, the faithful have a real participation in past

67
De Montfort, 7980.
68
Fulton J. Sheen, The Only Person Ever Pre-Announced, Life of Christ (New York: McGrawHill Book Company, 1958), 16.

33

events of the life of Christ by being unified to His body both spiritually through prayer and
physically through the reception of Holy Communion.
Consequently, Giotto and Fra Angelico certainly dove deep into Scripture to capture this
essence of the Incarnation for each of their images. While both Florentine painters choose to
depict the same accounts, Fra Angelicos images tend to emphasize the joy of each event to a
much greater degree while Giottos accentuates the drama with his recurring motif of Christs
death. Certainly, Fra Angelico does not deny the tragic reality of Christs mission in his images;
but instead he uses the illumination of his scenes and the expressions of his figures to convey a
joy so radiant that it is almost life giving. In other words, it is a reflection of the Resurrection, the
defeat of death and the redemption of the whole world through Christ. Giotto also undoubtedly
understood the grandeur of joy that emanated through these particular events in the life of Christ.
However, he chose to express that joy accompanied by foreshadowing the saving passion and
death, which was indeed the precise purpose of the Incarnation. Thus, both artists display their
own innovative and stylistic approach to the visual aesthetics of each image, such as, lighting,
perspective, architecture, gestures, and expressions of their figures to portray these mysteries
according to their own interpretation.
All things considered, neither artist necessarily has a superior interpretation of the Joyful
Mysteries than the other. Both capture the splendor and mysticism of these events, both highlight
biblical themes relating to the Incarnation, and both depict each Joyful Mystery with fascinating
imagery. Although they are indeed different interpretations, they both contain the same basic
elements that make each scene what it is. Thus, I believe their accomplishment should be
measured by the success of what each scene was intended for, the ability to assist the faithful in

34

prayer and prayer to assist them in transforming their lives so that they may one day encounter
the fullness of the Mystery of the Incarnation in Gods heavenly kingdom.

35

APPENDIX

Figure 1: Giotto, Arena Chapel, 13041306

Figure 2: Fra Angelico, Annunciation, 1450


36

Figure 3: Giotto, Annunciation, 13041306

Figure 4: Fra Angelico, Cortona Altarpiece, 14321434

37

Figure 5: Fra Angelico, The Visitation, 14321434

Figure 6: Giotto, The Visitation, 13041306

38

Figure 7: Giotto, The Pact of Judas, 13041306

Figure 8: Giotto, The Nativity, 13041306

39

Figure 9: Giotto, Lamentation, 13041306

Figure 10: Fra Angelico, Armadio degli Aargenti, 14501452

40

Figure 11: Fra Angelico, Nativity, 14501452

Figure 12: Fra Angelico, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 14321434

41

Figure 13: Giotto, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 13041306

Figure 14: Giotto, The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, 13041306

42

Figure 15: Giotto, Christ Among the Doctors, 13041306

Figure 16: Fra Angelico, Christ Teaching in the Temple, 14501452

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I am very grateful for the many people in my life who have encouraged and supported me
throughout my graduate studies in the Catholic Studies Master of Arts program at the University
of St. Thomas. I would first like to start by thanking my thesis advisor, Dr. Robert Kennedy, for
his wisdom and guidance throughout the duration of this project. Dr. Kennedy always made
himself available to follow-up on my progress and to take the time to meet with me to discuss
questions about my research and writing. He consistently allowed this paper to be my own work,
but steered me in the right the direction whenever it was necessary. It was certainly a pleasure to
work with him and I am very thankful for his assistance with this assignment.
I would also like to thank my essay readers, Dr. John Boyle and Dr. William Junker, for
their thoughts and on this thesis. I am very grateful for these professors who taught me so much
over the last few years in the CSMA program. I am continuously inspired to learn more about the
faith because of their enthusiasm, dedication to their work, and desire to lead their families and
students towards heaven. Additionally, I would like to thank my undergraduate Renaissance
professor from The University of Tampa, Prof. Lindsay Daniele, for inspiring me to write this
thesis based on material I studied in her class.
Finally, I must express my profound gratitude to my parents, Monte and Dawn Duet, to
my sister, Alyssa Duet, and to my boyfriend, Jeffrey Rother, for providing me with unfailing
love, support, and continuous encouragement throughout my years of study and through the
process of researching and writing this thesis. This accomplishment would certainly not have
been possible without each and every one of them. Thank you.

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